Monday, January 07, 2008

Who Knows You?

Successful diseases are spread by the infected rather than soley by the carrier. A carrier can only do so much. But if one person can make ten people sick, and those ten can each infect ten others, and so on, you have a a pretty successful disease.

Of course, people can become immune to disease. To survive, the disease must have the ability to mutate, spreading itself in a slightly different form.

Take the common cold. Chances are, we've all had a cold before. Probably several. They're all related to one another, but different enough that our antibodies can only fend of specific viruses. We get infected again and again.

It's no coincidence that viral marketing works in the same way.

We all want to be successful diseases, and infect others. Our pathogen is our writing. Our means of transmission include the Internet, bookstores, libraries, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and most importantly, other people.

But are the things we're doing actually doing anything at all?

Writing is a tough business for many reasons. Judging a writer's success proves tricky.

Is success about how much money the writer makes? How many copies of his work are in print? How many pieces of paper his name is on? Or is it more subjective, like how many awards he's won, or how the critics have embraced him?

For the sake of this article, I'll concentrate on a specific form of success, and the ways it can be verified.

Success = Name recognition.

Ultimately, your work sells your work. Or, more specifically, whether someone likes your writing or not plays a large part in if they'll ever read you again.

But for them to read you for the very first time depends on them discovering you.

It may be in a bookstore, browsing. As writers, we have little influence over this, unless we visit as many bookstores as we can and sign stock, and make sure our publishers get us on the shelves (easier said than done.)

But I believe that savvy writers put a lot of their marketing efforts into spreading awareness of their name and brand.

In short, I can't make someone buy one of my books, but I can make people aware that they exist.

Generally, the more people aware of a writer, the more successful he is. A percentage of people who know about you will seek you out, buy your books, and tell others about you, perpetuating the cycle.

To be a successful writer requires fame.

Looking at writers who have become successful, and comparing them to viral successes on the internet, I've found many comparisons.

A successful book is a lot like a successful YouTube video, or meme, or chain letter email. To reach a lot of people, the same things have to happen.

1. It Must Have Appeal. This is where your craft and talent come in. There has to be something about the work that interests as wide an audience as possible.

2. It Must Have A Distribution Network. The work must be available. The more readily available it is, and the easier it is to get, the more people it can reach.

3. It Must Be Talked About. The internet makes it very easy to share information, on two main levels. The first is through direct communication such as email, chat, message boards, and usenet, which allow us to share things with our friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. The second is by being an authority, where people come to your website or blog and seek the information you're offering.

Both facilitate viral activity.

Real life counterparts to the net are water cooler conversations, telephone calls, and the media.

Becoming famous means being shared, and sharing occurs wherever communication does.

4. It Must Change. While there is an ever-increasing audience for fame, as more people are born every day (which theoretically means you can write one book that will continue to sell forever), a more reasonable approach is to re-infect the same people who have already been infected. That means offering them something new. This keeps the person, or the brand, famous.

In a perfect world, this four part cycle feeds on itself, growing and expanding as more people get in on it. People discover something (a book, a video, an email) and pass that information to others.

If enough people become aware of that information, fame happens.

If fame is big enough, money usually follows.

Now, we all have some fame. We're famous to people who know of us. Becoming more famous means getting more people to know of us.

In some cases, this happens ass-backwards. If a corporation has a lot of money, they can spend that money to make people aware that things exist. A writer can become famous if given enough of a push by his publisher.

But most publishers don't do this with most writers, and there are a lot of famous people who became that way for reasons other than a gigantic ad or media campaign.

There are YouTube videos that have been seen tens of millions of times, and emails that have circulated since 1994 and are still going strong. No advertising or big corporation necessary.

Anyone and anything can become famous. Which begs the question: What are you doing to help spread your fame?

1. Write Something Good. Sure, this is obvious, but it's also the most subjective. What appeals to one person may not appeal to another. Your goals should be to please your intended audience. The bigger the intended audience, the likelier the potential for fame.

2. Make It Available. Once you've written something good, you have to get it to people. The free and easy way is the internet. But we make our living in print, which means submitting to editors. If editors don't want it, perhaps it isn't good enough. Keep writing, keep improving, keep submitting.

3. Get People To Talk About It. This is what causes fame. It's also very hard to do, and even harder to judge the effectiveness of your efforts. In a complex system, cause and effect aren't easily distinguished.

But there are ways you can push the issue, and to check how well you're doing. On the net:
  • Google Yourself. Put quotes around your name and see how many people mention you on the web.
  • Technorati.com. How many people are aware of your blog?
  • Statcounter.com. Who is seeking you out?
  • Marketleap.com. Who is linking to you?
  • Email. Who is reaching out to you?

The higher the numbers, the more famous you are. If your numbers are low, figure out why. Is it because no one wants what you're offering? Or because no one is aware of what you're offering? How can you fix either situation?

