Thursday, February 26, 2009

Andrew Keen Could Learn A Thing Or Two From Us Monkeys

In his book, The Cult of the Amateur: how today's internet is killing our culture, author Andrew Keen argues that Web 2.0 (content for media consumers created by media consumers) will soon spell the death of Western media culture as we know it. I don't disagree with him, but unlike Mr. Keen, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Mr. Keen likens the worldwide community of bloggers and indie artists to "infinite monkeys...typing away". He says that where the web and media are concerned:

"...democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions."

"Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced ('disintermediated', to use [an O'Reilly] term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content."

Mr. Keen is apparently unaware of the possibility that the public at large doesn’t feel our culture, or access to it, requires “gatekeepers”. He also fails to acknowledge the reality that those “gatekeepers” have abused our collective trust with such regularity, we no longer recognize their status as arbiters of anything other than what stands to make their industries and corporate backers the maximum quantities of money in a minimum quantity of time. Whether we’re talking about big publishers with their ‘celebrity novels’, journalists with their ‘infotainment’, or TV executives with their so-called reality programming, the gatekeepers are now known to us primarily as experts in misdirection, hype and obfuscation.

It goes without saying that there are many honest, hardworking people in all branches of media who are doing their level best to deliver accurate, incisive content, but these are the minority voices in the cacophony of a vocal majority with less lofty goals.

Keen says, "The value once placed on a book by a great author is being challenged by the dream of a collective hyperlinked community of authors who endlessly annotate and revise it, forever conversing with each other in a never-ending loop of self-references."

And the problem here is…what? As an author of both fiction and nonfiction, I would be very happy to have an audience so engaged in what I’ve written that they’re moved to discuss it in groups. Isn’t that what literary study and criticism is all about? Keen seems to be suggesting that once a manuscript is bound between two covers, it should be laid to rest with no further analysis or study on the part of its readership. But isn’t it—and hasn’t it always been—the mission of great literature and nonfiction to spark thought, public discourse and debate?

Keen implies the author should always have the final word where his work is concerned, but I disagree. In my view, the author gets to open the discussion, but the readers get to have the discussion. And that’s not a bad thing.

Keen goes on to talk about how free online content is stealing the very money out of the pockets of hardworking businesses and corporations. For example, Encyclopedia Brittanica has steadily lost marketshare to online compendia such as Wikipedia. But lest we feel little sympathy toward corporate behemoths like Brittanica that have been slow to get on the technology bus, or perhaps even feel some of those behemoths are about due for extinction, Keen trots out the story of the archetypal ‘little guy’:

"Then there's Guy Kawasaki, author of one of the fifty most popular blogs on the internet...And how much did Kawasaki earn in ad revenue in 2006 off this hot media property? Just $3,350. If this is [Wired founder] Anderson's long tail, it is a tail that offers no one a job. At best, it will provide the monkeys with peanuts and beer."

As it turns out, Guy Kawasaki is no ‘little guy’ at all. Keen neglects to mention the fact that Kawasaki has 10 bestselling nonfiction books in print. Hmmm…you don’t suppose Mr. Kawasaki’s blog has increased his book sales at all, do you?

The central failure of Mr. Keen’s book is his base assumption: that our culture needs gatekeepers and professional arbiters of quality in media, that people need to have their tastes, thoughts and opinions carefully formulated and shaped for them, that we lack the ability to make intelligent choices for ourselves. In addition to the snobbery inherent in his arguments, Keen’s scorn for the common man is evidenced by his repeated references to bloggers and indie artists as “monkeys”.

If Mr. Keen and his compatriats among the media elite knew anything about history, they'd know that every major step forward in human culture has been brought about by the dismantling of---wait for it---the then-powerful media elite. From the French Revolution to the American Revolution, from Martin Luther pinning a note on a church door to Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march on Washington D.C., from the literature and art of The Age of Enlightenment to the Cinema Verite movement of the 1970's, whenever the controlling forces in our culture overreach or come to scorn the very public they claim to serve, that public will rise up in an overthrow and the outcome will be cultural progress.

Mr. Keen,
the cheese has moved. You are welcome to join the cheese in its new location or to seek out new cheese on your own, but it’s pointless to keep demanding that all the people you think are beneath you bring the cheese back to you, because they are all quite happy with the cheese in its current location and you haven’t done anything to earn their affection or respect. Your whining diatribe of a book may be very popular among your peers in the media elite however; you might be able to launch a cheese-finding expedition with them, were it not for the fact that they have no idea how the cheese got away either, and like you, are not terribly welcome in the monkey house.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Myth Of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

A funny thing happened to me this month. Not funny ha-ha, but funny WTF?!

