The great social network book selling myth

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.

Trad bookstores still sell books…

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

13 thoughts on “The great social network book selling myth

  1. I think one thing that many authors don’t take into account is genre. In my experience if you’re an author of a popular genre then you’ll have greater success via social media. It’s a numbers game. The more popular the genre, the greater the numbers of sites/blogs/groups dedicated to that genre.

    As I have zero print books available, my following is 100% internet/social media based. And I’ve had many readers find me for the first time on twitter, see what I write, buy my books and then tweet me that they bought my books after reading my bio. Same for Facebook. It does happen.


    1. That’s good news. And yes, genre is absolutely part of it – but it IS a numbers game, and many authors aren’t able to reach that upper end of the bell curve.


  2. I think social networking opens another avenue to authors, a road some will take and some will avoid (particularly if they perceive they don’t need it). It’s something born in this iGen age and so will undoubtedly evolve and improve to meet the market which is itself evolving.

    People have long been fascinated by writers as much as they have been fascinated by their work, and this too has been hotly debated, but social networking appeals to that part of the populace that wish to know more about the thoughts and opinions of individuals outside the context of their work and this is where the sales may be generated because someone likes what a writer has to say – much like in the old days of reading newspapers and features and articles, we might discover an interesting writer through an interview or a feature they have written, only now the process has become much more democratic and open to anyone – except that the criteria still remains, in that the sales will only occur if people actually relate to what is being offered, so quality and appeal is paramount.

    It’s another route to building a reputation, an international reputation and it is a slow road, although there are the exceptions like you say, those who storm in and create huge magnetic attraction – having by luck or strategy discovered how to appeal to the mob.

    In the past writers generated a following based mainly on what they had written and published, today they generate in addition, a passive following that if nurtured may become more active depending on what else is published in the future. I don’t think we should be looking at the activity as a pure sales tool, with a short lead time. And if it feels uncomfortable for the writer, they should perhaps retain their mystique and stay away from it, because blogs etc that have often been created after the fact (i.e. post publication) often lack a genuine feeling, a bit like someone in the wrong job trying to make the most of it – its obvious.

    But really, what do I know? I am not published, (though many have said they’ve searched for my book on Amazon 🙂 but I love interacting via my blog ‘Word by Word’ and twitter, perhaps all the more so because I am a Kiwi living in France, and I’ve found a new intellectual community to engage with that is so much greater and more diverse than the physical one I have here.

    And I am happy to have discovered you and your work through social networking and shall continue to follow your posts and your career and tell others as well.


    1. Thank you! I think you’ve nailed how most writers get known – kind of ‘get famous slow’, really. Social networking certainly opens up avenues to make contact with new people. (And for far-flung Kiwis to keep in touch).


  3. Matthew, I wish I had a sensible comment to make here, but from my perspective it seems that the data are insufficient to permit speculation. Kristen Lamb wrote a pretty good post about this recently; and as you know she’s a major fan of social networking, but on the basis you outline here, as a means of engaging your fan base. No robots or spam! That seems pretty self-evident to me, but is it effective? I think building a sales base in the digital age is going to be the same long slow slog it always has been, regardless of product, until and/or if you reach that “critical mass” of name recognition where enough people know who you are that that knowledge generates anticipation and curiosity about your next book. Other than that…what’s Maori for “who the heck knows?”


  4. I’m just repeating what others have said more effectively, but it’s a very slow process. You gain followers over time, slowly. Sure, some gain these people quickly, but the average self-published author that heavily uses social media (that I’ve read about; this number is totally not accurate overall) gains some momentum a good year after they’ve started publishing novels consistently, and mostly in a series or popular ebook genre (fantasy, romance, occasionally sci-fi). So there are multiple facets to it, I think.


    1. I think persistence must pay off.Scale of offering on the market definitely pays dividends too – I think a lot can spring from the ‘long tail’ effect – also from having a significant ‘back list’ in print – which, as an e-book, doesn’t ever go out of print. Actually, that’s true of trad, New Zealand’s richest author has around 600 books in print – trad printing – all of them kids’ books, all of them sold in the US (sigh).


      1. 600? Wow! Yeah I think the more an author has to offer, the more likely word of mouth can increase the sales, and then social media can have a profound effect. But it’s so hard to predict or even control. Really the author just does the best they can, has social media presence, is kind and helpful to other authors, and so on, and hopes for the best.

        At least that’s what it seems like.


  5. I think you’re right about social media, I’ve always thought the same but believed I must be wrong because everybody said the opposite. I think from its very nature it’s a scatter gun. You might by chance chat with someone who also wants to buy a book, but how much more effective to go where you know books are bought.
    To be truthful I’m trying to justify myself because I hate social media, I think it’s a weird way to communicate. But I’m glad you think it’s not vital for an author, Matthew.


    1. I find this blog really good to communicate with people, and I’ve had some good chats with people who I wouldn’t have met or contacted otherwise via it. Doesn’t sell books, though (nor is that my intent with it, particularly, though the odd heads-up seems reasonable). I have to admit I can’t see the point of Facebook – I might post on that soon.


  6. “Sometimes, something goes viral. Occasionally there are Cinderella stories. But people win lotteries, too.”

    …suddenly my afternoon blogging in glass slippers while scratching Bingo tickets seems so futile… sigh.


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