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Does Social Media Sell Books?

The $64,000 question when it comes to social media is: Does it sell books? Many authors have written blog posts attempting to answer this question, and the consensus seems to be that yes, done right, social media does sell books, but in modest quantities. In other words, a rock star social media platform does not (necessarily) a bestseller make.

Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar novels, has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and 6000 Facebook followers and is the Social Media Manager of CNET, which qualifies him as a social media expert in my eyes. In May of this year, he wrote a blog post titled “Social Media is an Imperfect Tool. Use it Anyway”, in which he wrote, “Social media hasn’t made my novel Jacob Wonderbar a bestseller, but I do know I’ve sold way more books than I would have without it. How do I know? I recognize the names of a lot of the people who are reviewing my books on Amazon and Goodreads.”

Romance author Roni Loren has had a similar experience. “I’ve had many, many people tell me I was the first erotic romance author they’d ever tried, and they tried it because they “knew” me through social media. I do think that is part of the reason my debut book did well—because I built up a presence online and had a community that wanted to be supportive.” I’m one of those people who bought Roni’s book because I “knew” her and wanted to support her, despite never having met her and never having read a romance novel before.

And yet Ewan Morrison, writing for the UK Guardian, is a little more than skeptical about the magic powers of social media. He’s downright cynical:

“I’m convinced that epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months,” Morrison writes. “The reason is this: epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.”

Morrison’s findings are based on both anecdotal evidence and hard research. He has an author friend who sold just three books after placing a Facebook ad. He has another author friend who didn’t sell a single e-book on Amazon after giving away 700 copies for free. He cites a Reuters study that shows that Facebook ads are ineffective at selling products. (But we all know that Facebook ads don’t sell products. Right?)

But social media is not about Facebook ads; it’s about networking, about making friends with people you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to meet—because they live in Ohio or Texas or Washington or just across town but your schedules make it difficult to meet. Like author Anne Hill wrote in The Huffington Post last month, “Social media is not a tent revival, it is a set of tools that are best used as part of an overarching, long-term strategy to build visibility and grow your audience.”

Social media is one of many tools in an author’s toolbox. Others include networking in person, hiring a publicist, building a mailing list, putting together a knock-your-socks-off press kit, and—above all—writing a great book.

As Hill puts it: “Nobody worth listening to will ever tell you that social media is the only way to sell books. I spend as much time networking in person as I do online, and the cumulative effect on book sales is great.”

And let’s not forget that there is more to social media than selling books. The relationships you foster online may very well have long-term, cumulative effects on your life and career that aren’t immediately apparent or quantifiable.

Like Bransford writes: “You are making friends, you are learning about what else is out there, you are exchanging knowledge, you are discovering, you are communicating, and opportunities will come your way as a result.”

What about you? In your experience, does social media sell books? Have unexpected opportunities arisen in your life as a result of social media?

21 comments to Does Social Media Sell Books?

  • mainecharacter

    The online writing community has been a great source of friendship, tips, and camaraderie, and just in that it's worth the time.

    As for selling books, I may not have bought Nathan's, but I did hear of it and enjoyed the opening chapter, and if my nephew was younger, I would've surely bought it for him.

    That's the way I see social media work – it simply gets your book in front of more people, which increases the chance it'll connect with someone. Or in other words, you can connect with people all you want, but in order to sell, your book has to connect with them, too.

  • annerallen

    I agree with Nathan (and with you) that social media is just one tool. It doesn't sell books directly, that's for sure. But it's basic. Every author needs to be Googlable, and social media is the best way to get Google's attention. But being Googlable is just the first step. The other steps vary by author and genre. But if you don't exist on the Internet, you're not going to get anywhere.

    • meghancward

      I very much agree, Anne. I'd love to see a post on your own blog about what those other steps are (beyond blogging) and how they vary by author and genre.

  • This is an interesting debate. My first novel isn't being released until Spring 2014 so I can't offer any personal experiences about the selling end of the question but I'm building my platform because of what social media has brought me as a reader.

