My friend John Moore is an entrepreneur with an excellent record of picking successful companies and managers, investing in them, then nurturing the ones he controls and profiting from this activity. John is CEO of a small exchange-traded company called Acorn Energy that has absolutely nothing to do with book publishing, but if you have a few bucks lying around, I’d suggest that you buy the stock (ACFN: NASDAQ). (Full disclosure: I have bought shares and also received a few options for helping him out on some projects.)

Acorn takes controlling stakes in companies that it thinks are a step or two away from breaking out big-time. It’s like a publicly traded venture capital firm with a specialty in the energy business. You’d think they’d be invested in the piping-hot solar energy space, but they don’t have a nickel there. Why? Because, as John likes to say, “I don’t want to cast my line where the other boats are; I want to be fishing where the fish are.” In other words, John tries to follow the money, not the herd.

Like anyone in his position, John spends a great deal of time pitching investors and explaining his business model, which focuses on improving the existing infrastructure through energy intelligence, rather than trying to reinvent the industry, which he thinks is a losing game in the near term. In his attempts to win people over to his way of thinking, he often argues against current prejudices, and he’s pretty convincing, too. In fact, John is a master of the pithy phrase.

I think one of John’s best phrases with regard to business investment is: “Don’t be distracted by shiny objects.” I have thought often about that as I’ve laid the groundwork for Primacy and Verbitrage. The shiny object, in John’s way of thinking, is the seemingly attractive element that will cause you to waste time and money — a kind of business mirage.

Naturally, we don’t always know with certainty what constitutes a real opportunity or a distracting shiny object until we’re deep into things. For example, many book publishers for years considered e-books to be distractions from their main business, then got caught with their noses up in the air when the market later took off. Sometimes shiny objects do clarify into profitable ones. Still, caution may be called for more often than not.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but the following are three things that I strongly suspect will prove to be shiny objects in the long run. With all the money and time in the world, they might be worth the investment, but with limited resources, not so much. Still, I don’t claim that they’re completely worthless, just difficult to justify in the scheme of things. In other words, there may be a lot of boats in these waters, but perhaps not enough fish to withstand the crowding.

Book Tours

Shiny objects often share certain characteristics. The main one is that “everyone’s” doing them or wanting to do them, and, in consequence, that very fact erodes their value tremendously. Nothing better illustrates this than the clunky old analog book tour.

There was a time when people paid attention to book tours. When they started out, they were special, available only to select authors that the major houses really wanted to push. These early tours often had success moving product, but then too many authors piled in. Now, I’d bet that in totality book tours have cost publishers and authors way more money than they ever earned back. Despite this likelihood, however, upon meeting an author with a book coming out, every man on the street wants to know: when’s the tour?

Unless you’re already famous — in which case, needless to say, the ways of mere mortals do not apply — stay away from the book tour. In fact, even famous people can attest that signings don’t always work out. I once edited a book by a famous person who subsequently sat in a Wal-Mart for two hours and received all of three visitors, one of whom, according to his co-author, was looking for directions to the bathroom.

For the non-famous who go on book tours, this three-visitor total is often the norm, not the exception.

The counter-argument is that book tours aren’t only about what happens in the bookstore, but are (1) an opportunity to do local publicity and (2) a way to get a few stores to feature your book. In reality, the local publicity angle is not all it’s cracked up to be and the money one spends in travel just for a quarter-page in the unread bookstore newsletter would be better spent on more targeted marketing.

These days, it is the rare book tour, indeed, that pays off for its publisher or author. More often, these things “everyone” wants are little more than shiny objects.

Book Trailers

Since I see “everyone” plugging their book trailers these days, I wondered whether I needed one. I don’t have any filmmaker friends who’d be willing to donate their time, so I figured a trailer would cost me at least several thousand dollars, possibly more. On the other hand, if the trailer went viral it could sell thousands of books, right?

Well, yes, and as my father often says, if his grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley car.

