Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Social Media Will Not Sell Your Book

By Hilary Davidson

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.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Well said, Hilary! I totally dislike and will not tolerate authors who use my Facebook page for their own purposes, and have deleted many a post and shaken a finger at them saying "bad author, bad author". And I've unfollowed authors who use Twitter solely for blasting out book propaganda. Social media can promote books, but only if you engage the people you are in contact with.

Meredith Cole said...

I totally agree! I keep in touch with friends--and make new ones through social media. I've had a Facebook friend come over and give me a hug at a conference---and neither one of us can believe we never actually met in person before. And that's incredible.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, Sue Ann and Meredith! I love social media and wish people wouldn't abuse it. The self-centered promo crowd sometimes makes me want to run away from certain sites. But then I come to my senses and just unfriend and unfollow the boors.

Sue Ann, you're absolutely right about how social media can promote books, but only if you engage with people. Like any relationship, ones built on social media take time to build. Meredith, it sounds like your experience is a lot like mine. It's fantastic to meet online friends in real life!

Deryn Collier said...

Oh, Hilary, such an awesome post! And you said all much more politely than I have been tempted to at times.
Best of all, since I'm one of the lucky ones who has met you on social media and in person, I could hear your voice talking to me as I read. I feel like we just had a nice visit!

Mark said...

I use social media some to promote reviews I write on line. Note I said some. I try very hard not to abuse it since I hate it when others abuse it at me.

When I get a new follower on Twitter, I look at their more recent tweets. If it's just self-promo non-sense, I don't even bother. And I rarely friend someone on Facebook I don't already know. It helps cut down on the spam.

At the same time, I do enjoy following the authors I already know I like when they don't just talk about their books. Balance the promotion (which I do want to hear about) with stuff about the rest of your life, and you've got an even bigger fan.

Erin said...

Super terrific post, Hilary! And I can't thank you enough because I needed a topic for a post this week, and you've given me inspiration to write about why I think social media *will* sell your book...for exactly the reasons you've outlined! And of course, for me, it's all about convincing you that you do in fact need to have a Facebook page :))

Thomas Pluck said...

Hilary, you are absolutely right, and thank you for saying it. I am tired of writers who Direct Message me on Twitter telling me about their newest book, or share the link on my Facebook wall. I block them. Sorry, it's like sticking a sign on my lawn or telemarketing, in my opinion.

Jen said...

Yay Hilary! Good for you. You know I love this post and I also love that you're sharing this message at the conferences and presentations you're attending. Excellent advice.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for all of your comments!

@Deryn — I wish we could have another in-person visit, and soon. One of my favorite Twitter stories is how you and Robin Spano connected there.

@Mark — I think it's great when people share reviews, blog posts, and other news on social media. It sounds like you're doing it right. I think I need to adopt your approach to Facebook...

@Erin — I can't wait for your post! I do believe that, long-term, spending time on social media can help spread the word about an author's work. (PS You've been after me for ages to put up a Facebook fan page, but I still don't think I merit one!)

@Tommy — It's *exactly* like a lawn sign or telemarketing. Those are perfect comparisons. We have people trying to sell us things all day long; we definitely don't need more of that on social media, where we should be able to relax.

@Jen — Thank you so much. This will come as no surprise, but I was thinking of you when writing about the amazing friends I've found on Twitter.

Josh Stallings said...

Hilary, wonderful post. I was just saying the same thing, down to the party metaphor to a new author asking how to SELL his books with social media.
Ok, so I'm thinking about fake reviews, and selling books, and marketing, and I'm on the 101 driving home. My deep thoughts are interrupted by a call from my brother Larkin, he wants to tell me about Dog Stars, he just finished it, loved it. I wind up telling him about Andrew Nette's Ghost Money. Larkin loves Cambodia and crime fiction, so its a good fit.
We say good byes and I love yous, and after he hangs up I realize, this is how books sell. One reader talking to another trusted reader. I can yell the title from a mountain top, but it will ultimately come down to a reader liking it enough to tell another reader. My marketing plan, is to keep improving my craft and hope that some readers like it enough to tell their brother or sister about it.

