Over the past couple of years, I've followed a set of blogs written by literary agents and authors to get perspective and advice on writing well and on submitting work to agents in a way that will give it the best chance of being published. One of the blogs I had bookmarked was by a very popular agent who recently published a children's book. As the publication date for the book neared, the blog began to have more and more posts about the book, still with the slant of "here's my experience, it might be the same for you." Since publication, there have been several blog posts that were outright efforts to sell the book, including one that included related merchandise.
This morning when I checked the blog, I was a little surprised to find the author was having a PBS-style pledge drive. Briefly, the author was saying, "I put all this good content out there for free, so you ought to support me by buying my book." To be perfectly honest, I was rather turned off by that approach. I suppose that says something unpleasant about me, that I like the content but am not willing to pay for it.
The good/bad news is, I'm not alone in that sentiment. How many times have I seen groups spring up on Facebook which are protesting "We won't pay $9.95 a month for Facebook!"? I discovered (and briefly followed) a discussion thread on Amazon in which customers recommended "bargain" books for each other (with "bargain" often being defined as "free"). We look for extras or bonus features on our DVD purchases; we want hidden, bonus tracks on the albums we download.
When I was on my sabbatical a year ago, one of the webinars I attended was about 10 trends to be aware of/10 things to do to be successful in the new PR environment. I'd have to look at my notes to get the exact wording of what was said, but the gist of one point was, "People will expect to get something free. Give away something of value as a way to build loyalty and a relationship that will lead people to come to you when they are ready to buy."
The problem with that, as the blog author discovered, is people don't always feel a need to reciprocate. Just because he's giving good content about the publishing business, I don't feel obligated to plunk down $12+ for a book for kids younger than my own and in a genre I really don't like to read when I could spend that same $12 on something my kids and I would like to read. That's probably the case for a number of people who are readers of the blog; we aren't the target audience for his book, so he's not depending on true interest to spark book sales, he's relying on guilt. And in the internet age, it's pretty easy to avoid things that make you feel guilty (just hit "delete bookmark").
On the other hand, I recently found Royalty Free Fictionary, a blog devoted to allowing authors of historical fiction to post a description of their book - as long as it's not about royalty. Now that's interesting to me. That's a freebie that may actually lead to the purchase of a book, because it provides something that is both of value to me and related to a product I would want.
That's the risk of the new PR; not everyone you give something away to will become a customer. Actually, it makes me think of the people who sit at the commercial booths at our county fair, giving away balloons and nail files and brochures and business cards. There is probably a small percentage of the people who pick up those items who convert into customers. Business requires an investment; either you can pay money for the balloons and brochures, or you can pay time in writing a great blog.
I seem to have wandered away from the purpose of my title. The first thought that came to my mind when I read the pledge blog this morning was, "I guess it's tough to sell a book, no matter who you are." I have a friend who has self-published two books, and she occasionally (frequently?) is discouraged by how slow sales are. You would think the author of the pledge blog would not have the same trouble; after all, he's got the advantage of being in the business. But I suppose ultimately, it doesn't matter who you are.* The book has to find its own readers.
*After I had written this line, it occurred to me that Snooki and Bristol Palin sell books. I don't think it's because the books are riveting reads....