Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
When I was in college, my initial major was landscape design and architecture. For some strange reason, I had visions of designing golf courses with fancy clubhouses around the world. But my dream was crushed as a sophomore when I was graded on our biggest project of the year. I was given the task of designing the structure and landscaping for a new county library near the college. Each of the six professors in my department would assign a grade.
When the big day arrived, I was stunned. One of the six professors gave me a D, while another gave me a quite positive grade of B+. Likewise, my scores from the other four professors were all over the place. I remember feeling bewildered by the wide range of subjective marks, not knowing whether I’d done really well or really poorly. That event dislodged my faith in the school’s architecture program so much that I dropped out and switched my major to marketing, where all the grades were a lot more objective.
I share this story as an analogy for the way I see too many publishers placing too much importance and assigning dubious grades to authors based on the strength or weakness of their social media following. I’ve actually sat in several meetings with literary agents, acquisitions editors and marketing directors who asked misguided questions, such as:
• Is this author on Facebook and Twitter?
• How many followers do they have?
• How often does the author post and do they get many shares and retweets?
Making acquisitions and marketing decisions based in large part on an author’s social media popularity is like assigning grades to students based on their accent or physical attractiveness: it’s subjective and largely unrelated to the actual skillset needed to succeed.
There is little correlation between the amount of Facebook followers an author displays and the amount of actual book buyers those numbers generate. Here are three reasons why:
1. An author could have thousands of followers, but not one of whom might actually purchase the book, since they are only following that author for the time being because doing so is free.
2. Social media followers can easily be bought and faked. I’ve seen authors plant their Facebook accounts with thousands of “followers” purchased on eBay and other sites. There are also free apps that show the amount of fake and inactive Twitter followers in someone’s account.
3. A recent study by McKinsey Consulting revealed that email is 40 times more effective than all social media combined at acquiring new customers. Despite the results of this study, I still hear publishers say they’re placing more and more importance on social media.
Convincing someone to buy a book is a subjective process that will never change. Yet we have access to so much objective data about what works and what doesn’t. The question is if we’re willing to acknowledge the objective data and ignore the subjective social media hype.
Informed publishers should focus greater attention on numbers that reveal more substance of an author’s platform. I recommend these four:
1. Email list and performance. The size of an author’s email list is a better number to objectively grade an author’s marketing skills. It’s one thing to get someone to “like” something on Facebook; it’s a bigger challenge to create content that leads people to voluntarily register for an email list and consistently open the emails they receive. And just as a reminder, email has been shown to be 40 times more effective than social media for this purpose.
2. Monthly website visitors . Again, social media numbers can be easily faked. But an author’s website traffic tends to be a more legitimate number. Google Analytics is free and makes it easy for authors to run reports and provide this data. At the very least, publishers should request information from authors on the amount of monthly unique sessions, users and page views to their site. In addition, they should ask for reports that show traffic dating back 18 months. Don’t just look at the present numbers; look at how the author is trending.
3. Speaking schedule or webinar participants. Authors who get face to face with their readers tend to be better marketers than those who camp out behind their computer screens. Publishers should ask authors to provide a history and upcoming itinerary of speaking engagements and book signing events. Online webinars and webcasts can also provide indications of an author’s presentation prowess and audience size. It’s a good idea to ask for figures of yearly webinar frequency and average number of participants.
4. Previous sales history. Building email lists, generating web traffic and attracting speaking engagements are key skills. But they are still distinct from actually selling books. Some authors know how to work hard, but not smart. They generate a lot of activity, but it doesn’t transfer into actual book sales. Most publishers wisely check an author’s past sales history using BookScan (authors can check their own BookScan numbers using Amazon’s Author Central account). An author’s sales history can be the most objective numbers available and should be given important weight.
If publishers feel nosy asking authors for details about their platform, for crying out loud, they need to remember they’re offering someone a legal book contract and taking a big financial risk. A little due diligence can help bring much-needed clarity to the decision.
Instead of assigning subjective grades to authors based on their dubious social media popularity, publishers can make better decisions by reviewing the four types of objective data described above. This information provides a better picture of an author’s marketing skills and gives a clearer sense of what an author has done in the past, as well as what they’re doing at the moment.
Armed with the proper data, publishers can peer into the future with more certainty and envision an author’s capability when the critical book launch day arrives. And that’s a day you want every author to get passing grades!
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