Last week, author Susan Kiernan-Lewis suggested to her readers that Twitter and social networking doesn’t sell books. I had more to say than I could put into a comment. So here are my thoughts – and I’d love to hear yours.
I’ve been publishing for years in traditional print, with the major houses. Promotions have been via radio, some TV, magazines and newspaper. Sometimes it works. In 2009, for instance, Random House arranged a comprehensive campaign for my book Big Ideas, for Father’s Day. I was on radio just about every day, there were reviews and features in national papers and magazines. A few weeks later, the book shot into the top 5 non-fiction best selling list here in New Zealand. And stayed there for five weeks. It remained in the top 30 for the next year. It’s been reprinted multiple times and is still selling, 3 years on.
The reason why this happens is because a book hits the right market/price slot at the right time, with the right content – and breaks into the wider public market. Other books don’t, irrespective of the promotions. And neither authors nor publishers, usually, can exactly predict it.
I joined Twitter and set up a social platform on urging of my publishers. I didn’t know what to expect. In a social sense, it’s been great. I’ve met some fantastic people I’d never have contacted any other way. Long may it continue. As a sales tool, though? I get readership spikes on my blog, but not from anything I’ve done online. The percentage of readers who click on my book covers (up there on the right – see) – which takes them to an online bookstore – is tiny. (Go on…you know you want to…)
What’s happening? It seems to me the issue is twofold. First is the nature of social networking. It is structured contact, framed by keyboard, screen and software, all of which channel communication in ways that would not happen face to face. Subtleties of body language are non-existent; we know people only through words. The resulting subculture is almost – but not quite – the real world; aspects are enhanced, others non-existent. Behaviours are driven by the fact that social networking is an escape from life, not life itself – people go to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on for socialising, chatting, entertainment and novelty. Not to work. Not to earn money. Not to be sold things. There is an expectation these days that online content will be free. Even old-style soft sell becomes hard sell in this world.
The other issue is discovery. Social networking is a crowded room in which everybody is shouting. Yet those who get prominent haven’t done so by shouting loudest. Ever heard of Rick Wakeman? Check out his Twitter feed and have a look at his follower/following ratio. He’s a rock star, radio host, TV personality, entertainer and comedian – well known outside the internet. And that’s not surprising; when it comes to fame, the online world mirrors the real one.
To sell books, authors who don’t have high public profile in the real world have to find ways of being discovered and then selling in an environment where promotion is anathema. Sometimes, something goes viral. Occasionally there are Cinderella stories. But people win lotteries, too. For most authors, lifetime e-book sales is about 100 copies per title. Is there an answer ? The pattern is shaking down, and will change further with technology. Social networking is part of the mix – but how it works has yet to emerge. It is a focus for all human behaviours – goodness and kindness; but also, alas, greed and envy.
Susan discussed what one of her commenters called the ‘kumbaya’ strategy – lifting profile via social networking and selling by word-of-mouth. On my experience profile-lifting is important, but it’s also indirect – more so in social networking. However, that’s not why this initiative is important. It is a necessary counter to the less appealing behaviours seen online (spamming, flaming, and so on). Authors need to support each other – need to show kindness, tolerance and reason. It’s fantastic that authors can have a ‘safe place’ to go to – where they can chat with like-minded and supportive people. But that’s well removed from selling anything and should not, I think, be co-opted into a sales device, either.
Talk to me! What do you think?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012