“It’s a Dandelion Thing:” Social Media and Marketing

At the Digital Minds Conference held before the 2013 London Book Fair, Neil Gaiman  made a speech where he asked the question: “How do we make ourselves heard in a world of too much information?” His answer: We rely on becoming dandelions.

626px-Dandelion_seed_dispersalGaimen went on to say: “…the model is try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. Succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago or a week ago. I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world.”––Neil Gaiman, Transcript of Speech at Digital Minds Conference for London Book Fair 2013

I love this image of the dandelion and its seeds, and it helped me frame what I wanted to say about my particular strategies regarding marketing and social media.

Like most committed indie authors, I have read innumerable blog posts about how to use social media to sell my work. I have read that I must blog, use facebook, pinterest, tumblre, google+, linkedin, stumbleupon, and reddit, among other things, (don’t you just love some of those names?). I have read that if I am going to blog I should do it daily, with short pieces, and lots of pictures, that I should tweet at least 5 times a day, but never actually promote my own books through twitter, that I should get involved on GoodReads groups but never engage in BSP (blatant shameless promotion), that I should take blog tours, that I should… Well you get the picture. I have also read that I shouldn’t do any of the above, but I should just write more books.

My conclusion after several years of reading about social media is that there are countless paths to getting your work visible through social media, and that there are no guarantees that any particular path is going to work, or assurance that the paths that work today will still be effective next month, or next year. Myspace anyone?

I think this is why I resonated so much to Gaimen’s speech and his exhortation to experiment and to do so with the expectation that many, if not most, of our efforts will, like dandelion seeds, fail to take root. This reflects my own experience and my own temperament as an indie author.

For example, when I started my blog, I called it my Front Parlor, thinking this was a clever way to establish a brand for my planned series of Victorian San Francisco Mysteries. I expected this blog to be the main path to finding the audience of potential readers for my historical fiction. Instead, my posts turned out to attract mainly an audience of other authors, who are probably quite mystified by that “Front Parlor” reference.

In addition, contrary to the perceived wisdom that successful blogs need frequent, short posts accompanied by pictures, it is my long, infrequently posted, picture-less blog pieces on topics like choosing the right categories, KDP Select, and marketing that keep being read, linked to, and commented on. For example, my first post on the importance of choosing categories has been read by over 10,000 people.

450px-20090425_Leeuwergem_(0004)Seeds were sown, and took root, just not the ones I had planned on. Sort of like planting tulips and getting tomato vines instead.

But, that doesn’t mean I have given up on tulips. I am trying to include more and more historical posts that will be of interest to readers, not just writers, but only time will tell if those historical posts bear fruit. (I know, I know, tulips don’t bear fruit, but I never met a mixed metaphor I didn’t like.)

Twitter, on the other hand, is not a place where my seeds flourish much at all. 140 characters? I can’t write a blog piece under 2000 words, how am I expected to say anything in 140 characters? I used twitter when I first signed up to find bloggers who seemed to be writing interesting pieces on ebooks and self-publishing, and I still use twitter as a way of letting my own followers know when I write a blog piece, find an interesting article by someone else, or to help cross-promote my own and my friends’ books. But my number of followers is relatively small, the percentage of my followers who retweet my tweets is miniscule, and most of those who do, are fellow authors, not the people reading my books. Again, as with my blog, I haven’t found twitter a fertile place to connect with fans or potential fans of my work. And, as most bloggers seem to agree, for social media to work there has to be a sense of personal connection.

On the other hand, most of my seeds on GoodReads seem to grow on their own. I have my author page, I gladly accept anyone who wants to be a friend, and I find the giveaways useful in letting people know when a new book is out. But in most cases, it is readers themselves who sow my seeds. Without my asking, they put my books on their shelves and review them. For example, Maids of Misfortune has been rated by 755 people and 944 people have it on their too-read list, which feels like a nice lush garden, just not sown by me.

In fact, the dandelion metaphor really works well when considering my activities on sites like GoodReads, Shelfari, or LibraryThing, or the various genre specific sites like Historical Fiction Mysteries, Cozy Mystery.com, or sites that feature indie authors like Awesome Indies, or indieBrag, or the numerous book bloggers. I am willing to sign up, get my books listed, offer an occasional post, give an interview, scatter some of those dandelion seeds. What I don’t do is spend time cultivating them so they must take root on their own if they are to survive.

