Thursday 3 December 2015

My 1st Year In Social Media

It's been more than a year since I officially launched my writing career by publishing my first novel.

I spent a large portion of 2014 honing my craft, trying to understand the industry, and learning to use social media to promote my work. It has been the most intense and continual learning curve I have ever endured, and has pushed me to be the most productive I have ever been.

Between the pressures of writing and marketing, we indie-authors get pulled in so many directions at once that the most valuable thing we can learn is what to ignore. I think this is what my first year was largely about. What I want to do here, is sum up my year in social media, and how it has reshaped my plan to build a career from writing.

I want to mention that my day job takes only 20-25 hours a week. The extra 10-15 hours a week that I have over the average working man probably accounts for 50 percent of my writing and marketing time. Still, I don't waste much time on other activities. I'm much less social than I was a year ago, and probably max out at 10 hours of TV-watching a week, with the average being closer to six. Because I'm so involved in social media, I do catch myself wasting 5-7 hours a week surfing Facebook, Twitter or Google+. When you're a writer, though, it's difficult to distinguish when you are really wasting time from when you are doing research.

The majority of my efforts have gone into my blog. Since October of last year, I have managed to maintain weekly posts. The first few were little more than simple one-liners. But once I got the hang of it, I produced about 50 other, meatier stories. I posted these through Twitter and Google+ Communities and have been rewarded with 30,000 visits to my blog.

A couple of my posts were well written and focused enough that I thought they would be easy to sell to a magazine. Turned out, I was right, and I managed to get published, and paid for my trouble. One thing that is becoming clear to me is that, of all the jobs an indie-writer has to do, I hate the submission process the most. It's pretty much a given that I will only submit to magazines that accept by email, without a lot of niggling rules.

Simultaneously, I have produced a couple of hundred one-line quotes which I paste to decorative backdrops and distribute, mostly through Twitter and Google+ Communities. The downside of this, I have found, is that sometimes a good punchline which might have inspired an entire article ends up getting published as a one-liner because, for me, once I put it out there, the impetus often goes with it.

I have also been working on a collection of my humorous short stories. I edited and rewrote some of my older unpublished work, added a couple of new stories and the book is close to being ready for a professional edit. But the marketing has been a huge distraction. I can only get into the right frame of mind for writing fiction if I manage to get well ahead in my blogging and marketing goals.

In the first six months, I was very active in LinkedIn and Google+ discussions, but had to drop them, simply because I didn't have the time.

It's worth noting that when I started out, I thought of myself strictly as a writer of thoughtful science fiction. But, as I blogged, it became apparent that the majority of what I write is more along comedic lines. Because of this unexpected shift, my marketing efforts are dichotomous and largely misdirected: Attracting readers to a comedy blog revolving around family and daily life, is probably not the way to get them to purchase a literary sci-fi adventure novel.

Here's what I learned in 2015...

For a large number of writers, myself included, it's all about the "writer's lifestyle." The dream is to earn a living by writing. For many of us, the fantasy includes a quiet retreat, pajamas, a cup of perpetually-warm coffee, a view of the ocean and a computer with a max-speed internet connection. But, for all but the top one percent, a writer's lifestyle is spartan and entails a lot of time spent alone, working to deadline; less Stephen King-ish than orphan-in-a-Chinese-sweat-shop-ish. On balance, I did manage the pajamas.

As well, there seem to be many drawbacks and few benefits to being a writer. The first year of my "writer's lifestyle" sucked up all my spare time. Within six months I had pretty much completely stopped going out for coffee or beer, except with my one writer-buddy, Dan Hilton. I still have free time with my family, but this too has been severely cut. 

The more I understand what might be required to create a writing career, the further separated I become from the rest of the world. Besides a lack of time for others, I find that I am always sussing out story ideas, instead of being fully present for events I manage to attended. Fortunately, at this stage in my life, this separation is not entirely unwelcome.

In the past year, I have faced the common writers' battles like fatigue, writer's block, lack of motivation and kitten videos.

And, to top it all off, this venture has cost me close to $10,000 (Cdn), of which I have recouped less than two hundred dollars.

And yet, I have never been happier.

Though good and bad, in writing, are defined by things like plot and grammar, in publishing they are defined by sales. Readers only count in the publishing half of an indie-writer's career. Don't worry about your readers' standards, ratings, reviews and rankings. Focus on their buying habits.

