Pay to Play comes of age.

Ot why you won’t be finding ME on Twitbook any time soon! 

In the past I’ve annoyed all kinds of indie writers by using the phrase ‘pay to play’ in connection with publishing.  People seem to get all upset when I mention that behind all the ‘helpful’ social media offered to us by the big conglomorates, there is something deeper (I don’t say darker, I don’t say more sinister, I’m not talking conspiracy theory here) going on.  It’s about the money folks.

And after fending off one too many sponsored links on Facebook (FB), I’ve cracked. I now suggest that like any ‘dealer’ we are being led by the nose.  Love social media right? Yeah, of course. Something for nothing right? Wrong.  That dealer who would give you the first hit for free does so knowing you’ll be back for more. And when you are fully addicted you’ll part with loads of cash to get ‘the good stuff’. And the more addicted you are the more you’ll pay because you need to pay more to get the same ‘hit.’  Well, not that I’m calling any of the big conglomorates ‘dealers’ and not that I’m suggesting we’re all in danger of becoming ‘junkies’ but I’d just like to point out something that’s come to my attention.

Recently I’ve been getting deluged by sponsored links on FB. None of which I’m interested in and all of which clog up my newsfeed so that I’m less and less likely to visit at all. I just get bored scrolling through what is in essence FB SPAM.

It got me wondering why/how all this has now started. I mean, I’m as good as anyone at avoiding the right hand side of the screen on anything these days (the advertising slots) but I went to my ‘page’ and the machinery was hanging out (as it sometimes does) and I found a promotions thingy.  So I clicked, just to see what would happen.

I’d just written a review and it offered me the opportunity to promote it. It said my reach was 54 (presumably the number of people who subscribe to my page who haven’t switched off getting things from me) Paid reach was EMPTY and then I clicked on the PROMOTION button.

It told me that for a mere £7 I could get 3 days promotion reaching an estimated 1900 – 3000 people.

Then I looked at the maximum budget.  Okay, if I paid $50 or £34 I could get a ‘reach’ of 6,600 -12,000 people.

Okay, I’m not suggesting there’s anything WRONG in this. But it does rather reveal what FB is all about doesn’t it? It’s not just about friends making friends, talking to friends, sharing with friends now really is it? It’s about people SELLING to other people. Paying to promote their product/work/self  to other people.  Ah well, at least there’s no confusion about that any more.  And I understand why it is that I’m getting bombarded by stuff I have no interest in. Other people with more of a ‘commercial’ bent think that by paying FB to promote their stuff they’ll find more other people who will buy their stuff.

Look, I know people think I’m stupid and cutting my nose off to spite my face by my ‘non commercial’ attitude to all this. But seriously folks, I’m not. In a past life I worked both in financial services AND in advertising so I do know something about marketing and ‘reach.’ And I am reasonably firmly convinced that (at least for myself) even if my post is promoted to 12,000 people who FB algorithms think would be interested, I will not make enough sales to pay for the advertising.  What I have to ‘sell’ is not that kind of a ‘product’.  My posts are about my thoughts and beliefs and things that interest me. I’m not turning these into a commercial transaction. It would be objectifying my very self. My books are similar. They are not just ‘product’, they are something which requires a ‘thinking’ mind to make a ‘choice’ because the kind of reader who is incapable of making these decisions for themselves generally do not ‘get’ my writing (either in blog or ebook format!)

So  I object to FB’s latest version of  subliminal marketing on an ethical level sure (and I know that’s quite unfashionable in our caring consumer capitalist world) but I also challenge the hard financial figures.  Believe me, if I thought I’d get even 1000 sales from ‘reaching’ 12,000 people I’d consider it.  The figures I think are more interesting though is how many people with FB pages will ‘try’ this just once. That’s a lot of £7’s or £30’s isn’t it!  That’s the bottom line.  FB isn’t working for you, you are working for FB.  Sorry to be the one to burst the happy bubble.

So this is just a little warning for all of you who now think that promoting your work and/or yourself this way is going to get you sales. (or even more sadly, new ‘friends’) This is all throwing mud at walls. Ask yourself: How many ‘flyers’ do people print for Edinburgh festival/pizza delivery and how good a return do they get on them?  A real return. Not just ‘reach’ figures. When was the last time YOU bought something off FB recommendation?  When was the last time you bought something OF MINE off a post I wrote or a FB recommendation?  That’s the figure that really interests ME. I think I sell from posts maybe, from word of mouth more and I sell sporadically at best.  People don’t ‘click on’ in my experience.  It may be just me and yes, when it comes to the money coming out of my pocket it’s me I’m thinking of.  You may be different. You may be ‘selling’ something different, you may have ‘friends’ who don’t object to being sold to in this way.  You may have hundreds of ‘pseudo’ friends who will buy whatever comes with your name attached.  If so, great. That means that you are part of the water cooler movement. It’s ‘cool’ to be connected with you and people are happy to let others know that they ‘like’ you.  I’m not that kind of person. I’m clearly a more acquired taste. And so for me, paying money to get people to SEE me isn’t going to work.  There’s no point me employing mainstream marketing tactics (which is what this is) for a niche product.

