Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Running Around In Circles

Lately I've been thinking about social circles. Here in the blog-o-sphere, for example, I know a lot of genre writers, a lot of people interested in getting an agent and publishing traditionally, a lot of people who are willing (if not happy) to deal with the business side of writing.

But, among other circles, I'm surrounded by people who eschew plot, people who are more than happy to find a small press to sell a few hundred copies of their work, people who are perfectly satisfied to self-publish because they fear they may not live long enough to find an agent to represent them.

I'm straddling at least three different writing circles, each with its own ideals and standards.

The funny thing is that I can't distinguish these groups based on talent. In all of them, I have met writers that I consider to be extremely talented. This only helps me to see that a lot of the goals we strive for can sometimes be the result of the people who are around us. They can be arbitrary.

The other thing about these social circles is that they represent groups of people that are often largely distinct from one another. Though I feel like I belong to them all, I can still see that they tend to stay separate, so that the people I know through blogging don't know the people I know through my other online community, or through my in-person writer's group. And, I wonder how far these slightly overlapping circles can reach, if eventually they do interact enough to represent a bigger writing whole, or if the connections are so tentative that groups will forever remain distinct.

This blog, for example, has a pretty fixed set of readers. Do each of these readers have other circles that they are familiar with that I'm not familiar with at all? And, if we traced through these circles, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon sort of way, would we eventually be able to reach ALL writers and readers, even those rare and precious outsiders?

I once sat down and tried to come up with a list of people I knew for sure would buy my book if I were to publish it traditionally. My number was 63. Then, I counted the people who would PROBABLY buy my book, which gave me an additional 36 people. With a grand total of 99, relying strictly on friends and family wouldn't result in very impressive sales figures.

But then, I wonder, assuming the book's reputation was worthy of spreading through word-of-mouth, if those 99 people could reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. What are the limits of our social networks to spread our art? What would it take (i.e. how good would a book have to be) before a person would start to recommend a book to others?

If I can get 99 people to buy my book based solely on who I know, my guess would be that each one of us has the potential to reach a vast number of readers if only we can inspire our networks to spread the word about what we do. And, the nice thing about that system is that the quality of the book (at least in the eyes of those readers) will probably determine how well the book can sell.

This sort of thinking often makes me feel like it doesn't matter how I get my book out there. If it is good enough, if it can stir up the masses, it's probably enough to have 10 friends who are willing to give you that first bit of blind support.

What do you think about social circles? Are our current social circles capable of making big things happen, or would we have to start with an initial group that is much bigger than, say, 99 to make a difference?

And, I'm curious, how many friends and family members do you all think would buy your book just because they're supportive? And, what would it take for that first group to spread the word? What would it take before YOU spread the word about a book you liked?

Sorry, a lot of questions for you all today. Answer any or all of them.


  1. I bet there are more than 99. Seriously.

    I am not a quiet person about books I like. I'm the one forcing the actual copy of the book on people, buying multiple copies and sending them to people, etc. You know, the annoying one.

    So let's get that book out there, Davin, so I can start bothering people. ;)

    Your question has me thinking about my own 99. I am fairly networked into a particular religious/cultural community and used to be the president of a non-profit women's rights group within that community. Plus my husband's family is huge and they are preternaturally social. So if I wrote the "right" book, I think I would have a ready made market in that regard, in addition to my own friends and family. And "right" would include strong women characters. But would it include, say the gay character that is in my current WIP? Or, in the short story you read, would it include Yasmeen's out of wedlock miscarriage?

    I don't know. I try to make an effort not to care, so it doesn't affect what I write, but that's another subject altogether!

    And that's the thing--I don't write FOR the community that would be the easy sell. Often I write about that community, and the contexts in which people of different faiths/communities meet each other/are forced to grapple with one another. To the extent that there is a theme in something I write, I probably feel equally strongly that it should be considered by people both within and without the community to which I belong.

    But does it expand or shrink my 99? I hope one day to find out. :)

  2. In considering potential buyers when publishing traditionally, don't forget the friends and contacts of your agent and editor, who will also advocate your book. At least they should...

    However, in the vacuum of self-publishing, you are limited to your own marketing (which includes word-of-mouth advertising).

