Selling the Packaging

There’s an old, old advertising maxim that says something to the effect that “you don’t sell the steak; you sell the sizzle.”  It was true sixty years ago, and it’s even more true today… especially in F&SF.

At almost every science fiction convention or conference I’ve attended over the past five, possibly even ten years, there’s been at least one presenter or guru, if not a whole raft, insisting that the first step to becoming a successful author is, in essence, establishing a huge internet/social media presence.  And there’s at least one very successful author in our field who’s done that, as well as a great number of other moderately successful authors who’ve also done the same thing. While I fully understand the rationale in this day of hype, personality, and instant access, I have to wonder what this does to the amount and quality of actual fiction writing.

On the one hand, if you want to be a professional author and paid for your work, there’s little point in writing something, no matter how excellent, if no one knows you’re writing it and if no one buys it because they don’t know it’s there.  And, like it or not, with the tight margins in publishing these days, very few first-time authors get overwhelming amounts of support from publishers. This problem is compounded by the shorter window during which new books – by almost any author except those extremely well-established – receive attention from readers, bookstores, bloggers, and other media. In short, authors have to work harder to be visible.

The problem is that the nature of the internet is “instant.”  If there’s not something out there practically every day, all too many readers lose interest. I’ve tried to avoid the posting every day syndrome by posting my blogs twice a week and by trying to make them “deeper” and not nearly so much about matters I regard as trivial.  That’s not snobbery, but a recognition of my own limits.  I don’t do light humor and personal trivia well, certainly not along the “cat on bacon” variety.  Even so, posting blogs just twice weekly means that I’m writing 50,000 words a year for the website, and those aren’t words that are going into books.  Both my editors and publicists have been able to see a certain effect from that, especially compared to authors of my vintage and style who have not established even a modest internet presence, but it’s difficult to quantify how much difference it makes.

Is that difference in sales because of the website, forum, and other internet efforts?  Or is it merely because what I write is still appealing to readers?  Both?  Some of each?  How much of each?

Then there’s the other question.  How much are readers affected by a writer’s internet presence and persona?  The other day I read a comment suggesting that one popular author [not me, thankfully] was a far better blogger than an author, but that was something that the author’s readers didn’t seem to catch, because, according to the blogger, the writer was a competent author and an outstanding blogger, and readers thought the author was outstanding in both areas.

My gut feeling is that the commenter is on to something, and that a good internet presence creates an impression of greater authorial ability than may exist, while a poor or non-existent internet presence likely has a negative effect – but only among readers who are active on the internet.

All that said, there’s a real question about the trade-offs.  To what degree does all the effort to develop and maintain an internet presence detract from an author’s principal task, which is to write good and entertaining books?  A website and blog, no matter how entertaining, won’t bring in much income, but if a new author isn’t an instant best-seller, without some form of vigorous self-promotion, he or she may not be around too long, no matter how good the writing.  And then, once you’re established, what happens if you try to cut back on that daily and continuing internet presence?

14 thoughts on “Selling the Packaging”

  1. Lourain says:

    I have been buying your books since before the internet was available, and will continue to buy them even if you have no internet presence. However, since I enjoy your blog, I hope you will continue with it.
    I rarely read other authors’ blogs, so the quality of the writing is the most important factor when I consider a potential purchase.
    For new authors the best selling point is when I can sample some of the author’s work. When sources such as bookstores, Amazon, Baen, etc. will let me browse or read sample chapters there is a much better chance that I will buy that first book.

  2. Steve says:

    Reading your blog has kept me aware of new books that you are releasing. In the past I would check books out from the library when I became aware of them. Now I find myself looking forward to their release, placing them on hold at the library, and then buying the ebook on the day of release because it will be “in processing” for two weeks at the library. This just happened yet again with Cyador’s Heirs. So your blog, and the internet in general have caused me to purchase many more books than in the past.

  3. Thom says:

    An online presence certainly can be part of the author’s over-all PR package. I don’t know that it’s critical, but it can certainly help. It can also be a serious obstacle for some readers. Larry Correia, for example, has a very strong following of both his books and his blog, but he also has a very strong camp of enemies because of that blog, which tends to be controversial and in-your-face. Brandon Sanderson’s blog is mostly marketing messages and updates on works in progress. “Presence” can mean very different things.

  4. Larry says:

    I always assumed people hired people to maintain their blogs/social media and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I discover someone like yourself who actually maintains their own presence online. There are only a handful of writers that I consistently check and it’s mainly to check in on what is in their pipeline and what they’re working on. You are the only one I cyberstalk because I’m intrigued by the thoughts you raise and your perspective. Whether that’s because you are one of the only ones I’ve found that is more than marketing, or pictures of your cats or snaps of the covers of your books in other countries… can’t say. I haven’t ever visited an author I haven’t read before, mainly because I don’t know to look for them before I’ve read something by them. Maybe you should cross-promote with other authors who have a good online presence. Sometimes I’ll read a book that you have mentioned you like so I’d probably visit an author’s site that you recommend (and if intrigued, I’d probably look up one of their books.) Anyway, since this post was about ‘what impact does this have’ I thought I’d leave my 2 cents. 😀

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I personally read your blog because it is roughly 20x more interesting than any of the other blogs of my favorite authors. Correia – I read a book of his and looked at his blog: neither are to my taste. Scalzi – funny, superficial… not to my taste though his books I like. Butcher (Dresden): way too commercial.

    LeGuin does a nice blog. It reminds me what would happen if you cross LEM with Garrison Keillor… I can’t really explain that well.

    The best blogs give me the chance to read stuff from my favorite authors when I’ve read (and re-read and re-read) the books waiting for the next one to come out. The rest of them are like TV: I ignore what I don’t like.