I’m sorry but I think FB has persuaded us (like all good dealers) that we can ‘all’ be part of the mainstream. Or that FB is ‘niche’ friendly.  Wake up folks. It’s not.  It’s the same hierarchical pyramid I first encountered when studying the causes of the Russian Revolution.  There are a few at the top and a mass working really hard at the bottom. I have always known I’m a peasant not a monarch or oligarch.  I just fear for all my ‘friends’ who from time to time seem to believe that ‘anyone can be president’ that ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’ and sundry other modern myths.  I’m just pointing out that FB is another of these.  Your ‘friends’ are not really your ‘friends’ nor are they are a beautifully targeted marketplace who will suck up anything you care to advertise.  Well, mine aren’t anyway. And I’m certainly not.  I buy books on the recommendation of people I respect, these days often through comments or reviews or email conversations or blogposts.  But I never buy a book without  doing a fair amount of research  – including the ‘search inside’ and where possible checking out the writers blog/web page.  I click around.  So sure, I may check something out if I see it on FB. I ‘click on’ but I wouldn’t say I ‘buy’ based on that alone. It’s the start of a personal journey of discovery – which, yes, takes me far away from FB.  For me FB and Twitter offer a fast (junk) food version of the world. I may find ingredients from there and work towards finding the ‘slow’ ‘organic’ version but I seem to be in the minority there. Twitterfeed seems to have a shelf life of 15 minutes – throw mud and it’s fallen off the wall in 15. FB is getting nearly as bad.  How far down do you scroll? You throw the mud at a newsfeed and it lasts as long as a scroll down 2 pages? And if people have many friends and all those sponsored links, I reckon it’s coming close to the Twitter 15 minutes – is this what was really meant by 15 minutes of fame?

For me, these days as soon as I see SPONSORED LINK I just get pissed off. I haven’t yet had one that had anything  I am actually likely to be interested in (and so that proves to me that at least for me the algorithms aren’t working. And if they don’t work for me as consumer why should they work for me as seller?) What’s more annoying is that I’m finding it hard to find anything other than sponsored links or pontificating comments or trivial day to day chat on FB.  Some of it is amusing, some of it entertaining but ALL of it is time consuming and VERY LITTLE of it works for me either as a consumer or creator of fiction.  There are maybe five people whose lives I’m interested in enough to actually want to follow them on FB. Others whom I’d like information about their work etc, but I find that this tends to get lost within the mass of stuff I’m not interested in and it’s better to check out their blogs.  I believe we are now all drowning in information overload. We can’t find what we want because there’s so much out there in our faces we don’t want. And for me, the answer isn’t to SHOUT LOUDER or PAY TO PLAY.  If I’m going to have to pay to get even my ‘friends’ to see what I’m up to – I’m out.

I wrote a book which deals (in a non specific way) about the impact of social media on communication and society in general. It’s called Brand Loyalty. In 3 years I reckon I’ve sold about 300 in paper and e format.  And some people have even read it! When I gave it away on Kindle it rose to #1 in Amazon political bestseller (free) list within 6 hours. Oh the irony. I promoted it quite hard.  In ways that you can only do when you are giving it away for free. I didn’t pay to promote it. I mean, I was giving it away for free already. How much of my money do they want? I pulled the ‘free’ plug when about 500 had been given away.  It felt like it had stopped being a book and was becoming a ‘flyer’. I didn’t (and don’t) believe all these people bought it, read it and loved it so much they recommended it to their friends – if so my ‘free promo’ would have worked and I’d have sold more copies since.  Instead if I do ‘the math’ really all that happened was I gave away at least £500 of ‘profit’ and if you take the cost of the whole ebook that’s about £1500 down the drain. For what?  To be worldwide #1 for a day or so.  My ego’s not that big for me to be impressed by that.  The spectre of ‘vanity’ publishing still does loom large. But somewhere between vanity and pay to play marketing, I have this bad feeling that I’m being manipulated if I engage with the process.

It turns out that until and unless I spend money promoting Brand Loyalty (and my other work), it will never ‘hit the big time’. That’s fine, I don’t object if I know what the game is, but it’s NOT an open and equal playing field for all now is it? Money is still the over-riding way that you can get people to think your work is ‘good’.  I totally object to that.  At the moment I’m lucky that it’s still free to blog so that I can restate my position (to the few who aren’t fast food information junkies) that we live in a ‘pay to play’ world and that if we don’t start paying attention we will find that we are in a big shiny version of 1984 before very long.  Looking at FB Promotions, I’m beginning to think we already are.