    I've discovered a lot of writers (including Anne R Allen) from other people's feedback on Twitter and GoodReads. I hope eventually people will find my book the same way. Regardless I want them to be able to find me with if they are interested.

    It's easy to do and what writer can afford to be invisible in today's open market?

  • Kristan

    "But social media is not about Facebook ads; it’s about networking, about making friends with people you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to meet… And let’s not forget that there is more to social media than selling books. The relationships you foster online may very well have long-term, cumulative effects on your life and career that aren’t immediately apparent or quantifiable."

    Yes! That.

    I have to admit, from my anecdotal experience, I find it hard to believe that someone who gave away 700 copies didn't sell a single one later… but that's a side point.

    At a minimum, I think all authors must have a website with a basic bio and information & links to their work. Then, if the author is comfortable with it, I think any ONE of these is a huge plus: blog, Facebook, Twitter. If you can do more than just one, great, but I think site + 1 social media tool = 80% of what you "need," and should only take 20% of your time/effort. That last 20% of what you "need" takes the other 80% of your time/effort, so then you have to start looking at how much you enjoy it, how much you get out of it, etc. Whether or not it "works" will depend on each individual author and how they're measuring that.

    • meghancward

      I have to admit, Kristan, I spend more time on social media than I do on my writing, and I'm not proud of that. I follow the 80/20 rule for posting to FB and Twitter (80% posting interesting content, 20% promotion), but I'd never heard that writers should spend 20% of their time writing and 80% marketing. I'm curious to know who came up with that and how many "experts" agree.

      • Kristan

        Sorry, I think I was unclear. I don't mean that 80% of time/effort should be marketing and 20% should be writing — god no!

        I just mean in general, the first 80% of any task (writing, marketing, climbing a mountain, giving a presentation, etc.) takes 20% of a person's effort; it's that last 20% that takes the other 80%.

        So what I'm saying is, is it worth putting in 100% of your time/effort to social media when you can get about 80% of the results for 20% of the effort? I think not.

  • I just learned two new terms that fit me as a self-published and self-marketed author:

    "Googlable" (thanks, annerallen): I have a blog that comes up on top of the first page of search results with my name as the search string.

    "Long Tail Business Model": It would be easier to explain with a graph of an exponential function tailing to the right, but founder, Bob Young, verbalized this business model in a 2007 interview: “A [traditional] publishing house dreams of having 10 authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each.”

    Back to the topic of using social media to market books, I currently have about 20 folks who follow my blog, about 40 likes on my Facebook page, and a little over 300 followers on Twitter. Pretty meager numbers compared to many, but darn, it has taken an inordinate amount of time away from writing my next novel to even get to these levels. Going by gut feel, I can't relate many, if any, book sales to my social media efforts. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. I adopted the "social media is about being social" mantra, and I hardly ever even mention my novel, let alone hawk it, although everything does link back to my blog.

    While I sit with the vast majority in the "long tail" of self-published authors, I've met some lovely folks through my social media socializing, and I'm enjoying posting weekly on my blog. But now it's time to dive deeply into my next novel (think James Herriot meets Nora Roberts in Ireland!), because it's the crafting of stories that I really enjoy.

    • meghancward

      Sigh. It does take an inordinate amount of time, Rob. I get so little writing done these days, and I'm not happy about it. I love the cover of your book, and the story sounds great, but I haven't had time to read your book or Anne Allen's or a whole bunch of other great books yet, and I'll get to why in a second. I think self-published novels are much more difficult to market than nonfiction and genre books. I read one novel per month for my book club – that's all I have time for in addition to all the books I read to edit – and they tend to be award-winning traditionally published books that we've read about in the New York Times or some other book review. Everyone is competing for everyone else's time, and it's just not easy to make that leap from getting your friends to read your book to getting the general public to read it. I don't know the solution except to get excerpts published in literary journals, to get great reviews on Amazon and self-publishing websites, and to enter contests and hope for the best.

