Following on from my previous post, it turned out that my story, Hotel Subterraneana, ended up in second place in the Ether Books Halloween Contest. That’s not a bad result out of sixty writers all vying for attention. For me the contest was more an experiment in promoting a single story, something I've not done before, than a concerted attempt to win the prize (an iPad). I’m not saying I wouldn’t have liked to have won, of course...
I had fun promoting my story, although it wasn't something with which I was 100% comfortable. I like to think I have more than one string to my bow, and it was good to mess around with non-writery things like the ‘cover image’. It was good to come up with different ways to talk about the story on Twitter and Facebook, and an interesting exercise in terms of trying to gauge how many mentions of the story would seem like overkill.
I think I just about managed to get through it without annoying anybody too much. I made sure I had three days out of the seven when I didn’t mention it at all online, and I tried to ensure I wasn’t posting the same thing on Twitter as I was on Facebook, as I have an overlap of friends and followers, and nobody likes being bombarded with the same stuff everywhere they go. Most people seemed pretty cool with it, and it was fantastic that so many were keen to help.
Not everybody feels that way, though. Although none were directed specifically at me, I noticed some sniffy comments on Twitter about popularity contests calling themselves writing competitions, and even in the dedicated Facebook group, one of the writers asked whether the next contest would “also be won by the person with the most phones”.
It’s strange that there doesn’t seem to be the same distaste for writers who promote their work by making it free via Amazon or similar channels, and then tell everyone how far up the Kindle charts their book/story has risen. Perhaps with the Ether contest it’s the element of a tangible prize at the end that upsets people – free promotions are acceptable, it seems, when it’s just about boosting your own fame and/or encourage sales of other work, but add in an iPad as a potential prize and suddenly it all seems a little exploitative.
The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a student at an American university. I think students have a distinct advantage in a contest like this – I certainly knew and was in regular contact with more people during my uni days than at any time before or since. The winner worked social media pretty hard and was able to create quite a buzz around her story.
I don’t own anything Apple-flavoured, so I can’t download the app or read the winning story. I’ve no idea whether it was any good. But that wasn’t the point of the contest – it was never going to be about the “best” story winning. From Ether’s point of view, it’s a pretty effective promotional tool. For a relatively meagre outlay, they got 60 writers rushing around for a week, telling everyone they knew how great the Ether app is and how easy it is to download stories. They haven’t announced the final figures for the downloads, but the total must be well into the hundreds, maybe even thousands. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the majority of these also involved a new download of the Ether app itself.
What would be really interesting is what proportion of these new users actually read the story they’ve downloaded, and how many of them go on to download anything else from Ether Books. Presumably the intent is that the contest stories act as a free sample, and – assuming the reader is suitably impressed – that the freebies will lead to these new users purchasing stories in the future. They have some impressive writers in the pay section of the app (Hilary Mantel, anyone?).
Will Ether's plan work? As I say, I haven’t been able to read any of my fellow contestants’ stories. I had confidence in mine, but then it had already won a cash prize and been published in a national magazine. The terms of the contest were that everything submitted would be published on the app, and there didn’t seem to be any editorial control (for instance, there is a glaring typo in the author-submitted synopsis of the winning story, which doesn’t bode particularly well). Personally, it seems odd that Ether are prepared to launch stories onto their app with a very light touch in terms of quality control, and then expect those stories to act as an advert for the service. Will people who read a friend’s story for free really be motivated enough to pay for another story, regardless of whether they thought the first one was any good?
Maybe Ether have a longer-term goal in mind, and it’s all about normalising the concept of reading short stories on a phone. Or maybe it comes down to economics, and contests like this are a more effective way of advertising the app than paying for adverts in the books review section of newspapers. I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Writers need to be able to promote themselves and to understand the boundaries of what’s acceptable in directing people's attention to their work. I just think I’d be more comfortable with it if Ether could find a way to give a stronger impression that the writing comes first, and the self-promotion is very much secondary.