    Personally, my pursuit is traditional publishing, and hopefully a deal with a decent marketing push from the publisher. Marketing is the precursor to sales. If sales are the harvest, marketing is the sowing of the seeds (and watering, weeding, etc.).

  3. If I published my book tomorrow, I can think of more than 150 people who would instantly buy it simply because they knew me. Could I list them all? Of course not, because many of them I know through my in-laws and couldn't remember their names if my life depended on it.

    Let's use a co-worker from my part-time job as an example. John (not his real name) is an avid reader and a fellow unpubbed novelist whom I have spoken to at length about my work. Assume he purchases my novel, reads it, and likes it. He buys a copy for his girlfriend Lisa (not her real name), and she likes it.

    The two of them combined know 10 other people who would enjoy the book. Those 10 people enjoy it, and tell 10 more people each. Now you're up to 100 buys. Assuming of course that each person buys their own copy.

    Those 100 tell 10 more people. That's 1000 sales. Then 10,000. Then 100,000. While this process may happen over the course of years, there's a possibility that my one sale to John could snowball into sales to thousands.

    Since I have 150+ on my list of people who'd buy it to be supportive ... let me do some quick math ... that could translate into 1500 immediate sales if they each told 10 people. Crazy huh?

  4. Yes, Davin, never ever underestimate the power of the domino effect - one tell two, two tell four, four tell eight, eight tell sixteen...or maybe each person tells more than two people and they all buy the book, or they borrow the book and love it so much that they buy a copy for themselves and their mom, or it's Christmas and they loved it so much they buy five copies, and those five people buy more copies for their family, and on and on until you're at some impressive numbers. I do think, though, that it depends on the type of book and how well it appeals to a wide audience.

    Those reviews people are always doing on their blogs - they have a small impact, and I'm never sure how significant. They must generate a few sales, at least. Is there any way to know? Marketing must happen on a wide-scale, I think. Radio, word of mouth, posters, bookstore signings, the internet, tv, movies, and on and on. Combine it all on a huge scale and you've got something like Twilight. But we're not all looking for a Twilight sale, I don't think. I'm not. I don't want that kind of pressure. Maybe you do, I'm not sure.

    Anyway, I'm totally rambling this morning on the few comments I've made on blogs.

    I'm not sure where my social circles intersect and begin and end. I know that if I met the people in your circles I'd probably build friendships with them. I know I have circles you're not involved in but I'd like you to be. I know Scott has circles we're not involved in. But, if we were to publish, like Scott will do soon, we would recommend our books to everyone in all our circles. At lest I hope we would. :)

    I'd like to think I have more than 99 but I'll have to make a list and see. I hope you marked me as one of the for-sure sales. :D

  5. I suppose that's why I started my blog in the first place: I wanted to reach out to the reading/writing community in advance of writing a novel. That circle and the Twitter community are much larger than any local group I know. Two writers' groups in RL, a number of interested family members... who knows how many would buy my book.

    The hope is that I can my books into the hands of people who'll read them and spread the word--book reviewing bloggers, net-connected folk in general.

    However, the first round of sales, right now? I'd guess 50 people or so. A lot could change in the 2 years (minimum) before I could possibly publish anything, though.

  6. Jennifer, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that there is that element of writing "the right book" that the people around us would be willing to support. Artistic sincerity aside, I'm sure friends and family would object to certain subject matter. Good point, and an interesting consideration. Before I actually made my list of 99, I would have guessed that I'd be able to reach 200-300 people. It was interesting to me to see the actual number I could come up with. And, it is a conservative number, at least in my opinion.

    Rick, You're already plugged into the traditional publishing system, aren't you? I believe one of your books already has representation, right? It's a good point about marketing. I ignored that in this post because I was more curious about the social networks. That's probably also a result of my literary genre, which seems to get less publicity--if you're a midlist writer, for example.