      • I appreciate your empathy, and your kind comments regarding my book, Meghan. I think you hit on the real reason it's so difficult to break out with a new novel, not matter how good it is.

        Without much consideration, I might drop four bucks on a venti chai mocha latte (actually, I wouldn't, even if there was such a thing), but it would only take a few minutes of my life to drink it, I wouldn't have to pay much attention to it, and I would probably be doing at least one other thing at the same time.

        But for the same four bucks, I think long and hard about which e-book to drop them on, because that e-book represents the commitment of a significant amount of awake-ness, mental energy, and undivided attention. For me, those are relatively scarce, and therefore valuable, commodities.

        This is why I'm very grateful when I hear that anyone–family, friend, or total stranger–has read my book. They've given me the gift of a significant part of their precious free time, and I always hope I've given them some reading pleasure, in return.

  • […] read Meghan Ward’s excellent Writerland blog post, Does Social Media Sell Books?, this morning, and thought I would share a version of my comments […]

  • altapeterson

    I'm not an author .. here's my question: Does social media replace an older model of self-marketing for authors, or was there no way to market yourself for "free" (money not timewise!) before it can along.

    • meghancward

      I don't think there was an equivalent way to market yourself for free before. Authors were dependent upon book reviews, radio and TV interviews, book tours, and advertising done by their publishers. A whole new world opened up to both publishers and authors with the advent of social media, and it's a double-edged sword. Authors are expected to spend so much time marketing that there's little time to write, and there's much more pressure of them to make a book successful. On the other hand, they have more control over the destinies of their books, too.

  • kimkircher

    Thought provoking post. I keep telling myself that I can't "bill out my time" in the traditional sense as an author. If I wanted to do that, I'd have applied for a corporate job. Just when I think my social media self hasn't sold enough books to warrant the amount of time I spend on it, I get an email like the one I received today. It was from a reader that found my blog, loved my book, bought it, recommended it to her friends, etc. etc. Social media accelerates word of mouth. The only way to sell books is simply one at a time. As long as my online self continues to connect with readers I will continue to do it.

    • meghancward

      I'm glad to hear you're seeing positive results from your social media efforts, Kim! It's good to hear from published authors and how social media is working for them. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • I think to some extent, social media is a reinforcement rather than the first troops. That is, if you are connected, however loosely, with 500 people in the real world (members of your church, audiences at your events, whatever), your social media reinforces that connection. It won't make a stranger buy your book–but it will remind your acquaintance that they were planning to.

    So most of us are going at it backward – we're trying to create online connections from scratch and hope they transform into real world connections. Instead, we should be meeting as many people as possible in the real world, and offering them something of value (whether that's friendship, fellowship, or good business advice) so that they look forward to hearing from us online. Nobody wants to buy @jane.x.smith435's book they've never heard of. But when they liked Jane that time they met her at a professional gathering, and she's sent them a couple of articles they're interested in (not by her), and they clicked over twice to her blog and laughed about something she wrote, they might mention to their other friend, "Hey, this woman I know vaguely just wrote a book that I think you'd like".

    • meghancward

      That's excellent advice, Allison. There's no substitute for meeting people in person and making a personal connection. And you're right, social media is a tool you can use to reinforce that connection, but you have a much better chance of selling your book to Jane that you met at a party than Jane that you met online. That's not to say that you CAN'T forge friendships online and that those people won't buy your books (I have several online "friends" I've never met in person), but a quick conversation at a party or event can go further than 50 comments on someone's blog, take a lot less time, and be more fun.

  • […] Meghan recently posted some thoughts on social media’s general usefulness for authors called Does Social Media Sell Books? The consensus seems to be that social media is very time consuming for little pay back, but that […]

  • […] Meghan recently posted some thoughts on social media’s general usefulness for authors called Does Social Media Sell Books? The consensus seems to be that social media is very time consuming for little pay back, but that […]