Social Media: Have You Got It All Wrong?


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:

  1. Finding readers who liked a book like yours
  2. 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:

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:



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? 

39 thoughts on “Social Media: Have You Got It All Wrong?

  1. Catherine Brunelle says:

    I like how you emphasize the content rather than JUST social media. Good content makes for good social media. And I really like that 2nd Bernadette trailer – how totally clever. It made me like the author, and I that’s a good reason to imagine liking the book . . . and maybe suggesting it for a book club meeting. 🙂

  2. Claude Nougat says:

    Great post, I’m with you on this one! I’m self-published too but I have nothing against traditional publishers, on the contrary. And I do think they have a valid “gatekeeping” function. And you’re right, the good ones no doubt help their authors with marketing, and the bad ones don’t. It may be hard though to figure out at the time of signing whether you’re going to be treated right or not. Some of my friends signed up with “good” publishers only to find that they had to do the book promotion on their own. Mind you, some book promotion is always expected and that’s normal…

    The social media works wonders from “branding”. The connection with book selling? This is where, as you say, it is difficult to prove anything, because so many factors come into play, including luck! But I’m completely convinced that it works for building up your brand and of course, that starts with good content. Go, with your cups of coffee, go! I very much enjoy your blog…

  3. Erica Dakin says:

    Well, I’m using the social media (even if I believe it will take me about three months to get my head around Twitter) and I’m doing my best to create good content! Am I selling books with it? Not yet, but I’m quite enjoying this whole blogging malarkey, so I’ll just keep slogging on. If it doesn’t help, then at least it won’t hurt. =)

  4. Writer / Mummy says:

    Thank you for posting this and I hope more people listen! I’m so fed up with non-stop promotion on Twitter that doesn’t even tell me why I should buy the book (I’m sure I’ve done it too but that doesn’t make it any less annoying).
    I agree about Matt Haig, he’s the perfect example of great social media. Through his blogs, twitter and now Facebook I have gone from not knowing who he was to eagerly awaiting his latest book The Humans in only a month or two.

  5. Red Hen says:

    Well, there ya go….I actually have “Bernadette” on my bookshelf for the past six months.Didn`t buy or borrow it, I am merely the conduit for transfering it from one pal to another. Never even thought of reading it myself. Until now.

    Wouldn`t have done that if it weren`t for social media…

  6. Lawrence Grodecki says:

    Excellent post, thank you.

    What I would like to add is that self-publishing can be a big help to traditional publishers…actually it always has been. Take Mark Twain’s Huck Finn book for example. He self-published it first and then other publishers picked up on it.

    One of my favorite books of his is Letters From The Sandwich Islands – a book about Hawaii – each chapter is basically an article he wrote for a Sacramento Newspaper.

    I’m sure if he were around today he would have one kick-ass blog. Maybe some day someone will pick up on that idea, kind of like, “What would Mark Twain do?” and do well with that theme, much like in the movie, “Julie and Julia”.

    Personally I’m counting on content meaning something – meaning a lot – or I’d never have written my book in the first place. That’s because I’m well aware of the clutter factor out there . . . extreme information overload . . . if you think selling books online is tough, try selling original art online . . . not for the faint of heart.

    Now here’s my latest attempt, my latest blog, with a new, improved blurb:

    I’m now just learning the ins and outs of Twitter.

  7. J.M. Porup says:

    A fine blog post. I am definitely your target audience on this one — I have struggled to make social media be anything other than a time suck.

    My current strategy is audio — to podcast my novels a half an hour per week. I’m hoping this will give me the “right to sell”.

    But on another note, I think it’s more complicated than “find a reader who likes a book similar to yours, then tell him about it”. This is the most frustrating part of social media. A tweet to a reader that says “hey, you liked book X, why not check out book Z?” is just going to get me blocked as a nuisance.

    It all has to be indirect.

    And that indirection remains a mystery to me.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      But it’s about content, and a tweet that says that has no content at all. It’s just an empty shell. When I say targeting readers I mean mainly sourcing influential readers and reviewers, in which case you’d be giving them your book. Then things like blog posts, videos, Pinterest boards, entertaining tweets, etc. help build momentum. But there is no scenario in which you should be sending tweets like that, or the infamous ‘My book is just $1.99 on Amazon now! Please RT’ tweets either. It’s not about indirection. It’s about content first, sell second. As the line in the blog post says, valuable content gives you permission to sell. Max Barry entertained me with his reluctant book trailer, so when a ‘Buy me!’ message comes up at the end, I’m not only not annoyed, I’m thinking, I might buy that book! The test is always ‘if I take away the bit in this that just says this is my book and please go buy it’ is there anything left? If the answer is not, it’s not the kind of content you should be creating. Always aim, above all else, to make the internet better than it was a few minutes before.

      • J.M. Porup says:

        The test is always ‘if I take away the bit in this that just says this is my book and please go buy it’ is there anything left? If the answer is not, it’s not the kind of content you should be creating.

        I had not thought of it quite like that before. Thanks!