Robin Spano said...

Love it! Esp. the guy at the cocktail party metaphor :-)

Erin, I'd love to read your opposite post. I'm not sure where I stand. I've certainly had books sell because of social media connections, but I think Hilary is dead right: you lose the game if your agenda is to sell.

David Barber said...

Great post Hilary. I agree with you and I would never dream of friending somebody and advertising my writing on their wall, etc, etc.

One thing, though. At the end of your post you said "...but you can help other writers sell their books..."

That's all well and good but sometimes that can be a one-way street. Some writers are happy to have their books promoted for them but are very slow, if not absent, in reciprocating.

Just a thought.

Alan Orloff said...

Great post, Hilary! Now, let me tell you about my books...

Don Lafferty said...

I don’t completely disagree with you, Hilary, but as a guy who lives up his eyeballs in this stuff every day, I have to say, the data tell a different story.

Your recommendations are spot on. Be social. Be present. Have fun.
The pathetic author conduct you mention is indeed, ineffective, and born of a misunderstanding of the tools at an author’s disposal.

The correct use of social media marketing tools give an author the ability to identify the right readers, engage them with a respectful, appropriate value proposition (trade an email address for a free download), and then continue to engage via email marketing.

This doesn’t make one less of an author, just more of a sharp business person.

Poorly planned and executed social media strategies can be very frustrating and leave authors feeling like they’ve poured a ton of positive energy into a black hole, but a well conceived strategy combined with effective use of pay-for tools, and some Facebook advertising can be tremendously effective, especially for authors with multiple books, when every new reader who discovers them has the potential to purchase multiple titles.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I recently had a new author write and ask if I would promote her author page on my FB page. In my reply I commended her for asking my permission instead of simply posting it to my page, but had to say no. My reasons were 1) if I plugged even a few, I'd be inundated with requests and unwanted postings, and 2) I cannot plug an author whose work I am not familiar with. She was very nice and said she understood, but I have had some who have written me snarky, ugly remarks upon being turned down. One even told me my books were garbage and he hoped I failed! Now why would I ever want to plug or even read his work -- EVER! Where in the future I might the other author who was nice about the rejection.

L.J. Sellers said...

I'm not surprised when new self-published authors do it, but right now a bestselling author we all know and love is using Twitter to promote her new book, and it's bordering on spam. That surprises me.

Overall, you're right! Social media is the long-haul, interactive approach, and a lot of fun in the meantime.

Kent said...

Great post, Hilary. The DM on Twitter and messages on Facebook do becoming increasingly annoying. I recently had one new writer follow me, I thought, ok, and returned the favor. I was immediately hit with a message. When I failed to respond, said writer started a barrage of messages. All of them a variation on "Thanks for the follow! Buy my book!". If there is one thing I will never do, it's buy that person's book.

Steve Weddle said...

If someone I know and respect suggests a book, I'll take a look. That goes for Twitter or Facebook or Real Life.

If someone walks across the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly telling me to buy what he is selling, I can guarantee you that the best outcome from that person's point of view is for me to ignore him.

Do not storm across parking lots telling me that your book, which is now FREE on Kindle, is the #3 book in Fantasy>UrbanFantasy>Romance>UnicornRomance>HistoricalUnicornRomance.

Reece said...

Excellent post, Hilary! I think you're absolutely right that you can't expect social media to be a silver bullet for book promotion. It's just another way to open up a dialogue with readers and potential readers.

Hilary Davidson said...

@Josh — I LOVE that story. There's no marketing plan in the world that can top word-of-mouth recommendations. Your sentiment about working on craft is exactly how I feel.

@Robin — You are kind to say that, especially since you're heard me make these same arguments in person a few times!

