Late last month, in keeping with its pattern of showering attention on successful authors while ignoring those who could use a leg up, the New York Times published a Q&A with Paul Coelho, author of — well, you know. In case you hadn’t noticed, unsaid novel was a Times bestseller for four years and has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.
The article revealed that Coelho has 2.4 million Twitter followers, more than Madonna. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. After all, Madonna’s salad days lie far behind her while Coelho, though no spring chicken, is still working the 140-character box as if his livelihood depended on it.
Nor did the article say when Coelho first hit Twitterite critical mass, but I’d venture to guess that it didn’t occur in the past two years. Twitter launched in July 2006. There were 400,000 tweets posted per quarter the following year, and that grew to 100 million per quarter by 2008. If I had to bet money, I’d guess Coelho’s tweeting became well established somewhere in that zone when Twitter was going into warp speed.
By last June, 65 million tweets were being posted every day — or 750 per second. Try tweeting sh*t your father says now and see if that gets you a book deal.
I have a theory that social media and other new modes of electronic connection mostly help people who are already famous unless you happen to be doing exactly the right thing at precisely the right time. Paul Coelho — who was already something of a success when he hit the social networks — went stratospheric at least in part because he was riding the crest of the social media wave. As with any wave, start surfing too early and you’re likely to be left behind. Too late and you get swamped.
Those today who seek to emulate Coelho’s and similar successes on Twitter and Facebook will most likely find themselves among the flotsam, lost in the storm surge. That’s not for sure, but only a few beat the odds.
We chase the success of others at our peril. For example, a few early bloggers parlayed eyeballs into book and film deals or into new media empires. But the success of Julie and Julia or the Hufffington Post is not easily emulated today (if it ever was). Similarly, Amanda Hocking brilliantly combined self-publishing and social media at the very moment when this was likely to be a winning strategy. That success was never guaranteed but, all things being equal, is even less likely today.
Paul Coelho, asked to analyze the stunning track record of The Alchemist, had this to say: “It’s difficult to explain why. I think you can have 10,000 explanations for failure, but no good explanation for success.”
In two brilliant books on probability and our misapprehensions of success (Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan) Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes running ten thousand sets of numbers through a random generator called a Monte Carlo program, eliminating the “losers” over several permutations. The resulting ten “winners” — one tenth of one percent — look like genius stock pickers. But all they turn out to be are patterns in the randomness that happen to correspond to the stock market’s reality by sheer blind luck.
This is not to say that Paul Coelho or Amanda Hocking or Arianna Huffington are merely blindly lucky. First of all, they had the guts to get in the game. Second, they were smart enough to play their hands well.
Nor do I mean to suggest that the social networks are completely worthless as a means of promotion. No doubt something goes viral from Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube or other places every day. But when we participate in these forums, we must remind ourselves that the odds of our project going viral at any moment are minuscule. The odds it will go viral ever are not much better.
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do these things. As the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it. But it does mean we should weigh our efforts against the opportunity cost.
I think publishers may be making a mistake when they require novelists to build and maintain platforms on the social networks. While it is certainly true that authors can no longer live as recluses who rely solely on the efforts of their publisher to get the word out, it is equally true that every hour spent working the social networks is an hour of missed reading or writing.
Thus, not put in their proper context, the social networks can be a siren song, calling us to the rocks. The ounce of creativity we put into a clever phrase for our Facebook update may have been trumped — if we’d only had the time — by the pound of creativity we’d have put into our novel.
There is only one characteristic I know of that all successful writers share: they produce. If you write little because you’re spending too much time on the social networks then you have little to sell. Tweet away if you so choose, but don’t kid yourself into believing it’s the best use of your talent.
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