Twitter and Selling Books: My Response to the Red Pen of Doom Guy

A few days ago, a blog post was linked on the social networks I follow; could have been the twitter, could have been the book of face, was probably both. It definitely was NOT the New York Times or a magazine or any other traditional media outlet. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books. Go read the post; it’s entertaining and thought-provoking.

As a recent twitterer myself, I read the seemingly hard, cold facts with a sinking sensation. Maybe he’s right. Maybe all the noise and twittering and linkage and retweeting is completely useless for writers hoping to pimp their wares online. But then I let the article sit for a while and came back to it asking: What numbers does he have to back up his claim that social networking isn’t built to sell books? What does he actually have in the way of what he calls ‘the science?’

He compares Nathan Bransford’s Amazon book ranking to Snooki’s.
My questions regarding the numbers:
**When were the respective books published?
**When was this comparison done? Over how many days?
**What are the comparisons like in other formats? Are these numbers just their Amazon rankings for the print versions of their books? What about other booksellers? Bookstores? E-versions?
When estimating the numbers of books sold behind those Amazon rankings, he links to a blog post that’s over a year old. Yikes. That’s, like, a hundred years in internet time. E-book sales have grown exponentially since October of 2010 and the translation of Amazon ranking to actual books sold has as well. I’m lousy at the maths, but I know this: All that multiplying he does to prove his point? Highly suspect.

The answers might not matter to the larger point: Non-literary pop culture sensation Snooki might well outsell the lovely and talented Nathan Bransford across all formats simply because she’s famous from an old-fashioned mass-media TV show. And that’s a sobering reality to have to swallow for devout fiction writers everywhere. But it has nothing to do with twitter popularity and more importantly, the future of twitter as a marketing tool for writers.

What would be helpful here would be numbers on:
How many people heard about Snooki’s book via her 59,000ish twitter followers (as opposed to other mediums)? How many via Bransford’s 98,000ish twitter followers? When they tweeted specifically about their books, was there an uptick in sales? If they ignored their twitter accounts for a few days, did sales suffer?

Red Pen of Doom guy provides no information on these relevant questions, as neither of these famous people were involved in the data collection.

(Disclaimer: I’m not one of the internet fanboys he predicted would flame him out–not only am I not a huge fan of the internets, I’m not even a boy. I’m not a big TWITterer or Facebook fanatic. I’m wary of new media and have blogged several times about my ambivalence and doubt. He might very well be right about the new networks for self-promotion being useless as a business model. But if so, why is so much information missing from his ‘science?’)

And where I’m really going to call him out; his reasoning about movie trailers and the impact getting your book made into a movie has on sales. Red Doom guy: (What is his name, anyway? Why isn’t it on his blog?)

It’s not an accident that a ton of big-shot authors got a rocket boost to their careers when one of their books became a movie.
Stephen King started out with CARRIE, which became a movie — boom, off he went.
Scott Turow had an injection of Harrison Ford with PRESUMED INNOCENT.
Joseph Finder, Carl Hiaasen (funny man – but he needs more vowels, doesn’t he?), Elmore Leonard, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, J.K. Rowling — a ton of authors that are household names got that way from having a movie or six.

Stephen King writes extensively about the journey of Carrie from hardcover to paperback success in his terrific book On Writing. I suggest that Red Pen of Doom guy read this book and then look at his claim again and see if it doesn’t fall apart. Here’s a link on the series of tubes, in case he can’t get to a bookstore or library in a hurry. Carrie was published in 1974. The paperback rights sold less than a year later for $400,000, as King wonderfully describes in his book. Sold a million copies its first year. Major bestseller and boom, off King went. The movie Carrie came out in 1976. In fact, the book was made into a movie because of its success.

The same is true of all the books on his list–first they were bestsellers, than they were made into movies. It takes a long time to make a movie from a book, years usually. But the weakest link in his argument is claiming J.K. Rowling became a household name because movies were made from her books. The hundreds of millions of Harry Potter fans and anyone in bookselling at the time of her first four books are all yelling, “Muggle!”