So before going after this possibly shiny object, I consulted Chris Saridakis, one of my advisory board members. Chris has been a pioneer in Internet marketing: an early investor in more brand-name companies than I have space to mention; among the first six employees of the original Internet advertising agency, DoubleClick (now owned by Google); and the founder of another one, PointRoll (now owned by Gannett).

In response to my question, Chris observed that 48 hours of video hits YouTube every minute. If the average clip lasts three minutes, by my calculations that’s 960 videos posted per minute, 1.4 million per day,  41 million per month, 500 million a year!

“So,” Chris said with a smile, “what do you suppose are the odds that your book trailer will go viral?”

Well, these numbers just apply to the boring people, right? I’m an interesting person who wrote a great book that will inspire a truly outstanding video. I mean, while for other people the odds might be as good as their getting attacked by a shark at the fish store, my odds will be more akin to winning Powerball on a Tuesday in May.

Yeah, I know: they don’t do Powerball drawings on Tuesdays. Case closed: shiny object.

Social Networks

True confession #1: I am on Facebook and LinkedIn. True confession #2: I also have a Twitter account. True confession #3: I would be really, really happy if I could get five thousand Facebook “friends” (all that I’m allowed) and a million Twitter followers. Until that day, however, I’m a skeptic about social networking as a tool for selling books.

Apparently, I’m not alone. In early April of this year, the author James Ellroy posted this on his Facebook page:

Dear FB Friends,

Fuck Facebook!!!!! — It has proven to be worthless as a book-selling device, and is nothing but a repository for perverts, reparation-seekers, old buddies looking for handouts, syphillitic ex-girlfriends looking for extra-curricular schlong and hack writers begging for blurbs. For those looking for the REAL Ellroy shit, go to my wigged-out website:

Sayonara, Motherfuckers!!!

He’s not my “friend” anymore, I presume because he wasn’t kidding with his “sayonara.” And, no, I never asked him for a blurb.

Notwithstanding this trenchant goodbye, there is no doubt that some people have built decent followings on the social networks. But I suspect that it’s also true that most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. If you happened to begin working the social networks just as they were hitting warp speed, you may have achieved more than your wildest dreams. But with 500 million people on Facebook, most users find themselves hanging around in places where everyone who’s shouting can’t rise above the noise.

Tweets get lost in the infinite crawl and everyone is trying to sell something on Facebook. (Notice that I didn’t put “everyone” in quotes in that sentence — because I mean EVERYONE.)

But what are you talking about, Fishman, you effing square? I am out there creating a persona. I post clever stuff and people comment. I’m developing a relationship with people who will go on to buy my book. And it’s all FREE.

Well, one thing’s for certain: you’ll get what you paid for.

In my humble opinion, people who spend an hour a day cultivating their Facebook audience are ignoring the concept of opportunity cost. How much is their time worth? What else could they be doing with that time?

Well, that depends on the person, of course, but in these situations it is often helpful to find a dull analogy to bring us back to earth. Let’s look at Facebook as a kind of direct mail model where you expose a bunch of people to a proposition and hope some will bite. In direct mail, you are lucky if you get a two percent response rate. If you got five percent and you were in that field, you’d be considered a business genius and would probably be one of the most successful people on earth.

Let’s say you spent an hour a day really working Facebook and, by the end of a year, all your efforts have yielded 5,000 “friends” — the maximum. Let’s further stipulate that, because they’re your “friends,” you manage to sell a book to five percent of them — enough to make any direct marketer proud — 250 books. Woohoo!

Now do the math, while presuming your royalty is an optimistic eight dollars per book (never mind how I arrived at that figure — you ain’t gonna beat it). So you earned $2,000 but expended, say, 360 hours to achieve that. You’re working at a wage of five-and-a-half bucks an hour. If that’s all you’re worth, then so much for paying back those college loans — ever.

The counter-argument, once again, is that one of these “friends” of yours may be really important, someone who can do something that can lead to the sale of hundreds of copies or more — can take you viral. But if that’s your goal — and it’s a worthy one — why not spend a couple of hours trying to get directly to that person rather than hundreds of hours cultivating people who aren’t your friends and, let’s face it, never will be? And, needless to say, those who really are your friends will buy the book anyway. Just send them an email, for cryin’ out loud — that will take minutes.