    Matthew, of course your model is possible, but I wonder how real that actually is. It takes a rather special book before I would spread the word on it. Out of the last dozen books I've read, I don't think there was a single one that I was disappointed with. At the same time, I'm only recommending about three of them to other people, and of all the dozens of people I've told, I only know of ONE person who has bought anything based on my recommendation. Out of my 99, I think it's more reasonable that 10% of them would try to spread the word on a book. And, out of those 10%, what if even fewer are successful at getting someone else to buy the book? Both of our sides are hypothetical, and the real answer depends on the book and many other circumstances, of course.

  7. Also, Davin, this brings me back to a post you wrote a bit ago about giving the right books to the right people. Although people in my circles might actually buy my book, they might not actually read it or ever recommend it to anyone because they just bought it because they know me. I guess that's where I stop and wonder how much I'd really sell just by people I know. Probably not a huge amount. Rick has a good point about agents and marketing with a traditional publisher. If sheer numbers are your goal, that's the way to go. If, like some of your circles, just getting a few hundred copies out there makes you happy, then self-publishing might be just fine.

    I know both of us have struggled figuring out what we want. One day we might now. One day. :)

  8. Michelle, I like the idea of the domino effect a lot, I just wonder how often it comes into play. This is based solely on my own experience, but very rarely do any of my friends buy books I recommend. I've mentioned before that I don't have many reader friends, though, so my experience may be a side effect of that. Thanks a lot for your support, though! I have a feeling many of us here would be huge advocates of each other's writing.

    Simon, that was partially why I started Literary Lab in the first place as well. It wasn't so much as a networking tool, but more as an experiment in networking. I was curious how many "new" people I could find through blogging. I didn't tell any of my friends that I had it for several months, and it was interesting to see that some of them discovered it. Mostly, it was new people, though. But, even with that, I wonder how many people are "lightly" supportive versus "very" supportive. Not every reader of this blog would buy my book, for example. That's completely okay and understandable. And, not every reader would mention my book to anyone else. The actual numbers are impossible to know, but it's interesting to me.

  9. I agree that it has to be a very special book to make a word of mouth splash. And that seems to be a right place in the right time kind of thing. And a willingness to keep learning how to do that special book right. A lot of the novelists that I admire have made a career before they have any impressive sales. That means they have published books traditionally, books that have been quietly respected, owned by libraries and only sold modest copies beyond that. It is only after 6 or 7 books that people know their names. I want a career writing. To me that means publishing a book with a traditional house and following that with another book that is good enough to connect to publish and so on. In the mean time I will build my CV with these publications, teach, lead groups, and keep working hard on the writing because it is the writer's work that I have to want and not just the success.

  10. Davin,you are making us think today aren't you?

    And there are many more than 99. But it made me wonder. I'm sure my family would feel like they should buy the book. Cousins, aunts, uncles all of them. But I want people to buy the book, because they want to. I don't want them feeling obligated. There are friends and friends of friends. Families of friends,the list goes on. It just happens. The list evolves doesn't it?

    And I'm going to tell about a book that I like. I have to. It pours out of me.

    And I think that our blogosphere can make anything happen. So I believe it's possible for word of mouth to sell our books.

    Did you count me in the 99? ;)

  11. When I think of my social circles, I think mostly in terms of how their belief systems spread over the spectrum. I have friends who are devout believers, whose lives are lived exclusively within their religious groups. I have friends who are staunch atheists who want to debunk the religious systems of my other friends. And in between there are the doubters, the agnostics, the believers who challenge everything. And don't get me started on my friends on the political spectrum.

    Why is any of this relevant? Well, I sometimes think about how one friend or another would think of my writing. Would they be appalled? Repulsed? Or would they be pleasantly surprised knowing something new about me? Is there any other writer out there who wonders what your mother thinks? I certainly do in pieces of writing that use cuss words or go against what she's taught me or horrors, has characters based on her! So far, I have overcome the urge to edit in view of their possible reactions, but it's a fight some times.

    Or maybe none of this is relevant to your topic. Just blame my stream of consciousness.

    Thanks for all the questions, Davin. And I too think you'll definitely sell way, way more than 99.

  12. Great questions. Didn't anyone tell you that actually making people think at this time of year isn't a good thing? : )

    What was that shampoo commercial about telling a friend and . . . so on and so on and so on . . . I think the same effect works within our social circles, no matter how small. I have a group of friends who I know would buy my book. They each have friends outside our social circle. So, they tell one friend who buys the book, and that friend tells a friend and . . . so on and so on and so on!

