Thursday, December 15, 2005

Scott Adams and book marketing

I came across an interesting post just now over at Scott Adams' Dilbert Blog:

Recently I offered my book, God’s Debris, for free on the Internet, under the theory that the people who like it might be inspired to buy the sequel in hard copy. 170,000 people downloaded it in two weeks. Many of them presumably e-mailed it to other people who e-mailed it to yet other people. I’m guessing half a million people read it in the past month. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, so let’s say 250,000 people loved it. That seems about right based on the reviews on Amazon.

Now for a test of your marketing savvy: How many of the people who loved the free sample went ahead and purchased the sequel? The answer is in the next paragraph, so make your guess before reading further.


I don’t know the exact number, but it appears to be less than a thousand. An alarming number of readers were confused about this whole process and wrote to ask if they could also have the sequel for free.

I have not read (or downloaded) this book, and I have no interest in promoting or in disparaging Mr. Adams' work. I was just struck by the way he's tossing these numbers around. Assuming that the 170,000 individuals who downloaded free copies of God's Debris e-mailed the files to 330,000 of their friends seems wildly optimistic to me. That would mean that, on average, everyone who downloaded the book e-mailed it to two friends. That's not a conclusion I can support; neither do I share Mr. Adams' apparent belief that everyone who downloaded God's Debris (or received it from a friend) actually read the book. Surely, some people just glanced at the first couple of pages and then deleted the file. It cost them nothing but a few mouse clicks, after all. Those casual downloaders and other recipients spent about the same amount of time they'd have done in a bookstore where they'd have picked up the book, read the blurb, then skimmed the first page before replacing the book on the shelf and walking away. Those aren't readers, they're browsers.

Let me drive this point home: You can click here right now and download God's Debris for free. No strings--it really is a free book. Maybe you don't read Dilbert, maybe you've never even heard of Scott Adams, but now that I've aroused your curiosity and assured you this is a free download, you're tempted, aren't you? But downloading does not always mean reading, does it? And reading does not guarantee loving. That's why "...let's say 250,000 people loved it" strikes me as a ridiculous supposition.

Another flaw in Mr. Adams' reasoning is evident in his assumption that Amazon reviews are accurate indicators of a book's reception. If half of a book's Amazon reviews are rated 5-stars, it does not follow that half of the people who read the book loved it. We can be sure only that half of the people who posted reviews on Amazon loved it. What if the majority of readers found the book only mildly entertaining--or even mildly annoying? We'd never know that because those people don't tend to have sufficient motivation (stemming from excitement or disgust) to post Amazon reviews.

But while I smile at Mr. Adams' outrageous guesses, it's a fact that book promotion involves far more wizardry than science. And I clucked in sympathy when I read that people have asked him whether they might also have the sequel to God's Debris for free.

Do you think it's difficult to write a book? Next to impossible to get one published?

Hah. Try figuring out how to successfully promote one.


Mirtika said...

Well, considering hubby is a software engineer, and he's had his share of managers who were like the pointy-haired one in DILBERT, we love the comic. Been reading it since our paper started carrying it years ago (although the idiots moved it to the business section, making me have to pull that part out of the paper).

We have Dilbert mugs, Dilbert fridge magnets, have had Dilbert calendars, bought several books by, I figure I've supported Scotty-Boy enough to not feel any guilt at a free read. :)

If I were in a downloading mood.

He makes me laugh. I likes me folks who make the Mir laugh. :)


Chris said...

I got bored with GD about a third of the way through. Didn't finish. Didn't forward. Didn't ask for the next one free.

I'm a Dilbert fan, but the novel did nothing for me.

--Chris (dFm)

PS: Brenda, check your coulter2/aol e-mail.

Shelbi said...

I second Mir on liking people who make me laugh, which is why I come over here every day!

I'm pretty new at leaving comments on blogs, but I've been reading yours for several months now, and I enjoy it a lot.

I'm also new at writing novels [I just started this year, at age 31]. I don't have anything published yet, so my opinion on book promotion isn't based on personal experience, but I'm giving it out anyway, [free of charge]!

Near as I can tell from my research, the most important thing you can do for your book is write it to the best of your ability, then leave the rest to God [and the people who read it].

The best advertising for books seems to be word of mouth by people who love it and pass it on.

My [admittedly non-scientific] take on book promotion is, if you like it, do it. If not, it probably won't make that much difference anyway, so spend that time writing.

More books finished and sent out increase your odds for publication, and hopefully, for success once they reach the shelves.

Merry Christmas!

Camy Tang said...

