Twitter: the Dark Side …

Darth Vader

Last time I wrote of my new-found enthusiasm for Twitter and many of the things I’ve come to appreciate about it. But every silver lining has a cloud, and so …

  • 140 characters. That limit is so frustrating at times. I couldn’t operate with Twitter as my sole social media outlet, but then there’s no need to. It’s just not suited to everything. You can always link to something more substantial, like a blog post.
  • Content. I had to unfollow a couple of people who looked initially OK but then re-tweeted some stuff that made me shudder. Also I feel I have to be careful being a children’s/YA author, not only with what I write but also things I choose to re-tweet or favourite.
  • Disposability. It doesn’t take long to churn out 140-character tweet, and there are an awful lot of them. A tiny proportion linger on for a while in the blessed afterlife of the viral, but the great majority have pitifully short lives, forgotten and ignored.
  • Selling. Lots and lots and lots of people desperate to sell lots and lots and lots of stuff. Which is fine in a way – and of course I want to sell some books, so I can hardly point the finger – and it’s not too hard to filter out what you don’t want to see, but …
  • Paid / sponsored content appearing in my feed, from organizations I don’t follow. Ugh.
  • Expressing an opinion is fine. More than fine. Obnoxiousness, intolerance, pitchfork-waving, smug self-righteousness, sheer rudeness and lack of respect, all behind the cloak of anonymity or distance … not so OK. But none of this is confined to Twitter. Social media didn’t turn people into jerks, it just made it easier.
  • Following. The irony of the contradiction between having / wanting 10k followers and any reasonable definition of ‘social’ is never lost on me. Most people, it seems to me, don’t interact in any meaningful and/or ongoing way with the majority of people they ‘follow’ or ‘follow’ them. But again that’s not just a Twitter thing, it’s ‘social’ media in general. Meaningful and/or beneficial associations and even friendships (and sometimes more) can and do arise from social media contact, of course. But it’s kind of difficult to do that with 10,000 people (not that I have that particular problem).
  • And in a similar vein, I’ve no idea how people can ‘sell’ me 1,000 ‘followers’ for $X. Not sure I want to know either. Not only is that cheating, it’s surely also self-defeating. How can people truly ‘follow’ you without making a conscious personal decision to do so? How much are such ‘follows’ really worth?

That’s enough rumination on Twitter for now. But I’m also using it to research a future book – more on that later. In the meantime, I’m on Twitter here.

Do you use Twitter? What for? Does the good outweigh the bad for you, or the other way around?

My five worst book marketing ideas

Balloons image

Giant ghost hands! Eighties pop stars! Helium-filled balloons! It’s all here!

By making the borderline-certifiable decision to become a self-published author, I have embraced the joy of writing, of creative freedom, and the satisfaction of seeing the product of hundreds of hours of hard work actually on sale. But I have also taken on the sole responsibility for marketing and selling my work. Which isn’t exactly easy when your books are like microscopically tiny needles in a planet-sized and rapidly-expanding haystack of self- and conventionally-published books.

And while I’d like to be content to remain at number 11,467,232 on the Amazon sales ranking (OK, I may have made that number up, but it’s too depressing to check what it actually is), I do continue to cling to the deluded fantasy of one day actually making a living from writing. Which, however you look at it, means shifting some books, preferably sometimes in return for actual money.

So how do I sell enough books to make my dream come true? How to find a market beyond my immediate family and friends? In fact, how on earth do I even get my books noticed?

Of course there are lots of conventional answers. Hone your craft, become the best writer you can (completely agree). Don’t publish until you think it’s really good enough (ditto). Try to make your cover not look like it was thrown together by a colour-blind Photoshop novice who thinks Comic Sans is cutting edge typography. Try to get unbiased reviews which are hopefully broadly positive yet don’t look like they’ve been written by your mother. Blogging, your own website, social media … hmm.

Putting aside the fact that I’m currently writing a blog on my own website, I do have an issue with the whole social-media-as-a-marketing-strategy thing. For one thing, I can barely find enough hours in the day to write – which as all writers know is absurdly time-consuming – on top of my full-time day job, family commitments and other extraneous stuff like food and sleep. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that most of those authors with zillions of Twitter followers or Facebook friends got most of them because they were already successful, either as a writer or (frequently) something completely different. Now I’m sure there are other very good reasons to do social media beyond its sales-boosting potential. But, frankly, given the choice of how to ration my strictly limited time, I’d rather be writing my next book.

All this preamble is really just to set the scene, and perhaps provide a smidgen of justification, for the insanity that follows. You see (confession time): sometimes, late at night, my brain befuddled after hours of hacking away at the eighth draft of something or other, I allow myself to fantasize that maybe, just maybe, there’s another way. That there’s some amazing, quick, fail-safe, brilliantly successful way to promote my book that, miraculously, no-one else has ever thought of. That the very next day, when I get up, I’m going to make it happen. Whereas actually, that very next day – and sometimes much sooner – is when I realise that the reason why nobody else has ever tried to promote their book that way is because it’s dumb, bizarre, suicidal, ludicrous and/or borderline illegal.

So, in the interests of full disclosure, and to cleanse my guilty soul, here are the five worst book marketing ideas I’ve ever had. I have actually entertained these ideas, with varying degrees of seriousness, for upwards of several minutes. Which amply demonstrates what a deeply strange and disturbing place my mind can be.

So here they are, in all their, erm, glory, along with the glaringly obvious reasons why they would never work. (Aside from the common factor of complete impracticability.)