  8. 1718neworleans says:

    Yes indeed. It makes sense. But how to go about it? First, when I began my Project, I got on all the social media sites, read a bunch of “how to publicize” books and articles, and they all seemed to go on about building “brand” and whatever you do – do NOT try to sell your book! Yet when I looked at all of those writers social media – the “brand” folks – they were all selling their stuff! OK, so now I am on Goodreads, Linkedin, Facebook (with appropriate Book centric pages).My blog is active. I have my own site for the Project, Content is posted and freely downloadable. The books (a history and a culinary history) are in progress, but have generated substantial content already. So now what?

    I am writing and will continue to write because it is my passion (one of them anyway), but aside from a few nibbles, I really have received no response at all. Can anyone tell me, what”s next?

  9. speakhappiness says:

    This is such helpful information, and there is one more component to consider — use your friends! I hadn’t thought of this before, but today, one of my close friends (who has thousands of friends on Facebook), posted a picture of himself holding up my book, Happiness as a Second Language, with a huge, goofy smile on his face and the words “Buy This Book!” That was it. The whole post.

    It has gotten more replies than anything I’ve ever posted, ever (outside of debates over health reform and gun control — people are seriously invested in that stuff!). I kid you not, within five minutes of him posting the picture, two of his friends replied “just ordered my copy.” I am blown away!

    Now in the process of figuring out how many other “influencers” I have in my close circle and seeing what I can get them to do for me in exchange for a cup of coffee and my warm gratitude. Thanks for your great tips. Making this happen is a slow, uphill climb, but damn if it isn’t a blast!

    Happiness as a Second Language:

  10. writerlyderv says:

    Great post. I guess it’s a question of producing a book that’s good enough in the first place, then making sure people can find it. And social media helps people to find it!

  11. barry knister says:

    Like others who advocate marketing books through social media, you assume a great deal. Mostly, you take it for granted that learning how to use SM is not the problem (and please, no cheap jokes ringing changes on s/m). My experience tells me otherwise, and I think this issue is generational, I’m old, you’re young. I didn’t grow up with the technology involved in SM (remember, now, no cheap jokes), whereas you and other younger writers did grow up with it. That means people like me must seek help–and now, here comes the blizzard of coaches, cheerleaders and SM guidance counselors. They’ll be glad to sell me a “plan,” but none of them seem interested in helping me to implement it.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Oh, you definitely need some caffeine for it, so it’d be the tea. At least there’s some in that!

      I wasn’t a fan of Goodreads for ages either. I joined as a member and never really did anything with it, but in 2012 it really experienced a surge in users and I personally use it all the time now, both as a reader and as an author. The giveaways alone are worth a try, and it really requires minimal effort on the part of the author. It’s just a nice place to be, surrounded by readers who really care about books—and where no one is rating a book 1 out of 5 because it arrived two days late. ;-D

      Good luck!

      • mmjustus says:

        Hi, I’m here via the Book Designer, and I’ve never read your blog before, so it very well could be that you’ve covered this subject before, but Goodreads baffles me. Like someone who just posted above, I’m older, and while I manage to use social media on a personal level, trying to use it as an author of fiction brings me to an abrupt grinding halt. So does trying to figure out who my target reader is, which seems to be a fundamental part of the whole thing. Where should I go from here? Any ideas?

  12. Laurie Boris says:

    Interesting, Catherine, thank you. I’m open to learning how to use social media better. I know I get sick of the endless BUY MY BOOK streams and I really don’t want to do that to other people. Such a fine line we walk between “not enough” and “get out of my Facebook.” (Now will go rethink those trailers…)

  13. acflory says:

    I feel kind of foolish. I knew word of mouth was the only sure way of becoming a success but… boy did I not connect the dots. When you talked about social media being word of mouth on a grand scale my jaw just dropped. Thank you.

  14. Barry Eisler says:

    Hi Catherine, may I ask, why do you find terms like “legacy publishing” and “gatekeepers” silly? Certainly other terms, like “traditional publishing” and “New York publishing” and “big publishing” highlight different aspects of the types of publishers we’re referring to, but “silly?” That’s a claim I’d be interested in hearing more about.

    You say, “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.”

    If you could point to someone who has made such an all-encompassing claim about legacy publishing, I’d be grateful, as I’ve never encountered it myself. It’s possible someone at the fringes has said some such thing (you can always find someone at the fringes saying something indefensible), but the way you’ve stated the argument is… well, to use your word, silly. Who would deny that on some level publishers “care about the books they publish?” At the same time, why is how much a publisher might care important — compared to how the publisher performs? Are you arguing that failure rates don’t matter, as long as the publisher really cared about the books that failed on its watch?

    Thankfully, you don’t suggest it all comes down to nothing but “caring,” noting too the question of performance — specifically, whether legacy publishers adequately publicize their books (I would prefer a more general term such as “publish” or “support,” but let’s stay with “publicize,” as it doesn’t really matter for purposes of this discussion). But this is silly, too, because the answer is so obvious: yes, legacy publishers do indeed properly publicize their books. But only *some* of them. And until you state the argument with some realistic nuance, it’s impossible to have a useful conversation about what percentage of books legacy publishers properly support, or how, or why, and what are the chances for any given author of receiving such proper support (though I’m sure all authors have a high likelihood indeed of receiving loads of “caring” and other good intentions from whichever legacy publishers they sign with).

