It's been three months now since I published The Book of Souls, and to say that I'm pleased with the results would be a bit like saying a kid was pleased with being given the keys to the sweet shop and told to help himself. I've sold over 20,000 copies - and gave away another 14,000 or so in a single weekend. Things are starting to quieten down a little, but it was in the Amazon UK top 100 titles for over seventy days.
I know this because Amazon gives a self-published author unprecedented access to sales information. It's not perfect, but hourly updates, running totals of earnings, graphs of your book's progress through the sales charts, all these are very compelling. And addictive.
I try to ration myself to checking the stats just once a day, but there are times when I find myself clicking the link just to see what's happened in the last half hour. When your sales are chugging along steadily, or better yet increasing minute by minute, it's awesome. But the downside comes when things start to tail off.
All of which set me to thinking. I don't in any way condone the kind of sockpuppetry and underhand manipulation of social media that several authors have been caught indulging in of late. It's cheating, and devalues the system. It paints all authors in an undeserved murky light. But I think I can begin to understand why people do it. There's a buzz to the success that's as potent as any drug, and when that goes you'll do pretty much anything for another fix.
The most effective way of boosting sales again is to publish another book. That takes time though. So much easier to set up a couple of fake accounts on Amazon and start writing yourself five star reviews. It's only a small step from there to rubbishing other authors - petty revenge for any imagined slight or simple jealousy at their success.
And then there's the manipulation of forums, building up fake twitter and facebook conversations, all designed to create a buzz. To me it seems an awful lot of effort that could much better be put into writing another book.
I'm not convinced that "social media" is a very good way to sell products anyway. To me, twitter and facebook can only sell the author, not the book. They are the digital-age equivalent of sending a stamped addressed envelope off to the Bay City Rollers and getting a cheaply-printed magazine, a badge and a signed photograph back.*
Several of my twitter friends seem only ever to tweet about their own latest book or that of someone else. I skim over these, and have even stopped following some altogether. It's boring. I'd rather know what their dog had for breakfast or what that strange fellow at the other side of the pub is doing.
There's an idea being touted around - the rule that 90% of your social media output should have nothing to do with what you're selling. To me that fundamentally misses the point. If you need a rule, if you're counting the tweets and every tenth one is the money shot, then you've got it all wrong. Those other nine won't hack it if you're only doing it for the shill.
I tend to post lots of photographs of cows and the views here on the farm. I'll occasionally rant about something political that's narked me, or meander off on a thought tangent. Only very, very occasionally will I mention that I've got a book out, or that it's on special offer. I'd far rather people liked me for the stuff I said. Found out that I was a writer with a book out only because they were interested enough to dig deeper themselves.
So if you're planning a media campaign for your magnificent octopus and reckon twitter and facebook (or Google+, Diaspora?, lord only knows what else) are the way to go, then stop. Think. Don't sell the book, sell yourself. Let the world know what an interesting person you are.
There's a reason it's called social media, not commercial media.
*That was my sister, OK? Not me.