It’s hard to blame Kameron Hurley for her wariness of Reddit prior to joining it. When non-users hear about the site, it’s often within the context of some recent controversy that originated in one of its communities. As a writer who often blogs about feminist and progressive issues, Hurley is likely aware that Reddit once hosted message boards known for posting images of underage girls and that it serves as a popular watering hole for the misogynist “men’s rights” and Gamergate movements. “I generally would stay away from Reddit,” she told me in a phone interview. “I wrote a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution, and Reddit is not known as a nice and happy loving place.”
Despite this circumspection, Hurley was intrigued when she received a request from a guy named Steve Drew asking her to participate in a Reddit discussion. Drew, the moderator of the r/fantasy subreddit, a community for fans of fantasy genre fiction, specifically wanted to know if she would participate in an AMA. Short for “ask me anything,” the AMA has become a common staple at Reddit, an opportunity for celebrities to promote upcoming movies and for sitting presidents to stop in during a reelection campaign. The subject of an AMA publishes a post to Reddit telling users they can ask the person anything, and if the subject is famous or interesting enough, users will oblige by pelting them with questions.
In addition to her political essays, Hurley is also known for writing genre novels, and Drew pitched her on the AMA as a way to promote her books. “He told me that the subreddit usually will get well over 3,000 people coming in through during the AMA and that it has tens of thousands of users who are a part of the community,” she said. For years, Drew has traveled to genre conventions and conducted outreach with authors to make this exact same case, and dozens of fantasy luminaries, from Piers Anthony to Terry Brooks, have participated in AMAs. So when Drew asked Hurley to conduct her own, she was willing to give it a try.
In November 2012, with some guidance from Drew on how to set one up, Hurley launched an AMA. “I felt like like the questions were 50/50,” she said. “About half of the people had heard of my books and of me, and then there were the half who just asked the questions they ask at every AMA; they’re people who just love AMAs and want to learn more about every author by asking the same questions.” Redditors asked her about the use of bug imagery in her work, the future of ebook technology, and how she markets her work.
I had reached out to Hurley after noticing it had become quite common for authors to conduct an AMA after the publication of a new book. Often it would be already-established celebrities and authors who included Reddit in their publicity tours, but in some cases a complete unknown would pique the community’s interest if their book’s focus had enough originality. In 2014, an Australian named Rob Towner posted an AMA in which he admitted “I’m a completely unknown author.” Possibly because of the quirky title of his book — Animal Friends: Floating Orange Cubes — it shot up to the top of r/IAMA, the most popular community for AMAs. He returned a few days later to note that his book had reached an Amazon ranking of 300 (which roughly translates to it being among the top 300 best sellers) as a result of Reddit’s enthusiasm.
Can Reddit, a community known for loathing self-promotion, serve as a viable marketing tool for books? Hurley, who later went on to conduct several more AMAs after the release of new titles, told me it’s a worthwhile marketing strategy, but the impact is tough to measure. “You’re not really sure where a specific sale comes from,” she said. “What you can see is the fan interaction, someone saying, ‘Hey I just bought it’ or ‘it’s now on my wish list.’ So you get some immediate feedback. But I also l look at it as adding another one of those marketing touchpoints. Someone might say, ‘Hey, I saw a review about this book, I saw a tweet retweeted from her, and now I saw her on Reddit. You know what, I’m going to pick up that book.’ So to me it’s one more building block in the publicity chain that helps your visibility as an author.”
Mignon Fogarty also found it difficult to suss out the direct benefits of an AMA. As the founder of Grammar Girl, the brand behind a bestselling book, a popular website, and a podcast that receives hundreds of thousands of downloads each month, Fogarty had plenty of venues to promote her work (she’s also appeared on Oprah, the mecca for book promotion). And like Hurley, her prior encounters with Reddit hadn’t always been positive. “My first big interaction with Reddit was seeing a huge spike in traffic to my website when someone posted a link to an article I had written saying ‘irregardless’ was a word, and it sent over a huge angry mob,” she recalled. “There was another big traffic spike when someone posted a link to my podcast as an example of someone who has annoying vocal fry.”