This isn’t sour grapes. It isn’t being naïve.  I’m simply suggesting that social media and large distribution companies are NOT the way for niche marketing to work. We are the cannon fodder which keeps their operations going. If you’re happy with that fine. If you’re part of the ‘cool’ mainstream crowd, fine. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the future of niche creativity is going to aided to any great degree by mainstream social/marketing media. That’s my advice anyway. Save your money.

Now, of course I’d like you to buy Brand Loyalty. If you are interested in the ‘issues’ above and like fiction. Or want to learn something more about me as a writer and my vision of the world. Otherwise, what’s the point of you buying it?  I’m not trying to ‘alienate’ the potential  reader. But I’m not going to spend money promoting it.  Informed choice is important to me. I’ve never wanted to buy anything that has been thrust in my face by a sponsored link from FB and I wouldn’t expect you to either. I don’t believe that ‘telling’ you about myself is ‘promoting’ myself. You may disagree. I don’t know how to make it any clearer. I refuse to engage in a consumer capitalist model every time I open my mouth. I’m just saying what I think, expressing my views on the world. And as a writer, I write about them. And you can read what I write, some for free, some for money.  But it’s your choice. I’m not bullying you or begging you or subliminally targeting you in any way. I’m just telling you I EXIST and THIS IS WHAT I THINK and THIS IS WHO I AM.

There was one brief shining Camelot moment when I thought that it might be possible for people to use social media to pass on things that might really be of interest to each other  – so that people who might like to read my books would find out about them – but that hasn’t happened. People don’t seem to like to use social media for that.  It’s a virtual water cooler. People want to share jokes, or prove that they are following fashion the same as everyone else.  Most people don’t seem to think that it could be a place for ‘voices’ which are otherwise silenced because they are not commercial could be heard.  In fact the backlash has been that if you do tell people about such things you are ‘self promoting.’ Once again I say, oh the irony. Because what people seem to fail to notice is that FB is doing massive promotion all the time and that we’ve now come to the point where social media is using us far more than we are using it.  I can’t understand how people who get arsey when I tell them of my work (or that of other people I know which I rate) – much in the same way I would if I had a conversation with them in person ‘I’ve read/written this book I think you’d be interested in) don’t mind when FB is doing it to them.  Maybe I’m missing some important point.  But for me, I thought that if people were ‘my friends’ it was because they were interested in me and that includes an interest in my writing (since I am a writer!) and reading habits.  That’s the sort of thing I want to talk about. But it seems to be frowned upon. That’s not the function of social media apparently. It’s for sharing trivia or paying to sell things to people.  Call me old fashioned but that’s not the way I live my life. And the way things are going, less and less people actually have me ‘switched on’ in their FB thus it becomes less and less likely that they will keep abreast of my work through this channel. And so it’s less and less worth me posting there.  The law of diminishing returns has kicked in bigtime.

My conclusion. I need to step away from FB.  I have already stepped away from Twitter.  For Twitter I think you need to be at it every 15 minutes throughout the day and it really is throwing a wee bit of mud at the biggest wall in the world.  I’m not that ‘chatty’ a person. I don’t do small talk. I do big talk. I talk of what’s important to me and I don’t feel comfortable talking to people who don’t want to listen.  So tweeting is not for me.  And FB now, the same.  I’m going to change my personal ‘strategy’ back to blogland. Where at least for the moment speech is still free. You know where to find me. I’m here. I shall say what I think via my own site and people who are interested will come and find me here.  Then it’s up to them to tell other people who might be interested.  I’m not committing FB suicide. I’m not engaging in FB death.  I shall still link my posts through FB (and Twitter) so that anyone who is out there can find them if they want. But I’m under no illusion that this is much more than SETI combing the universe for signs of intelligent life.  The conversations will happen here.  Where no one has to ‘pay to play.’  I will not pay for your attention. I will not pay money to bug or harass you or make sure I’m the first and last thing you see when you log onto FB.  I’ll just stay in ‘my house’ and you can come visit whenever you like. And I’m happy to come to ‘your house’ and chat virtually too.


If you’re interested in Brand Loyalty (or any of my work) the links are there at the top of the blog. Brand Loyalty is in the FICTION section. Go on, click on… I dare you. 


