The Print Dilemma

I was on a TV interview last week, promoting my recent book, and was asked whether print is dead? How could I answer this but with a resounding “NO!” me, a writer who churns out reams of print matter all the time? How dare the interviewer ask me this question when I was on the show promoting…well…print!

Coming out of the interview however, I got to thinking about this question more deeply. If he had asked me whether “print for money” was dead, I may have been inclined to say that “the patient was in the emergency room.” When you consider that writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Salinger were paid in the $’000s per story during the glory days of magazine publishing in the ’30’s and ’40’s, and that now those payouts are down in the $’00’s or less, inflation seems to have worked in reverse here. But if he had asked me whether more people are reading like never before, and therefore whether print is a more integral part of people’s lives today, I’d have said, “Yes, the patient has left the hospital in fine fettle, is fiddling with Twitter and Facebook, is surfing the web, and reading her e•book – channels filled with print, channels that previous generations never had.”

If he’d asked me whether the payment model for print has changed, I would have said “Yes” again, and if those who are reluctant to accept the new model, whether due to pride or principle, are the ones who will be left behind from making their efforts pay, I’d have said a capital “YES!” And yet this change is the most difficult one to make, and has become a moral dilemma for conscientious writers.  I recently visited a site on which my blogs are syndicated; certain keywords had been hyperlinked – this was not of my doing. When I placed my cursor on these words, advertisements that synchronized with the hyperlinked words popped up. Someone was making money off my content, no longer with mere banner ads on the periphery of the frame but with commercials embedded inside my content! I went a step further and placed my cursor over some hyperlinked text in one of my syndicated articles and it took me to a site for casual adult encounters. I was shocked and deflated. So, is this the way to be paid for one’s content these days? And in this case I wasn’t even being paid, I was being used. Needless to say, if they do not delete those hyperlinks, I will be deleting myself from that site, platform building notwithstanding.

I have never let commercials dictate my content. I am also not a fan of “advertorial” which seems to be commanding larger and larger chunks of the daily newspapers these days. But if advertizing is the only paymaster left, because readers have been conditioned to get their print for free, then content creators (writers) need some radical re•adjustments to their moral compasses, for sometimes the content and their hyperlinked ads are incongruent, and writers have no control here.

Now, if the next TV interviewer asks me, “Would you let your content be commercialized on your own website so that you can move it from an altruistic content portal to a source of paying your bills?” my answer will be a resounding “NO” —I will remain “commercial free.”  My content will be my sole message.

Social Marketing = Viral Book Sales? Think again!

As my follower count in the social media universe rises by the ‘000’s, I am wondering what that does in terms of expanding the number of buyers for the products I have on tap – i.e. my books. There is no exact 1:1 correlation of followers to buyers. There is not even a 100:1 correlation. And if I am the only one facing this issue, then I must have a problem with my marketing message, or my books suck, or else others in my situation are keeping mum.
Here are some of my observations on book marketing in the social media universe (and I would welcome any thoughts to the contrary):

1) We have generated too much “noise” in the FB and Twitter universes. People are Twittered•out, or Facebook•whacked. The more followers you have, the more perishable your messages. If you don’t get a “like” or “re•tweet” within two minutes of your post, that post is history. Even keeping personal favourite lists ends up in clutter after awhile.
2) Expansion and Targeting is difficult. FB polices a closed loop network that says, “Thou shalt not annoy people by befriending everyone under the sun (including suggestions for friends that we send you).” How does one expand one’s universe without landing in FB jail? On the other hand, Twitter has no such limits but has a barrage of consultants who advocate that they can get you thousands of followers without you having to send out a single tweet. How targeted is that!
3) There is a widening gap between the known and the unknown. Buyers, overwhelmed by choice, veer towards the tried and true – hence bestseller become blockbusters and everyone else falls into the remaindered pile.
4) We have created millions of newspapers and journalists online who often regurgitate the same information multiple times over with minor alterations. They all compete for our eyeballs along with books. I have a hard time keeping up with “curated content” that is posted online by various newbie journalists – all interesting content, no doubt, but all leaving me with the sneaking suspicion that I have read this somewhere else before.

The power of the online sales message is felt only when endorsers (and the more powerful the endorser the better) tell others that they should absolutely drop everything they are doing and buy this book – NOW! They call it “going viral.” Sales do not happen when the poor writer himself keeps bleating his repeating groove, overtly or covertly: “Buy my book,” or “Please buy my book” or “Dammit, why aren’t you buying my book. Do you want it free?”

I am therefore not surprised that FB’s IPO bombed. It took me back to those heady days of the dot•com bubble when we invested in weak businesses with lousy value propositions just because it was the cool thing to do. The winner in this game will be the one who figures out how to turn “share of eyeballs” into “share of purchases.” I don’t think that nut has been cracked yet. Or perhaps there are only certain categories of products that lend themselves to social media•led purchasing, and books, unless they go viral through endorsement, are not one of them.

In summary, the best sales channels open to writers are still the tried and true ones: bookstores (online and traditional), good distribution, strong endorsers, favourable reviews, and opportunities where a writer engages with a reader (book launches, readings, literary festivals and other live events).Oh, yes – and you must have a good book that catches the zeitgeist!

The more things change, the more they also stay the same it appears.

Monetizing Content in the Hippie Era of Writing

How does one make money at writing today? That question seems to be the “pre•occupation de jour” of most commercial writers and journalists. The cyber airwaves are chock full of content: blogs, wikis, e•mail, self•published books, e•zines. How does a writer insist that he gets paid for his work when there are equally good, or sometimes better, content being written by people who possess a deep understanding of their subject matter and an altruistic desire for sharing their writing, and who earn a better living through other means than they can or ever will as writers?

Encyclopaedias were money makers once, but their time ran out; software makers made money too, but they spawned the open source movement and jumped into services instead. Pagers were absorbed into cell phones, typewriters into personal computers, music CDs into MP3’s, videos into You Tube, broadcast radio into blog•talk radio, cable television into web•TV, long• distance phone plans into Skype, and now tree•books into e•books. Many successful products that once exchanged value for monetary benefit are now offered free or have been subsumed into other inventions. And content—a writer’ primary product, plucked out of a fertile imagination not given to many, and delivered in beautiful language—is now also… free?

I think of the hippie era when we played in musical bands purely for the love of expression, not for money but in protest against an out•of•touch establishment and all things resembling corporate greed. But that did not last either, did it? After the hangovers and love•ins wore out, we took haircuts, shaved our beards, bathed, bought new clothes, and joined the very guys we had protested against, to unleash some of the greatest economic growth cycles in history, creating unparalleled inventions, and unleashing unbridled greed that resulted in the meltdowns of Black Monday, the dot•com bubble, and the Crash of 2008.

And now, as if in atonement for our past excesses, we are going back to our hippie days of free drugs, free love and free expression, and giving everything away for free again, including our artistic creation—our writing. Even Big Business is calling this the Age of Creativity and seeking to monetize it. But the creative ones don’t seem to care; self actualization is triumphing over the baser needs of the ego and the pocketbook.

I support those trying to make a living at this very difficult art at this particular time in history. It is indeed a desired end: to do the things you love and to also earn one’s livelihood from it. But it seems like these bold souls are swimming against a tide that has, at least for the next few years, turned against them.