1. The big hand on Big Ben

The front cover of my first book, Falling Girl, features a ghostly white hand. (Which actually belongs to my eleven-year-old daughter – though she’s made me faithfully promise never to reveal that embarrassing secret … oh, whoops.) So obviously I thought – why not get / hire / buy / borrow one of those flood-lights that often light up famous and / or historic buildings at night, create an overhead projector transparency of that white hand and – hey presto, a giant ghostly white hand is projected on the side of – well, the Tower of London, Big Ben, etc. etc.

… and then, just to ramp up the sheer ludicrousness of the plan, what about arranging for it to happen on New Years’ Eve, the state opening of parliament, or any other event where TV cameras are present? And then everyone asks what that giant white hand means, social media is a-buzz, and I sell truck-loads of books.

What would actually happen

  • The chances of a shabbily-dressed, suspiciously-behaving individual with something under his jacket getting anywhere near Big Ben – especially on New Years’ Eve – are vanishingly slim. I would most likely end up in a police cell being interrogated by a terrorist squad cop armed with wicked electrodes and halitosis.
  • And the plastic hand picture would melt on the hot flood-light. The smell of burning plastic – yuck.

2. Balloons over England

I’m sure everyone has had this idea, right? Print of loads of cards bearing mysterious ghostly white hand motif (see above). Attached to dozens / hundreds / eight (depending on budget*) helium-filled balloons. Release. Eventually they all come down. And then everyone asks what all those mysterious white hand cards mean, social media is a-buzz, and I sell truck-loads of books.

(It even occurred to me that a west-north-west wind would be ideal, so as to carry the balloons from Oxfordshire down across London. Result: the spent balloons would rain down on grateful and intrigued publishing industry movers-and-shakers. Probably.)

What would actually happen

  • Not much.
  • I’d feel too guilty about littering the countryside and choking wildlife with bits of latex and card. Publishing industry movers-and-shakers don’t tend to take well to that kind of thing.

(* Probably eight, let’s face it. Looked up the equipment on Amazon. It’s expensive.)

3. Guerrilla bookmarks

Bookmarks are boring, right? Wrong! While browsing through the shelves of hyper-selling paperbacks in a major store one day, brooding on the massive unlikelihood of my books ever rubbing shoulders with such exalted company, I hit upon a brilliant wheeze. I’d print out some high-quality bookmarks on my inexpensive inkjet printer, featuring my book. Then I’d slip them on the shelves while no-one’s looking. Result: while leafing through The Hunger Games or The Hobbit, unsuspecting punters would stumble upon free advertising for my book – and obviously, inevitably order them from Amazon in their thousands.

What would actually happen

  • Not much.
  • In big stores, someone is always looking. It’s called CCTV. And said stores would probably be less than enthused by my cluttering their shelves with tawdry smudged bits of card printed on a cheap inkjet.
  • Two words: store security. I have no desire to become the first person ever to be apprehended for putting stuff on a store shelf. Kind of the reverse of shoplifting. I’ve no idea whether that’s actually a crime. I don’t plan to find out.

4. Getting shirty

A sinister, distorted space invader image adorns the front cover of BASIC Boy. I do think it (and possibly the title too) would look quite good on a tee-shirt. It’s easy to get your own designs produced relatively inexpensively. What if I produced some and gave them away or sold them very cheaply? (I’m looking to make money from books, not clothes.) All those people walking down the street, mobile adverts for my book. It could even become a cool brand it its own right.

What would actually happen

  • The economics don’t work too well unless I deal in any great volume. Tee-shirts may be relatively cheap, but it would still be a significant expense to give them away. (The same goes for branded USB sticks, baseball caps, umbrellas or surgical support stockings. Big money, not much hope of recouping it.) So this little enterprise would have to pay its own way at least to a degree, but …
  • In the world of fashion, I’m not just out of my comfort zone. I’m on a different continent from my comfort zone, and that continent’s on a frozen far-flung planet in the outer reaches of the next galaxy but three. There are probably zillions of budding clothing entrepreneurs hoping that their design will be the next big thing, and many of them will have far more reason to be hopeful of success than I can be.
  • So the net result is likely to be that instead of being an obscure wannabe in just the book industry, I get to be one in the clothing industry too. Great …

5. Eighties-pop-star-holding-my-book.com

Pretty self-explanatory, this one. I send free copies of BASIC Boy – which has a 1980s theme – to various pop stars of that era, especially those mentioned in the book. I ask them to send me a picture of them holding my book. Possibly I offer to make a donation to their chosen charity in return. I put the images on the above-named website. Pretty soon it’s the latest thing. Famous musicians, the young and trendy as well as the grizzled veterans of yesteryear, practically fall over themselves to take part. Harry Styles from One Direction literally begs me for a copy. My daughter finally admits I’m totally cool and not embarrassing after all. Social media is a-buzz, my books sell by the truck-load, etc. etc., you get the picture.

What would actually happen

Given that celebrities are not generally known to be especially fond of self-publicising nutcases asking them for favours, we can comfortably conjecture any or all of the following:

  • Not much.
  • And if it did – very slowly.
  • Might start to cost me a small fortune in donations (so at least someone might benefit I suppose).
  • Restraining orders.
  • Psychiatric assessments.
  • My daughter will not admit I’m totally cool and un-embarrassing.

So there you have it. Feel free to mock – I probably deserve it. Though as I said, I wasn’t quite crazy enough to actually do any of the above*. But would you be tempted to pull any of these stunts? Have you done anything similar? Did it work? Did you sell a ton more books? Or is your next title a scintillating expose of jail conditions – from the inside?

Oh well … back to the social media I suppose. Now where did I put those balloons …

(* OK … I did hide half a dozen bookmarks on the shelves of Asda Walmart in Milton Keynes. What happened? Not much …)