All Exposure is Good Exposure

Thoughts on Digital Self-Publishing (DSP), Series Eight

Wootton’s First Principle of Digital Self-Publishing – First Build Reputation, Then Earn Revenue – has some corollaries. There are all kinds of ways to build reputation, after all, and all kinds of reputation you could have. When it comes to author reputation, these concepts help us understand what is and is not worth worrying about.

Corollary #2

All Exposure is Good Exposure.

This is a tough one to grasp, at first. It’s an update of the older, more famous phrase, “All Press is Good Press”, which traces to Oscar Wilde:

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

 Marketing research suggests that this principle is only true for small companies or unknown persons – which is what most of us DSPers are. It’s less often true for already-famous, well-established brands (non-political celebrities are occasional exceptions).

You’ll think of objections, of course, but here reality is counter-intuitive.

You would think that what first gains you exposure would dictate public expectation for the rest of your brand. But, for better or for worse, the public has a short memory. The fact that they’ve heard your name before is far more important than the reason they’ve heard it. 

(This does not necessarily mean that you should plan a publicity stunt completely unrelated to your product and expect its success to carry over – although that does happen sometimes. Still, nobody likes feeling bait-and-switched).

You would think that Corollary #1 would trump and supercede Corollary #2, and generally it does. But there are plenty of writers who’ve built successful careers out of acting like jerks. People appreciate scathing wit (when it isn’t directed against them), and while the case can certainly be made that polarizing vitriol misrepresents most people and misleads the rest, those who can package it well often have little trouble selling it.

(This does not necessarily mean that you have a future as a shock-jock-blogger. Even if you could make it work financially, it’s ethically questionable at best and besides, where’s the art in it? Any middle-school kid with half a vocabulary can exploit shock-value).

You would think you should do all you can to keep people from stealing your work, and try to shut down anyone who’s distributing it without permission. Au contraire.

First, a reminder about the difference between piracy and plagiarism.

Piracy is stealing and/or redistributing someone else’s work without permission.

Plagiarism is stealing and redistributing someone else’s work under your own name, as if it were your own original work.

Plagiarism is bad for writers. Don’t do it to other writers (obviously), and do try to keep it from happening to you. (Setting up a few targeted Google Alerts is an easy way to find out – usually within 24 hours – if anyone is re-distributing your work online. It has its limits, but it’s a good start).

But what about piracy?

A little history lesson. Digital self-publishing really began with webcomics and file-sharing programs, which allowed for illegal music swapping. As industry slowly realized that discovering and downloading music online was something people wanted to be able to do, legitimate channels opened up (e.g., iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon MP3, customizable internet radio like Pandora, Grooveshark, Spotify, etc. Even YouTube now has radio-like licensing agreements for dealing with user uploads of copyrighted audio tracks), but they were all 5-10 years late to the table and accompanied by numerous anti-piracy laws, lawsuits, and ad campaigns.

Music artists have generally viewed illegal file-sharing as a good thing for them. Artists and music fans stumbled mutually onto the Prime Advantage of DSP: lowered opportunity cost for checking out new art. People no longer had to spend $20+ on an album to discover new music. As a result, they sampled more artists’ work than they ever had before, and found they liked music they never would have found otherwise. Established musicians gained new fans; “indie” artists were lifted from obscurity. And most fans, sooner or later, paid the musicians back for what they’d downloaded, either in concert attendance or music purchases.

The only complainers were the big production companies, the labels. And it turns out they profited too, according to a study recently published by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Far from losing money because of online file-sharing, everyone from artists to labels – everyone except brick-and-mortar music retailers – saw significant boosts in profits.

So is piracy good for business? Neil Gaiman thinks so. But Cory Doctorow offers perhaps the best explanation of the whole dynamic in this article.

The important lines to notice come towards the article’s end – From Tim O’Reilly, “the problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity,” and Doctorow’s follow-up, “although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts.”

(This does not necessarily mean that you should welcome piracy with open arms, although that’s been done as well – for example, several game developers deliberately pirated their own games last year. It does mean you shouldn’t worry about piracy, since it’s more likely to help you in the long run. It also means you shouldn’t use DRM in your DSP books – DRM is crackable and barely slows down actual piracy, but potentially annoys or punishes your legitimate customers).

Lastly, you would think that controversy is bad for business – but just the opposite is true. In recent decades, attempts to get books banned generally results in increased sales. People look up controversial media to find out what all the fuss is about. Contrary to the popular saying, curiosity rarely kills cats and, unless it does, they tend to stay curious.

And when we come down to the point, that’s really what brand-developers are after – evoking curiosity. Enough curiosity to cause people to sample their products.

So all exposure that makes people curious about your work is good exposure. All press that inspires follow-up is good press. 

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, if the talkers eventually become customers.

Oh, and negative reviews? They can be good for business, too. So don’t worry about “negative” or “unprofitable” exposure. Worry about obscurity. Make people curious, and the rest will sort itself.


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