Amazon is not a miracle cure for obscurity

Fellow self-publisher and Futurebook blogger Walter Ellis writes about the problems that authors face promoting their books to the reading public. He's right that it's hard to catch readers' attention but wrong to turn his back on social media. 

Whether an author is traditionally published or is ploughing their own furrow, it’s important that they engage with their book’s promotion. Putting a book up on Amazon, or any other retail platform, does not mean that anyone will notice. Every book is competing with thousands of others and Amazon does nothing to help new books gain traction. 

Unfortunately for Ellis, Amazon is not going to do anything about that in the foreseeable future. Given its reluctance to provide authors (or traditional publishers) with even basic things such as access to traffic data or the ability to integrate with mailing list services such as Mailchimp, it’s hard to imagine that they would spend any resources on new sections or books announcements. 

Let’s face facts: Amazon is not a miracle cure for obscurity. Any author (or publisher) who puts a book on Amazon and expects it to just take off by itself is not living in the real world. Books need to have sales and positive reviews in order to be picked up by Amazon’s various algorithms, which means that you have to do promotion outside of Amazon in order to get those first sales and reviews. 

For most self-published authors, who have negligible budget for marketing, this means turning to the methods that Ellis discards: social media, free giveaways and getting friends to start a buzz. As a social media consultant with a decade of experience — I started my blog in 2002 and began consulting in 2004 — I am afraid I am duty bound to disagree with Ellis that these methods are “claptrap”. 

But, just like Amazon won’t turn you into a star over night, neither will Twitter or Facebook. It takes time and effort to build up a following and, even when you have a few thousand followers, that doesn’t mean that all you’ve got to do is put a tweet out and suddenly your book is going stratospheric. Just as with advertising or direct mail, only a tiny percentage of people that you can reach will act on your call to action. 

Ellis is also wrong about authors needing to be well-connected, at least, ‘well-connected’ in the old-fashioned sense, that you know and can rely on influential people who can speak on your behalf. Connections are important, but not connections to influencers, connections to readers. 

The idea that influencers are key to success is attractive because it means that all one needs to do is identify those people and then somehow persuade them to use their influence for your benefit. Unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated than that and I’ve first hand-hand experience of how tweets by highly-connected people have resulted in, well, nothing at all. 

It’s a much more reliable, if more boring, tactic to work at gathering your fans together on a mailing list than it is to hope that someone with influence takes a shine to your work. You have to speak directly to your readers, and social media allows you to do that. It also, co-incidentally, allows you to make connections with influencers too, in case you can’t let go of that particular fiction. 

If Ellis wants his book to sell he needs to understand the basics of marketing and then tuck into some hard graft. There’s plenty of advice online, including some good stuff from Joanna Penn. It may not be nice to think that you’ve got to wrap your head around marketing, but it’s that or nothing. I’m not a natural marketer — my social media specialism is collaboration, community and social functionality, not marketing — but there are plenty of tactics to choose from that will suit even the shyest author. 

I know just how hard it is to get attention. Back when I started my personal blog it was easy to find readers, because there were so few of bloggers. It felt like it was possible to know them all. Nowadays, a blog post is nothing without a follow up tweet and Facebook/G+/LinkedIn mention. No one ‘surfs’ the internet looking for interesting things to read anymore, instead we sift through a continuous deluge of information that we struggle to filter. In that environment, we have to work far, far harder than either we used to or than we would like to in order to reach enough people. 

“Self-promotion” is a bit of a dirty word these days, but it’s an unavoidable part of the self-publishing reality. We each need to learn how best to market ourselves, how we can play to our strengths, and how we can do so without annoying the very people we are trying to reach. 

And on that note, I’ll just say that I’m currently available to hire for all your social media needs. Let’s talk

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist, journalist and writer