Monday, June 22, 2009

Is Twitter and Blogging Worth an Author's Time?

A recent blog by the CEO of Thomas Nelson (Michael Hyatt) recommended that almost anyone could build a platform with social networking:

"But today, by starting a blog and making use of tools social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, you can build a big platform with little more that the investment of your creativity and time. I’m not saying it is easy, but I am saying it is within reach. (By the way, I consider my blog to be my “homebase” and Twitter, Facebook, Plaxo, LinkedIn, etc., to be “outposts.”)"

I think that this can be true in some cases, but I'd like to know some hard data on how many authors actually start off as "nobodies" and successfully build a platform that sells books by these social networking tools, even if they put a lot of time into it and do it right.

Don't get me wrong. I'm blogging and I tweet. And I'm sure that many sales have been made through authors Twittering. But that doesn't mean it's for everybody. In my opinion, we need to question the prevailing wisdom that promises all authors that they can build strong platforms through twittering and blogging.

Here are some of my reasons:

1) It appears to me that the ones who build a platform with Twitter, Blogging, etc., are often special cases.

a) Some were already famous (already had a platform) and thus many people wanted to follow them. The president of Thomas Nelson is a prime example. It's a great way to expand his platform, since many people already look to him as a thought leader. I and many others care what the CEO of Thomas Nelson says about publishing. A comparatively minuscule group cares about what I say about publishing. With limited time to read, if we were publishing about the same subject (I'm actually blogging about a different niche than Nelson), would you rather follow Hyatt or Miller?

b) Some do well because they're blogging about themes attractive to bloggers. Someone who becomes a thought leader in blogging or social networking in general will build a following because so many of the people interested in their thoughts search and redistribute blog posts and link back. Also, people need to subscribe to these thought leaders because the industry is developing so quickly. People want to know the latest ideas in fast-moving industries. The same can be true of the publishing industry, which is experiencing such a revolution. But with so many thought leaders out there in these areas, good luck becoming one of the top leaders!

Let's say you're a young writer, hoping to get published. Publishers keep telling you, "I like your writing, but you have no platform! We don't think we can market your book, since you have no platform." So someone advises you, "Go start a blog and start twittering and build yourself a platform!"

So, what will you blog about? Thousands of authors are blogging about their writing experiences. What's unique about your blog that would make people follow you? If you can't answer that question, lower your expectations about getting a following.

2) I don't see any hard data about what percentage of writers achieve significant sales by blogging and tweeting. (If you know any hard data, please let me know!) Sure, I hear many stories of people who made a great contact or made a great sale, but we can't conclude from these success stories that anybody can succeed by replicating what they did. I think it's called "success bias" - we hear the stories of the successes but don't hear from those who worked hard at blogging and reaped nothing. Thus, we assume that it should work for anyone.

Let's imagine that we collect 50 stories of authors who made significant contacts and sales while riding trains. Does that mean all authors should start riding trains? Hardly. Similarly, tell me 50 stories of people who are selling a lot of books through their blogs and I've still got to ask questions such as:
  • "Why are they doing well through blogs?
  • Are these people like me, starting with no significant platform?
  • Are they targeting a niche subject that they've become a recognized expert in?
  • Do they put hours a day into blogging, twittering and commenting on other blogs?"
  • Can I easily replicate what they're doing with their blogs?
3) My track record of sales through Twitter and my blogs has been, well, underwhelming. I think I've achieved approximately 0 sales so far through those efforts. (I've sold many through review articles in newspapers, etc.) (For an article by a person with much more blogging experience than me, echoing my experience, see the article, "Why Blogging Won't Sell My Books." The author concludes: "In terms of visitors received and books sold for the time I put in writing, blogging is the worst return on investment I get."

4) A marketing professional reported dismal results. In a recent article , a twitter marketer, who tracks what happens to his tweets that he sends to his 55,000 followers, reported that his potential sales were rather dismal:

"Now, 6% of them are all I can get to click on a link, and I must assume that if I have anything I wanted to sell to these folks, I would be lucky to sell 6% of them (using 6% as my new social-networking constant). That gives me almost 0.4% from my total “mailing list” of followers, which is about one-fifth of what you get from any real-world direct-marketing effort. This is hardly a revolution in marketing. But it might be what you can expect from the average social-network marketing schemes. And it isn’t much."

5) Blogging and Twittering experts say you have to blog and twitter very often to attract a following. Do we really have that kind of time? A responder to the above article said,

"Three or Four Tweets a day will do absolutely no good. You have to do 30 tweets a day. The life expectancy of a tweet is less than 15 minutes. You need to have a network of twitter accounts that can get your message to over 500K users - not one single account."

So let's see, that means I Twitter something every 30 minutes of my 16 waking hours.

