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“My neurosis aside, for creators in tech, marketing, and dozens of other fields, this is a legitimate question that causes more stress than it should. Broadly, it’s not just Twitter vs. blog, it’s ‘where should I publish a short form piece of content?’ A LinkedIn or Facebook post (which support somewhat longer-form content), a LinkedIn article, or even a TikTok/YouTube video vs. a self-hosted Wistia video on your blog could be part of this same equation.”
Fishkin is one of my favorite people in marketing since way back during his MOZ days, and it’s been interesting watching his newish startup, SparkToro, get off the ground as he’s been relatively transparent from the beginning. I actually responded to the tweet that, ahem, sparked his blog post, which I also received the next day via email as an update from SparkToro.
That level of individual engagement is generally rare and highly desired, but it also illustrates the limitations of individual metrics that lack broader context. Assuming they can connect these various data points directly to me, some marketers and/or algorithms would believe this means I’m a highly engaged prospect, when in fact I’m just a fan of Fishkin’s work and don’t have a current use for their admittedly intriguing product. Fortunately, they appear to have a smarter approach to automated marketing than that, and the fact that I haven’t used any of my free monthly searches in over year surely has me flagged as an unengaged prospect, despite my brief flurry a couple of weeks ago. I’d expect no less from Fishkin, though.
Notably, this newsletter you’re reading was basically a version of the same question: am I wasting my time on Twitter, or should I start blogging again? I wasn’t convinced blogging wouldn’t feel like a waste of time, either, and my real goal was to start writing more consistently and make better use of my Instapaper account, but I’m also addicted to tangible feedback, which blogs definitely don’t offer anymore. So, of course, the answer was a newsletter! And because I believe in owning your own online presence, it’s also content for my neglected blog. Win-win!
Thank you for reading this wherever you’re reading it. And, possibly, my apologies!
“In fact, I think people are reading more and spending more. The fact that we had this incredible year last year, and we only had two books in BookScan that crossed the million-unit mark last year – just two – and still we sold millions and millions and millions more copies of books than we did the previous year tells me that there’s a lot of reading and engagement going on, it’s just not with the books publishers would prefer that readers buy.”
In this recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Velocity of Content, NPD Group’s Kristen McLean offers some solid insights on last year’s book sales trends—including the huge impact of manga and BookTok; and a simple, pragmatic take on backlist that I appreciated.
The quote above jumped out at me, and I rewound it a few times so I could write it down to make sure I heard her correctly. (Completely forgetting that VOC produces great transcripts!) It’s a pretty damning observation for the industry’s primary source of sales data to make, not just because it blatantly centers corporate publishing as their default measuring stick — which is why their data only represents ~70% of the market — but it acknowledges that big publishers really do care more about certain books than others. Everyone knows it’s true, but you rarely get public confirmation from a knowledgeable source.
It reminded me of that time Macmillan’s John Sargent publicly admitted his “libraries are pirates” data primarily came from Amazon, while defending his ill-fated library ebook embargo in front of a bunch of librarians! It also partially explains his (and other publishers’) disdain for libraries, because the limited anecdata “supporting” their belief that library borrowing might hurt consumer sales is mostly limited to a specific type of bestselling author who relies on early, incessant buzz to drive sales that quickly taper off. Most are books consumers have been convinced they need to read first, but they realize they don’t need to own them—and Amazon definitely knows that.
Anyway, the fact that backlist sales have been growing in recent years shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, and especially not during these two pandemic years. As online retail continues to grow and physical bookstores’ influence continues to fade, every new book is competing with every other book that’s ever been published, all of which have more weight in your favorite recommendation algorithms (automated and human). The only books with a real shot of overcoming that ever-expanding hurdle are either the ones publishers put serious marketing support behind, or they have clearly targeted audiences they (or their authors) know how to reach and engage.
“And literary magazines aren’t like murder mysteries or other mass market stories with broad appeal — they don’t fund themselves, Spatz said. There’s an idea rising in higher education that the market should decide what gets funded, which then leaves more artistic pursuits like literary magazines out.”
Depending on where you sit in the publishing world, this solid overview of the troubled state of “literary magazines” is either yet another depressing indicator that the arts are dying in America, or a weird ode to the old man yelling at clouds. One of my favorite vocal thinkers, Anne Trubek, had a great Twitter thread (that I hope will get the full newsletter treatment in an upcoming issue of her excellent Notes from a Small Press), best summed up by this one: “The solution to the lit mags problem is to have fewer lit mags and fewer MFA programs.”
Asmelash dances around the MFA connection but never nails it down as one of the major, if not THE major problem for most literary magazines. Their primary goal isn’t developing a sustainable, paying readership; it’s maintaining a funnel that keeps the MFA factories in business.
I attended my first, and probably only, AWP Conference & Bookfair back in 2018, when I was working for Writer’s Digest, and I was generally disappointed to see it mostly lived down to my preconceived notions. I wrote a cautiously optimistic take on my experience back then, but the truth was peppered throughout, most notably this relevant bit:
“Because it’s easier than ever to launch a literary journal, especially online, and many are born from an admirable desire to support the work of like-minded poets and writers, sustainability isn’t usually one of the first things founders think about. I suspect many new presses have been conceived while walking the Bookfair aisles over the years, and most of them fold before achieving any noteworthy goals or literary impact.”
Rather than bemoaning the fates of “literary magazines” that have made a variety of bad business decisions over the years that purposefully limited their potential — encouraged by a publishing industry that grossly overstates the reach and impact of “literary fiction,” and loves to hire MFAs with little actual business experience to perpetuate those myths — why not celebrate and spotlight the ones that are successfully finding ways to connect with readers and build sustainable operations instead?
“Of all the ways Forbes magazine might have evolved from there, Past Me would never have guessed ‘under-edited group blog that’s a soft mark for grifters.'”
While “literary magazines” sit at one end of the “bad at publishing” spectrum, the once-respected Forbes is arguably king of the hill at the other end — successful(ish) but also very bad.
I was surprised Benton’s overview was such a revelation for some people because it’s been trash for many years now, long after FluffPo abandoned the same terrible model, which Lewis DVorkin actually figured out how to make exponentially worse. It’s a shame because I was a big fan of what he was doing back in 2011, but he pretty quickly lost the plot, “innovating” a perfect case study of profit margins over credibility that makes you appreciate even the most misguided “literary magazine” boondoggle.
There are no “good” contributors at Forbes, just people willing to swim in shit to reach an audience by any means necessary. I avoid it even when the occasional article of interest crosses my radar, and I get pissed when a shortened link unexpectedly lands me there.
“The running schtick on Hamilton is that he sounds like things taste: cornbread, grits, fried chicken. He sounds like good living amongst bad decisions, and BBQ. What we really mean is Anthony Hamilton sounds like Black music, all of it.”
Scott Woods is one of my favorite cultural critics, and not just because he’s a former poetry slam colleague, fellow Prince fan, AND a librarian. Those are just icing on the Scott Woods cake.
I don’t know how Anthony Hamilton has never been on my radar before, but Woods’ Verzuz-inspired Twitter thread caught my eye, and the “sounds like things taste” description of his music was a beacon. Your favorite white supremacist-influenced algorithm could never deliver a more targeted recommendation than that!
I looked him up on YouTube Music, hit shuffle, and 30 minutes later already had a new favorite artist to put in heavy rotation… and then Sista Big Bones came on.
Sista Big Bone (Big Bones) Can a brotha walk you home? (Can I walk right beside you?) Look like a plate of neckbones (Look so good, look so good)
This is totally early-90s era Guy’s shit, and it’s still good today!