Waiting for the next pitch…
Rubbing rosin into your grip, you tighten it and choke up a bit more, just in case. And wait.
Our world is often expressed in terms of sports analogies. Oddly enough, they seem to hold up well across cultures and languages. Just change the name and a few particulars of the sport used, chances are you’ll find a sizeable group able to relate. We can momentarily drop away from life’s real distractions to savor a tiny immersion into a game. With life more complex than ever, requiring more active engagement; we’re all looking for that momentary release of the pressure. Ready and more than willing.
Up to a point. I’m noticing that online, the pitching doesn’t abate much whether in conversation, mid-message or doing a search. As the social mediums that have so completely won us over amass the user data to finally make the transition to Full Revenue Sources, we can hardly dodge the pitches. They come from every direction in lots of different styles, angles and disguises.
Not that we don’t all enjoy the entertainment that comes with a well-conceived pitch, but being sold, non-stop, gets tiresome, doesn’t it? Having been in the business of crafting targeted marketing messages for most of my adult life (and to be honest, quite a bit of my childhood), I can see a pitch coming pretty easily. Lately, though my reaction times seem to be slowing and it’s getting harder to always keep my guard up. If you see someone knee-deep while cleaning out a well-used stable for example; offering them a wider, deeper shovel might not really be the best way to be of help.
Writers seeking publication and readers, seem to be well-past knee deep in all these kinds of offers of help. There’s almost no place you can hide from the pitch-men, without cutting yourself off completely. If you want to discuss book marketing for example, whether you find yourself online in a safe chatroom or writers’ group, you’re almost certainly being pitched in some way or another. One of the refinements of search engines and discussion forums is the ease with which pitch-men of all stripes can sugar coat their message with all kinds of pertinent information and even embraced opinion. Winning you over, post by post. It’s the nature of the game and when done well is a remarkable achievement. I don’t object to the fact of the pitching itself. It’s been one of my primary livelihoods for a long time. What I’m finding more annoying than the sheer volume of it though, is the stealth pitching being done in the guise of offering honest opinion or advice from personal experience to those who may be unaware of exactly how the game is played.
There was a time that some of us remember, when discussing writing took place either in a college classroom, or in a booth at a local watering hole. In either case, those engaged were mostly protected from public scrutiny or being set up as a potential sales lead. This all changed with the advent of social media online. While we used to “know” our classmates or drinking buddies, our online groups are made up of people we get to know from an arm’s length, depending upon those things they share. Their identity and backgrounds are often carefully hidden. Of course, there are also lots of folks just hoping to engage with other folks with similar interests in order to learn more about the craft of writing. But not all discussion agendas are clearly stated. Smart pitch-men reveal only what is useful for them to reveal, which can disguise their intent pretty well. Simple trolls are easy enough to dismiss, but not all that troll are necessarily trolls. Fortunately, there are caution signs nearing sharp turns on rough sections of the road we’re on. With a little practice we can learn to see them even when they are behind those pesky bushes.
An example of this are hungry freelance book editors that might provide less than stellar reviews online, making sure it’s not too hard for the bruised author to make contact after the fact. Or people working for book cover mills disparaging self-published authors’ posted cover designs while making suggestions of who the author should approach. Since most writers tend towards insecure, we make perfect targets for stealth pitches like this. Whenever I visit a discussion site, I always like to check out the profile of the user who has begun any thread I have an interest in. Chances are, if there’s a professional service shingle hanging out there, the discussion thread is a roundabout service pitch. I’ve found useful information in such discussions, by keeping my skeptical eyes wide open and skimming off the information I can use. Remember, there are writers who offer helpful advice from their own journey to other writers that need a hand up, with no motive beyond the good feeling of being able to give someone a hand. I’ve been helped myself, several times, by these wonderful human beings. But the pitch-men often wear the same outfits, so it’s always a good idea to remain a bit skeptical.
We also can be easily fooled by sock-puppets supporting someone’s amazing claims of results through the use of (insert program, consultant, distribution or software name here). Back in the day, when medicine shows traveled about from town to town, the pitch-man wasn’t the only one working the crowd. Agents would have gone into those towns ahead of time to secure the services of folks known as “shills” who were paid to provide support for the pitch. They would faint away at exactly the right time during the presentation to be miraculously revived, or would shout out supporting encouragement. It was a recognized profession at the time, and it endures today.
