Monday, August 27, 2012

Sockpuppetry




By Reece Hirsch

For someone who really doesn’t like selling, I sure do an awful lot of it.   As a writer and as a lawyer, it seems that I’m always doing something to market my services.  It goes against my nature, but it’s necessary and so I try to do it as well as I am capable.

I write books because, oddly enough, I actually enjoy sitting at my laptop and crafting a novel over the course of many months.  I also really enjoy hearing from readers who’ve been entertained for a few hours by something that I’ve written.  It’s the part that comes in between that I’m a little less comfortable with.  Before I knew the ways of the publishing world, I imagined that when my book was released, my publisher would send a legion of marketing and publicity specialists into the world to bang the drum for my work.  While the marketing and publicity professionals that I’ve worked with have been highly knowledgeable and capable, there comes a point (and for an author in my position it comes very, very fast) when you’re on your own.

I practice law because, oddly enough, I actually enjoy understanding how the state, federal and international privacy laws work and advising clients on how they can and can’t use your personal information.  And, yes, I am referring to your personal information.  I didn’t go to law school because I’m an in-your-face, argumentative litigator-type.  I’d probably be a better marketer if I was.  As a lawyer, my marketing campaign consists primarily of giving speeches, writing articles and occasionally taking people to lunch.

My two marketing campaigns intersect when a prospective client runs a Google search on me and inevitably turns up my author website, blog posts and other evidence of my double life.  These days, the first question I get asked during a client pitch is often, “So you write legal thrillers?”  It’s actually a pretty good ice-breaker.

What have I learned from my two careers in marketing?  I’ve learned that nothing works.  Either that, or everything works a little bit.  One of the two.

To put it less cryptically, you have to do something to market your books, so you might as well find the things that you’re comfortable with and enjoy because then you’ll do them consistently.

But to finally address this week’s question:  “Does social media work for authors?”  I really have no idea.  I didn’t set up a Facebook account until I had a book coming out and was told that it was necessary, and I have yet to utter a single tweet.  However, I would suggest the following two simple rules for what authors should not do on social media.

Do not use your dog to pimp your book.  No photos of your dog wearing sunglasses and reading your book. No photos of your dog gnawing on your book.  Unless your dog is really cute, then I guess it’s okay.  Note:  I must confess that I have violated this rule.

Do not create “sockpuppet” virtual identities to tout your book.  Sockpuppets, as a general matter, are cute and retro (see photo above).  Sockpuppet marketing, or the creation of false virtual identities to give your books five-star reviews or stir up positive discussion in social media, is deceptive and fraudulent.   The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade association representing the social media industry, recently issued a Code of Ethics that addresses precisely these sorts of online transparency issues (http://womma.org/ethics/code/).  The Federal Trade Commission has also adopted guidelines for the disclosure of financial relationships in advertising and blog posts (http://www.ftc.gov/multimedia/video/business/endorsement-guides.shtm).  A recent investigation of Hyundai by the Federal Trade Commission highlighted similar concerns (http://business.ftc.gov/blog/2011/12/using-social-media-your-marketing-staff-closing-letter-worth-read).  None of these guidelines provide any sort of exemption for self-published authors of e-books.

In a related and distressing note, The New York Times reported Saturday that there is a company that sells five-star Amazon book reviews in bulk to authors.  In this new era of e-publishing, and even in the context of traditional publishing, each author is effectively acting as his or her own business  enterprise.  All businesses must be conducted ethically and in compliance with the laws and, no matter how great and desperate the pressure to attract readers in the publishing marketplace, authors are no exception.  As a general matter, unfair and deceptive business practices may be subject to enforcement action by the FTC or a state Attorney General.  It seems inevitable that the increasingly aggressive and deceptive tactics of some online book marketers will eventually attract the attention of the regulators who have been concerned about the transparency of online financial relationships and endorsements.

Just as the use of steroids has caused baseball fans to lose some faith in the game, this sort of blatant trickery compromises a reader's faith that they can trust the one thing that authors of good books have going for them -- word of mouth.  When a reader can't tell whether they're getting the opinion of a sockpuppet, a hired five-star reviewer or a real reader, then they won't trust anything they read on Amazon and all authors will suffer as a result.

We're in the Wild West days of e-book marketing right now, but I think it's only a matter of time before a new sheriff comes to town.  As far as I'm concerned, it can't happen soon enough.


9 comments:

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I confess to shamelessly using my cats to pimp my books, but a sock puppet ... hmmm.

I love social media for book marketing and it seems to work well for me. I use Twitter and Facebook quite a bit and guest blogs, but that's about all. I still haven't seen the point of Pininterest, although I'm a member.

Alan Orloff said...

Like you, I don't have any idea whether using social media helps sell books. I have found, however, that using social media is great at fostering procrastination!

Meredith Cole said...

Marketing in a way that makes you comfortable is great advice, Reece. I enjoy Facebook and Twitter, and I find it a great way to meet and keep in touch with readers and other authors. But I have dropped other social media sites that I did not enjoy--and I think that has helped to keep me sane.

Mark said...

I'm going to address this topic from the point of view of a reviewer. I review at Amazon and Epinions.

Authors, as tempted as you might be to review your own book - don't do it! And don't pay for reviews. If I find out you are doing that, I will drop you like a hot potato and never pick up one of your books again.

Only slightly less offensive is reviewing your own book under your real name. At least then you are being honest. But there are authors I won't read because of doing that. (Some I love enough to still read, but it smells awful when you do that.)

Why do I hate this so much? Because it reflects poorly on me. I review as a hobby to help spread the word for authors I love. But if no one trusts my reviews, than it helps no one. And the idea that something I love has wasted so much time drives me crazy.

(And other thing? Use social media, but don't constantly plug your own book. That's a turn off as well. Show you are well rounded and interested in other things, and readers will be drawn to you.)

Hilary Davidson said...

I'm looking forward to the new sheriff coming to town, too, Reece. Thanks for a great post!

Reece said...

Sue Ann -- From what I can see, you really have mastered the whole social media thing. And I think your cats are very cute.

Alan -- I may not be great at social media marketing, but like you I have mastered social media procrastination.

Meredith -- I will definitely have to give this Twitter thing a try.

Mark -- Thanks for stopping by! I can completely understand how frustrating these developments must be for people who make an effort to write thoughtful (and legitimate) online reviews.

Hilary -- Thanks! Individual authors may fly below the FTC's radar (unless they're very successful), but businesses that traffic in online reviews would seem to be a pretty good target for that new sheriff.

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks for your comments, Mark. I talked about the NY times article with my writer friends, and some people were saying that they just don't trust any Amazon reviews any more. Which is too bad, but that's the way it's going.

Gary Phillips said...

I read that NYT piece and it is a dang shame that review mills create distrust in what readers read for reviews. Though I think that means sites such as Criminal Element, the Rap Sheet, bookgasm, and so on will be where readers and trustworthy reviewers will gravitate to as venues.

Reece said...

Vicki and Gary -- I agree that it would be a shame for Amazon reviews to lose credibility. Even the guy selling reviews in the NYT article said that he only trusts the one-star reviews now.