Time is the big factor here. For example, GoodReads members don’t want authors to pop into group discussions just to promote their books. They want authors to engage in conversations over the books or topics they are discussing. Yet, at this point in my writing career, I can’t find the time to read the books that are being discussed on groups like Historical Fictionistas. So any activity on my part on these groups would be inauthentic. I can scatter seeds in lots of places, but I haven’t the time to really cultivate them in most of the places they land.

For me, that sense of authentic connection has only come recently, and I am as surprised as anyone that it has come on Facebook.

As a good little indie author, even before I set up a website, I signed up for a private Facebook page. I loved that I found old high school friends and acquaintances (who were some of the first to buy Maids of Misfortune when it came out––thank you all!) I still enjoy the fact that I often know what my nieces and their children are up to before my sister-in-law does because I check out Facebook several times a day. But any fans who wander onto this site aren’t going to hear much from me of interest on a day-to-day basis. I am too private (or maybe just too long-winded) to burble on during the day about my daily affairs, I don’t really think that other writers or fans want to see too many pictures of my grandchildren (adorable though they may be.), and it seems inconsiderate to impose too much of my writing business on friends and family. So some seeds do grow there, but again, not with much cultivation on my part.

However, several months ago, when I started to report my word count on the author Facebook page I had set up, I discovered my seeds were falling on very fertile ground and I didn’t mind cultivating them.

My author Facebook page is where the most vocal fans of my series seemed to show up. It was here that I would get questions about when the next book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series was going to show up. So, several months ago I decided if I announced how many words I had written (or if I wrote at all) in a day to people who actually cared about the new book being published, I would try harder to put my writing first. And it worked. I spent more days writing and I spent more hours per day, and in two months I wrote 76,000 words and completed the first draft.

In addition, in order to make these updates more interesting, I began talking about the research I was doing and linking to websites about historical places, events, and people that were relevant. I even found a way to use Pinterest when I discovered I could easily link my updates to picture I had pinned (without worrying about copyright-since the picture was linked back to its origins.)

And people, people who were not just other authors, responded. They cheered me on when I had a high word count, and they consoled me when I didn’t. They commented on the links and added their own, and they shared personal stories. That personal connection that I had been missing on twitter, my blog, and GoodReads was suddenly there.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI have no idea whether the seeds I am sowing on this Facebook page will have any significant effect on future sales. For all I know, everyone who has participated would have gone out and bought the next book anyway. But that doesn’t matter because I just enjoy going out every day and looking at all the pretty splashes of yellow in that particular field.

And when you come down to it, isn’t that what it is all about. Writing the books, telling the stories, and basking in the knowledge that other people have enjoyed sharing with you the worlds you have created.

Now all you authors, do tell me where you have scattered your seeds, and where you have found they have taken root most successfully. And for the readers among those reading this post, where have you found the most satisfying personal connections to the authors you love?

In case you are interested, Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery Series will be free on Kindle May 25-26, 2013.

24 thoughts on ““It’s a Dandelion Thing:” Social Media and Marketing

  1. Right now, I’d have to say Twitter–but that could change. I appreciate your posts–they are always of value. When your name shows up in my inbox, I click on it right away. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Reblogged this on Diana Douglas and commented:
    Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, Gaiman’s speech holds something for all of us and Louisa Locke’s comments take it a step further. Don’t pass this up–it’s worth your time.

  3. I have loved your wordcounting on facebook – it has inspired me to keep going with my own work and it has given me some wonderful break time looking through your historical links. Can’t wait for the next book!

  4. A wonderful post. As an author, I sometimes wonder if those “must do”/ be here!” lists are simply a compilation of most social media venues and it would take a super-human effort to do everything – And write too? Not for my style of writing. Part of the act of writing historical fiction is bringing another time and place alive; and I need to become immersed in that time and the story I am telling. Hard to do when the commonly accepted wisdom is to be everywhere else, splashing one’s presence across the known universe.
    Your comments are comforting and right on.for me. Many thanks.

    • Echo that Judith. It really perplexes me as to how anyone can write and immerse themselves with one eye on Twitter, another on Facebook and the third on the demands of the empty fridge. But after a lifetime of only writing and never being read I must attend to these skills, which do not come naturally!

  5. Absolutely love this post and the dandelion idea! Also love your entire series and look forward to the next one–Annie is fascinating and I always learn something new about San Francisco from your books.

