WARNING: This is one of them long ones. Better go get a fresh cup of coffee before you start…
We all know I love publishers. I still hope, should I ever finish The Novel, to be published by one of them. Say silly things like legacy or gatekeepers, or use something as serious and tragic as the Irish potato famine—or rape or Stockholm Syndrome, for that matter—to describe the relationship between the author and the business that has risked its money to get that author’s book to market, and you go straight onto my Naughty List.
(Well, there isn’t actually a Naughty List. Who has the time? I will roll my eyes at you though.)
I don’t believe for a second, for instance, what is pretty much an accepted ‘fact’ by the majority of the self-publishing community: that traditional publishers don’t publicize and/or care about the books they publish. I’ve seen for myself that this is simply not true. The bad publishers might not, but it’s up to you not to sign contracts with them. (Or at least not sign contracts with them twice, or tarnish all publishers with the same brush just because of one experience.) Even if I took away what I’ve seen firsthand, there would still be the evidence of logic: publishing is a business, and any business that isn’t run by morons wants to recoup their investment, i.e. any advance paid, printing and staff costs. They market and publicize and support their product as much as they can because it’s in their interests for it to sell.
Here’s a nice relaxing photo for you this Monday morning. You’re welcome!
Anyway, I tell you this because I want to make it clear that despite my self-publishing background, I ain’t a publisher-basher. But there is one area where some of them do need a stern talking to, and that’s their attitude towards using social media to promote their books. The Big Ones are all over it (that’s probably why they’re The Big Ones) but others aren’t even making an effort, which is crazy as they’re the ones who stand to benefit the most on the internet’s level playing field.
This is something they have in common with a lot of self-publishers, as luck would have it, so let’s talk about this attitude and the reasons behind it here today.
Do any of these statements sound at all familiar?
- ‘But does Twitter really sell books? So-and-so has 10,000 followers and he only sold 500 books…’
- ‘Ugh. I can’t be bothered with Facebook and all that silly stuff.’
- ‘Why waste your time on that when books have sold fine without all this rubbish until now?’
- ‘There’s no evidence social media does anything except suck away time.’
- ‘I have NEVER bought a book because someone on Goodreads recommended it to me. NEVAAAH!’
- ‘Is this over yet? Call me when Twitter is gone.’
- (From the writer) ‘But I want just to WRITE!’
I talked about this recently in a post called The Author Platform: Are You Being Cautious… Or Just Lazy? But I think beyond caution and laziness, there’s yet another reason why you might be turning your nose up at the idea of using social media to sell books: you might have it all wrong. The phrases using social media to sell books and promoting your books on social networks offer no real, tangible, practical clues as to how one might do such a thing, and once you start throwing around buzzwords like discoverability, the process becomes even murkier still.
So I think it’s time we demystified this whole selling-books-with-social-media thing. Because maybe if we took your average Social Media Skeptic and explained to them, in practical, tangible terms, what it actually means, they’d feel differently.
Using social media to promote your book is not anything magic or mystical. It’s not a hit-or-miss fuzzy cloud from which success only rarely emerges. It’s just the simple act of:
- Finding readers who liked a book like yours
- Telling them about your one.
As the meerkats would say, simples!
And here’s another one… (Because who wants pictures of Twitter logos? BORING!)
But Wait… Does It REALLY Sell Books?
Yes, it does. It sold mine, it sells the books of my self-published friends, and it’s worked wonders for countless traditionally published titles. But most of the time, we can’t prove it. No one listens to self-publishers because for some reason self-published success is still treated like a total fluke. Even when the author says ‘Well, I did this and then I did this and then sales really picked up when I started doing this’, no one listens. They just think wasn’t he lucky?! And publishing houses use lots of different methods to sell books, so they can’t really say for sure why a certain book was a bestseller, only that, as a whole, the campaign worked. The other problem is that it doesn’t sell all the books, and the skeptics latch on to each Twitter-flavored failure and hold it up as high as they can. If it fails, it means they don’t have to worry about it.
But tell me what, besides Oprah or the New York Times, can be guaranteed to sell thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions copies of a book? Two books get great media coverage, meet you inside the door of every major bookstore and collect glowing reviews. One ends up selling a million copies, and the other disappears without a trace. Why? Because that’s just how it goes! That’s how publicity pans out. Sometimes it works, and we don’t know exactly why, and sometimes it doesn’t, and we can’t say for sure what went wrong.
The beauty of social media is that, should it fail, the only thing you’ve spent, for the most part, is time.
The other benefit is that what you have done has been targeted to readers who like books like yours. Spend money on a radio ad, for example, and you don’t know who’ll hear it. But get your crime novel reviewed or mentioned on a crime book blog, or reviewed by an influential crime novel-loving Goodreads user, and you know that promotion hit home. People always want to know time-saving tricks for using social media, but social media itself is a time-saving trick, because it cuts you a path to your target market.
