Feeback Loops In Online Publishing

Jon Reed, the owner and moderator of the POD Publishers group on Yahoo!, just posted an experimental podcast we did the other night, in which we ramble on about publishing online in an interview format for 45 minutes or so. I'm warning you ahead of time that the audio isn't great, I think there's a bad phone connection quality to my voice, but let me know. I ended up taking a small segment of the interview as the subject of my first video in a while, which sports more than my usual number of speak-o's because the batteries died before I could do a second take!

I've noticed lately that I've been rejecting at least half the comments that come in to my publishing blog. These aren't spam comments, they are simply off-topic or from people who don't read the specific instructions not to comment on old posts. Unlike many bloggers, my contact information is public and I accept and respond to e-mails, so the blog is not the place to post questions that aren't closely related to the post. I don't see the point of taking comments on posts that have aged off the front page, in part because it does nothing to add to the general discussion (since almost nobody ever sees them) and in part because I don't want to be involved in endless debates about the past.

Sometimes I really regret having to reject a blog comment from an anonymous individual on a post that's several years old, just due to the humor factor. Here's an example:

Did you lose a bet and have to write this article? You should have entitled it, "Write a novel? Don't Bother".

Mind you, it's a rare article that offers so little of value. Not one constructive idea, not one. Bupkis. Congratulations, you should be a publisher.

Guess what anonymous? I am a publisher, and I actually make a living at it:-) I should also point out that if people sign or otherwise leave identifying information in a blog comment that I reject for the above reasons, I take a few minutes to try to track them down with Google and inform them why.

Another recent comment that I bounced for the same reason was apparently posted by somebody working for Amazon or their PR firm. It was on an old post about Kindle, and read:

"The New Amazon Kindle 2 Has Arrived
Price: $359.00 & this item ships for FREE"

along with a link to the Kindle page on Amazon. I thought about making an exception to my obsolescence rule, but then I'd have to start making exceptions for everybody.

I accidentaly titled the post "feeback loops" and decided to stick with it, since there's a great deal of truth in the typo for how the top social bloggers function. They essentially fee each other through blog rolls and back-and-forth comments, which also tends to close the loop against genuine input. Traffic and "status" are passed through a circle (I avoided being gross here), but the ultimate outcome is that the author loses the opportunity to be part of the real world and get unbiased feedback.

One of the interesting things about feedback from blogs and other social networking sites is that it can be highly misleading about the market potential for a new book. It's kind of like starting out by doing impressions of your teachers or the principal in school, and based on the feedback from friends, trying to make the jump to being a stand-up comic. Those impressions might not be funny outside the small world of people who know the targets, and the audience may be a captive one, particularly if you're jumping up and clowning while the teacher's back is turned. When it comes to researching the market for a book and later promoting the book, the true value of a blog isn't the number of subscribers (unless that number is in the tens of thousands), it's in the number of visitors you get every day from search.

An uncle of mine used to tell a joke about a man who bought stock through private placements in a little company that sought local investors. Over the years, he accumulated more and more stock as the price rose and rose. One day, he decided to cash in his shares, and went to the company to investigate the how to sell the shares for the best price. The financial director of the company told him, "Well, we really don't know, since you're the only one who ever bought shares."

There are all sorts of ways you can get tripped up by the enthusiasm of people who have relationships with you of one type or another. I remember an unhappy woman who wrote to me years ago after she had been encouraged by various friends and members of her community to write and publish a book. The same people laughed at her when she tried to sell it to them, and they were invested through face-to-face relationships. The people who follow your feed or become your "friend" online have made an investment in you that cost them the click of a mouse. While it means something, as nobody forced them to click, it means a lot less than a conversation in the flesh, or taking a few minutes to type a comment.

But far more important than comments for the nonfiction writer are questions. The very act of somebody sending you a question is an implicit recognition of the fact that you've impressed them as a resource, as somebody who may have the answer. I've often heard from people who have bought my books AFTER finding an answer to a question on my website. In some cases they buy the book to thank me, and let me know that, but in other cases, they see my books as a potential source of answers for questions they haven't even thought of yet, ie, knowledge.