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But Fogarty was open to conducting an AMA when it was suggested to her from the folks behind FundAnything, the crowdfunding site she used to raise money for a grammar card game she wanted to produce. So they coordinated with the r/IAmA moderators and scheduled the AMA a week out. Prior to launching her AMA, she reviewed a few others to get a sense of how they’re conducted, and once it went live she promoted it across her social media channels. Hundreds of Redditors began inundating her with questions. “My impression was that the majority of people knew who I was,” she said. “I would say at least 70 percent of the people seemed familiar with my website or my podcast or my social media presence. It seemed like the people who knew who I was would ask a grammar question they had been wanting to ask for a long time. And the people who didn’t know who I was would ask about my philosophies about language, or random questions like ‘what’s your favorite breakfast cereal?’”
Though Fogarty enjoyed conducting the AMA and said she’d do it again, she also didn’t see a significant spike in book sales or backers for her crowdfunding project. “I would say it was about equivalent to when I did an hour-long Twitter chat to promote the crowdfunding campaign, or when I do Twitter chats when I have a new book out,” she said. “I think it’s always good to be on new platforms because it’s a great way for people to discover you, but doing a one-hour AMA didn’t yield dramatic results. It’s an important but small part of a much larger campaign.”
Dan Lewis could at least peg an approximate number to his AMA: 4,000. No, not 4,000 book sales, but new email subscribers. Lewis is the proprietor behind Now I Know, a daily newsletter he launched in 2010 that spends between 500 and 1,000 words telling a story about something he finds fascinating. The topics are eclectic, ranging from a Cold War cat that was wired to spy on Soviets to the use of “pig toilets” in Goa, India. What started as a subscriber base of 20 has grown in the last half decade to over 100,000, and a few years ago one of his readers convinced him that he could curate and sell his newsletter in book form. The reader introduced him to an agent, and, in 2013, the first volume of Now I Know was published.
Lewis also happened to be a longtime Redditor and had noticed the increasing popularity of AMAs. “Unlike most authors for whom the Reddit experience is often a new one and they don’t really have any credibility within the community, I do,” he told me. His first AMA, launched in 2012, came before his first book was published. “I posted it and then told my email list I’m doing it. I didn’t ask them to upvote it or anything like that, but I had some redditors on the list and they gave me the few hundred upvotes you need to cut through the clutter.”
The AMA shot to the top r/IAmA, receiving over 1,000 upvotes and 500 comments. Unlike many of the AMA subjects who spend only an hour answering questions, Lewis dedicated 10 hours to addressing questions like where he gets his ideas and whether he shies away from obscene or controversial subjects. The effort paid off, leading to 4,000 new subscribers in a 24-hour period. “When my book later came out it seemed like a natural excuse to do another one,” he said. “I don’t know if the AMA drove sales of the book directly, but it did help me get a bunch of new subscribers. It’s an example of one of those things where it doesn’t really matter how you gain from it if all the gains lead to the same thing: a larger audience, a larger distribution, both for the newsletter and for the book. They’re symbiotic.”
So how does the Reddit AMA compare to other forms of book promotion? With the release of any new title, the author and publisher scramble to send out press releases, garner reviews, secure radio interviews, and even schedule live readings. I asked Fogarty, who had seen success across both traditional media and her own social platforms, how Reddit compared to say, a radio interview. She said she preferred online promotion to offline publicity. “The ability to put a link on the page where people are seeing you talk about your product is really powerful. It’s much easier to get people to take action online than it is on radio or TV where they have to take that extra step to go to their computer or phone to find the address or page. I really like doing things online where you can provide links to what you’re talking about. It’s very effective.”
All the authors I spoke to for this article said they enjoyed the AMA experience and would do one again. Of course, for every successful AMA conducted there are many more that don’t receive any upvotes or visibility, and it’s not a coincidence that the most popular AMAs involve already-established authors. As with most cases in marketing, it’s easiest to gain an audience when you have one already.
Image via WSJ.com