The third round of America’s Next Author 2012 is coming to a close. My best ranking since I joined was 18 out of 242. Not too bad for a guy who almost qualifies as a hikkikomori. Especially for quite possibly the only Singaporean and one of the few (or only) non-Americans on the list. For that I owe a debt of gratitude to Jasmine Sim. She single-handedly ran my promotion campaign, reaching out to an unimaginably (for me) large number of people on my behalf.
Thinking about the past weeks, I’ve drawn some conclusions about ANA 2012. None of them are pretty.
Let’s state the first : this competition will not be decided by the best stories. It’s about who is the best at begging for reviews and votes — or, as they say, ‘promotion’.
Now, I don’t have anything against promotion per se. But I’m pretty old school about writing: I believe the best form of promotion is your work. If you don’t write a good story, it doesn’t matter how many fans you’ve got. You’re not a good writer. I believe that a writer should be judged by the quality of the stories, not the number of fans or ranking or reviews.
ANA 2012, however, turns everything around. It’s a numbers game. It’s about the number of people you can convince to vote for you, leave a review, and help share the word. The more people you get, the closer you get to the top. The organisers say that the algorithm is secret, to prevent authors from gaming the system. But if an author tracks the rankings for a week or more — like I did — she’s pick up some very interesting nuggets. No, I’m not going to let on my observations here, but I will say that the algorithm is much more transparent than the organisers say it is. I am also going to say that there are ways for the same person to leave multiple votes and reviews.
The way ANA is set up, the author has to do just about all the work. ANA’s website design makes it extremely difficult for people to stumble across a person’s work. The front page shows a selection of random authors, with an option to reshuffle the selection, and a link to a page that sorts all authors by ranking, starting with the most popular. That’s it. There is no central page that lists all the stories, no way to look at stories by genre, and no similar story recommendations. There is a search box to allow visitors to look for stories or authors, but they have to know the author’s name or the title of the story before they can find them. The only plausible way for a writer to be noticed if she goes out begging for votes. Author rankings are reset every week, so contestants who aren’t nominated have to keep doing this again and again and again if they want to succeed.
This may be ‘fair’, but it doesn’t reflect an important real-world book-buying habit. When people go window-shopping for stories, they look for preferred authors, similar authors in the same genre, and other books in the same genre. Companies like Amazon ensure these customers can discover those books using everything from sophisticated algorithms to shelving and book displays. ANA does not do this, so the writer has to put in even more time and energy to spread the word.
Because of that, ANA favours a very special type of person. Malcolm Gladwell calls them connectors. These are people who know lots of people from everywhere and form loose social bonds with them. Connectors live for connecting people, making them natural promoters. Promoting to large audiences comes naturally to them. If a connector recommends something to those people, these people, at the very least, would be more to check it out. To stand a real chance at winning, the author has to be a connector, or know one. Failing that, the author needs to have a solid fan base who will support her. Week 1’s nominee, Elizabeth A Reeves, had a very supportive family (especially her sister-in-law). Lin Clements, Week 2’s nominee, also had a supportive family. In my case, Jasmine went to bat for me, pouring hours and hours into convincing people to vote for me and leave reviews. I’m willing to bet that the finalists will be made of people who are very good at promoting — not necessarily very good at writing.
The organisers say there will be ‘wildcard’ nominees, authors whose stories are of high quality but don’t make it to the nominations at the end of the round. It’s supposed to make things look fair — but it doesn’t. There are only 4 wildcards, and there are 8 ‘regular’ nominees. This tells me that the organisers place a lot more importance on social outreach and promotion than writing quality. Also, to be a wildcard, you need to do a LOT of promotion anyway. Today I received a newsletter from ANA. The organisers say you’ll need at least 10 new reviews and 50 Quickvotes to even qualify to be considered for the wildcard round. Writing quality is secondary in this competition at best. So, in the end, vote begging is still the way to go.
Why the emphasis on votes and sharing? Because it tells the organisers how good the writer is at promoting. Quality of writing is nice to have, but remember that the Fifty Shades trilogy is an international bestseller in spite of being one of the most criticised books ever written in recent history. The winner of the competition will receive $5000 and ‘assistance’ with publishing. What this means is the publisher will be convinced that the writer has what it takes to promote future books. This means potentially large revenues from book sales — especially since publishers tend to take the lion’s share of royalties. It also means the publisher will be less likely to support the author in promotion efforts: the author has already demonstrated skill in promotion, so funds and personnel for promotion can go elsewhere — to big, established, bestselling authors, for instance. It’s not my cup of tea, and I don’t need ‘assistance’ in publishing.
Promoting my work to many people just isn’t my forte. Quite the opposite actually. I know my strengths lie in writing. In creating original works. While I do intend to promote my works, it is secondary to my actual profession. I intend to spend my time on my writing, to produce more and better stories, instead of harping on my previous work. As a writer, my first responsibility is to deliver a high quality story to my readers. The Wounded City was the best short story I could have written at the time it was written.
Now it’s time to write a better one.