So I strongly suspect, by this logic, that social networking is that shiny object, a distraction from afar and nearly worthless up close. Why do I do it, then? Well, you can never be too careful, and I don’t put in an hour a day there, to be honest, more like an hour a week. If you’re not my “friend” or “follower,” you should be. I promise not to waste your time any more than I waste my own.

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 11: A Good Website is Hard to Find

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 13: Six Ways the Book Trade Still Matters

Follow me on Twitter: JEFISHMAN

Visit the Verbitrage website.

Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

32 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 12: The Distraction of Shiny Objects

  1. Greg Olear says:

    You’re one of the few people I know whose stock tip I’d actually listen to.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    I love that you have conversations with yourself.
    I never even think of the things you have studied so carefully. You’ve done all the work, and readers reap the rewards. You’re uncommonly helpful.

  3. dwoz says:

    Just stopping in to give you a shout.

    COMPLETELY agree with the social media thing. I am also on linkedn, and I have to say that almost half of the inmates are the CEO of their own social marketing shop, and they’re all there trying to sell each other social media marketing.

    It’s like what I imagine a national Amway convention would be like.

    Also, I was just thinking about your first point, book tours, in the context of S. Almond’s most recent piece, where he discusses DIY publishing. The notion I got from it was that you shouldn’t probably go scheduling book tours, but to rather consider it a book tour every time you walk out your front door.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yes, I’m on LinkedIn, too. I don’t know if it does anything for your average salesman, but I’d be surprised if any novelist ever made a nickel from it. Yet there I am, another of the sheep.

      I agree about your analysis of Almond’s piece. It’s an unusual individual, however, who will make a dent selling his book from the trunk of the car, though it can be done. Fortunately, there is the book trade, which will be the subject of another post.

  4. Have been appreciating your angle and your advice in this series, whether I comment or not. This time around I’m happy to read you reiterating what, as a naïve novice, I’ve always suspected about these tactics not paying off as much as people assume. From readings I’ve attended and from anecdotal reports, the book tours especially seem to be a lot of time and resources exhausted for little return and fulfilling for neither the author nor the readers/attendees. A better way must be on the horizon, or so I hope.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      You know, I was kind of expecting at least a few people would argue with me about some of these points — if for no other reason than to justify all the time that’s been sucked from their lives in these pursuits. Maybe this is kind of like when your editor points something out and it suddenly dawns on you: oh, crap, I was meaning to change that. In other words, the piece above must be ringing truer to more people than I thought it would.

      • dwoz says:

        I think you have to expend some regular effort to make a presence online so that you’re “available” when people come looking for you. They can’t come up empty-handed.

        But everything you’ve said pretty much sums it up. You don’t (today) go on facebook to find out what your thought-leaders in your little clan are excited about, thus figure out what to do in your own life. That was, I think, the eventual hope of the facebook thing, but it hasn’t YET turned into that.

        Their hope was that by identifying the thought leaders, they’d be able to do focus marketing to a few select individuals, which would then efficiently disseminate down into their “clans.” It isn’t turning out like that though, primarily I think because they’re just not very good at it. “they” meaning the facebook architects. The whole thing was amateur from the start, and I think it’s still amateur (from an information design standpoint)…but it was successful because it did one thing well enough to capture some excitement.

        Maybe the problem is that the people who design social media websites don’t really understand what people are like?

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          I don’t know if I’d blame the developers so much as all of our inclinations to invest so much hope in the hottest new thing. Ultimately, every one of us is asking the same question people have asked since they killed their dinner with clubs and listened to stories in front of cave paintings: What’s in it for me?

          Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn may be on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. Remember what Yogi Berra said: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  5. Jessica Blau says:

    I could give up social networking (want to anyway!) and I could give up book trailers. But book tours are so much fun EVEN when no one shows up!

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Aren’t you the one who went to the naked book reading? That’s the kind of event worth leaving home for.

  6. Matthew says:

    Agreed. 100%. I remember a few years ago people already murmuring – privately – that the true value and benefit of social media marketing is minimal and only a very small percentage derive any actual value from it.