    Also, with the Twitter and Facebook, larger audiences are capable. On Facebook, create a fan page, and then have your friends become fans, and then their other friends see that they've become a fan and check out the fan page and . . .

    If I like a book, I mention it to a good friend of mine who is part of a book club, because I know he'll mention it to them, and . . . so on and so on and so on.

    Breck Shampoo! Ha! I know have an image of the woman flipping her hair and the television screen filling up with tiny squares of the same woman, flipping her hair and saying . . . and so on and so on and so on . . .

    I think even the person with the smallest circle of friends can, as Lady Glamis pointed out, have a dominoe effect because there is probably always somebody to tell.

    Great post!


  13. In real life (as opposed to on teh internets), I know but a few people who read literary fiction. I expect that they'll each buy a copy of my books, and they may tell other readers to buy it. But I don't count on that. My plan is to get to know booksellers at my local shops and urge them to read and recommend my books. And, of course, to shill the books on facebook and blogs and the like, and I assume the publicist at whichever house acquires the books will have ideas, and my agent's company has its own publicity deparment as well. But I will be, I think, depending mostly on the kindness of strangers. Which is exactly what I've always wanted as a writer: for people I have never met and will never meet to read my writing and for it to have a meaning to them, and for them to be glad to have read it even if I never know they were glad. We'll see.

  14. Davin, I do have an agent reviewing one of my books. Since it's a children's book (17,500-word chapter book) and she specializes in children's publishing (was an editor for Scholastic, Disney, and Harper Collins for over 20 years), I don't know if she is the best agent for my works that are aimed at an older audience. We haven't really tackled this question yet, because priority number one is to get the MS she is reviewing into shape for a publisher and sold...then we'll discuss the rest of my career. She is with a very reputable agency, and I would hope that if she doesn't feel she is the right agent for my other novels that I may get an introduction to one of her colleagues. If not, it's back to queries.

    I'm aiming for traditional publishing for all my books, but I plan to do as much as possible for self-promotion to supplement to efforts of the publisher. You can't have too much marketing.

  15. I have a hard enough time getting friends and family to follow my blog, let alone buy a book. I'd definitely be relying on a different group of people.

  16. ...You've already reached at least one outsider: me. I normally don't post anywhere but at my places, and now around you here. Except for the interacting I do here, I have no social circles. I am very socially isolated, have been this way for years.

    I personally think you're doing well in getting attention. But you really can't know sales-wise until you've actually had something for sale, however you publish that something. Too many factors involved to predict this accurately for more than a small percentage of the time. Somewhere in one of my comments at my place, I posted a stat, from a had-been-in-the-business-for-many-years insider, that at least 75% of trade books underperform financially for publishers. Selling is their business, and even they can't make good enough predictions most times.

    I think there's too much randomness, not just in the universe in general, but in people's reading tastes; people are individuals, and individuals can think and behave so unpredictably.

    As I've said here before, my motto is: do it, see what happens.

    Whatever you do, good luck! :o)

  17. Even in this blog following are writers of vastly different types of writing. So I'm not sure how many will buy a book just because they know the blogger. Some will to be supportive, but I don't think we can count on everyone purchasing due to the connection.
    However, if we write a really good book and there is a buzz accompanying it, I think the chances increase greatly.
    I like Scott's comment that he would chat with booksellers. I've bought books because a bookseller raves about it, and my daughter, who worked as a bookseller for awhile, said she hand-sold many books to people--and sometimes it was because she'd met an author and liked both the person and the book.

  18. Social circles and writing are interesting things.

    What comes to mind is Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Tipping Point."

    He talks about "Mavens": people who are intense gatherers of information and impressions, and so are often the first to pick up on new or nascent trends.

    He also uses the term "Connectors": people who have wide network of casual acquaintances by whom they are trusted, often a network that crosses many social boundaries & groups.

    I think writers (or anyone looking to become established in their field) would do well to seek out mavens & connectors. Yes, we may write alone at our computers late at night, but later, in sharing our words with the world, a large part of that is who we know and our connections.