About callyphillips

6 Responses to Pay to Play comes of age.

  1. dennishamley says:

    Well said, Cally. I think I’m a bit of an innocent. I won’t tweet, as I believe they call it, because I think it’s an utter waste of time, Except for AE Private I only use Facebook to talk to friends – and anyway, I’d rather talk to them by email because then you can make the font big enough to read – and I’ve never, never, never followed a sponsored link, on Facebook or anywhere else. If I go on like this I’ll probably be barred from the internet. But how to reach people? Apart from a sporadic signature on my emails, which I often delete because I feel that people will get fed up with it, I can’t think of any way in which I’ve tried to promote my books, which is why I sell about three a month. I tell myself that if they’re good they’ll rise to the top anyway – but that means ‘word of mouth’ and if people haven’t read then there’s none of that – and also that the more books you put on the bigger your presence will be and sales will rise exponentially. But deep down I know that neither are true. Ah well, I’ll probably have to do some blogging myself – that might interest three more people.

    • Jan Needle says:

      according to my inbox, cally, you’ve already had a smattering of replies to your blog. interesting. would you have had any to a fb piece, i wonder? the key fact, surely, is that, unless someone – anyone – knows a book or a writer exists, they can’t buy it. while fb and twatter seem ridiculous (to me as well), they do decrease invisibility. i like to ‘share’ funny things, and ‘serious’ things i think can do with disseminating. remember mr thomas’s great title – the world cannot hear you…

  2. Mari Biella says:

    This pretty much sums up my own feelings about social media. I’ve heard several people claim to have mastered the dark arts of Twitter and Facebook, but personally I’m not sure I have the patience or the time. I only very occasionally tweet. I use Facebook primarily to keep friends and relatives (many of whom live abroad) ‘in the loop’. I ignore sponsored links and ads. Paid advertising? As you say, you need to promote very heavily in order to get any significant return, and most independents just don’t have the resources.

    And yet, and yet – somehow I can’t help but feel that there’s something important and valuable somewhere in the whole social media circus. At the very least it enables people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to interact a space in which they can chat and exchange ideas. I think, though, that you have to explore a bit and find out where you are happiest. Personally, I much prefer interacting with people via their blogs, where you can really ‘talk’ to them. It’s a slow process in many ways, but I actually prefer it that way. Possibly I’ve sacrificed a potentially immense worldwide audience, but I find that I really don’t care.

    Tweeting every five minutes, writing constant FB updates – life’s too short. I think it’s about maintaining a balance really, and trying to use these channels while at the same time trying to avoid being used.

  3. Hi, friends. Dennis and Mari – yes, like you I know there ‘could’ be something in it. I think the issue isn’t so much the ‘tools’ as the way that people use them. Though there’s more to come from me in that respect Jan – have had a visitor from GUATAMALA (according to my stats) today. I’m not sure I even believe the wordpress stats any more. Generally I feel pretty safe being controversial on here knowing that only about 16 people max ever even START reading any post. The day I ‘go viral’ and the whole world is down my throat challenging me on my thoughts will be a day to rethink the whole thing. Dennis – do we believe the Tesco mantra ‘every little helps?’ Or is it all the ULTIMATE way to keep us proles busy and out of trouble? That, dear Shakespeare is the REAL question.

  4. Sue Price says:

    I don’t really disagree with anything you say here, Cally. I, too, have seen the FB offers to ‘promote’ and have ignored them, because I don’t think it would be worth the money and effort. But the slews of adverts bother me less. They’re just part of the world I live in.

    But people have always had to edge round this crap in the street. There’s nothing uniquely modern about it. In dear old Shakespeare’s day there was a specialist kind of mugger who pretended to be injured. When you went to help, they robbed you. So it goes. So it always has.

    I agree with Jan that FB and Twitter ‘decrease invisibility’ to some extent. I was talking to some people recently who were impressed that Authors Electric gets a steady 11,000 hits a month after only 2 years (and they were people who know about such things. In fact one was a trainer who had just been telling us that, to get that kind of audience, you have to plug away for at least 4-5 years.) This audience was built up almost entirely by using social media sites. Has the audience converted to sales? Ah, now there’s the rub… I think the best I can say is, we’ve sold more books than if we’d never bothered to FB and tweet, and far fewer people had even heard of us.

    I don’t believe what advertisers and big companies tell me. I taught my much younger brother, from infancy that ‘adverts lie.’ I do my best to play these companies – to take from them what I can use for free, and to be very, very sceptical about everything else. In the same way I use my credit card to gain a month’s credit – I never pay interest, never have and never will. As soon as my credit card company demands that I pay interest, or a charge, I will cut the card up.

    But doesn’t that make me, in a way, as guilty of sharp practice as they are? The social media sites are businesses, after all. They have to operate as businesses. They have expenses to cover. For instance, I love my local pub. It’s a very pleasant place to hang out and meet friends. Nice views outside, nice decor inside, good and not overly expensive food, alcohol on tap, good service. To provide all this, the landlady has to pay rent and utilities, buy in stock, pay wages, and spend her life organising it all – she deserves to make a profit, surely? And when I spend hours in there with my laptop for the price of a cup of coffee, am I cheating her?

    Anyway, I think this is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece – and I shall away and say so on Facebook and Twitter!

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