In which I consider sock puppetry and the pitfalls of online promotion

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Firstly, dear reader, an apology. It is, I can’t help but notice, Tuesday. I did promise you that I would deliver you a weekly musing every Monday. I have failed. I prostrate myself before you and implore your forgiveness. Am I forgiven? Jolly good. Let’s all move on.

So, there’s has been a small furore (a furorette?) of late about writerly types massaging and faking their online reviews. Proper successful writers, most notably (but not uniquely) RJ Ellory, have been caught hiding behind anonymous online usernames in order to  big up their own books and slag off rivals in Amazon reviews and online forums.  It also turns out that John Locke’s “How I Sold 1 Million E-books in 5 Months” failed to detail his technique of paying for positive reviews. Ooops. Now clearly neither of those things are really on. But what is on when it comes to online promo? Where, ladies and gents, is the line?

If I hop over to twitter right now, 5 out of the first 15 tweets in my feed are people providing me with links to where I can buy their book, download their book or read a review of their book. And that’s a much lower percentage than it would be at other times of the day. Now clearly a bit of tweeting of links to stuff is fine. If people follow you on twitter I think it’s fair to assume they might be interested in other stuff you’ve written or produced. I’m a guilty party, as I always tweet and facebook the link to this blog when there’s a new post. I think, equally clearly, those people who use social media like twitter for nothing but direct promo are annoying and should expect to be unfollowed pretty quickly. Constant promo is deeply tiresome and makes all the lovely interesting people on twitter disappear off the bottom of your feed before you’ve had chance to see what they’re up to. Having said that, even aggressive and excessive direct twitter promotion is an irritant rather than an act of fraud.

But what about tweeting a link to the amazon page for your book and asking people to post a review? If someone tweets a writer to tell them they’ve enjoyed a book, is it ok to ask them to repeat that view on amazon? What if the reader doesn’t contact the writer directly, but the writer seeks them out and asks for a positive review? What if a reader writes a positive blog review, entirely of their own free will and volition? A review on a tiny personal blog isn’t going to do much to help a writer’s sales – what’s wrong with copying and pasting those positive comments into an amazon review? You’d simply be repeating a reader’s genuine thoughts, albeit under an amazon profile not of their creating.

An underlying issue here is one of markets. For new writers starting out, particularly for independent self-published writers, amazon is the key selling place. Getting books into real world book stores is hard, and there are less and less of them to choose from. Waterstones, WHSmiths and the supermarkets dominate real world book sales and, limited by shelf space, carry a vastly smaller range of titles than online sellers, and in the UK, at present, one online seller dominates them all. The drive to promote your book on amazon, to post good reviews, to boost your search position feels close to irresistible.

In addition to that, one of the big messages that new and aspiring writers hear from every turn at present, is that you must have an online presence. You must promote yourself and your wares. In this bookselling context it’s easy to see how the anonymity of online communications can tempt people to do things they’d never consider in a real world conversation. It’s tricky when talking to someone face to face about your book to nip out of the room, pop back in with a different hat on and pretend to be an enraptured reader of the tome. It’s also quite awkward to stand in front of someone and repeat the phrase “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book” at 3 minute intervals, but online, people don’t always recognise that they’re doing just that and it’s, frankly, a bit creepy-weird.

So maybe that’s the rule – if it would be creepy weird in person, it’s probably creepy weird online. And, unless you’re trying to sell some sort of gothic fantasy horror, creepy weird is probably not the image you’re trying to create. So what do you think? Have you seen any examples of online promo that made you feel a tad discomforted? Do you pay any heed to amazon reviews and blog comments on books? Do you have any other thoughts on any subject at all? Please share…

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5 thoughts on “In which I consider sock puppetry and the pitfalls of online promotion

    John said:
    September 25, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Online reviews for non-arty products (i.e. a new vacuum cleaner or a set of kitchen knives) tend to be very useful. Arty products (such as books and music) tend to attract reviewers who fancy themselves as a bit arty. This results in drivel. “The song soars like a helium-addicted eagle to a gas powered crescendo” or “The story swung from locale to locale like a metronome on speed”. I just can’t be doing with it. From a review I want to know is it good; will I like it? I don’t want the reviewer to amuse me, I want the book or album to amuse me.

    This has resulted in online reviews being mostly ignored and the very ‘arty’ reviews can actually have a negative effect and make me hostile to the product. If someone spoke to me in real life like a wierdo I’d ignore them too – so once again you are right!

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      alisonmay responded:
      September 25, 2012 at 2:03 pm

      And I think the key takeaway thought there is that I am right. Always worth remembering. I share your suspicion of online reviews written in purple prose. I’ve also noticed more and more reviews on amazon and similar from people who openly acknowledge never having read the book/watched the movie/listened to the tune but still seem to think we want to know their opinion. V odd.

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        John said:
        September 26, 2012 at 7:00 am

        Good point on the reviewers that have no experience of what they’re reviewing. I read a review for ipad2 on amazon that was along the lines of “I bought the asus tablet and it was useless I would not recommend the ipad2”. Kinda like saying “I bought these high-heels from the local market I would not recommend Jimmy Choos”.

        Backing out a little on my previous post (and apologies if my comments are becoming longer than your blog) – I read a review in Kerrang magazine for the album Alternative4 that started “The opening salvo is like strawberries and cream”. Drivel thought I…. but upon hearing that violin I did nearly feel fruit in my mouth. So I’m not ruling out all similes, metaphors and other stuff you writers do just the really idiotic stuff 😎 Phew – thanks I feel better now!

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    Polly Robinson said:
    September 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    What an interesting post Alison ~ I think many people post once and don’t realise that others will re-post to ‘help’ them so that genuine kindness can be quite irritating to that person who gets the same thing time after time.
    It’s a difficult one, this, and I like that you pose more questions than give answers, ‘cos I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer to it …
    For me the pragmatic approach works: enjoy or ignore / delete ~ no probs 🙂

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      alisonmay responded:
      September 25, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      I’m a bit wary of straightforward answers to this one too Polly. There are lots of “guides to social networking for writers/artists etc” out there that try to make rules but I often think it’s blind following of those rules that give the most irritating results! You end up with very impersonal sounding communications. I think facebook, twitter etc are fab for chatting to people and sharing random thoughts, and just doing that is far more fun (and far more effective promo) than constantly tweeting links and “Buy me! Buy me!” posts.

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