  6. Ryan Jackson says:

    While admittedly anecdotal, I will say that while what you say is very true, there is still a large group of folks who don’t focus on or follow an author’s personality and fame for their works.

    None of the readers I know really follow their authors online except for occasionally glancing at a site, and none of them knew about the author before they picked up the first book in the store.

    For myself, you’re the only author I regularly check on, mainly due to your political and social commentary than anything. Beyond that I’ve occasionally glanced at Sanderson’s efforts, but that was mainly while he was involved with WoT. Now I only glance from time to time to see if a book is coming.

  7. RdR says:

    You, like John Wanamaker before you, are falling afoul of another old, old maxim: half of advertising is a waste of money, you just don’t know which half.

  8. Josh Camden says:

    A good book is a work of art. Being able to reach out and touch the artwork is one thing, but to be able to communicate near-directly with the artist is much more important. Having an online presence is more about being seen and interacting with the public then it is about content. Before the internet, and even now, many authors would receive and reply to fan-mail; blogs are akin to that.

    Seeing your favorite actor on the big screen is one thing, but getting the opportunity to say “hi” in person or even to see them at a restaurant makes them somehow more real. A Blog allows writers to do what they do best, while still being able to get out and be “seen” like their movie star counterparts.

    We enjoy your insightful blogs because they make us think however it is the opportunity to communicate with the author that keeps bringing us back.

  9. Chad says:

    Mr. Modesitt. I am a very infrequent visitor to your blog and todays visit happened to coincide with your post on web presence. I was a long time reader buying all of the Recluse, Imager and a few other series in Hardback. About a year ago I grew tired of your personal views as expressed on this blog. This combined with the repetitive nature of your writing led me to do something I had not ever done… return a book unread to Amazon. I have since then stayed away and nor commented here. Why I did today? I’m not sure but I wanted to speak out that your topic is relevant. Writers who have a large PR presence can also turn readers away which is what happened with me. I do follow many other authors and consider myself a stronger fan of their work so I would guess that I would be in the minority of your fans.

    Oh… I should clarify. I do not necessarily dislike the repetitive nature of your writing. More that I think it is overpriced for what it is. I’ve read and enjoyed similar but these are by the self published and the lower price point justifies the repetitive plots and mechanisms. As proven by Author Earnings, authors would gain income from the lower priced self published model as well. Good luck clinging to the old model though.

    1. I understand…perfectly.

    2. Ryan Jackson says:

      I won’t address the claim that the works are “repetitive”. That has been covered long and well by Mr. Modesitt himself and needs no further statement IMO.

      But the other part of your post raises a point I don’t feel gets addressed enough. Why is it people cannot judge a work of art (book, painting, game, etc) by the merits of the actual work? I’ve seen this type of comment too much across too many mediums; “I don’t like your political views, so I’m out.” or “I find your religious statements offensive, not reading you anymore.” Does the work change just because the author turns out to not be who you thought?

      I don’t always agree with Mr. Modesitts points here, but I find his work fascinating and incredibly well put together. Even if we were complete opposites on the political spectrum I would not stop buying his work. I have similar feelings about Brandon Sanderson. Every so often he says something that really kicks home that we’re not on the same page for various topics. But I enjoy his writing and am buying that, not him.

      For that matter there’s one author I won’t name who turned out to be both extremist in a way that’s unhealthy and deliberately insulting to his audience, to TOR and to the genre he writes in. I still have the books and enjoy them from time to time. His personality doesn’t change rather or not I originally enjoyed the books.

      1. Chad says:

        Ryan,

        That’s fair. I have not browsed here in half a year or more so I may have missed comments on the repetitive discussion.

        The point of the “art” though I have to disagree. The only recourse I have other then some public crusade is to not support someone I disagree with. Authors or Actors… if you choose to enter the court of public opinion then I will judge you and if found wanting withhold my money and time. That is the only power a reader or fan has in the end.

  10. Larry says:

    Works of art can be judged independently after time has passed. Wagner was an anti-Semite. However his operas are respected today world-wide. They don’t represent that view and he is no longer around to be associated with it. But this ties back to the social media topic. Wagner wasn’t on Twitter or followed by TMZ to catch his statements for public exhibition. I think though, that still time would erase the ‘persona’ and leave the work.

    I really enjoy when someone has different views when they are fact-based because inevitably it allows me to re-examine what I think. Not so much if it’s from tradition/religion because there is not much I can do about that. But it DOES affect my enjoyment of a person’s work. Sometimes I’ll read something and wonder if it meant what I thought it meant or had some underlying meaning based on what I’ve heard of the author. That takes me out of the story. It doesn’t make me shun the author though.

    However, this is the case where an author is very vocal or involved directly in funding legislation I am fundamentally opposed to where I will only buy his books from second hand stores if I feel like reading them because I know I would be directly contributing to something I am against. I realize that just encourages someone to be dishonest about their true feelings and try to ‘sneak’ and support what could be controversial. But that’s fine. I can only do what I can do.

    I guess the problem is less taking the author out of the work as taking “me” out of the audience. Maybe if I were a critic I could see the point. But not for something that is just a source of enjoyment for me.

  11. D Archerd says:

    I’m much less disturbed by an author’s political or religious agenda as expressed on a separate blog than by what they put into their actual works. I take real exception to some of Orson Scott Card’s political statements in blogs and interviews, but I still buy and enjoy his writing because those viewpoints don’t particularly inform his writing. On the other hand, I had to stop reading Terry Goodkind even though I’m in sympathy if not agreement with the Libertarian philosophy he expresses in his works, because he became progressively more strident and just downright preachy, and I got tired of being yelled at even (or especially) when I agreed with him.

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