@David — I agree that it can be a one-way street but, for the most part, I don't let that bother me. I don't expect someone to promote one of my books just because I've talked up one of theirs. The only thing that bothers me is when people are unresponsive to conversation, especially on Twitter. Why be on there unless you want to have conversations? I'll unfollow for that reason, but not because of a lack of promo reciprocity.

@Alan — Ha! I've had your first book sitting here for ages, and I'm still looking forward to reading it.

@Don — You make excellent points about having a long-term social media strategy, which is a whole other ball game. When I was writing this, I was thinking of the countless times I've seen an author join Twitter and start churning out messages like this: "My book comes out next week! BUY IT NOW!!! [Insert Amazon link here]." I agree that smart marketing is just good business, but it also seems so rare.

@Sue Ann — Now I have to DM you on Twitter to get the name of the author who behaved so badly. Knowing that she said that to you makes me want to avoid her and her work.

@LJ — I've been in Argentina, and I was away from Twitter for the better part of two weeks, so I don't even know which bestselling author that is! But bad behavior is bad behavior, and that's sad to see.

@Kent — I know exactly how you feel. That would make me run the other way. The dirty little secret about social media is that is can actually turn people off a writer's work.

Col Bury said...

Great post, Hilary.

Spot on, Josh.


Hilary Davidson said...

While I was writing my long-winded response, two other comments came in. Bravo, Mr. Weddle, for making me laugh. (But does this mean you won't read my Historical Unicorn Romance???) And many thanks to Reece for his insightful words. Opening a dialogue with potential readers is the goal!

Jonathan Maberry said...

Hilary...I echo Don Lafferty's comments in that your observations on proper behavior are spot-on, but I've seen firsthand the positive impact social media has had on my own career and book sales. Social media has spiked my sales over and over again...and there are a number of authors who, like me, rely on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, Yahoo Groups, and other social media to cultivate, sustain, and grow an effective fanbase.

Hilary Davidson said...

@Col — Thank you!

@Jonathan — I'm not sure that we really disagree on much. You say that social media has helped you cultivate, sustain, and grow an effective fanbase. I certainly believe it can do that. But that's a lot of work, and some authors who join social-media networks are looking for a shortcut. They want a quick fix — and quick sales — and they're not interested in investing the kind of time and attention you're talking about.

jesse sublett said...

Not even zombie novels? Just kidding. It would be fun to take a photo of the audience when you make this announcement. I can see the faces melting to the floor in disappointment.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent post, Hilary! And true--in a way. All the promo stuff is worse than useless. Social media is about building relationships, not selling stuff. It may be if you've built a good relationship with someone that they will think about buying your book, but that's neither here nor there for the relationship. I've made good friends on Twitter and Facebook. Some have bought and read my book, I know. Some haven't, I know. And most of them, I have no clue whether they have or not. Doesn't matter.

What social media does beautifully is allow people who've read and liked your book to friend and follow you and get to know you as a person. This tends to turn them from readers into fans. Fans are valuable because they're the folks behind word of mouth.

And what fun it is when we meet up in real life after becoming friends on Twitter and Facebook! See you at B'con, I hope.

Rob Brunet said...

Insightful, Hilary. While Twitter has introduced me to authors that I have read and enjoyed (and promoted), it has invariably been because their on-line self made me curious.
Perhaps it started with a comment, a blog post, or a link to something that mattered to me. If the first (and worse, only) thing I see is blatant self-promotion, I tune it right out.
There is a reason TIVO is popular.

Terry Tyler said...

Agree with a lot of this - indeed, it's all about knowing how each site works, and I've said it over and over again - Facebook is NOT a sales tool - at least, not directly. However, if it wasn't for Twitter, FB and Goodreads I would never have sold any books. Used right, all these sites can work for you - if you look at them as a way to expand your network of interesting and helpful people, not just as a way to flog your stuff. Anyone who sends you a book link with a 'thanks for the follow' message should know better, by now!