In real life, the ways to check your progress are:

  • Media appearances. Are you on the radio and television?
  • Public speaking. Who asks you to speak, and who shows up?
  • Book signings. How many people come to see you?
  • Events. At book fairs, conferences, conventions, what kind of crowd do you draw?

Elsewhere in this blog, I lecture at length about ways to improve your writing and your name-recognition, so I won't repeat them here. This article isn't about how to become famous. It's about the importance of fame and how to monitor it.

Every time you sell a story, speak in public, or post a blog, you have the potential to reach new fans and spread your fame. They may seek you out again, if your story/speech/blog is good enough.

But it will take a very long time to become famous if you're recruiting fans one at a time.

If your story is so good that it gets passed around, if your speech is so terrific that it sells fifty books to people who hadn't heard of you previously, and if your blog is so relevant that people reference it in other blogs, then you have a much better shot at fame.

So ask yourself these three questions.

1. Who knows you?

2. How can you get people to know you?

3. How can you make these people spread the word about you?

It all begins by looking inward and analyzing what you're doing.

26 comments:

D. Robert Pease said...

How much of this can be done before you are published do you think? I am nearing the completion of my first novel, and a few months ago decided that I would start trying to promote myself before I actually found an agent/publisher. I started a blog, I try to update it regularly with interesting content, but it is a slow process to get people to even know your blog exists. What other avenues can someone do before they are ready to start the actual promotion of a specific book? Or is it too early?

Anonymous said...

Blasting a name everywhere isn't the end of the story. There must be substance and the person behind the name must be a quality person. Otherwise, it's form over substance, which will always fail in the end.

For example, I see some authors posting a new blog about each and every little thing: I GOT A GOOD BOOK REVIEW! I'M GOING TO DO A BOOK SIGNING! I GOT 38 ACCEPTANCES THIS YEAR! I look at that stuff and think, "What a jerk." The person got my attention all right. But the decision I made, based on the message the person sent, was a negative one.

So, blast away but have a message and be a quality person, not just a mindless blaster.

JA Konrath said...

Robert--

It's never too early to begin spreading name-recognition. But heed what Anon said.

Shouting "ME ME ME!" will only annoy.

It's about what you have to offer. If all you're offering is praise for yourself, you won't become viral.

I know a few writers like this. They post every tiny bit of good news, and scour the net for people talking about them so they can chime in.

Never agree with someone who thinks you're cool. Thank them, but reinforce their observation by being cool, not by calling more attention to yourself.

Singing your own praises isn't cool.

If you're offering good information and entertainment, then the next step is helping people discover you. You do this through trading links, giving out freebies, offering your expertise, networking, appearances, and many other ways.

If all you're offering is a stage for people to applaud you, you aren't going to help your cause.

D. Robert Pease said...

Thanks for the insight, and I couldn't agree more. When I started the blog, I decided I did not want to post anything that couldn't help others with their own writing. It is not a "hey look at me!" blog (I hope). Thanks for the great stuff you post here. It has been quite helpful.

Anonymous said...

Here's an actual post from today, a good example:

"I finished the copy edits on [UPCOMING BOOK]!!! That doesn't come out until July... so get [MY OTHER BOOK]instead."

Yeah, right, I'm going to rush out and get it.

booklady said...

That was fascinating. I've thought a number of these points before, but not in so cohesive a fashion. Thanks for sharing.

steve in maine said...

A good way to gain name recognition is to kill someone. Sam Shepard did this by way of proxy - born Samuel Shepard Rogers, one of the reasons he changed his name was because of a doctor named Sam Sheppard who killed his pregnant wife in 1954 - it created a sensational trial the likes of OJ and gave "Sam Shepard" instant name recognition. In fact, I was in a bookstore in NH once and from down the aisle heard a woman say, "Sam Shepard - isn't he the doctor who killed his wife?" Whether he was or not, she had his book in her hands.

steve in maine said...

About brand name recognition, there's this from Sci-Fi Weekly, with Tasha Robinson interviewing George R.R. Martin.

Why do you use the "R.R." in your byline?

Martin: A writer's name is his trademark. It's the thing the reader has to remember to seek out your work again, and it has to be memorable. George Martin is a very common name; there are a number of other George Martins who write, there are a number of George Martins in other fields. The "R.R." makes it distinctive, and people seldom forget it.


The same could be said for Thomas John Boyle, who became T. Coraghessan Boyle, and possibly this very cool writer I heard of called J.A. Konrath.

There's also Samuel Clemens, who went with Mark Twain - both a riverboat depth and a saloon tab.

Polenth said...

I like it when authors tell me they're getting published in their blogs. Not in the sort of way where they're posting daily about it, but an announcement when a new book or story is out is useful. Possibly I'm alone in this?