    You say, “Logic [suggests that] 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.”

    This is true as far as it goes, but your logic might not be so comforting if you were to subject it to some real-world examples. Venture capitalists, to use just one, are in my experience anything but morons, and they are very focused indeed on recouping their investments. Yet they know that for every one of their successes, there will be nine failures, and they have created an exceptionally profitable business based on the explicit understanding that they will fail nine times out of ten. Do you think VCs give equal support to each of their investments (much as they might care about them)? Or is it possible they offer less upfront to some, and cut their losses earlier with some, than with others? Is it possible legacy publishers are doing something similar?

    So while no one I’ve ever heard of has suggested that legacy publishers take on books hoping they will fail or deliberately trying to make them fail, all the empirical evidence in the world demonstrates that most of the books legacy publishing take on do in fact fail (based on my general definition of publishing success: a book does well enough to cause the publisher make a similar or better offer for the author’s next one). And I know many, many authors who will tell you firsthand that their books didn’t receive the proper level of publicity or other support en route to failure. Now, maybe the lack of support and the failure were an accident; I would argue that they were part of the business model, much as failure is part of the VC business model. Either way, it’s worth accounting for because statistically speaking, even if you are lucky enough to get a legacy deal, your book will probably fail. In the end, that fact is probably more important than whether the failure was the result of an accident or happened by overall design. It’s probably more important also than whether your publisher really cared about your book en route to its failure.

    I could be wrong about all this, of course, and I wonder if, based on your experience in the industry, you can point to the legacy publisher that properly publicizes all its books?

    I imagine this will be difficult for you because (i) there is no such publisher; and (ii) as you’ve acknowledged, you’ve never worked with a legacy publisher. And though it’s not in my nature to put people who say things I don’t agree with on my “naughty list” or to roll my eyes at them, I do find it odd that you would offer these kinds of opinions — opinions your readers might rely on — based on straw man arguments, without any actual experience to support them, and with such demonstrably unsound logic, too.

    Straw men are easy; nuance, hard. This is probably why there’s so much of the former while the latter is so rare and valuable. I think you said a lot of smart, subtle things in your post about social media, and I wish you would apply some similar searching subtlety to failure rates in publishing.

  15. Steve says:

    An excellent, and entertaining, article, Catherine! 🙂 Thought provoking, too. I especially like your stress on “content”! There’s no bigger turn-off, for me, than a constant stream of “Buy my book”/”Download my book while it’s free” posts, so prevalent on all Social Media. “Buy Fred Jones’ book, I loved it”/”Hey! Jane Smith’s wonderful book is free!” is much better. Better still is random stuff selling nothing, prodding or amusing – just to amuse, inform or challenge thought.

  16. glynissmy1 says:

    Interesting post. I stopped tweeting out about my books, or links that connected folks to my work, and my sales slowed down. I fired off another couple, and noted I sold a few more. After that, I have continued to drop a tweet out now and then. For me, it works.

  17. davidrory says:

    Thoughtful and helpful. I’m in the cautious camp and have spent four years not selling my novels as I learned form people like you how to do it. I now begin. Thank you again Catherine.

  18. Carolyn Mandache says:

    Catherine, I’m very glad I’ve found your site. I find it very entertaining, and you’ve also dealt with a lot of the issues I have faced trying to make a go of this self publishing malarky! I’m not an expert on social media, but you’ve definitely made a case for persevering with my efforts. I’m going to Florida in a few weeks, and I think Mousetrapped will make excellent holiday reading 🙂 I’ve recently started my blog, and enjoy writing it. I’d be grateful for your feedback:

  19. Ashley Davis says:

    I enjoyed reading about your insights and experiences and you’ve given me many things to follow up on, but after watching the videos embedded here I can say with certainty that they simply add to my confirmation bias against the authors.
    Especially the Bernadette one.
    It’s about as effective in selling the author as Strangers with Candy is in selling America. Great satire. Fun to watch. Don’t ever go there.
    Perhaps this is because I was never going to be in the market for these books anyway, but I could have been drawn in, possibly.
    I’ve also had no luck finding any good recommendations for books at goodreads, librarything, etc… People who read the books I like are either zealots or just don’t seem to understand them or particularly care. This also makes me despair at finding an audience for my own book.
    But on the other hand I believe no one’s actually read A Brief History of Time and yet a great many people bought it to have on their shelves. I wonder if anyone got through Franzen’s latest, or Atlas Shrugged?
    I mention this to wonder if it’s content that matters or just memes – stupid but readily digestible ideas. Bad ideas sell, good things sell for the wrong reasons. How do we as authors deal with this and maintain our integrity, especially if we hate Social Media, or any media for that matter? That’s actually what my book’s about, but it’s also something I’d like to see discussed more widely.
    Pardon for rambling. Like your blog. Cheers.

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