    I believe there were even some small-scale studies analyzing Twitter and the general conclusion was that it doesn’t compel people to buy – the people who click, just click, quickly digest, and move on.

    That’s not to say it has no value, just that expectations – as you clearly point out – clearly exceed the actual return.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yes. When it comes to book marketing, social networking is a piece of the puzzle — perhaps not even a big piece. Many are tempted to put too much hope in these venues because they’re free. Free, that is, if one ignores the investment of time.

      Ironically, a friend of mine who is raising money for a book project told me yesterday that he plans to go on Twitter. I told him, “Harry, you’re eighty years old. Forget Twitter. Pick up the phone.”

  7. I like my own book trailer done by Jose Salanda who is a deaf film director. At first he wanted to do it with actors and props but after reading the commentaries on Three Guys and a Book, I changed my mind and used the book and quotes from it as props. After all, it’s a book that I am trying to sell, not a movie.

    You can check it out on my neglected website, if you desire to see what I mean. If not, I guess I should get back to selling Amway. 🙁 (Or if you want, let me know if you want me to post a link here…)

    Good job Mr. Fishman on telling what’s it like to get published in this age of Internet! 🙂

  8. Robin Slick says:

    Brilliant. So glad I just read this.

    And I agree and it could not have come at a better time as I prepare to take a dreadlock…I mean..internet holiday.

    (but if not for FB, I would not have found this nor read your hysterical reply to Jessica. Ah, well. Life is all about trade-offs)

  9. Caleb Powell says:

    Acorn Energy (ACFN) is losing 1.50/share, an omen. It has more cash than debt, and decent revenue, although growth is negative, another warning sign, however par for the course in this economy, so I wouldn’t read too much into it. Big problem is cash flow is out of control, money is leaving this company at a high rate, and unless its R&D, sales, or business model grows toward a bottom line the company will be in trouble.

    There are lots of energy companies out there, just as in the early days of Microsoft there were hundreds of tech/software/computer companies, most fail, but the ones that make it…make it huge.

    Small volume means it is off the radar, though, and overall, they seem to have as good a chance as any to push forward.

    That being said, I’d give the company a hold rating, and would follow it for the time being.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      At the risk both of sounding like a flack for Acorn and going off topic (but, hey, I started it), they are a very small company playing on a very big field (kinda like most authors). Yes, they’ve had a rough quarter or two, but the size of the market relative to their order book means there is greater potential for exponential growth than there is risk that the stock will crater. For example, GridSense, one of their constituent companies, just got a single order that exceeds last year’s annual revenue for that company (this is public information, by the way). Since I don’t generally do stock recommendations, I’ll leave it at that.

    • dwoz says:

      Do I miss the point, or is Acorn basically a VC/incubator company?

      Doesn’t that change your expectations vis a vis balance sheet and revenue?

  10. Richard Cox says:

    I understand the point of the opportunity cost, but honestly what else could you be doing to market your book? I think if you’re not already using social networks, then you’re totally right, why bother setting up a page just to sell something? But if it’s part of your daily lifestyle, you’d be ignoring a chance to promote your work by not using it. And you also didn’t mention the friends who might share the link to their friends, etc.

    One thing I learned with my first two books is that, unless you’re lucky, no one marketing method is going to be the golden ticket that sells all your books. It’s more of a total effort. Signings don’t generally sell books, no…but here in Tulsa we have a large book club that brings in authors from all over the country, and we probably move 50 – 100 books in the more successful meetings. I’d be silly not to want to be a part of that, since it costs me next to nothing. Social media costs me nothing but the opportunity to be doing something else, but I’ve been on FB for years and my friends are asking ME when my next book is coming out. Why should I ignore that interest? I’m not a big fan of Twitter, but it only takes me a few minutes out of each day to share interesting links and whatnot, and when my book is out, is doesn’t take much time to mention it.

    As far as a book trailer goes, most of those I’ve seen are terribly boring. If you can’t shoot it yourself, and know what you’re doing, I agree that probably that costs more than it’s worth.