I spent a lot of months frustrated, both as a writer and reader, by books that seemed to generate unwarranted attention. Eventually, I realized that writing is art while publishing is business, and this dichotomy creates some large pockets where substandard books not only survive, but thrive. There are a lot of poorly executed titles out there that get published simply because they will sell and, therefore, will make money. What comes most immediately to mind is most fan-fiction. Another example is "50 Shades of Grey."

I also note that readers, themselves, now have a voice and are buying and promoting (via discussions and reviews) many poorly edited books. It made me worry about what effect reader input will have on the industry and its standards. I now think that the answer is "none." Readers will do what they have always done; buy what is promoted and what they like, if they can find it. The only thing that reader reviews have done is force prospective readers to trust only the 1- and 2-star reviews.

If you are a gambler, at heart, you will place a lot of faith in the idea that social media can get your message out there. This is because true gamblers do not have a proper appreciation of statistics.

Here is what passes for massive success in a social media advertising campaign: If your message appeared on the screens of one million people, you would be uncommonly lucky if 10,000 (1%) of them actually noticed it and clicked on your link. If 1,000 (10%) of those people bought your book, the rest of the world would be knocking down your door to know how you did it. So, from one million impressions, you might possibly get 10,000 engagements, resulting in 1000 conversions.

This really is a very-best-case scenario. My own experience produces numbers closer to .2% of the above. So, for every million people whose eyes skip across my stuff, two people buy a book.

What you experience will depend a lot on what you are selling. A book of fiction is probably the world's most difficult product to sell.

The number of players vying for position is staggering, with amateurs at the lower levels muddying the waters while well-funded professionals hog the limelight. That something you post will go viral, grows less likely with each passing day.

Years ago, there were large unexplored gaps where someone with a simple, good idea could become famous and leverage the fame in to a career. It did not take long for traditional marketers to realize the value. These days, highly paid, highly motivated and clever marketing teams of creative people generate slick memes, stories, pictures and videos designed to go viral, with a product or service tagging along for the ride. This is your real competition. While you eat Kraft Dinner, they order in from a French restaurant—in France. While you work alone, huddled over your laptop on the kitchen table, they have creative meetings in sky high boardrooms. While you post your material to the "freemium" level of the four social media platforms you know how to use, they hire people to post to everything, everywhere and pay big bucks to have it featured above the flotsam.

The endgame is to get noticed and, realistically, there are only two ways to do it, using social media.

The quickest and most sure way to the top is to throw heaps of money at the problem; buy reviews, generate articles and promotions, and arrange interviews. This is what traditional publishing houses are able to do. And this is why they still carry all the weight.

The rest of us have to take a longer road. Of course, everyone and their dog is using social media, though most are misusing it. Still, they muddy the waters, which raises the ante. The one ray of light here is that using social media intelligently will make some difference.

The first step, and arguably the most important, is to accept that, because you are short on money, building an audience will be a lengthy process. Just staying in the game must be part of your strategy because it will, eventually, separate you from the average user who gives up and moves on to something else; something easier.

Next, you must consistently generate original, high quality material. If you thought that one kick-ass work of fiction was something you could build a career on, you were mistaken. More likely, you'll have to build a career before you can sell that one book.

Almost everyone using social media makes the same two mistakes: Trading follows for follows in an attempt to garner influence, and curating the material of others to try and keep up with the Internet's insatiable hunger for Wow! Neither of these strategies is a path to success, but they are so common that it makes you feel that you are doing something wrong if you don't mimic the behavior.

Don't mimic the behavior.

Instead, only follow people whose material you want to appear in your feeds. If you wouldn't read their stuff, there is little value in following them. And, if they are not interested in what you produce, there is little value in their following you. You may be tempted to trade follows with someone because they have a huge number of followers. You may feel that your material might reach their larger audience this way. The flaw in this logic is that people who trade follows for follows do not read their feed because it's littered with garbage, so they won't be seeing your stuff. And, even if they did, and then re-posted it, their followers do not read their own feeds for similar reasons. Your material may be delivered to a million followers, but they will never see it.

Whether you invest your time in Twitter, Google, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn or some other platform probably makes little difference. Each one has millions of devotees and therefore has something to offer to marketers. For me, Google+ Communities and Twitter ended up being the ones I stuck with. Don't try to become an expert on all of the social networks. There simply isn't time.