The first Harry Potter book came out in the states in 1998, the second a year later, the third a year after that. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban spent weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. By the time of the explosive debut of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling was already far and away a household name not to mention a publishing phenomenom. I can tell you firsthand as I was a manager at the Tattered Cover Book Store on July 8, 2000. The midnight sale of HP4 was a first. Several thousand people showed up at midnight with their kids to buy the book the minute it went on sale. It was the largest bookselling event ever that didn’t include the author. HP4 sold three million copies in the states that first weekend alone.

Harry Potter the movie? The first one debuted in November of 2001, a full one year and four months after the single most successful booksale in the history of ever. Other than an interview on NPR that sparked some interest in the first book among parents looking for something to buy their kids, mass media had almost nothing to do with the success of Jo Rowling and her little wizard boy who could. It was almost entirely … wait for it … word of mouth. (More on that later.)

The other numbers that would be useful here: How many people already had the book before the movies ever came out? I can tell you as a huge Harry Potter fan, most of us. And Red Pen of Doom guy doesn’t examine how much of an uptick there is in sales of any of the books he mentioned before or after the movies came out.

Here’s his maths on movie trailers and mass media:

Let’s lowball it, saying only 200 million people get exposed to the trailers, reviews and hype for a movie. That’s a huge understatement, since movies make most of their money overseas now, and publicity campaigns are global today, aimed at billions.
Either way, I’m going with 200 million out of a sense of fairness, justice and equality or whatever.
(200,000,000 people) x (50 % see it) x (1 % pay attention) x (5 % buy it) = 50,000 sales.
That’s a bestseller right there, boys and girls.

All I can say about these claims: The generalization kills the points made. Movie marketing varies incredibly depending on the type of movie, the audience for that movie, the studio, the budget, etc. Yes, the Harry Potter movies were quite successful, but to suggest that was because of their marketing campaigns is once again to completely miss how successful the books were well before there was a marketing campaign. The books sold the movies, not the other way around. The British literary sensation One Day was made into a movie, but how many people saw the trailer or the advertising? And of the few people who saw the film, myself included, how many rushed out and bought the book afterward? Not me. Once you know how it ends, there’s no point.

(You know who would love it if those numbers were true? Movie studios. 2oo,ooo,ooo people see the marketing campaign, 100,000,000 people go see the movie. Every movie would make 750,000,000 dollars. Not counting comic book superheroes and Harry Potter, what movie made from a book has made anything like that in the last year? Two years?)

Most people saw this online before seeing a movie poster or ad.

And all the examples he uses came out well before there was a twitter or a facebook. Where are most people going to see movie trailers? Online. Nobody watches TV live anymore; I fast-forward through all advertising using my handy DVR remote. If I want to see a movie trailer, I just go to Rotten Tomatoes or more often, follow a link from a Facebooker. Most people from the netgen will never notice a movie ad on a wall or on a bus–they’ll be watching the trailer on their iPhone and they’ll probably have heard of the movie/book/event itself first from a social network, Facebook, or increasingly, twitter.

And here’s my nutshelling: Red Pen of Doom guy says you should not call them social media, but only social networks because they’re great for chatting but not for selling. I’m going on the record to say; what’s the difference? Word of mouth has always been the best business tool. Don Draper would be the first to tell you that. Ad men and women can spend millions, and they do, designing the best art and tag lines to try to get you to buy their stuff. But if your friends tell you to buy it, that’s what’s going to cinch it. And these days your friends are on twitter, especially if you’re under 35. And what the young do is all that matters, a truth advertisers have long known and that’s why they cancel beloved TV shows that only old people are watching.

The “mass media” and “old media” that Red Pen guy describes are rapidly disappearing or morphing into something so different as to be unrecognizable to our grandparents. The number one TV shows are topping out at 20 million viewers, with 12 million being a respectable number. In the olden days? Those numbers would have got you nice and cancelled. And how many people are actually watching the ads? Physical newspapers and magazines are folding all over the place like chain bookstores and telephone booths; there will come a time when kids will ask their parents what those things were like.

Though it’s unclear whether the news of Bin Laden’s death was broken by twitter, trumping CNN and Facebook, it’s clear microblogging sites like twitter are now major players in the spreading of information. To suggest that such a tool is only useful for hanging with your homies is to underestimate the power of a simple 140 character message. The messages were powerful enough during the Arab Spring and other protests in the Middle East that repressive governments in Iran and Egypt blocked the twitter signal.

You can't stop the signal, Mal.

