I've spent a lot of time talking about social media this year. I've been on panels on the topic at Left Coast Crime, Murder 203, and the Edgar Symposium; I even made a presentation about it with my friend Robin Spano at Toastmasters when I was in B.C. At each session, the same question came up: "How do I use social media to sell my book?"
At each event, I made people sad with my answer, but I stand by it: Social media will not sell your book.
Social media is an amazing creation for many reasons, and I'm an avid fan. It has let me meet people all over the country, and the world. It inspires conversations and ideas. It makes it easier to go to conferences and introduce myself to people who would otherwise be total strangers. (Guilty admission: I think of people by their Twitter handles. Last year at Bouchercon, that led me to say things like, "Let me introduce you to my friend LolosLetters!") It can help get research questions answered. It enables people who care about an issue to connect. If you're passionate about something — travel, gluten-free food, cemeteries (to pick a few not-so-random examples) — social media will hook you up with others who share that obsession. It's an amazing thing, expanding your social circle without leaving your desk. Spend enough time getting to know people on social media, and you'll find real friends who will become a big part of your life. There are several social sites I'm on — Facebook, GoodReads, Pinterest, 500px — but the one that has introduced me to people who've become close friends is Twitter. (Want proof of how powerful social media can be? Check out my friend Dan O'Shea's "scar story" challenge or the Feeding Kate anthology that's being put together now.)
What social media will not do is sell your book. In fact, if there's one overwhelming problem with social media, it's the idea that it's a shortcut for selling stuff. That idea encourages bad behavior. How many times have you accepted a Facebook friend request, only to have the person start writing their self-promotional junk on your wall? How many times have you followed an author on Twitter and gotten an automatic direct message in response, directing you to their fan page and hawking their latest book?
A couple of days ago, I accepted a Facebook friend request from a writer I don't know (we have several friends in common). He immediately sent me this message: "Please go on to my [name redacted] Author page and press the 'like' button at the top of the page for me. I really need as many as possible." It wasn't as bad as writing on my wall, but it made me feel sorry for him. Does he really believe that his writing career will be boosted by a pity "like" on his author page from someone who doesn't know his work?
We all know how hard it is to get the word out about a book these days, whether you're working with a publisher or self-published. It's tough out there, and that can make otherwise sane people desperate. Authors are told they need to be on social media, like it's some kind of magic world that can make or break a career, but nobody tells authors what to do when they get there. Some people only talk about their own work, and they don't understand why no one is listening.
When I speak about social media, I emphasize the social part. A lot of people have already heard me compare Twitter to a cocktail party, but I'll say it again. If you were trapped at a cocktail party by a boor who ranted that you had to buy his book, would you buy it? The more he blathered on about his awesome Amazon reviews (which we know can be bought), the more you would want to run away, right? It's not really any different online. People who care only about themselves and their work reveal their true colors quickly. There's nothing wrong with letting people know you have a new book or project. It's a great idea to post reviews online, and if you're going to do a reading or attend a conference, it's important to spread the word so you can connect with online friends in person. But if all you do is post about your own work, you're missing the point.
Here's another great thing you can do with social media: you can talk about books that you really enjoyed. Recommend authors to friends. Post links to short stories and articles. Take part in FridayReads. Share the love. Here's the most amazing thing about social media: when someone tells their friends how much they loved a book, copies fly off the shelf. You might not be able to sell your own book on Twitter or Facebook or GoodReads, but you can help other writers sell theirs.