The tricky challenge for writers – discovery by social media

A documentary series I featured in has re-run on TV this past few weeks, with the result that I’ve ended up fielding cheerful comments from people I know only vaguely. ‘Saw you on TV.’

I didn’t even know it was repeating. I don’t watch TV these days. Will the exposure help sell my books? Probably not. Bringing the audience to the book has always been challenging – all the more today where the arbiter is online profile, even for long-established writers.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge facing writers today. Discovery. Getting people to know who you are and what you do.

KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.
Apparently this battleship is the secret to blog discovery, at least for me… KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.

It’s a bigger issue than learning writing. That comes with hard work and practise. But discovery? The ground rules have changed since the old days when you could build a media platform by freelance feature writing, your publishers got you into the papers, and there was (sometimes) an in-store autographing circuit. Today, the arbiter is social media – and sure, you can pour a lot of hard work and technique into it, and you’ll get results. But the really spectacular results are something else. They’re as much luck as anything.

That’s because everybody on the planet, from me to Taylor Swift to George R R R R Martin and you, all have basically the same toolkit to work with – broadcasting what we do at the same volume. And stuff gets lost in the ‘noise’.

Take this blog. Last year I fielded a ‘Redditlanche’ – a listing on one of the sub-Reddits that suddenly sent my stats skyrocketing. Thousands and thousands of views – all hitting just one post about the KM Bismarck. Yah – one of my geekier naval ventures. Weirdly, although the first ‘Redditlanche’ subsided, it was swiftly replaced by a second one that drew in an associated post. That subsided too, but both posts have fielded a fair number of views every month since.

None of that was intentional on my part. That ‘Bismarck’ post was just another post. Until the ‘Redditlanche’. But that was pure chance.

See what I’m getting at? Hard work gets you so far on the discovery stakes, but to get further you need something else – luck, mostly. That’s true not just for blogs but for the books we’re all pushing up online and trying to sell.

Put another way, for every success story like The Martian, there are probably ten thousand books as good – but which never get found. That’s not due to failure on the part of the writer, but the sheer dumb luck of happening to go viral.

Discovery is everything, and there’s no technique I can think of to much tip the odds of winning the discovery lottery.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “The tricky challenge for writers – discovery by social media

  1. Nail on the head. You summarised the battle for exposure perfectly.
    In many ways social media had levelled the playing field IF you can get enough followers etc, but then it comes down to marketing and or daily grind of following and messaging, much like on wordpress, until there’s an audience to even announce things like book releases to and even then the percentage of say 5000 followers who would buy a new book at any given time might be tiny, 1% or less.
    It’s pretty brutal, and like you say luck really is the key factor. Hard work, but everyone needs luck to go that extra bit.

    1. Thanks – yes, there’s a lot of hard work in it. There’s definitely a disconnect between most social media and actually selling anything. Really it’s about profile.

      1. Yeah. I mean for someone like me, twitter/facebook isn’t doing anything to raise mine, and will be ineffective 99% when i publish my first book, but I have to start somewhere. For yourself, you have plenty of published work, so it’s likely to be more effective.

        1. Possibly, but the reality’s still fairly dismal! I sell very little through online/social media profile. Penguin Random House have put all the books I currently have with them up on Kindle, but the sales data is dismal – a tiny, tiny fraction of the quantity shifted through the physical bookstores.

            1. That’s exactly it. Plus, publishing is a lottery anyway – nobody, including the publishers, know what will sell and what won’t. I had one book that Penguin/Random thought “should” have sold very well which tanked utterly. And another that, magically, roared away into the NZ best seller lists and came close to dislodging the cookbooks that permanently dominate the top five (they sent me a very nice bottle of champagne in celebration…)

  2. I still keep coming back to the figure I saw last year. Something like 12% of books bought online are discovered online. I think a lot of the advice telling authors to build up their social media presence comes from people who are not marketing experts and don’t have a clue about anything that isn’t on the web. Most of the advice is clickbait, scam marketing or wishful thinking.

    1. I agree – a LOT of the ‘writing’ and ‘publishing’ advice I see on the web is from people who are only a step or two up the learning curve ladder. It shows. It’s interesting, though, where all this has gone – there was a belief early on in the trad publishing industry that social media would sell books, and they were encouraging authors to do it (mine did). It didn’t pan out so directly.

  3. Well put! I’ve figured out the only good reason to write is for love of writing. If you are also skilled in whatever marketing happens to work, and lucky, you may succeed. If that’s not good enough, well, there are lots of other ways to pass the time.

    1. Too true! For me, writing has been wildly variable – and I have occasionally suggested to my wife that if writing failed I could always take up rally driving. She prefers that I keep writing…

  4. Oh, dear, yes, the discovery and the follow-up problem. I got very slightly popular last year tracking the collapse of Apartment 3-G, but it doesn’t seem to have produced more than a handful of lasting readers. (I don’t have anything for sale, not yet anyway, but the principle seems the same.)

    1. There seems nothing more variable than blog ‘hits’! I had 476 ‘visits’ the other day in about 10 minutes which all seemed to be coming from the one place, which I put down either to a bot, or to somebody who had to keep reloading my home page every second or so for reasons known only to themselves.

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