Similarly, I've heard that if you really want to build a following on your blog, you should blog about seven times per day.

That's a huge time investment! So this morning I took a son to school, planned for supper, got my 103-year-old granny up and took her for a doctor visit. I'm raising 7 boys, the flowers in the front yard need watering, I'm setting up a book signing, sending books to reviewers, planning articles to send to magazines. My main business is running an educational resources organization. I need to read more, exercise more, write more books, write more articles about my books, set up more signings, pray more, and water the dying flowers in my front yard. And someone's saying a good use of my time is to put up 7 meaty, relevant blogs each day and twitter every 30 minutes!

None of us have unlimited time. I own an older copy of Kremer's 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. Now with web-based social networking, let's make that 1002 ways. So if I'm blogging and twittering all day, when will I find time for some of the other 1001 marketing tools?

The Bottom Line

I blog about once a week for several reasons: 1) I blog about matters that I will later write books about. 2) Blogs are great ways to get out important information. 3) Blogs can help establish me as an expert in a field, leading to speaking opportunities, a platform, etc. 4) My blogs store important information that I want to refer back to later. 5) My blogs are part of a small web of links from my sites, blogs and other social networking sites - helping me to raise my search engine rankings for my books on Amazon.

I twitter to let people know I've published a new blog or link them to important articles. I'll twitter something once every few days.

Will I ever sell any books through these efforts? Perhaps. But I see them more as parts of my online presence that will pay off in the long-run, since I'm using them for several purposes, not just sales.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start a Blog Campaign

So someone's told you that, in order to sell your books, you should start blogging to build your following. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

1) Does the topic of your blog lend itself to bloggers? If your topic isn't a passionate one among a significant niche of people, then don't expect regular readers.

2) What's your competition? So you're an unknown who's writing your first mystery and you start a blog about writing mysteries. How many other mystery writers already have blogs? Why would people follow your blog rather than the writing professors with blogs and the famous mystery writers with blogs? What are you offering that people can't get better somewhere else?

3) Do you enjoy blogging? Would you do it even if it didn't result in many sales? Life's too short to invest a lot of time doing something you hate.

4) Do you have the time to pursue it? I justify posting a blog about every other week. I know that this isn't frequent enough to get a big following, but there are only so many minutes to go around. Additionally, I honestly don't have enough to say of significance on my topic to post more often. To add more posts would be to add fluff.

5) Are you prepared to do the research and writing it takes to become a true expert (thought leader) in your field? If you don't plan to become a thought leader, fine. If you aspire to being a thought leader, you don't get there by posting what you ate for breakfast. You'll need to keep abreast of the top books and periodicals in your field, reading the the most respected bloggers in your field and interacting with them. You don't become a trusted expert by proclaiming yourself a trusted expert. You earn that trust by putting out consistently accurate, helpful, thought-provoking posts. That takes research. That takes a passion for your field. That takes time.

6) Are you already a recognized expert? If not, it may take a lot more than establishing a meaty blog to establish yourself. Most of these folks (recognized experts) seem to speak widely and establish themselves in other ways besides just blogging.

7) How intimately tied to your book is the topic of your blog? My character education site has thousands of subscribers and attracts from 500 to 600 visitors per day. But sending them an e-mail about my book on personal money management provoked very little interest. The fact is, few of my subscribers are teaching personal money management.

So you're writing a mystery and your blog is about writing mysteries, which attracts other mystery writers. Even if you get a steady following of 100 people, or even 1000 fellow-authors who are interested in writing mysteries, how many of them will actually want to purchase your mystery? Probably some, but is it worth the vast amount of time it takes to gain that following?

8) Where do you want to be within the next 5 or 10 years? Does your blog fit into that picture? If, beyond selling books, you see yourself pulling together your blog posts to publish books, or using your blog to show a school that you're the right person for teaching that writing class, then blogging may be for you. If you see it as a quick fix to sell some books, you'll likely be disappointed.

9) Have you defined your expectations for your blog? If you expect hordes of people to start buying your book, simply because of your blog, you've probably got the wrong expectation. Choose one of Kremers other 1001 ways to market your book. First, if you constantly blog about your book, people won't follow you. They'll see you as advertising rather than informing. Second, blogging seems to be more about helping people and establishing relationships than directly selling products. Sure, the resulting relationships can result in setting up a speaking engagement that sells books, but define those expectations beforehand.

In Sum...

With my present state on knowledge, I'd advise authors to blog if they enjoy blogging, have enough time to blog, and have other reasons to blog besides just selling books. If you don't already have a platform and don't relish blogging regularly, don't just gut it out to try to get sales. There are probably other things you could do that would have a faster and more likely payoff.

What do you think? (Feel free to post your thoughts.)

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