Playing the Digital-Word-of-Mouth Game

The infographic in question.

A few days ago at BookRiot, the writer Andrew Shaffer asked the question, “What do readers owe authors?” He was responding to a much-discussed infographic that’s been making the rounds. Shaffer notes that Amazon’s recent purchase of Goodreads highlights the importance of “digital word-of-mouth” and how authors and publishers need to do “everything in their power to increase the chatter surrounding their own books on social media.”

He cites these familiar examples:

I’ve seen readers tweet to writers that they enjoyed their books, only to have the writer respond with a “small request” to leave their thoughts on Amazon in the form of a review. Snider even suggests that readers “download and print the infographic to use a checklist” when buying books, so they don’t accidentally forget to like, tag, tweet, share, or review their new purchases. When did being a reader begin to feel like such a chore?

Since I’m basically teaching a class that encourages students to be “literary citizens” and directly participate in book culture by “helping” authors in these exact ways, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought.

Reader/Author Relationships in the Digital Age

A few months ago, I shared this post from Chuck Sambuchino, “How to Support an Author’s New Book: 11 Ideas for You.” He makes many of the same recommendations as the infographic, and, as far as I know, his post didn’t inspire any ire. The difference, I think, is he didn’t limit his advice to Amazon, but to how we should be “caring” for authors using our bookstores, libraries, and our social networks. He didn’t reduce the situation to “Keep ‘em Fed. Keep ‘em Writing,” as if writers are begging for food, but rather said:

“Help writers sell books. It’s that simple. Just help them and support the publishing industry. Good karma will befall you, and the hope is that others will help you in return as your big release day comes.”

Sambuchino’s approach is a bit more subtle and persuasive. But then again, he’s talking to an audience of writers, and the infographic is not. It seems to be aimed at book readers, book lovers.

Personally, I think the infographic looks a little “grade-school-y,” font and image wise. And the tone of the appeal is wrong–especially the starving artist punchline. It makes me feel like an hungry orphan or abandoned puppy dog.

Speaking of tone and getting through to people, I’ve been reading (don’t laugh) Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936. Why? Every day, I learn something new about doing the internet “right,” about finding new readers and like-minded folks, about getting people to “like” my work/my ideas in a meaningful, genuine way. I want to teach my students how to do that, too. Such things did not come naturally to me. I’ve had to teach myself.

One of Carnegie’s principles is that we have to figure out how to “arouse in people an eager want.” And you know what? I don’t think the double entendre is accidental. Writers can’t just expect others to love them; we have to learn how to seduce (platonically) an agent, an editor, and readers. (Honestly, this was so hard for me, a change in attitude that took a very long time.)

As far as I can tell, most of the people who have objected to the infographic are writers. Did any writers ask/pay Sherry Snider to create this infographic? Or was she appealing to the average reader who generally has no idea that there are simple, positive, proactive things she can do to make the world a better place for books?

I’ve found that whenever I talk about my principles of literary citizenship–in classes and at events–people get excited. They feel empowered, not put upon. Maybe it’s because I’m not saying “Help me.” I’m saying, “Help writers. Help books.”

Carnegie advises that, in order to change people’s attitudes and behavior, a good leader “asks questions rather than giving direct orders,” (FEED THEM!) and that you must “make the other person happy about doing the things you suggest.

Maybe the reason that writers don’t like this infographic is that writers know a lot of other writers; we’re feeling put upon by the needs of all our writer friends.

Recruiting our Small Armies

Yesterday in my intermediate fiction course, we had a pretty fascinating discussion about the last story in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Pure Language.” My literary citizenship students were also required to read Goon Squad. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recall that in the last story, the main character is hired to find 50 friends who are willing to be paid to create “authentic” word-of-mouth via social media for a live concert–and it works.

I asked my class: so, if you pay people to pretend they REALLY want to go to a concert, is the musician’s newfound celebrity valid and earned, or is it tainted?

We talked for an hour and could have kept going. My students are intimately familiar with “fan culture” and its various online expressions.

Digital word of mouth is how many of today’s most successful writers have recruited the small armies who advocate for them, the people who “care for and feed” them, via Amazon or otherwise.

A few years ago, I became fascinated by the blog of Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity. One of his principles is that, if you want to change the world in a positive way, you have to recruit a small army of remarkable people. (You’ll probably see that I’ve borrowed/adapted many of my ideas re: literary citizenship, from him.) A characteristic of this army, he says, is that they “like to be paid. You don’t have to pay them in money. Instead, pay them in attention, recognition, goodwill, and other intangible benefits.”

If we accept the notion that having the attention or goodwill of (ie “access to”) an author is itself a kind of payment, then yes, these days, lots and lots of writers are “paying” their readers. This is the economy of our culture, what the world is coming to. Like it or not.

When the main character in “Pure Language” questions the ethicality of what he’s about to engage in, whether people are “being bought,” his young handler Lulu says, “See, that’s what we call a disingenuous metaphor. DM’s look like descriptions, but they’re really judgements. I mean, is a person who sells oranges being bought. Is the person who repairs appliances selling out?” When he persists, she says, “This is something we see a lot. Ethical ambivalence–we call it EA–in the face of a strong marketing action.”

The reason I like the term literary citizenship–not “community,” not “platform,” not “networking”–is that the term citizenship implies responsibility. If I’m going to recruit a small army, then by God, they will be soldiers fighting for a good cause. Already, my students have begun to realize the ethical implications of literary citizenship in the face of a “strong marketing action.”

My Own Motives

I’ve published two books, the first in 2004, the second in 2008. Both times, I took a decidedly “hands off” approach with readers. I didn’t blog. I wasn’t even using Facebook. When I publish my next book, things will be different. Because the times are different.

I’m sure that there are people who believe that my blogging efforts are purely mercenary. That I’m just creating a platform. People will think what they want, I’ve learned. The truth is that I have absolutely no freaking idea if all these words I’ve shared with you over the last few years will translate into book sales. No idea. But I know they have brought me many new friends.

If, when I finally finish my novel and maybe sell it and announce here and on Facebook, etc,  if said declaration arouses in you an eager want–to read it, to tell others to read it, to help it on its way, to “pay me back” somehow–then, gee, that would be great.

I guess that would mean that I played the digital word of mouth game well. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s this: you can’t control the outcome of any game. Especially this one.

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