As you probably already know, the launch of Publetariat, a new online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints I've founded, was announced on 2/11 at the O'Reilly Tools of Change (#TOC) conference. Okay, I say "announced", but this wasn't any kind of onstage, glitzy, fire-the-confetti-cannons-and-t-shirt-bazookas announcement. It was more like the site URL appearing under my name on a conference session slide, and me talking up the site and handing out cards with the site URL to everyone I met. I also announced the launch on Twitter that day.

I'd poured considerable effort into making Publetariat as appealing as possible to indie authors and small imprints, recruiting subject-area experts to write articles for the site, and spreading the word on writer sites and discussion boards where indies seemed to congregate. However, I hadn't poured any effort whatsoever into Search Engine Optimization (SEO)---gasp! SEO is the process of optimizing your website's text, titles, tags and metadata to make your site pages appear with a higher frequency and rank in search results.

Any internet marketing wonk will tell you SEO is important to any website's success, and absolutely critical at launch. In fact, given that I'm a virtual nobody with no access to mainstream publicity and had a marketing budget in the tens of dollars, I'm sure any internet marketing wonk worth his salt would've said SEO was practically the only means at my disposal to drive significant traffic to my site. But he'd be wrong.

One week later, on 2/17/09, out of idle curiosity I ran Publetariat's URL through The report showed Publetariat had achieved a 3-month average Alexa traffic rank in the top 6.92% of all websites—but Publetariat had only had its beta launch the first week of February and its public Go-Live on 2/11. When I scaled the average down to a one-month average instead of three, I found Publetariat's Alexa rank was actually in the top 2% of all websites for the month. I knew the site had been doing well in its first week, but this didn’t seem possible.

I checked traffic stats on the site’s web server and found that on 2/17 alone, the overall site had indeed received 9,046 hits, and the site’s RSS feed had received over 1,200 hits. I'm just not accustomed to traffic success on that scale and still wasn't buying it, so to verify the results further, I went to the Alexa site and punched Publetariat into their traffic ranking search box myself. What I got was an unequivocal confirmation of what websitegrader had told me. Hence, ha-ha WTF?!

I knew the site's community-friendly design and features, my grassroots promotional campaign and my staged rollout strategy (pre-launch, beta launch, go-live) would pay off, but I had no idea how well until I was looking at those first week traffic stats with my own eyes. SEO, Smesh-E-O, I thought. As it turns out, the search engine traffic you're hoping to get with SEO can be matched and even exceeded by reaching out directly to your intended audience. The direct approach gives a site its best shot at going viral, because it taps into the social network of users on a more personal level than a set of search engine results can.

(Granted, my strategy is probably best suited to a brand new site launch. Once a site has been out there for a while, search engine hits may well be the best way to drive new traffic because it's too late to employ teasers and whisper campaigns to build anticipation for the site.)

It hadn't escaped my notice that while the buzzword of the #TOC conference had been 'community building', attendees had come away with very little in the way of concrete advice and steps to follow in launching their own community-building initiatives. Since I'd just accomplished the very thing they would all be shortly setting out to do, I decided to write a book about it.

From Concept To Community: How I Built An Online Community And Took It Viral In 25 Days With Little Money And No SEO is a small book, just 80pp, but that's enough to explain exactly what I did and how I did it. It will be out in various electronic formats on Smashwords and in Amazon's Kindle store by the end of this week, and will be released in trade paperback early next month.

I've set its retail price at $29.99, higher than any book I've published previously, but there's a method to my madness there. First of all, this is a book aimed at businesses that can write off the expense---all those publishers that were in attendance at #TOC, for example. Secondly, compared to all the classes, consultants, SEO services and other books they were going to pay for in their quest to build successful online communities, $30 is a pittance. Thirdly, Amazon typically discounts any Kindle title that's priced over $9.99---and even though my book isn't actually available in the Kindle store yet, I see they've already discounted its selling price by 45%, down to $16.49. Fourthly (is that even a word?), this book may be my best shot at actually earning enough money with my writing to match an actual, respectable salary. Finally, I can honestly say the book is worth $30, if not more, given all the great information and concrete advice it contains. Time will tell if would-be community-builders agree with me on that point.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Virtual Book Launch Party

Everyone is invited to a free online party to celebrate the launch of Anne Cordwainer's new book, Modern Magic. Check out this review, from an author more than a few of us have heard of:

“I love it! The magic framework is well worked out, the writing is apt, and the crises are scary . . . . this is a fun novel.”
-Piers Anthony

At the online party you'll find great music, pointers to great books, free games, amusing food for thought, and more. The party will only last a week, so visit while you can. Here's the party link, once again.

