By Lisabet Sarai

Decades ago I read a science fiction
story about a planet where trends, fads and fashions would rise and
fall in a single night. The clothing styles popular at nine in the
evening might be totally different from those worn at four in the
morning. A unknown performer might become a instant celebrity, with
billions of admirers, then fade back into obscurity within twenty
four hours. Even language could evolve overnight, with new words
coined and yesterday’s favorite terms falling into disuse.

I wish I could remember the title or
author of this prophetic tale. It seemed original, almost
far-fetched, in the nineteen eighties. Now, aside from some expansion
of time frame, it quite accurately describes the reality of our
networked world, and especially the world of publishing.

Thousands of words have been devoted to
the “50 Shades of Grey phenomenon”. The popular media have
dissected the appeal of BDSM to the “mommies” who made the book
such a hit or wondered whether the book signals a precipitous decline
in morality. Erotica bloggers have rejoiced at the popular spotlight
shone on our genre or bemoaned the poor literary quality of the book
itself. Feminists have castigated the shallowness of the heroine,
questioning the consequences for the current generation of young

Everywhere I turn, people seem to be
debating the implications of E.L. James’ incredible success. On one
writers email list I subscribe to, a member asked, only
half-facetiously, whether 50 Shades of Grey might be some sort
of devious plot by the traditional publishing industry to test the
waters as to the popular acceptability of erotic fiction. Is 50
Shades of Grey
a conspiracy? A fluke? An indicator of the tyranny
of mediocrity? A harbinger of things to come?

In my view, FSOG is significant
because it demonstrates the near-random amplifying effects of the
social Internet. The book started life as a series published on a fan
fiction web board. It happened to strike a chord with the
subscribers, then gained popularity via grass-roots dissemination of
information to new readers. The buzz grew exponentially, facilitated
by the ease of tweeting, forwarding, sharing and syndication in
today’s socially-oriented Web infrastructure.

I’m not going to say anything more
about this book – partly because I believe that more than enough
has been said already. My main point in this post is that the
Internet is a huge amplifier of ideas. Under the right
circumstances, a book, a song, a video, or a news story can attract
the attention of literally millions of people within a matter of
days. However, despite what many believe, it’s extremely difficult to
predict exactly what content will “go viral”. The content itself
is not necessarily the primary determinant of popularity. It’s all in
the luck of the draw.

Nevertheless, despite the random
element in Internet amplification, everyone is trying to game the
system. Publishing has become a frantic attempt to utilize viral
nature of the Internet to gain attention for one’s books. Almost
every professional author that I know spends significant amounts of
time on blogging, tweeting, Facebook, Internet chats, and other
promotional activity. We create banners and trailers to display on
review sites. We “like” each other’s books and leave comments on
each other’s posts. The goal is to seed the Internet as densely as
possible with references to our names and our books. In this scrabble
to be part of the Next Big Thing, books themselves hardly seem to

Last year, introduced the
Kindle Select program and generated a frenzy of excitement among both
readers and authors. A book enrolled in this program is available
exclusively for the Kindle. In return for granting Amazon these
exclusive sales rights, authors or publishers receive 70% of the
sales price of their books – significantly more than most ebook
publishers offer. In addition, publishers/authors are allowed five
promotional days for each title – days when the books can be
offered for free. Judicious use of these promo days can build the
buzz for a new book. Downloads of the free book affect the ranking of
the book when it’s for sale. “Likes”, tagging, reviews, and
actual purchases also push up the book’s rank.

Since this program came into effect, a
whole ecosystem has developed around it. There are a dozen
newsletters to inform readers about the latest Kindle releases. Many
sell advertisements to authors who want to increase their visibility.
There are websites and forums, for readers and authors. Self-styled
marketing gurus blog or publish their own books on how to get your
Kindle book to the top of the charts. I wouldn’t be surprised to
discover someone had published a book on how to get rich by telling
Amazon authors how to get rich. If so, I’m sure that author
hopes to ride the crest of the Kindle Select wave to personal

Toward the end of last year, one of my
publishers decided to go exclusive on Amazon for all new titles. I
have to admit that the initial effect on my royalties was dramatic –
and I’m nowhere near the top seller for this company. Now, every day
on the authors’ email list, my colleagues discuss their rankings
(sometimes on an hourly basis), announce their free days, and beg the
other authors to like and tag their books. The publishers are
spending lots of money on newsletter ads to draw in readers. They’ve
had some success manipulating the rankings of our books; my peers are
in ecstasy.

Personally, I’m skeptical. I doubt this
approach is sustainable. If we can work the system, so can everyone
else. Furthermore, the number of titles available on the Kindle is
growing at an astronomical rate – especially in the categories of
erotica and erotic romance. A goodly number of them are shovel-ware
or even plagiarized. (See
The competition is just plain ridiculous. Even for legitimate authors
(which I define as authors who actually care about what they put
their name on), tagging, liking and other actions are eventually all
going to cancel each other out.

I’d like to believe that when the
situation levels off, the best books will be the ones with the
highest sales. But experience suggests otherwise.

Meanwhile, after an initial jump in my
royalties, they’ve begun to fall. I need another release to push them
back up. I do have a book in the pipeline; it may be a few weeks
before it’s released. But how many other Kindle titles will show up
in the meantime?

Amazon is just one example of my point.
The Internet is dynamic, constantly changing and far too complex for
any individual to grasp. Strategies for search engine optimization
become obsolete almost as soon as they’re discovered, as Google and
its competitors tweak their algorithms. Two months ago the hottest
new facility for social networking was Google+. Last month it was
Triberr. Now everyone’s talking about Pinterest. If you can catch a
viral wave, ride it for all its worth – but I don’t think it’s
possible to summon one on demand.

And yet, authors can’t afford to
completely ignore the amplifying influences of today’s ubiquitous
connectivity. Or can they? One of the most successful authors I know
doesn’t blog, or tweet, or hang out on Facebook. She has a single
email list where she communicates with her fans (more than 500 of
them) – and she writes, every day, despite being a single mother
with two young daughters. Since she was first published, a handful of
years ago, she has produced over a hundred books (mostly novella
length). The majority of her fans buy every single one. 

Meanwhile, here I am, spending hours
writing a blog post instead of my current work in progress.