    I don’t do Facebook and just started on Twitter, but I’ve found I can follow tweets and comment quickly without spending too much time away from my research and writing–YMMV.

  6. Louisa, your posts are also so incredibly helpful. The piece on Amazon categories featured in David Gaughran’s new book explained it so simply that I am finally coming to grips with the need to find the right category for our book. I’m not there yet – still finding my way but today, after a Book Gorilla/Kindle Nation Daily joint promo our book is in the top 100 of a category that we can compete in, when we previously we were struggling in action/adventure as our second choice, after thriller. So thank you once again. Do let us know when Maids of Misfortune is free in the UK Kindle store. Alison (Lambert Nagle)

  7. very interesting article – and good food for thought! Sowing a seed here: all Historical Fiction Indie writers are welcome to submit their books to the Historical Novel Society for review. We particularly want UK writers to send to our UK section (US, world wide also invited of course!) e-mail hnsindie AT yahoo DOT co.uk for details

  8. Terrific post that I’m sure will comfort a lot of writers who are working flat out trying to do it all and finding themselves pulled in too many directions at once, leaving far too little time to, er, write – or indeed read! Just trying to re-engineer by own balancing act so this was a very timely read for me!

  9. I enjoyed this and shared it on FaceBook. Yes – I agree – I have gathered a nice group of friends and fans, some of whom have read everything I’ve written, from sharing bits from my writer’s life.

  10. As a reader, what I appreciate most are your tweets about other historical fiction books. I’ve been analyzing my Kindle order history, so I can quantify this effect. Here are the writers whose books I’ve read as a direct result of your recommendations:

    Monique Martin (1 free, 4 paid)
    Rebecca Lochlann (1 paid)
    PB Ryan (1 free, 5 paid)
    Martha Marks (1 paid)
    Susanne Alleyn (1 paid)
    Elisabeth Storrs (1 free)
    M. Ruth Myers (2 free, 2 paid)
    Annmarie Banks (2 paid)

    This is over a 10 month period and it looks like you are responsible for me going from reading about 6 books a month to about 8 books a month. FWIW, you’ve also shifted the current gender balance of the writers I read from about 50-50 to about 65-35.

    • Dear William,

      Wow, thanks for this feedback! This helps a lot, because of course the “perceived wisdom” is that you shouldn’t tweet just about book promos, so it is nice to know that some followers feel differently. It also shows a lot about the benefits of authors cooperating, since most of that list are fellow members of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative I belong to, which means I know personally–from reading these books and interacting with the authors–the high quality of the work.

      Thanks again,

      Mary Louisa

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  13. The funny thing is that you have done exactly what everyone says you need to with a social site – engage. The trick is to find a social site you enjoy and compliments your style. There are certainly enough people on Facebook to engage with, providing you can find the right method, one that suits you i.e. more than 140 characters in your case.

    So it is nice to hear you have found a social media site and method that compliments the way you operate and has found a following. For other authors it could as easily be one of the other sites. StumbleUpon for example, but the key as I think you have demonstrated so well is to focus your efforts on at least one and, using your analogy, just let the seeds float to the others.So what you have really done in this case is a bit of gardening, where you have taken a seed and planted it on your Facebook page, then you have found a way to nurture it and take care of it so that it has grown into a full blown yellow dandelion.

  14. (Hoping I’m not double replying! My browser just did something weird and I’m not sure if the original comment went through.)

    I loved this post! Keeping up with all the various forms of social media can be difficult when you’re not entirely sure what’s working and what isn’t and how to fix what isn’t, and when you’re supposed to be writing, AND if you have a day job you also need to focus on. Your facebook success, and what you’ve done with it is a great idea, maybe I ought to think about doing something similar!

  15. What a great post! I so agree and have done the route of the innumerable blog reading- of what or what not to do…and there is not one direct path. I too have started to experiment with my Facebook fan page to interact with my readers more. So far so good. I am very private, shy, etc. and panic when I have to respond. Always feel like I don’t know what to say, afraid I might say the wrong thing or babble, etc. but getting better at it and I do love hearing from the readers/fans. Best of luck to you and thanks for sharing. Congrats on your upcoming release and way to go on the pre-order page!

  16. Tank you for your post, it is very informative. Facebook seems to be the best place for me along with my blog. I find twitter it is only authors following me, some wait till I follow back and then stop following me. I need to engage more with goodreads and I agree promoting your book on groups does not work well. People set up the groups to engage in discussions not promotions.

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