Over the past few years, I’ve been working to realign my professional direction. I’ve been working hard to break through this plateau I’ve been at as a writer. It culminated in the Kickstarter to make a Rhest for the Wicked short film, but a lot of other efforts went towards that goal.
One thing that I’ve ruminated on time and again was trying to better understand how people found new books to read. I surveyed different groups of friends, peers, co-workers, and acquaintances. I asked some strangers at shops and stores and restaurants (usually the people working; stopping other customers always seems like a bad idea). I tried to get some consensus as to where people went to for reading information.
Overwhelmingly, the answer was nowhere.
Just about every person I asked had no consistent source of literary information that they relied on. Some people checked Amazon or Goodreads or other sites, but that was often to follow-up on titles or authors they already knew about. This suggested that they learned about books through word-of-mouth, and yet most people I asked stated or at least indicated that they read more than most of their peers. It seemed that most people think they are the trendsetter, not the one following the trend.
Now, this suggests that my survey methods need some help (which is painfully true), but it left me back at square one: how do I influence the rate at which readers find out about my books?
I haven’t found a solution to this yet. Most reliable answers I’ve gotten have come from other content creators (a term that is becoming increasingly problematic in this day and age, but that’s another discussion). Seems like some of the biggest names on Youtube, Spotify, and other resources (or at least the biggest names I have contact with) all agree that their success was largely due to A) existing at a previous time and/or B) piggybacking off of the success of others.
See, social media relies on the use of association and algorithms. You put in a search word and the results that come up are the result of not just what you have searched previously but also what other people have searched and then clicked on. What you click on afterwards goes into that same algorithm, further refining it for when the next person searches. This is an oversimplification of the process of course, but it gets to the heart of the matter that whatever you look for will be influenced by what you have already found. If you are like me, trying to get new readers to check out your book, this becomes a problem because gaming this system is very difficult. It means that the only people likely to see your book will be people who have already searched for it before. Not insurmountable but certainly not a trivial hurdle to address.
These algorithms have been improved and perfected over the years, but only a few years ago were they far simpler and easier to understand. Increase the number of buzz words on your web page and you can crawl higher on Google searches, etc. There were demonstratively effective ways to produce superior results. Now, at the current level of complexity? Evidence suggests those methods may not be as reliable as they were even a few years ago.
One go-to method for gaming the algorithm has often been to increase the frequency of locations where your name/brand/titles/etc are mentioned. This is often done in the form of guest work. In the web comics days, one would do guest strips for another comic. Long before computers ruled information and entertainment, back during the Fanzine Era, writers would contribute to other fanzines or (shudder) mainstream periodicals.
You see this approach on Youtube especially, with major social outlets like Joe Rogan becoming a major hub for this kind of thing, where appearances on his podcast produce startling changes in visibility for his guests. Thus, it seems like a winner, right? If you have the opportunity to get onto such a popular podcast, go for it. Getting said opportunity is a rare thing. And thus, those on the lower rungs of the entertainment ladder can find themselves staring up at a terrifying climb.
And this all brings about a certain question that is often unsaid, and that is effort to results. There’s a ratio of how much work you put into a project compared to what you get out of it. If you pour ten hours a week into promoting your work, will you see enough success to keep maintaining that investment. It is disheartening and disillusioning to talk about art and success in the arts like it’s a business, but regrettably it is just that: a business. As such, you have to constantly conduct cost-to-profit analysis. Profit doesn’t have to be money, though, nor does cost. But it does mean that you can only do something for so long, invest only so much time and energy and effort into it, before you have to start asking if it is producing the results you want.
To put this in perspective, we can talk dollars because money can definitely be thrown at the equation. Every social media platform in existence has options to promote your work. For a few bucks (or a few million bucks), you can get your Facebook profile seen by the whole of the world (in theory). Same for Twitter or Youtube. Advertising dollars are dollars well spent if they produce results. But just getting your ad seen may not turn into clicks, which may not turn into purchases, which may not turn into sales. So if you drop $100 into advertising, will you see $100 in sales? There are no guarantees.
A whole lot of options, but few tangible success stories. Marketing laws as old as capitalism itself simply don’t work anymore thanks to the internet and the way social media functions. This is VERY empowering for producers as a whole, but for the individual, this can make success more of a gamble than it was before (and boy, was it a gamble before).
An ugly reality of a career in the arts is that talent and skill, dedication and work ethic, the sum total of all the elements that determine the quality of what you produce is simply no guarantee of professional success. And as the old standard-bearers fall to the wayside for whole new schools of advertising and promotional thought crop up and appear, only to be laid to waste by a new generation of thinkers, those of us for whom professional promotion is at best a part-time hobby (if not an odious chore), are left totally bereft for any reliable pathways to success.
TL;DR – I have no idea what to do next, and I’m pretty convinced nobody else does either.