    Of course, we need to have a done our part to create a Very Good Most Excellent manuscript as well. (Connections with people can only get us so far if we don't have the talent/work ethic behind it.)

  19. Ooops, my bringing up that stat--that wasn't meant to mean, "You'll sell less than you think." Upon rereading my post, I realized I might have given the wrong impression. I'm just using that as an example of how tough making sales predictions is.

    I really do believe you probably can't know anything with high enough accuracy till it's happened and can observe what's happened.

    But as others here have implied, I actually think you'd sell more copies than you think. For a traditionally-published book, your number's too low.

  20. I am definitely for the traditional publishing camp. I am not saying that self-published authors have no talent, but it's just that I am not willing to take the chance, and spend my hard earned cash when there are plenty of "properly" published books I have yet to read.

    Personally, I wouldn't rely on many personal book buyers, because most people I know aren't big readers. They are not my audience either. I just think about writing the best I can, and then trying to sell it the old fashioned way.

  21. Also consider how available your book is for people who've heard about it. If it's in a lot of bookstore, strangers browsing might pick it up. Your friends (including your online friends) might buy because it's right there in front of them.

    If you self-publish, you'll probably have to see your readers in person with book in your hand so they can take a look at it. If you vanity publish, the book will likely be on, but how will your potential readers know to go to Amazon?

    Then there's price. If you self-pub (or vanity-pub), will your book be priced competitively? How much are your friends willing to pay for your book? What if one friend buys it and passes it around to ten other friends.

    There's a lot to think about besides how many people you know.

  22. Since I write YA, I don't think anyone in my family or extended family would buy my stuff.
    I teach junior high school. I'm pretty sure the library would buy a few copies.... and that would lead to other school libraries doing the same. My students would want copies because kids usually are the best fan clubs. And I"m friends with the owners of two indie book stores, so they'd stock a few copies for sure.
    And then I have former students who'd want to buy the book. So, yeah, I think I could sell about a hundred like that. And a few of those people would convince a few others to buy it... so maybe I could sell 200 if I got lucky. But that's 200 more than I've sold so far. :)

  23. Ugh. These are the sort of conversations that make me regret using a pen-name which limits my ability to rely on co-workers, less close friends, and distant family to be dominos for me. Unfortunately, for professional reasons, I don't have much choice. Ugh, I say. Ugh.

  24. I don't like to speculate on what people will do, even family.

    Lets say I self published and my family plus friends bought the book.

    There's no guarantee they'll like it or that they'll even read it- awkward conversations to follow.

    Me: So dad how'd you like my book?
    Dad: It was good. That guy. He was really awesome when he did that thing."
    Me: "You mean my Protagonist Jim?"
    Dad: "Yeah him. Good job."

    I either ask more questions because I KNOW he didn't read it or I don't ask any question because I don't want to KNOW he didn't read it.

    Relying on friends and family to reach a larger audience doesn't work (thousands of self-published authors have rolled these dice- on average, they sell 100 books to family and friends) because

    1. Your friend's friends may not read.
    2. If they do read, is your book something they want to read?
    3. Family and friends have a social obligation to buy your book, but friends of friends don't.
    4. Word of mouth is the best way to sell your book, but the mouth the words come from matter. If mom tells my friends my book is the shizzle, they won't trust her opinion because she's my mom. (have you ever seen an American Idol Audition?). Same goes for friends.

    For me, self-publishing isn't an option. Every year thousands of authors self-publish their amazing tome. POD Mouth read 2500 and found ten that were worth reading. The fact is every boy thins their book is the shiz nizzle, but most aren't. I know I can't trust myself to know the difference and I'm annoyed by the Cinderella stories. "Jo Blow was turned down and sold x copies from the trunk of his car after being turned down..."

    What they're not telling readers are the thousands who did the same thing and failed- that x copies sold does mean people read or liked the book or how long it took him to sell x copies, or whether he made a profit, or why people bough the book? (Did the story interest them or did he bully them into buying it?) I think these things matter.

    I would publish with small house because it means someone other than family and friends liked it (though I love their loyalty and the bias that comes with it!)

