In electronics, the signal-to-noise ratio is the proportion of information carried in a transmission versus the hums, buzzes, and clicks in the carrier medium, be it radio waves or packet switching that we’re using. Our communicative technologies seem to talk to themselves as they go about our business, and the higher the proportion of our talk to their talk, the “better” the system is said to be. From our point of view, of course. Perhaps, as the worldwide matrix of carrier signals evolves, it is finding itself irked at our requirement for silence from our ethereal slave. In any case, keeping the technology quiet so we can hear each other is a major focus of electronic engineering even now.
There is a human analogy to this on the internet, or in commercial media generally, which I am experiencing now. I have very little money with which to advertise my novels and other writings. To me, then, the endless shriek of sales pitches that pervades every corner of that great invisible mall we call the internet is noise, and my timid little Facebook and Twitter postings are the signal. Of course, to everyone else, my ads are part of the noise, distracting, in however small a way, from their signal. We’re all cross-talking over each other, trying desperately for a smidgen of attention, hoping that somebody will buy whatever it is we’re selling. In my case, that is novels. And damned fine ones, to judge from the comments of reviewers both professional and amateur, as well as my own editors.
Alas, my ads have all failed: though I seem quite competent at garnering “likes,” hitting the “like” button appears to be for most folks a symbolic and final indicator of participation in the Internet Economy. My ads are targeted at “literary readers,” a category Facebook deems sufficiently prevalent to list as an option in its handy-dandy ad-posting and funds-extracting app. An eight-dollar ad can call in over a thousand “likes.” But sales don’t result. The internet is frequently said to have habituated people to expect free stuff. But even free stuff has to be made. Unfortunately, the grocer and the landlord don’t accept “likes” in lieu of cash. This puts us all in a bind.
Even a sale offering e-books of compelling and often thrilling stories for just a dollar each grabs no sales. (These books each took over a year to write.) Perhaps the sort of folks who cruise the internet are inveterate price-grinders, and are willing to wait till an interesting offer wears down to the ultimate bargain price of zero. But I can’t afford to give everything away, as no one is supporting me but me myself. (I do post a great deal of good writing for free, usually on Medium.)
If I could manage to amortize an extensive ad campaign over several years of subsequent sales, buy a Kirkus review, butter up book fair moguls, the way trade publishers can (which is why they commit you to offering them your next several books when you are new), perhaps then I could gain some traction.
Well, I’ll do what I can to gain renown through viral methods, the new old-fashioned way. But the internet is more television than town square any more, and exists, it seems, primarily to corner us into giving billionaires our money in exchange for posting vain ads on their massive, noisy networks.
Meanwhile, I often devote a few meditative minutes to pondering just what those hundreds of well-intentioned folks are “liking” in my ads. It’s not the books, which they haven’t read. So what is it? The clever come-ons? My wife’s striking cover designs? I have no idea. They “like” the ads; they do not click the links. The reporting modules would tell me if they did.
If you’re one of those good folks who have warmed my heart by “liking” an ad, then broken it by ignoring the books it promotes, consider this a survey question: What do we “like” when we “like” a Facebook ad? This is an honest query. I am not bitter, just confused.
To make it more of an existential pondering: Is this sump of desperation really the future we all thought we were waiting for?
Best in the new year,