    In any case, I ignored a lot of my own marketing early in my career because I thought the publisher would be the primary marketing tool of the book. I thought they’d get me lots of great reviews in big publications. I totally ignored all the little ways I could pick up readers here and there. But those little ways can become big if your book is good, if you generate word of mouth. But since you’re consulting writers to ignore the cheap or free marketing available to them, what would you have them do instead? Nothing?

    • dwoz says:

      I completely agree.

      That was the impetus for my previous comment, that you essentially are out on “book tour” every time you open the front door of your house.

      Not that you go out of your way to pimp your wares, but rather that you try not to overlook any small opportunity.

      Of course, WHERE you are geographically has some bearing on this. I, for example, am in a small town that has a fairly high density of big possibility. Basically, in certain seasons any time I am eating lunch in the town diner, it’ not unlikely that someone in the room is a nominee or recipient of a Pulitzer or Man Booker. You never know, they look like ordinary people.

      I once spent a half hour in like at the town clerk’s office with the Pulitzer prize winner of that year for poetry.

      I think the idea is, you have to imagine that people around you will be interested and possibly even connected, and you have to be ready to pitch them.

      Of course, selling books to a Pulitzer prize winner is like selling ice to eskimos…but the point is, that person may be a link in a chain that leads you directly into a lucrative situation.

      • J.E. Fishman says:

        You’re also touching upon a challenge that I’ll probably get to in another post. A book is not a can of soda — something most people purchase by the six-pack or case, consume, then run out to buy more. The damn things generally get purchased one at a time, with repeat customers in wait for the sequel, presuming you don’t keep them waiting too long etc. Sure, after you read the book you might tell others about it, but you won’t buy a dozen more just to throw up on your shelf. This is one of those things that make the economics of book publishing such a pain in the ass.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I’m delighted finally to get a little push-back, especially from someone who gave me a wonderful blurb!

      Let’s be clear: I’m not advising writers “to ignore the cheap or free marketing available to them” — not exactly, anyway. What I am saying is that we should beware giving book trailers, book tours and social media more weight than they deserve. Social media, in particular, are a siren song because they are free and also so damn easy, in some sense. We’re at the computer anyway (or have the cell phone in hand)…why not spend an hour or two a day? Is this investment of time completely useless? Perhaps not. Is it truly worth the time invested? In most cases, I doubt it, but others may disagree.

      The major local book club — or one within easy driving range — sure, go for it. But would flying from Tulsa to New York on your own dime just to sell 50 books make business sense? For that money (just to take one example) you could buy an ad in a newsletter that markets to radio shows and possibly get a hit that would result in selling hundreds of books. Although there’s a possibility in both cases that you’ll sell nothing, it’s a matter of opportunity cost.

      I have the sense that too many writers, because it’s easier for us, turn to the social media. Hey, it’s just writing at our desk and we’re used to that. But there are many more prosaic opportunities out there that we may be ignoring in the process.

  11. dwoz says:

    This question is probably quite naive, and likely should be answered in the context of a different installment of the series, so feel free to defer your answer:

    Should the DIY author/publisher carry a box of books along, say, in the trunk/boot of the car, against the chance that in their travels, they come across an indie bookstore tucked away in some nook, and cold-call that bookstore on the spot, and try to get them to shelve some copies?

    Or is that completely ridiculous given the current “way things are done?”

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I don’t think a human touch is ever ridiculous. And “the way things are done” usually comes out of the mouth of someone trying to defend their own prerogatives. If you don’t have a distributor (or even if you do) there is no harm I can see in attempting a “hand sell” to an independent bookstore, with one caveat: that hearing the word “no” won’t turn you into a basket case for the rest of the week.

  12. Paul Clayton says:

    Joel, yes, the book tour or author appearance is, usually, a bust. Social Media, well, that’s still unfolding. More than half the planet is socializing on FB, hooking up with their old Junior Prom dates, or selling something. Almost as many tweeting their little hearts out or sending penie pics through the void. I still haven’t learned to tweet, but I can whistle. Yeah, I’m falling behind but I still read.

    Good thought-provoking post. Best!

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