Doing just fine

26 April 2013

A lot of aspiring authors put their energies into getting published and assume the sales will look after themselves. They are wrong; as I have said before, all authors need to shamelessly self-promote themselves, especially in today’s economic climate. Nor is it just that you should never trust your publisher to do all the necessary hustling; you cannot even rely on the booksellers to do their job – something that I was reminded of once again the other day.

While attending a conference in the beautiful Dutch town of Leiden this week, I went for a stroll during a lunch break and found myself outside the Leiden branch of Van Stockum, a Dutch bookseller regularly buying our books. Inside, one of the staff was happy to answer my idle questions – for instance, who our customers were likely to be and how the business of selling books was going.

van-stockum

A constant refrain of academic publishers is that library sales are falling without being offset by rising personal purchases (on the contrary) while income from digital sales is negligible. My informant confirmed that library budgets in the Netherlands were tighter and this had affected sales but individual purchases were holding up. That said, a lot of bookstores were in trouble with many closing down.

Why?

Village bookstores have been badly affected by the global economic crisis; there are few book lovers to begin with here and, in the last resort, the latest novel by Donna Leon or a new history of baroque music is a discretionary purchase.

In the cities it is another matter. And that was when the conversation got very interesting. Traditionally, the cities have been full of book-buying students and professionals, housewives and pensioners (among others). Catering to this market, in recent decades we have seen the rise of chain bookstores like Waterstones in England and Borders in the States. Now the chains are in trouble.

Just as in the villages, discretionary spending has dropped and of course more people are buying online; many Dutch readers are quite happy to read the English edition of (say) Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 if the price is considerably lower than the Dutch edition. But where the chain stores are especially hurting is that – in pursuit of rationalisation and greater profits – they chopped their specialist staff, the people who knew what penny-pinching scholars from the Department of This’n’that at Leiden University would be interested to buy. In the good times this didn’t matter; now it does.

We can be certain that the hard times are affecting all, that booksellers like Van Stockum who still focus on quality are nonetheless also feeling the pinch. Even so, university budgets may be down but scholars still need to read books and many wish to have their own copies ready to hand. Selling books, then, is harder than it was but quality bookstores … they’re just fine.

The problem is that’s not enough. Such quality bookstores are few in number. As argued in my last post, it is time for authors to use their personal contacts, Twitter, whatever to point readers towards a bookstore like Van Stockum.


Making the most of social media

19 April 2013

Many authors I know wouldn’t touch Facebook with a bargepole. Indeed, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but until now I haven’t thought this to be a real problem; shyness doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship.

Now I am not so sure.

What made me think again was attending the recent London Book Fair, at which I attended what I thought it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). It wasn’t, not really; authors were the prime focus of the session. (This was in line with a huge increase in author-centred activity at the LBF and elsewhere, as discussed here and here, and – with regard to self-publishing – here. Self-publishing is also something this blog has explored before, in a series of posts starting here.)

author-seminar

At the seminar, a literary publisher from Cromer in Norfolk was joined by three of his authors to expound on why getting published requires that you ‘get’ social media. Of course, academic authors might argue that the worlds of literary fiction and scholarly discourse have little in common and they are right, to a point. That said, I suspect that authors of all types can learn much from what the panelists said.

Unfortunately, I didn’t record the session but here are some of the points made.

  • Like it or not, social media are unavoidable. Used intelligently, however, they offer the best means for authors to reach the widest possible readership. This is because branding and identification, not the hard sell, is what drives most people to follow an author.
  • There is no point being half-hearted; get your numbers up. For instance, Salt Press may be small but on Twitter it has 86,571 followers while one of the authors present reported that she was linked to over 1,000 (or was it 10,000?) people on Facebook.
  • How on earth do the panelists keep up with such a huge circle? They don’t, not necessarily; it is usually enough to tune into the conversation every so often. Time management is crucial.
  • When questioned if they really wished to expose themselves to a whole lot of strangers, it was clear the panelists were only showing their public persona to the world (or had, say, separate private Facebook accounts). As they also warned, don’t go public with something you would want to stay private.
  • Of course, the key requirement of social networking is that you participate but you would be wise to (mainly) only say things that matter. How many people care if you are waiting for a bus?
  • Social networking is not one-way. Show generosity, for instance by offering advice or pointing people to another author’s work.
  • One way to build such numbers of friends and followers is by searching for interest groups (Twitter’s search functions are especially powerful). However, you need to know what you are searching for.
  • Another way to build a following is to ensure that many of the people whom you meet in person become members of your social network; point them towards your online presence. Collecting other people’s business cards is no longer enough.
  • But to succeed in building a following and then benefit from it, you must understand why people are interested in you, why they follow you. It is unlikely to be your persona only (though this can play a role); more likely it is something that you are seen to be offering them. In short, social networks are all about belonging. People are drawn to you because they have a stake in you or your work.
  • The essence of what you are doing with your social networking is creating a brand. Part of your work here is not only to inform people what you are doing but also to communicate your persona, even the philosophy and principles guiding your work. It may also mean talking about experiences as well as end results. And, just like (say) Apple, your purpose is to build brand loyalty, create a little passion.
  • What is imperative here is brand consistency. Think about the ramifications of what you do and say, and be consistent. Here it is easiest if your public persona and your private self are much the same but as a result you can do much damage to your prospects if you are not true to yourself.
  • Learn, then, to handle mistakes; they are bound to happen and are unlikely to stay hidden for long.
  • Some of the panelists preferred Facebook, others a personal blog; the publisher seems to choose Twitter. What was clear with all of them, however, is that they used multiple channels to present themselves.
  • Social media have great reach but they are most effective when there is confluence between the different channels, when (say) tweets, a Facebook item and a blog post build on each other to promote an event.

Largely, that is what I am trying to do here – with this post on ‘Getting Published’, on related news items on my work website, with a tweet here and there and corresponding entries on a work Facebook page. Sorry but there’s no clip on YouTube.

Just how effective it all is … well, that is another matter. One thing to consider, however: even if there is a problem with the messenger, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the message.