7-7-12: Where’s Nate Silver When You Need Him?

In the last several months, my ongoing work on the Sky Spinner project has turned mostly to marketing efforts. While each part of the project has been an unquestioned challenge, the problems in the publishing stages were generally quite solvable. For our small publishing team, hard work, inventiveness, and focus seemed to line up well with the project’s needs. Even working outside normal publishing channels, we believed everything was ultimately doable and it always was.

With marketing, I’ve often felt behind the curve and it’s not just because I’ve worked primarily alone. While part of the test is certainly a matter of aptitude and personality, just as often it’s been a matter of logistics. Books had to be in reviewers’ hands before I was sure they were going to be books. Networks of connections needed to be called on that I didn’t know could exist. Reviewers and booksellers—the conduits between books and readers—were typically so overwhelmed with mountains of titles that it was a losing battle to gain attention if a book didn’t arrive as a known quantity. Marketing opportunities could founder on something as quixotic as a radio producer’s bias in favor of a book that was not only on a local subject but written by a local author. 

While traditional publishing is often a bottleneck, marketing can feel wildly diffuse. Writers need the attention of a serial collection of reviewers and interviewers. They need to engage reader-reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, participate in on-line chats and book clubs, do book tours and various conferences and events, launch ever-expanding social media campaigns, and hope for the nomination or award that will give their work a wider audience. It can be more than overwhelming, particularly when each marketing success has a long list of flubs behind it.

Yet just as I recognize that changes in publishing mean new opportunities for writers to see their work into print, I also believe there can be novel approaches to marketing that can help writers with publicity and distribution. I have one specific idea and it comes from the world of statistics, specifically the kind of Nate Silver statistics that have added a new dimension to evaluating baseball players and strategies and to predicting political winners. Not that I personally know anything about statistics. But I do have this image in my mind of newspaper book editors with their carts of hundreds and hundreds of books that arrive each month and the choices they have to make about what to review with limited page space. I’d like to help them and all the other people in the distribution chain.

But just to stay with the book editors for a moment. I know they have their own ways of making the cut of books to send out for review and it goes something like this: most still draw a line at self-published work. Local writers are often in, particularly if they have a track record, and there’s almost always copy space for “big books” by well known authors. For the remaining slots, the winners are usually a combination of-how-to books, thrillers, genre and travel books, memoir and biography, literary and popular fiction, humor, a bit of poetry—all of it a thinly spread mix from the myriad numbers and kinds of books that are published. Sometimes the reporter in a book editor kicks in and there’s a book with a unique back story to tell. But the vast majority of books go unmentioned and unreviewed regardless of their quality.

Here’s where my idea comes in. One of the new phenomena in publishing is writers’ co-ops. Just as many national associations hire umbrella groups to provide management needs in areas like investment and insurance, such co-ops could join together and find statisticians who could develop a scoring system for writers. The scoring would not be about the specific work that the writers are publishing but about their documented track records as writers, all of it put through a rigorous statistical analysis. Writers could get points for things like memberships in a writer’s group, participation in and/or graduation from a writer’s program, experience in editing and in newspaper writing and blogging and in writing-based performance art, theater and comedy improv, live story telling and poetry slams, years as actual writers, years teaching creative writing, number of publications, kinds of publications, successful over-the-transom submissions, awards and grants, fellowships, agent representation with and without sales, near misses with sales, positive reviews vs. negative ones, successful collaborations and work as ghost-writers, significant mentors, first-rank publications, repeated publications in respected outlets, unique biographical background that informs work.

The metrics to be drawn from such a list would need to be as sophisticated and simple as a slugging percentage, but the upshot would be that a book could arrive at marketing venues with an identifying tag that, with a single glance, could give reviewers or interviewers a sense of the possible quality of the work. If they wanted to review something from a fresh young voice, they’d have ready choices. If they were curious about the work of writers who seem always on the verge but not quite there, they’d have even more selections. They’d also have another method of easily cutting books from consideration, which many would certainly welcome. But many steps could be skipped for both writer and reviewer while still giving a writer a possible foot in the door and a reviewer some sense of the writer’s possible merit.

This, of course, is a very preliminary idea. If something like it were developed into a workable system, it would run its own risks of being gamed or becoming one more rigid way of keeping good work from attention. But the current system, pummeled more and more with massively increasing numbers of books needs help for the sake of reviewers, readers, and writers. For myself, I’d be happy to pick up a computer-verifiable, color-coded badge from, say, the Association of Writers’ Co-ops and add it as a quick shorthand to my marketing pitches. With luck, it would mean my credibility as a writer was quickly established. Then after that, given an actual chance to speak for itself, the work could rise or fall on its own.


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