Brenda, you made a good point. The only people who are going to spread the word are those who love the book, not everyone who reads it. Ever read PYROMARKETING? I bought it and I'm anxious to read it. I think it could apply to online marketing schemes like this.

Brenda Coulter said...

Shelbi, thanks for the kind words. You're very welcome here.

Camy, Pyromarketing is available here as a free audio download. The two chapters I skimmed appeared to be all hype and little substance. Someone suggested (and I can't remember whether it was here on the blog or in a private e-mail to me) that it would have made an excellent article. I think I'd agree with that assessment.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, by the way....

I checked the Dilbert blog again this afternoon and saw scores of people admitting in the comments that they had downloaded but never read Scott Adams' free book. These are the guy's fans, the people who read his blog and take the time to leave comments there, but although they snapped up the free download, they never read the book.

I didn't read every comment--there appear to be a couple of hundred--but I saw only a handful of folks reporting that they e-mailed the book or otherwise shared it with a friend.

This snippet is typical of what you can read over there:

I, like many others who have commented here, downloaded God's Debris and didn't read it. I'm willing to bet 90% of the people who downloaded it also didn't read it....

Skim the comments and you'll see that sort of thing over and over again. I was extremely surprised. As a marketing ploy, this was a spectacular failure. Even though I believed Adams' estimates of his readership were ludicrous, I'm shocked by this suggestion that his free book found no readers to speak of.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Brenda:

Very good post. Good, sweet reasoning and skepticism on your part.

I read about Adams's book some weeks ago and downloaded it. I read about three pages and haven't returned to it.

This may not be due to any failure of this particular book, because I've noticed a phenomenon with e-books in general. I'm more excited about the prospect of downloading a book than actually reading it. I'll download an e-book, open the PDF, read a couple of pages and my eyes glaze over.

I read a lot online-Slate, Salon, other periodicals, blogs-without fatigue, but somehow e-books seem to defeat my enthusiasm.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Good point Brenda, the only e-book I ever actually finished after I downloaded it, was Randy Ingermanson's Transgression.

He also has a book marketing program called Tiger Marketing.

Neal said...

Quite honestly, I'm amazed at Scott Adams's naivety here. So 170,000 downloaded the book in a fortnight? A fortnight? Let's throw some more numbers around -- how many of those downloaders actually read the book in that fortnight? I'd wager 1%. be honest, most people who download a book for free don't have the time in their lives to go and read it there and then. I've downloaded loads of stuff over the years and still not got round to reading it. A lot I probably never will. Let's be generous and say the real figure is closer to 2%, so 3000 of those downloaders actually read it. And he's got nearly a thousand sales of the sequel? That sounds like pretty good return on investment to me.

And if they were confused about the whole process and thought the sequel was free, well, he should have made his intentions clearer. Sheesh. I really have no patience for this kind of thing at all. And I like Dilbert as much as the next man.

Neal said...

Oh, and I forgot to say, I would never, repeat never, email a free book (or anything) to a friend unless it explicitly said on the page that I downloaded it from that I could do so. I'd send them a link. So that's another assumption that I think he's way off base about.

Can you tell that this has got my goat?

Brenda Coulter said...

I think you're right, Neal. Most people wouldn't bother to e-mail a PDF attachment to their friends. They'd just point to a link.

Peter makes a good point, also, about how enthusiasm for a free download so often wanes once the files are actually on our computers. Don't we behave the same way at the grocery store? We accept whatever coupons or free samples are handed to us, then we go home and throw them out.

A friend just e-mailed to let me know that my link to the post we're discussing is no longer good. It appears that sometime today, Scott Adams deleted that entry from his blog. My friend suggested that the discussion here might have annoyed Mr. Adams, but I doubt it even showed up on that busy gentleman's radar screen. My guess is that he was stunned by the comments he was getting on his own blog. Those of you who clicked over there yesterday know what I mean.

Brenda Coulter said...

Okay, now somebody else has e-mailed to say the blog entry is back up. It seems that Typepad had some sort of stroke yesterday, and all recent Typepad blog entries were temporarily misplaced, throwing zillions of bloggers into one gigantic tizzy. I'm told that all the missing posts are back up now, but I haven't been online except just now (had to order a last-minute gift certificate from, so I wouldn't know.

Anyway, I apologize for suggesting that Scott Adams had taken down his blog entry. You might have noticed, however, that although I assumed he had done that, I didn't fault him for it. Deleting comments and even posts is a blogger's prerogative. As Shakespeare's Henry V said, we [bloggers] are the makers of manners. ;-)

I'm having a great weekend with my family. Hope everyone out there is doing the same. See you all on Monday.