JA Konrath said...

Writers should celebrate occasionally.

Celebrating eighteen times a day, in every forum on the net, is cringe-worthy.

The line between informing and bragging isn't a thin one. Just about everyone can spot it---with the notable exception of the one bragging.

Robert said...

Interesting take and comments. I think self promotion is very cool. Name recognition is exactly what its about. You can become famous, be the subject of conversation and lore, but the time span from the time we live our infamous moments (or products) to the time to wide distribution can be from seconds to eons.

Robert G.
Become Famous

Karmela said...

Off-topic but...don't forget to check with your friend about the 4 boxes of books I have ready to ship to him.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

About bragging:
Remember Barry Sanders, RB of the Detroit Lions? I believe it was his father who advised him that when he scored his first NFL touchdown, instead of doing a end zone dance, he should act like he'd been there before.

Good advice.

Janet said...

Good stuff, JA. I like the concept of real value, which could be applied to a lot of different fields.

I.N. Box said...

People see my name gazillions of times each day, and I don't have to do anything. :)

Stacey Cochran said...

There should be a class on helping others. It's amazing to me how easy it is to make friends simply by helping other people.

I rarely ever do anything anymore, writing/speaking/TV-wise, unless I'm putting someone else in the spotlight and selling their books.

It's much easier to brag about someone else without looking like an asshole, than it is to brag about yourself.

Robert Burton Robinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Burton Robinson said...

I thought about writing a blog. But there are already enough novelists blogging about the process of writing, getting an agent and getting a book deal. You're one of the best, Joe. Thanks for all the valuable information you give.

The only real thing of value I have to offer readers is my novels. I've been posting them on my site for 1.5 years, and now have three complete mystery books and one serial novel posted for free reading.

I figure it's my only way of building 'fame.' Currently, my site is at 30,000 page views per month and growing. Most people like the books and keep coming back for more. And some people are buying the paperbacks.

I guess the big challenge is getting people to take you seriously as an author. Not that I'm trying to write The Great American Novel. I just want to entertain.

One of these days I might make a serious attempt at finding an agent. Or just keep self-publishing. Either way, you are exactly correct, Joe. You've got to have a certain level of fame before you can sell a lot of books.

Robert Burton Robinson

Conda said...

There's always gold in your posts, Joe. The best for me: "It all begins by looking inward and analyzing what you're doing." Or as my s.o. puts it, you gotta try different things and then be honest about the results. And ask, did I make my best efforts here?

I also agree with Stacey, I've done a lot of promotion for others, much easier. I can write a fabulous resume, for somebody else. And helping others is a great way to get known.

Josephine Damian said...

JA, my writing group buddies think I'm nuts to blog or have a myspace.

I call it the "Paris Hilton" effect: creating the illusion of fame and success. We live in a celebrity driven culture to the point where becoming famous is even a prime motive for becoming a murderer. It's a sad fact of life, but celebrity matters.

So many writers I know who have first books coming out are scrambling to get some name recognition.

While I'm working on my WIP, I'm already working on name recognition for myself - I don't think you can start too soon.

michael said...

The bit that always bothers me is how do you establish a nucleus of fans, rather than just lots of isolated hits, who like you but then forget? A group, who have all read you, and discussed, seem to me much more likely to spread the word...

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

A great deal of fame revolves around confidence.

Writers have often been blind-sided by the fact that we really do have to put ourselves out there. Famous writers aren't the ones who live a hermit life in a tranquil mountain cabin pounding pages on their old typewriter.

The ones who make it get out amongst the people, they write for the people, and they have the self confidence to believe that what they say and write deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

mike said...

To every author, their own book is one of the most important things in their lives. I guess it's important to remind ourselves that, to a reader, it may be good, they may really enjoy it, but that doesn't mean they are going to do anything to spread the word for us. To them, a good book is just one of many, many good things in their lives and, unless they have a real personal reason, they are just not going to further it. (Even giving my own book to close friends, who are then genuinely complimentary about it, it's real hard to get them to do something very simple to help it along, like giving me a quote, or telling their friends.)
To give the example in terms of something other than a book; if you were to find a new line of unusual, tasteful greeting cards, what would you do? You might buy one, but would you actually tell other people?
...no, neither would I.
And that seems to me to be the difficulty, this huge gap between someone knowing that something is good, and them taking any step, however small, to help that thing along. Even if they only, on average, told one other person, at least it would continue. But if they, on average tell 1.001 people, then the word spreads.
And if they tell two people...

Stacey Cochran said...

Have you seen my website howtopublishabook.org?

It's composed mostly of video blog interviews with authors.

Jen Bluekissed said...

I found this posting very useful. I like how you put several resources together. Previously, I didn't know that a few of these sites even existed. You give practical advice!

www.jenbluekissed.blogspot.com

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