Much like Salon’s recent spate of anti-self-publishing articles*, we should also look at these so-called failures a little closer. When someone says ‘I used Twitter and it didn’t work’, is that really evidence that Twitter doesn’t sell books? Were they using it right? Like I said last Friday, it’s like having a treadmill in your garage, failing to lose 30 pounds and then concluding that treadmills don’t lead to weight loss. Did you use the treadmill? Did you eat right? Did you avoid those knock-off Choc Ices from Aldi? I congratulate you if you did, because they’re delicious…
We may have wandered slightly off topic here.
Anyway, social media can sell books. I know it can, because that’s how I sold mine—and how countless self-published friends sold theirs (a lot more of them than me), including a few who’ve sold more than 100,000—and because that’s how I now find out about a lot of the new books I buy and authors I decide to try. (Ooh, look: I’m a poet and I… am unaware.) Even if you don’t buy that, you can’t deny that the readers are out there, online. Twelve million of them on Goodreads. A thriving book-loving community on Twitter. And then there’s the fans and subscribers of countless book blogs, author websites, etc. They are there. You can’t deny that. And if you’re a reader, you’ll know that a good book recommendation is the best thing after a good book. We want to hear about the new books. We want to add to our To Read pile. And if you don’t bother telling me about your book, one of your competitors will get in there and tell me about theirs instead.
I want to go to there.
Engagement, Not Advertising
But it’s not advertising, and so saying ‘oh, so-and-so has 10,000 followers and he only sold 1,000 books, therefore social media doesn’t sell books’ means you don’t get any Pretend Choc Ices.
This is really, at the end of the day, about good content. Create good content, post that content, drive eyeballs to that content, convince me with your cover and your blurb and your advance praise and your writer’s credentials to hit the ‘Buy’ button and—ta-daa!—you’ve sold me a book. And by good content we mean something that stands alone as entertainment or useful information, even if you took away the advertising-a-book-bit.
Examples of this would be:
- My self-publishing blog posts
- Matt Haig’s posts for Book Trust
- Dead Good Books by Random House (who owe me at least enough to cover two months’ credit card bills, at this stage)
- The book trailer for You Had Me At Hello
While we’re on the subject of book trailers, STOP WITH THE MOVIE-STYLE ONES, for the love of fudge. Even if they work, they sell just one book—to me, the person watching it. But make it funny, make it entertaining or make it not really about the book at all, and not only will I buy the book, but I’ll pass the book trailer on.
For example, boring with a capital B:
But wait, LET ME STICK THIS UP ON FACEBOOK AT ONCE!
I read a great line about content during the week (from a graph on Pinterest, of all places): valuable content earns you permission to sell. Write it on a prominent Post-It, people.
Or read this great post on The Creative Penn which talks about this being not social media marketing but content marketing, with social media is just the delivery system.
The Numbers You Can’t Deny
Even if you don’t believe that social media can be used to sell books, here is a number you can’t deny: 12,000,000. That’s how many users Goodreads has. That’s a website where only people who love to read books and share the books they’ve read love to go. Twelve million. And that’s before we even think about the readers on Twitter, or Facebook, or blogs.
And remember: Goodreads, at its core, is about personal recommendations. We follow someone whose taste we trust, we see that she liked a certain book, we think we’ll like it too. Five years ago I would’ve finished a book I loved and told a couple of friends about it. Now, I can share it on Goodreads, tweet about it, blog about it, stick it up on Facebook… Word-of-mouth is still what makes a bestseller. What’s changed is that word-of-mouth now involves a lot more people, and because there’s a lot more people, it can benefit a lot more books.
We don’t know where Twitter and Facebook and all that malarkey will be in five or ten years’ time, but I think it’s safe to say that social reading is here to stay. So at the very least, you should be turning your head towards that.
The readers are out there. They want to know what to read next. And you’re publishing books. You two need to get it on.
I’m one of these readers. That’s why I can say this with a degree of confidence. Nearly all the new books I read (new releases but also authors I haven’t read before) now find their way into my consciousness via Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads or a blog post. Just this past week it happened with Just What Kind of Mother Are You? and My Criminal World, and I’m counting down the days until I can get my hands on a copy of The Silent Wife (which the internet just seems to refuse to shut up about, and tortuously it’s not out until July).
All you have to do is find us, tell us about your book through good content, a book which we should be predisposed to liking because it’s similar to other books we have publicly expressed a love for in the past, and finally aim to convince us, through the book itself (cover, blurb, etc.) to buy it.
No voodoo involved.
(Seriously: 2,015 words. And I wonder why The Novel isn’t finished!)
*Salon are really having a laugh lately. First of all we had I’m a Self-Publishing Failure, and the internet whispers tell me that the guy didn’t have an e-book for sale, and then we had The future is no fun—self-publishing is the worst, which was about a newly self-published author trying to promote his book through the same channels that had promoted the books he’d previously got traditionally published, like newspapers, TV, etc. which is just stoopid. Trad books=trad media. Self-published books=online media, i.e. the place where nearly all the self-published books are sold. I mean, REALLY.
What do you think? If you’re not using social media to promote your books, why not? And does selling books this way work on you? How do you find out about the books you read?