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.
  • How many people are aware of your blog?
  • Who is seeking you out?
  • 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.