While you focus on marketing, it is easy to forget the obvious fact that social media is also a conduit for social interaction. For writers, each of these platforms provide direct access to other writers. And other writers are a valuable support group. They are our tribe—the only people who truly understand our various issues. I quickly found friends through LinkedIn discussions, Google+, Twitter and Amazon Kindle Writer's Cafe groups.


• Google Ads: When I was green, I let iUniverse talk me in to a $1000 Google Adsense campaign. (for details, see my other article: iUniverse Exposed!) It was poorly implemented, and when I saw the mock-ups I mentally waved goodbye to my money. For two weeks, Google served up ads to people searching the internet for stuff related to my time travel novel. The results were as follows:

Ads Served (impressions): 3.3M
Mouse Clicks (engagement): 15,200
Book Sales (conversion): 6

It cost me $170 to sell each copy. These are the kinds of statistics that graphically demonstrate just how difficult it is to turn an impression into a sale.

• Twitter: For the month of October, I paid Twitter $5/day to advertise a variety of my original Tweets to other Twitter users. In the  month previous to this ad campaign, my material was exposed to 19,000 people per month which ultimately generated 2500 blog views. This campaign exposed me to 52,000 people and brought me about 150 new Twitter followers, which is not a bad thing. But it did not result in a measurable increase in blog views. This means that I have new followers who are happy to read quotes and snippets of my text, but no new article and book readers.

It's not that Twitter is useless; far from it. The real problem is that $5/day is below the threshold that generates real results. Advertising on such a budget is like sending up a single flare in the middle of the Pacific—during a hurricane.

• Google Ad Sense: I finally clicked "yes" and allowed Google to place ads alongside my blog. Now, I get paid whenever a blog visitor clicks on one of those ads. Twenty thousand visitors and six short months later, I am 38 cents richer! 

• Kirkus Review: My buddy, fellow author/genius Dan Hilton, paid $475 to have an unbiased review of his literary novel. The review was insightful and very favourable, which was nice. In fact, Kirkus featured his book on the front page of one of their email updates which goes out to more than 60,000 people, including industry insiders. His cover and review also appeared on their website which racks up over one million hits, each month. Book sales generated? Zero.


The list that follows is the distillation of all of the year's experiences. It's a note-to-self which I hope will help me stay focused and on track in the coming year.

• Write. Write well.

• Limit your idle hours on social media and TV. They dumb you down, suck inspiration and waste time. I couldn't begin to tally the number of indie-novels I've encountered that read like poorly crafted TV drama. That people are a product of their environment has never been more clearly demonstrated than by these authors, regurgitating what they are exposed to.

• Read more and better books, in your genre. You are a product of your environment.

• Consider teaching what you learn to other writers. This is the number one way to make money, as a writer. It is no less valid, and you will be no less a writer, for doing this. The only question is whether it's the lifestyle you were aspiring to.

• Don't expect to be able to write fiction novels for a living. In general, novels are something writers do on the side, in between paying gigs.

• Pace yourself and commit to the long game. I am hoping to be established and regularly paid for my work, within 10 years. Right now, I'm honing my skills and work habits, and building a portfolio.

• Do not make marketing your focus, until you have enough work to form a solid platform.

• Unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spare, don't waste money on advertising.

• If you can spare some money, spend it on editing and a good cover.

• Find your tribe. Communicate with other dedicated writers and creative people. They will validate and inspire you.

• Above all of this, enjoy the journey because it may be the only reward you get from this crazy calling.

I'm still learning. And, I expect new experiences will evoke new strategies in the coming year, but for now, these lessons help steer my efforts and provide some focus.

I think, that from his pose, it is safe to assume that he's an author.


* RE: Author Dan Hilton Mentioned above.
His indie-novel (Biddy Debeau Rides for His Life) recently received honourable mention in The 2015 Reader's Digest book contest. Without reservation, I recommend this book. Dan's a very competent and passionate writer and anyone who loves motorcycles and/or literary fiction will enjoy this novel.

* Throughout 2015, I detailed many of my
marketing experiences in these other blog posts 
which you might find interesting:

  • Twitter Power! (150930):

 • What To Ignore (150412):

 •  iUniverse Exposed! (150319):

 • Marketing Plan Update (150124):
Amazon vs Amazon vs Amazon (150113):
William’s Social Media Marketing Plan 1.0 (141228):
Pacing Yourself In The Race To Publish (141211):
APE Part 2 (141129):
APE Part 1 (141122):

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