Lessons Learned From #TOC: Don't Be A Jerk

Don't believe what you hear about New Yorkers being rude. During the four days I was there for the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference, only two people were rude to me. One was a woman who sat next to me during a showing of the musical Billy Elliot. The other was an author in attendance at the conference. I've blurred the details in relating my experience with the author here, but there's still an important lesson to be learned from it.

I'd long been a fan of this author and a regular follower of her blog and online columns for various publications, and had long pondered a specific passage in one of her books. Seeing her at the conference, I figured this was my chance to ask her for further clarification directly. Her response was curt. She tersely said I'd completely misunderstood the passage and rather than indulge me with further explanation, directed me back to her site. Not surprisingly, my impression of this author has changed entirely, for the worse, and my new, negative impression will undoubtedly color my opinion of all her work in the future.

In fairness to this multi-published, big-name author, it must be said that she probably receives queries like mine all the time and is sick and tired of having to answer the same questions from the boneheaded public over and over again. However, in fairness to the boneheaded public, it must be said that we pay her bills and it is our desire to read and understand her work that allows this author to maintain her lifestyle and vaunted status. While I sell respectable numbers of books and get tens of thousands of hits on my various websites each month, I'm a relatively smalltime operator in the big scheme of publishing. Even so, I cared enough about this author's work to buy it and try to absorb it, and I think that's reason enough to deserve a modicum of respect from the author.

The author essentially made me regret having posed my question to her, and by extension, having spent the money and time I'd invested in her work to date. I was left to slink away in quiet embarrassment as other, better-known conference attendees swooped in and were granted a much warmer welcome by the author. What could I say? "Gee, sorry to show interest in your work, I'll try not to do it again."

As an author, you should count yourself lucky to have each and every fan, and treat every one of them with the same level of respect and interest you would show to the most famous and influential person you can imagine. In the general sense it's just plain good manners, but in the marketing sense it's critical. You may think a bumpkin housewife who accosts you to ask the most lamebrained question about your work you can imagine isn't worth your time because she's just a lamebrained, bumpkin housewife, but you're wrong. That housewife buys books, belongs to book clubs, church groups and the PTA, and comes from a large circle of family and friends in her community. Whatever she tells her circle about you is something that circle will repeat to their circles, among whom are sure to be some bloggers and influential voices---six degrees of separation and all that.

Each contact with a reader is an opportunity to make a good impression, reinforce an already good impression, or spread bad press on your own behalf. No matter how tired, frustrated or annoyed you may be feeling on the inside, paste on a smile and show your audience some respect.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

#TOC Trip Report, Part I

The panel discussion in which I was a member, The Rise of Ebooks, played to a packed auditorium here at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference on technology and the future of publishing yesterday. Luckily for me, the lights shining on us were so blinding that it was difficult to see---and therefore, to be unnerved by---the large audience. The other panel members were Smashwords founder Mark Coker, Joe Wikert of O'Reilly, David Rothman of, and Russell Wilcox of e-ink.

In every keynote speech and session I've attended, the news is all good for indie authors and small imprints. Read why in part one of my trip report for Publetariat, here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pssst! Over here, behind the dumpster...

Isn't it about time we indie authors and small imprints had an online home to call our own? And wouldn't it be great if that online home had news about publishing and authorship, articles on topics of interest to us, a moderated discussion board, member profile pages where you could promote your work and keep a blog, reviews of reference books, products, sites and services used by indies, and a general, all-around indie-friendly philosophy? Finally, there is just such a place, and it's called Publetariat.

Publetariat isn't open to the public yet, but all my blog readers get the super-secret link and invitation to join. People who go to will only find a 'coming soon' page, and the beta launch won't be officially announced until next week at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference, but since you're here you get to access the beta site a few days early. If you like what you see, you can join now! You may want to start with the 'About' page, to get a handle on Publetariat's mission.

Here's the link:

Feel free to share the news with your fellow indie authors and small imprint owners.