The examples I gave on the value of social networking feedback in both the podcast publishing interview and the video were off the top of my head, but I hope they help illustrate why you need to take all feedback with a grain of salt. There's no substitute for experience in any form of communication, but if you lack that experience, here's a exercise you can try. Make a list of conclusions about the feedback you've received from the standpoints of both an optimist and a pessimist, then put it aside for a week and try not to think about it. After the week has passed, pull the list out and see which conclusions make the most sense, maybe run them by a friend or two if you aren't sure. The idea isn't to destroy your dreams, it's to prevent them from turning into a nightmare while you hide under the blanket of "I never knew".

And when you're on the other end of the bargain, commenting on somebody's blog or sending them direct e-mail, make sure you read any instructions they may have included on their contact page, or your attempt to communicate may fail.


Rob Oakes said...

Interesting information and insights. I couldn't agree more regarding the importance of questions to the non-fiction author. These interactions not only strengthen the author's professional reputation as an expert, but also how that person is publicly perceived. I thought I would relate a semi-recent experience I had with an academic.

Some time ago, I was doing research on some obscure bits of cardiac electrophysiology. Due to the nature of the research, there was only one guy who had any substantial experience with the questions I was interested in. While not necessarily an academic, I've grown well accustomed to a very healthy culture of correspondence. That is to say, when I have a question about a given study, I contact the author and ask. 9 times out of 10, I will receive a very kind (and detailed) response to my inquiry. In some cases, I have had the authors institute additional contact to offer additional information. More than once, I've ended up buying their book as a means of thank you. What can I say? I'm a sucker for attention.

In the case of this particular individual, however, I was informed rather rudely that he only responded to formal inquiries from reputable academic institutions. I thought that this was a bit asinine, but I was happy to re-write the original inquiry from my academic e-mail. After doing so, the man tersely answered my questions. Unfortunately, I found the answers a bit lacking and decided to replicate the pertinent work myself.

What is odd, however, is that I later started receiving spam from this individual. In one case, he was advertising a forum to be held in his area. In the other he was sending along information about a book from a colleague. Let's just say that I've been more impressed with the professionalism of some short order cooks.

Now, there is probably nothing wrong with passing relevant information to those who might be interested. I do this for friends all the time and it's how those horrific chain e-mails get started. But I don't particularly like the source, he treated me poorly and made me jump through hoops. Not cool. To budding experts, please treat your readers with respect. Sharing information will often translate directly to book sales.

ChickenMan said...

You're undervaluing your old posts. Some of them provide information or insights that are unobtainable elsewhere.

Morris Rosenthal said...


That's a great example, both the light and dark side of academic research. While not an academic myself, I've been involved in quite a bit of ongoing academic correspondence, some for my translations and literary "research", but mainly for my Amazon sales rank work, which is quoted in half a dozen journal papers.

My main knock on many of academic researchers who contacted me on the latter subject is they seemed to be looking for short-cuts. Rather than doing basic research, studying systems and gathering data, they wanted to jump straight to the final phase - summing up and exrapolationg from results. I'm convinced that something (knowledege) gets missed in that process.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I don't take the old posts down, I just don't welcome comments on them. As I may have mentioned in the podcast I did with Jon Reed today, the majority of the over 400 posts in my blog don't get more than one or two human visitors a week. If they have a question, they should send it direct to me, but if they have a comment that they want to share, they should share it somewhere that somebody might actually see it.


Anonymous said...

There's no money in writing comments but I'll carry on anyway. Did you intentionally leave out the d (old symbol for pennies/pence in the UK) in your title? Or are you creating a new deposit scheme for online publishing - fee back on return (you know, like a dime for returning a bottle).

Know your market is a good reminder for non-fiction writer/publishers. Fiction is harder - even Agatha Christie hated the character Poirot after a while but he was a favourite amongst her readers.


Morris Rosenthal said...


It was a typo, but I'm going to run with it since it's sort of how social networking works. I'll make some minor edits to the post:-)