(Sunday Thought) Gaslighting and Social Media

It’s been my consistent experience that you can’t “social media” your way to commercial success. But don’t take my word for it.

For a long time, I thought it was me, or rather my writing. Marketers, tech mavens, news outlets, and talking heads of all kinds were constantly and consistently touting the commercial viability — nay, the commercial necessity — of social media.

Since around 2017-18, though, when smart, independent minds really began diving into the data made available by the 2016 election scandals, it’s become increasingly clear that social media is actually a very mediocre marketing outlet.

(It was very revealing watching Mark Zuckerberg try to defend his company before Congress and the media without revealing that they did not in fact have anything like the level of influence they touted to advertisers. For those convinced of Facebook’s apocalyptic reach, however, check out some of Cory Doctorow’s recent blog posts, and be sure to clink on some of the links.)

To be fair, social media probably did work at the beginning, when everything was new and we all paid attention more. And it still seems to work for some products/brands. But then so does direct mail, or paying a teenager in a chicken suit to stand on a street corner twirling a sign. We all wouldn’t still be getting calls and letters about our auto warranty if someone wasn’t making money on it.

“Social,” as it’s abbreviated in the industry, has some definite benefits over broadcast. If you advertise on Google, you control who sees your ad, and you only pay for those impressions, versus the “waste” inherent in a TV or newspaper spot, where your paying for many more impressions than you want.

In that sense, social probably should be part of any broad marketing campaign. But the traditional drawbacks of advertising still apply. For example, advertising is great for making you aware of a product, but despite recurrent fears, Madison Avenue does not have the ability, via a single image, to reach into your brain and make you buy it — just as playing violent video games doesn’t make you violent. Our relationship to media is quite complex.

If you are selling a new release by a popular author or musician, it absolutely pays to advertise, not just because advertising increases awareness, and that means more people will buy, but if you can make enough people aware that large numbers of them buy it all at the same time, then your product goes to the top of bestseller charts, where even more people see it, some of whom might then be convinced to try. You also get free marketing in the form of sales awards and news stories that pretend the results weren’t engineered.

So when Brandon Sanderson’s new book came out, Tor was right to promote it everywhere. An ad announcing a new book by me is not going to convince anyone to buy it who wouldn’t have anyway.

There are ways to manufacture a best seller. (In fact, most are manufactured.) But they require a major publishing company’s influence and capital. Keep in mind that the Big 5 are all part of much larger media conglomerates. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS.

But as I said, don’t take my word for it. Here is an author with a wider platform than me saying the same thing. Incidentally, what she describes is the reason why I have not ever, until The Zero Signal, even tried to get a book traditionally published. For what I write, it would’ve been a waste of time.

The post gets a tiny bit nonsensical toward the end (“It’s dehumanizing that I or any author should be afraid to speak about our dehumanization”), so I’ll paste the relevant bits here:

I’ve mentioned a few times now that publishing controls the market. The industry decides which books will be the bestselling novels, with publishers alerting The New York Times which titles they would like to be considered for the list, and with the NYT list also taking marketing budgets into consideration. (Basically, was the book everywhere you turned? Yes? That ups the book’s chances.) These books are generally chosen to be “big” based on data—which similar books have done well and hit the list in the past, as well as what the publisher/imprint’s list looks like. Is it overcrowded, or is there enough room to pick and choose several titles to let them all shine? There are marketing and publicity meetings where people within the industry choose which titles will be picked as books for certain ranks—which books will be the bestsellers, the mid-listers, and the… let’s say “quiet” titles.

I’ve seen some meetings where the author’s personality and presence comes into play—but this is more of a footnote, really, among other mountains of data: sales numbers of the author’s previous titles and similar comparative titles that have done well in the past, upcoming books that the title will compete with and on which season… I’ve heard, sadly, that it helps if the author is “attractive.”

I say all of this because I’ve realized, with some space from social media, that I struggle with the gaslighting of some of the industry. There’s an expectation by many that authors give more of themselves: to come up with their own marketing schemes, to search for as many opportunities to publicize themselves and their books as possible. There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) suggestion from publishing companies and professionals that, if the book doesn’t do as well as the author might’ve hoped, then it’s actually the author’s fault. They should have found a “street” team (“fans” paid to hype the book up online in a way that seems organic and natural), created their own pre-order campaigns (paying for swag, artists to draw their characters, etc.), pitched themselves to different media outlets, learned Photoshop to create graphics, paid someone to create a book trailer, hyped themselves up in a constant competition for attention online… the list goes on and on.

The gaslighting is this: the publishing companies and industry professionals know that the authors don’t actually control how well their book is going to do. They put that responsibility on the authors, when the responsibility is really meant to be on the publishing companies. That’s why we go with traditional publishing, isn’t it? That’s why so many of us don’t self-publish. We don’t have the necessary marketing skills. (I certainly don’t, anyway.) The marketing/publicity is ultimately publishing’s responsibility. The publishing companies have their budgets, and they spend those limited budgets on the books they expect will earn back a specific amount of money. Authors really don’t need to do anything to find that financial success. Case study A: Suzanne Collins. Where? Nowhere, that’s where. She doesn’t do any publicity or marketing, from what I can see. Yet the Hunger Games series is—well, you already know. Clearly there isn’t actually a correlation between authors needing to do marketing and publicity and a book’s financial success.

And—oh, believe me, I tried going the good-author-on-social-media-route! I was up on Twitter all day every day trying to make sure people heard about my books, and my YA titles in particular, knowing that social media tends to be buzzier for teen lit. Sure, maybe a few more people heard about my books and clicked on the buy links. But in my memory, I think I maybe got… about 50 people total, for all my books, who let me know that they were going to buy them? Let’s say double—no, triple!—that number went on to buy books without my knowledge. Whips out phone and opens calculator app. Even that would be 150 sales without my knowledge, so 200 total due to my time on social media. I’d say the average quiet/mid-lister book sells anywhere from 1,000 books to 5,000 books. The sales are not driven by social media presence. They’re driven, always, by the efforts of the publisher, and how much money they’re willing and able to spend for each title.

A major part of this entire issue is the imbalance in power. There are so many authors being published these days that publishing, with its general lack of transparency, is in a position where they’re able to suggest “we’re lucky that we publish you” when really, this is a fair business exchange where authors have created products that are making publishing companies money.