Cargo cults are a kind of sympathetic magic, particularly associated with the South Pacific during and after World War II, when military forces brought massive amounts of equipment and supplies to remote islands. The deliveries stopped when the war ended, and in an effort to bring about a return of the deliveries, local people sometimes built fake landing strips, piers, replica ships and airplanes, and so on. Such structures had brought riches before, why not again? (This Smithsonian Magazine article discusses cargo cults in general and a particular cult that persists.)
Wikipedia offers this: “From time to time, the term “cargo cult” is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance.” And this: “…the term “cargo cult” also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation…”
I think this happens in publishing, especially in self-promotion done by authors. I keep running into authors who do things — make book videos, do blog tours, hand out a million bookmarks, sign stock at every store within a three-state region — because these are the things that you do. All the lists of things you can do to promote your book say to do these things. Everybody does them, in the hopes that they will bring forth riches.
And yet, where’s the evidence — the direct, causal evidence — that any of it works? There isn’t any. Maybe something worked really well for one person, so everyone else goes through the motions in the hopes that it will work for them, too. There’s a lot of hope involved in self promotion.
A specific example of a promotional cargo cult is the blog. Authors like Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Neil Gaiman have generated huge readerships through their online journals. They’ve been blogging for 10+ years, before anyone else was doing it, and have spent a lot of time and experience building communities out of their online presences. People point to them and say, “Look, blogging will bring you readers, you have to blog!” Setting up a blog has become something like building a fake runway in the hopes that a magical cargo plane will swoop in for a landing. However, the simple act of blogging is not going to turn you into the next Neil Gaiman. That ship has sailed, and it’s way too late to spend ten years developing an online audience that you can use to promote your writing career. Move on. Blog if you enjoy it — not because you think it will magically make you a bestseller.
Unfortunately, lots of people buy into the magical thinking, because you have to do something to promote yourself, right? Blogging works for lots of other people, why not you? But if you start blogging without a real understanding of how it’s worked for other authors, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Same thing with book trailers, “viral” marketing (which almost by definition can’t be done purposefully), convention appearances, paying for your own publicist, and so on.
I have a test for what promotional strategies are worthwhile: Has it ever worked on me, as a reader? Have I ever heard of the author using that strategy, apart from the fact that they’ve used that strategy? Have I ever actually bought the book advertised on a promotional bookmark? (The answer is yes, once — because I also heard the author speak and I picked up his bookmark to remind me to buy the book.) If an author has paid thousands out of their own pocket to hire a publicist, and I’ve never heard of them apart from the fact that they’ve hired a publicist, I would argue that perhaps the publicist isn’t helping.
Too much self-promotion can be a bad thing if instead of getting people interested in your book, you’re annoying the hell out of people with your incessant e-mailing and Facebooking and Tweeting and so on. It can also be destructive if it keeps you from writing your next book in a timely manner. The best promotion you can do for your book? Write the next book. (YA author Maureen Johnson’s manifesto on the topic of internet promotion is well worth reading.)
True story: I hate, hate, hate going into a store cold to sign stock, which is one of the things you’re supposed to do to promote yourself. I only do it when someone drags me, or I’m with another author who’s doing it. So, I generally don’t do it. I buy books from the local stores all the time and I’ve never told them they’ve got my own books in stock. That kind of interaction really stresses me out, so I avoid it. And I still manage to sell books. Go figure.
A couple of things I know worked because readers came back to me and said they worked: my publisher gave away copies of my first book at several conventions and conferences, and dozens of readers have said that freebee hooked them on the series. The other thing that works: word of mouth. All the readers who’ve said they read the book because someone told them to, or said that they’ve given the book to ten other friends to read. But you can’t buy word of mouth. That’s the frustrating thing. Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was throw lots and lots of money into publicity or jump through a certain number of specific hoops to guarantee that tens of thousands of people would love our books?
And doesn’t that just sound wrong? I would rather people read my books because they like them, and their friends told them to read them, not because I’ve thrown money at the problem, or spent all my time building fake runways.