Another caution sign pops up for me with high visibility, well-advertised ( read: well-funded) “groups” of writers banding together to market their books at a grassroots level or to improve their work through mutual editing and popularity-based writing contests. More often than I like to see, these groups turn out to be prospect mines for a marketing, advertising, consulting or vanity publishing company. One component of the growing crop of online book advertising venues is that they rarely provide accurate circulation/impression figures. Print advertising mediums have been regulated for years now and required to share circulation figures to give prospective advertisers some numerical basis for the fees they charge and the results that can be expected. No such regulation exists for online advertisers, who may make their fees appear more attractive by breaking down the cost per impression, or the smaller figure, click-through. Independent Authors that want to advertise their books are at a distinct disadvantage compared to publishers’ media departments that know exactly who is seeing the print ads and exactly what the response return should be for the money spent.
Not to be confused with P.O.D. Production companies, Vanity Publishers still exist and deserve their own comments here. The self-publishing explosion along with high-quality Print on Demand production has not forced them completely into the shadows. Instead, they are now gobbled up and added as new divisions of respected mainstream publishers. They show “interest” in new authors and active writers in emails, tweets and online contact through forums. The attention makes a writer feel good, resulting in a response to the initial pitches. But the bottom line hasn’t changed much. If it is going to cost you money out of pocket to bring your work to market, run. Run fast. I have never paid a publisher beyond the cost of proof copies, to put a title out for me. I have never had to purchase a large quantity of books to get them to market, and unless your garage needs filling with heavy boxes, I’d advise you to do likewise. Producing a quality book in a readable design with a well-conceived cover isn’t free unless you have the skillset handy, but then having to cough up again when your publisher bills you for publishing your book, is just wrong.
Another seemingly new pitch comes from “Marketing Platform Consultants”. All authors need to create a brand, don’t they? Well, platform consultants sometimes operate by suggesting such a huge, endless pile of activities a writer “must do” to build their brand, the writer at some point, has no time left to write. So, rather than lose all that valuable effort, the consultant invariably offers publicity services or a software package that will do it all while leaving the writer free to do their best work. Right. Back in the day, when print book sales were humming along and publishers actually had budget to promote their authors’ work, the idea that a writer was somehow responsible to create a platform from which to launch their brand was unheard of. All of that was handled in-house by a staff of professionals on salary. When the tech sea-change began, many of these same professionals found themselves laid off despite having useful skills, so they had to become pitch-men to survive. Fortunately for those in the biz, the market is always changing, often even faster than the technology shifts. Just trying to figure out your exposure goals can be daunting, as the numbers that signify you’re making progress change depending upon who’s doing to pronouncing.
An example for me hit home when two years ago, reading a respected lit agent’s blog, authors were advised to try and amass at least 400 followers on Twitter as that was the number below which an agent wouldn’t think the writer had done much to connect with their market. When I reached 500 followers, I felt momentarily self-satisfied… until in another forum, a different marketing professional suggested that you shouldn’t listen to anyone who hasn’t got at least 1500 followers. So, according to the numbers, I was less than halfway there after two years. I began to look up writers I knew on Twitter to find that many have followers well in excess of 2K! It seems, that on Twitter at least, it really has become a numbers game. Keeping up with your particular reader niche is not the kind of work you can do in your spare time if you intend to also perfect your writing skills. Finding help is a good idea, just keep in mind that real professional help comes with a price.
Of course, everyone offering a service has to get the word out to prospective customers, but I believe it’s always best that the customer knows up front, that there’s an invoice waiting at the end of the rainbow. I don’t want to suggest that promotion should not have associated costs, just that you should know when you’re entering into a commercial relationship or activity, especially through the back door.
Legitimate writing forums and author groups without hidden agendas do exist. There are many, but it’s getting harder and harder to find them as the bandwidth of social media is more full of advertising than ever before. It’s showing no sign of even leveling off. This means that in order for a writer to actually find some honest peer support out there, they’ll have to take some time making their choices. Spending some time observing on any site before jumping in can save you from having to grab a shovel to clear the exit. Same thing goes for blindly accepting the earnest advice you read in discussion posts. Listen carefully. Learn first. Make your decision when you know what the game actually is.
Think before you swing. Look for the pitch. Wait… wait… here it comes. If you decide to connect, step into it and be sure to follow through with the full twist. If you don’t, it’s easy enough to just stand there and let it fly past. Remember, it’s still sometimes possible to get on base without swinging at anything. Might even save you some money.
Suggested Further Reading:
- David Gaughran’s Blog: Avoiding Publishing Predators (he skewers some of the most egregious scams directed at authors regularly in his posts)
- Absolute Write Water Cooler: Bewares, Recommendations and Background Checks Like Wikipedia, be careful what you take as Gospel, but still a good resource.
- Trollologist: the troll catalogue. Forewarned is also pretty funny!
- The Behler Blog: Publishing from my side of the desk by publisher/ editor Lynn Price Behler. Truly priceless advice.
- LitReactor: The Single Biggest Mistake Indie Authors Make column by Rob Hart. Be sure to read the comments.