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Why I Don’t Like Street Teams

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Last week Pocket author Karen Tabke blogged about an old marketing concept that is just now taking root in the publishing industry. Street teams originated in the urban music market when rap labels such as Jive Records used a band of teenagers to drive interest when mainstream distribution markets froze urban labels out.

The record label would reach out to a teenager who had a voice of influence within his peer group and would use the kid to galvanize his friends into becoming a community driven marketing machine. The kids would paper their neighborhoods with posters and bumper stickers; encourage their friends to buy the music; deluge the local radio stations with requests for the artist’s song. The first such street teams appeared in the mid 70s and it is just now that it appears to be catching on in the publishing industry. I’ve heard from reliable sources that editors AND agents are urging authors to organize street teams and send these super readers forth to spread the gospel of Author X.

Ms. Tabke has started soliciting for street teams through her email list and her blog. The concept of the author-led street team is great:

Basically your Street Team is creating buzz about your work. They can go armed with paraphernalia i.e. bookmarks, fliers, promo items like pens, magnets and key chains or just a smile and a recommendation.

The following is the list of items that Tabke urges her readers do for her.

In-Person Team Spirit:

* Talk the books up and share promo materials with friends & family to spread the word.
* Buy my books the first week of release, which helps it get on the bestseller lists.
* Ask your local library to order my books. Give the librarians the title, name and publisher.
* If my books aren’t on the shelves, ask the bookseller to order it.
* Take promo materials (bookmarks, postcards, etc) to your local stores, place them with the booksellers. You can leave them with libraries and even at coffee shops.
* Take promo materials (bookmarks, postcards, excerpts, etc) to your local reader group, writer group or RWA Chapter to share with other members.
* With the stealth of a panther, take all of my books and front them on the new release table in the front of the store! (Note, if you insist on slipping one or two in a few best seller slots it won’t hurt my feelings.)

Online Team Spirit:

* Feature interviews, reviews, excerpts or my video trailer via your blog, site, MySpace page, etc.
* Visit during online appearances (workshops, blog tours, chats, etc)
* Share your (honest) review of the book via Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

I want it to be clear that the concept is not one that I am against. I have author friends and I have done things for them such as take ARCs to my local booksellers along with bookmarks (which were never put out by the way). I know that there is nothing more powerful than the word of mouth recommendation and every month we’ve started giving our recommendations here at Dear Author in an effort to promote the books we’ve enjoyed. I also started a grassroots campaign early on in the inception of Dear Author when I encouraged 100 bloggers to blog about one book (Nalini Singh’s Slave to Sensation) and be entered into a contest for $200 gift certificate from Amazon and assorted other goodies. So I do understand both the concept and the goal of a street team. What concerns me is the execution.

1. Reshelving.

Many readers do not know this but the placement of books in a store is by design and not random. Larger booksellers work with publishers to highlight certain books that will benefit both corporate entities through increased sales. Books at front of store or in new mass market table or in the featured section in Barnes and Noble are all paid for with what is called “co-op” dollars. For each book that has a placement outside the shelving area of their respective genres, the publisher pays a fee to the bookseller.

It’s one thing for a reader to decide to reshelve and it is still another to have an author actively encourage the reshelving. This concept will eventually have negative consequences for the author. First, a publisher who audits a store and finds out that the paid placement is not being honored could ask for the co-op dollars back. Second, a bookseller’s time spent in reshelving books that are misshelved can actually detract from the time it could be spending handselling. Third, bookseller may become disgruntled with the fact that a certain author’s book might be repeatedly misshelved and can take it upon themselves to strip and return a title even if it is not on the returns list. Fourth, the reader who is caught doing this might be angered to know that it is not appropriate even though the word “stealth” is used in the instructions.

2. Lack of Accountability.

By encouraging street teams, the author is endowing strangers with the right to act on the author’s behalf. They are marketing agents for the author, armed with pens, post it note pads and bookmarks, leaving them thither and yon. These individuals will become identified with the author and their interactions will reflect, both good and bad on authors. I know of at least one author who was treated poorly due to her connection to bloggers like myself and others.

There have been online disputes about authors that have been ratcheted up by the “rabid fan girl.” The street team readers are like rabid fan girls on notice. The online interaction of these Rabid Fan Girls can have a negative blowback onto the author.   There could be bands of street teams dispatched to Barnes and Noble or Amazon to rid the author’s book link of any negative reviews.   They could deluge a site with negative comments toward the reviewer.

The point is that authors are entrusting and directing people that the author does not know to act as the author’s emissaries. Not all interactions these street team members are likely to have will be positive unless the author is spending alot of time training and providing counsel to the members.

3. Entitlement.

As authors encourage readers to become more personally invested in her success, the greater the reader’s sense of entitlement and ownership of the author. They will begin to feel, and rightly so, that they are part of the author’s success and begin to give suggestions on future marketing techniques or even suggestions on how to write the author’s books better. The reader will feel the right or maybe even the duty to tear down the author as the reader had helped build her up.

Author betrayal is not an uncommon feeling. You can see it reviews of popular authors whose core fan base feel like the author left them behind.

What about when one reader feels like she has done more than another reader? What if she has done more and consistently gets left out of the random drawings? What if the chance of being a character in the book or free arcs isn’t enough? Once a reader has lost that loyalty to an author, what then? Can personal attacks be justified? I.e., I did x, y, and z for this author and got bupkis and then she treated me rudely?

4. Devaluing the efficacy of the word of mouth.

We rely on recommendations regarding a particular book but street teams aren’t basing their loyalty on the book but on the author herself. There in lies the real danger. The street team further blurs the line between author and product to the point that it can be argued what is being marketed is the author herself and not the books. I have authors who I consider to be on my “auto buy list” but even within those authors, there are books that I don’t like and that I won’t recommend. I believe that recommendations should be made for the book alone and by those who love it so that readers can continue to rely on other readers based on their love of the book and not the love of the author.

Finally, the less I know about street teams and the authors who are using them, the better. I think the first rule of the street team is to never speak of the street team. It’s a peek behind the Wizard’s curtain that I’d rather not see.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

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