“How’s the book doing?” The question rose above the Christmas chatter of a dozen relatives gathered round a table set with wine and cheese. The voice was Rolf’s, my sister’s husband’s father. His 90 years had taken a toll on his ears, and he leaned close for my reply. Better than nothing, I said, always the optimist. “Well, you went through the first printing, didn’t you?” Yes, but that was just five thousand. A hundred people in each state. “You’ll have that Krakauer and that Into Thin Air beat. Just wait.”
I waited. Post-Christmas sales took a profound dive. I didn’t weep. I never expected to make money on my first and perhaps last book – I just hoped to recover the production costs (meaning, beer and coffee). I had another job, as a botanist.
But I also have a taste for commerce. I’ve long been curious about what people want, and what they’re willing to pay to get it. Even to a beginner economist like myself, there’s a clear hierarchy of desires. At one end of the spectrum, a house; at the other end, a burger. For the literate crowd, somewhere between is good read.
Just last week I noticed that a web venue to which I occasionally contribute, Bike Forums, had a variety of advertisements. None were for books that featured a bike in a supporting role. My book did. I figured that Bike Forum readers might take a look at a bicycle travelogue. Most of the Bike Forums ads blink and move in an effort to stand out. Like most web users, I turn a blind eye. Instead I noticed a quieter ad, a single line of text that ran at the top of the page. Click on it, and you’re whisked to wherever I chose. In my case that would be this Red Room page, where a bit of browsing might reveal the link to ‘Purchase at….”. The monthly cost would be $200. I asked my wife if it were worth it. Unlikely, she said. I did it anyways, relishing the work of creating the ad that my publisher, Sierra Club Books, had never run. I emailed several single-line ads to Bike Forums. (Only one shows at any time, but the group endlessly cycles through the day – you can see them at http://www.bikeforums.net ). With delicious anticipation, I waited for the results to show up here at my Red Room site, which keeps track of visits.
The results? Red Room provides a clever ‘dashboard’ to track the number of visitors, and it showed around 30 to 50 people a day coming to this page. Excellent – yet the vast majority goes no further than the opening author page. Maybe 5 to 10 check out the Flickr photo link and this blog. The others were, I suppose, just curious about the ad.
And, as Rolf asked, “How’s the book doing?” Although the book rankings on Amazon are fairly inscrutable, I’d guess that my $200 would have been better off invested with Bernard Madoff.
I don’t regret the experiment, because now I’ve another question: who are my readers?