Certainly anyone wanting to spread the word about their writing without huge budgets to spend on advertising should at least explore the potential power of the twitter. It’s simply impossible to predict its influence in a few months time, or one year, or ten. And anything that regularly sends 8,000 messages a second when something is happening around the world is a media to be reckoned with.

This entry was posted in Commentary, E-Publishing, Fiction, Marketing, Movies, New Media, Self-Promotion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Twitter and Selling Books: My Response to the Red Pen of Doom Guy

  1. j.a. kazimer says:

    I’m with you on this. Even if he’s a tiny bit right and books aren’t being sold by my tweets, it doesn’t hurt my career to use social media. In fact, I met some great people over the Internets, Chris Devlin being one of them!


  2. Chris Devlin says:

    Hey, me too, Julie Kazimer!

    Yeah, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about social media and doing social media and the ROI (return on investment.) And I don’t think I’m starry-eyed or pie-in-the-sky about it. For one thing, I try to find enjoyment along the way–I like reading tweets from Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman and I like reading blogs from some of the people I’ve met via the RMFW loop. I get lots of cool links and updates from my Facebook peoples. I guess you have to decide your own definition of what a return on investment means. I haven’t tried to sell books yet via social media so I can’t talk numbers. But I do get a return on the (admittedly) huge amount of time I spent flitting about on social media.

    And as is commonly pointed out, when you’re considering self-publishing or when you’re published at all these days, how many other options are there for getting your name out there?


  3. The single greatest thing I did was recently, which was to put a story in a free anthology with links and the sole purpose to introduce its authors to readers. Last I heard we had 800 downloads off Smashwords alone, in FORTY-EIGHT HOURS. That’s one site and it’s on 4 or 5 I believe. It is for cost on the pay sites like Amazon and BN but we jacked it up to 5 bucks and we’re donating proceeds to “It Gets Better.”

    I’m going to start running short stories that way. I have a pretty big backlist of short stories to do that with. 99c on Kindle and free on the other sites prior to the release of ARCHIVE OF FIRE. Thing is, I gots to learn how to format and such. Sigh.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Wow, Betsy, what a great idea. I like that you started off with the intention to introduce new writers and not with the idea of “how can I make lots of money?” Not that there’s anything wrong with making lots of money, mind you. But you gave first, and that seems to be a big piece of the social networking puzzle. (Great cause to donate the proceeds to.)

      Yeah, the formatting stuff on self-publishing? I’m going to have to hire someone. I’m just SO hopeless with that kind of thing. But if you can work it out yourself for short stories, more power to you. Sounds like a solid plan.

      Thanks for stopping by! Good to see you.


  4. Oh, and I came to say hi via FB. 🙂 There’s some social networking for yous.


  5. I think to discount ANYTHING in this arena of selling and promotion is a mistake. Arguments can be made either way (believe me, people can make numbers prove whatever they want), but I still maintain that EVERYTHING we do has an impact. Everything. Maybe not immediately, but eventually it all makes inroads in introducing our words and ideas to others. Word. Of. Mouth. However we now define it, through whatever technology, this seems to be THE BEST method of promotion.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Hi, Frank, thanks for commenting.

      And yeah, I agree. I think there’s just too much that’s unknown about how social media will shake out to be certain about anything. The Red Pen of Doom guy (Guy Bergstrom, I learned) is very knowledgeable about a lot of things.
      But no one who is not a time traveler can be this certain about selling books on twitter.


  6. Terry Wright says:

    Yea! to everyone commenting here. It’s social networking that brings us all together like this, proof that it works. As most of you know, I publish short stories and novels on Kindle and such, for myself and other authors. We offer giveaways from time to time. Sales haven’t increased, just free downloads. Still, I get out the word about what’s going on at TWB via facebook and twitter because that’s the connection I have with everyone, a connection that wasn’t available to Stephen King back then.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      So true–I can’t imagine what it was like to self-publish books back in the olden days, when all you had was hoping the local press would accept your press releases and then schlepping your expensive self-pubbed books from bookstore to bookstore. Your friends and family would ideally help you spread the word, but other than that?

      Nobody knows where all the chatter of social media will lead, so I say, enjoy the ride! And you never know who you might meet.

      Terry, as soon as I get a job I’m going to start buying other people’s books and leaving reviews. Good luck with your publishing venture.


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