    Obviously I'll take the agent and big name publisher.

    These are my thoughts not a judgment on what anyone else has done or chooses to do.

  25. I could only find three people that offered to read my manuscript free. (None of them are writers.) I don’t think major numbers like 99 (assuming you counted me) is in my future. (If I gave away a $50.oo B&N gift certificate with every book, then maybe. Maybe.) When a few thousand people buy the Anthology, I think you’ll have to recalculate your numbers.

    Bottom line: If your book is good, the word will spread.

  26. "POD Mouth read 2500 and found ten that were worth reading."

    --These are about the odds for me with traditionally published books. I rarely find one I think is worth reading.

    "Jo Blow was turned down and sold x copies from the trunk of his car after being turned down..."

    --You're annoyed that a writer worked his butt off against the odds and succeeded? You should feel at least a little GLAD for that person because that person could someday be YOU, no matter how you publish. But the publishing industry has done this to writers: has made them feel guilty for siding with the little person beating the odds by thinking--and doing--outside of the box. I can't think of any other profession where this guilt is forced on the profession's foundation; it's madness. No wonder the publishing industry's collapsing.

    I don't think I've sold 99 of my self-published books, but every single one I have sold was bought by a stranger. My family members won't touch my writing. I have no real-life friends. I've only ever had acquaintances and pals I've met on the web THROUGH my writing, either through my nonfiction or fiction; some of them have bought my books. Three people at my booksigning also bought copies. I had neither met nor heard of them before that day, two took the copies and browsed them for a while, so they must have saw something there. Borders bought 14 copies after I applied for the signing with a copy of the book and a press kit. So are those buyers and Borders nuts then?

    When people keep blanketly insulting self-published books, not only are they insulting the books and the writers of those books, they're blanketly insulting all the readers who've paid money for them, because--NEWSFLASH--some people DO buy self-published books. There are enough success stories to prove this.

    "What they're not telling readers are the thousands who did the same thing and failed hat x copies sold does mean people read or liked the book or how long it took him to sell x copies, or whether he made a profit, or why people bough the book?"

    --And what the traditional publishing industry--and agents especially--are not telling people is all the traditionally published writers who did the same and failed. (See my statistic above--from a decades-long veteran editor at a large publishing house. And just like people don't know if relatives bought self-published books, people ALSO don't know how many relatives and friends bought traditionally published books. Most traditionally published books don't make big sales [the average is typically in the low thousands], and that number seemingly keeps going down, probably why advances are also going down.) No matter how books are published, writing is tough, just maybe the degree of toughness varies. Making money at writing, finding "success"--only the rare writer does this, especially in a big way. Does that mean everyone should quit sending in their works the traditional route? No. So why on earth does it mean everyone should quit self-publishing? It has worked for quite a few eventually-were-successful writers.

    "Obviously I'll take the agent and big name publisher."

    --And if you never get an offer like this or from a small publisher, then what? I hope you realize that the vast majority of writers most likely will NOT get offers like that. It is partly a numbers thing: there just aren't enough agents and publishers--especially big ones--to represent and publish all the many writers and written works humans produce. Why should those won't-be-picked-up-by-a-publisher works rot in a drawer somewhere? If they could each bring even three readers joy, that's better than no joy.

  27. "But the publishing industry ....."

    Missed the point entirely. It's not the trunk full of books that is the problem (unless trunk authors suddenly sprout like telemarketers.) The problem is, the examples.

    They're just one story among of hundreds of thousands who didn't make it. You propose that people are trying to make such authors feel guilty. From what I see people aren't doing that at all. Instead they're saying, "if he can do it I can too!" And I've yet to see publishing companies try to stop them, either. Last I heard Harlequin was more than happy let writers pay to play.

    It's watch dog groups like Writer Beware discouraging it.

    If the big name publisher doesn't happen, and I decide I want to bring three readers the joy of my words (and possibly the cure for insomnia) I'll email it to three friends. And if I'm feeling particularly ornery, I'll email them a bill too. Otherwise, I can always line my casket with my unpublished manuscripts.(I'm taking it to my grave, ma!) And if that isn't something to look forward to, I don't know what is.


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