Monday, January 5, 2009

Predicting Success

Welcome back, Violets!!

Who doesn't want to be able to predict success in 2009? However, if creative success were predictable, then surely all those movies made for a bazillion dollars, all those songs and albums produced with great fanfare, and all those seven figure publishing deals would be an automatic success. After all, studios and publishers have had other successes; surely all they have to do is replicate those exact steps to achieve another success, right?

Uh, not so much. It turns out that creative success is a very elusive beast, and that it often has less to do with quality and more to do with reaching a certain tipping point in terms of generating buzz and getting talked about. And luckily for all of us who are trying to get a grip on the whole publishing success thing, Duncan Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, has written a must-read article on this very subject.

In a nutshell, he and his researchers finally designed a way to measure and quantify creative success. They created nine music download sites and made eight of them “social influence” sites, where visitors could see and rate their choices and other visitors could in turn see and rate their choices. They left one site completely blind, where everyone who visited simply downloaded the music they liked best and never communicated that to anyone else who visited the site.

His findings were eye-opening. Using the “blind” site as a control, they determined song quality by how many people agreed independently of each other that a song was good. But when they looked at the socially influenced sites, they found that these “good” songs were sometimes in the top ten, but just as often were in the bottom ten; that in fact, their perception of how good they were was heavily influenced by what others on the site thought of the song.

“...if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory.”
In fact, the results of his study were astounding:
"Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success."
And you know that every editor that’s ever bought a book for seven figures and had it flop went “Aha! So that’s what happened!”

To me, this goes a long way in explaining the vagaries of publishing success: how books that felt like a sure thing in terms of quality ended up not catching on in the way the publishing team expected it to. Or conversely, why books come out of seemingly nowhere and achieve a level of success that astounds everyone involved.

"Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance...."
when in fact, it is the randomness of the universe itself that is the root of the problem, not our ignorance.

I actually take comfort in these findings, because the universe IS a random place, and random can work in our favor as well as against it. It also helps me keep marketing and promotion efforts in perspective. All the marketing and promotion in the world won’t gurantee success; it’s a much more mysterious alchemy involving some elusive Other element that no one has yet to successfully bottle—that of catching on at just the right moment. Something no one, not me, not my publicist, has any control over.

Which is why doing what one comfortably can to market and promote their own work, then let it go, is a sensible approach. The truth is--as supported by this study--I can spend a way too many dollars and every minute of my time and still not achieve the success level I'm looking for. Better instead, to launch this project with all the marketing and PR support I can reasonably give it, then turn my attention to my next project. And of course, reasonable will mean different things to different people.

Be sure and tune in next Monday--in our effort to help educate you on reasonable marketing efforts, we will be having an interview with another Real Live Publicist! Don't miss it!

And, this just in! Mary has two openings left in her upcoming twelve week group coaching program entitled Rigormortis Interruptus: Life-Saving Skills for Your Creative Life.
The group is limited to eight participants and promises to get you unstuck, unmuddled and moving, moving, moving toward your writing/publishing goals. The program takes place on-line and via tele-conference, so geography is not an issue. (Perfect for introverts!)  Mary holds a graduate degree in Counseling & Guidance and is a certified coach. For more info, hop on over to her coaching website
If you are ready to make 2009 your defining year, this  program is for you! First come, first serve.

Talk about planning for success!


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

In some ways, it's not so mysterious. If people see that a lot of others are listening to a particular song (or reading a certain book), they're curious about why. There must be something good there if so many people want that! When one person tells me a book is good, I may or may not read it. When 5 people tell me it's good, I take another look at it. When 50 people tell me it's good, I almost have to read it.

That's what buzz is. Of course, how to start buzz in the first place is the big magical question; if we knew that we'd be millionaires already. :-)

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

i personally think PR is more effective - getting the buzz going. Love your blog. from one marketing blogger to another. :)

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Violets.

Check out:

Blogger award time. I listed yours!

Cheers, Lisa

laurasalas said...

Great post, SV! And yes, somewhat comforting. It's hard to accept (but releasing, somehow) that no matter how much or how little I do, I can influence but not control the success of a book.

I'm realizing that I've been putting more time than I can really afford into promo materials to support a forthcoming book. But several things are half-done already, so I don't want to have wasted the time. And the things left to do are the basics I NEED to do.

This is my first trade book, and I think it'll be good to know afterward what felt like it was worth the time and what wasn't, so that I can winnow down my efforts for the next time.

Happy New Year!

R.L. LaFevers said...

Yeah, buzz is the brass ring of publishing, isn't it?

And Shelli, you make an interesting point. I always thought that PR was more iffy--less than a sure thing than marketing, which is usually something you pay for, product placement, ads, etc. Do I have that wrong?

Thanks for the nomination, Lisa! We appreciate it!

And Laura, I like the way you phrased that, "we can influence but not control the success of our book." Perfectly put!

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