21 Aug 2017
Authors and social media. You hear it all the time: You need a platform of fans to attract a book deal. You need fans following you on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and SnapChat. You need to be online every day, meeting the public and selling yourself and your books.
We have been told that for years. When I sold Writers Gone Wild to Penguin, I received a book describing all the ways to become known before publication. Just reading it fatigued me. I’m expected to post everywhere, to engage in selling my books one by one? What was my print run again … 20,000?
That’s a lot of talking.
It turns out that nobody knew what to do with social media. The people giving the advice didn’t know what worked, except a lotta “likes” and a lotta “follows,” that must be good, right? The more eyeballs, the more sales, right?
Wrong. Not all eyeballs were the same.
Look at it this way: I have 100,000 followers on Twitter, reading my bon mots. You have 1,000 fans following your newsletter. Those are people who got to know you, or read your books, and wanted to know when you were publishing your next book.
Who do you think would get more sales: you with your 1,000 book-reading fans, or me with my 100,000 strangers who didn’t know me except from Twitter?
Let’s look at that another way: In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that seven in ten American adults read at least part of a book in 2014. Among Americans, the median number of books they read was four. That means half the adult American population read less than four books, half read more than four. (The average was seven).
So, assuming that my 100,000 represented all Americans, only 70,000 read at least one book, and 35,000 read more than four books. Depending on the genre I write in — a lot more romance readers than literary, for example — I’d have to convince 35,000 of my followers to devote some of their book-buying attention to my book. And that’s only assuming that those Twitter followers mimic the national percentage of readers (and are not spambots, for example). Since the answer to “how many people on Twitter read books” is “we don’t know,” this doesn’t give me confidence in my ability to sell books this way.
I’d rather take my chances on your 1,000 true fans than my 100,000 followers.
This is not to say that all newsletter followers are the same, either. Authors gain followers in one of two ways: “organic” followers who visit your website or read your books and sign up, and recruited followers who sign up in order to get a free book. It’s well-known that most of those in the latter category are “lookie-loos” who take the free book and never buy one. In fact, there are some who live to simply collect free books. It’s a digital version of hoarding, like the people who save bags of their poo or prescription medicine or magazines and newspapers.
So social media can be a massive waste of time unless you know its strengths and weaknesses.
Fishers of Readers
The first thing you need to understand is your goal. As far as the CIA is concerned, that’s to find your true fans, your readers.
It’s easy to get caught up in the social media whirl, expressing your opinions and humor, getting into conversations about the things you’re passionate about. But if none of that gets you closer to your goal of getting them to buy a book, sign up for your newsletter, or follow your blog posts, as far as we’re concerned, you’re wasting your time.
(I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do those things, but look at it as a boss. What do you want your employee to do, spend work time making friends, or making money?)
So whatever you tweet, facebook, instagram, or tumble, it should be with that goal in mind.
And I don’t mean advertise. That’s a major trap many writers fall into on Twitter. Tweet after tweet, nothing but a picture of their book and a demand that YOU CHECK THIS SWEET BOOK OUT, now 99 CENTS!!! followed by stars, comets and emojis, and hashtags.
I’m not angry at the author, but I am seriously peeved at whoever was paid to tell them that. It saddens me that months will pass and the author will wonder why their sales haven’t moved the needed. That’s because they’ve been muted, blocked, and unfollowed from here to Sunday.
Instead, you want to fish for readers. Not tens of thousands of minnows, but one whale at a time. A reader interested in your genre, interested in your subject matter interested in you, and therefore likely to buy your books.
To do that, you need to set up your funnel.
Building Your Net
What you want to do is build your sales funnel. You’re a fisherman. You want to lure someone to your website so they can get to know you, and receive an offer to sign up for your newsletter.
I can feel you cringing already, but this is not a scam. You’re not lying, nor are you tricking anyone. They’ll see you coming, know why you’re there, and they might still be willing to come into your net.
Because what you have benefits them just as much it’ll benefit you. You’re selling entertainment or enlightenment (or both). They want to be entertained. They want to be enlightened. If they like you, they’ll want to hang around and see what you can give them.
Think about your favorite authors. If Neil Gaiman (who is one of mine, if you haven’t figured it out) is inviting you to sign up for his newsletter, would you sign up? How about J.K. Rowling; wouldn’t you like to know what she’s going to do with her Harry Potter world? How about James Patterson. I wouldn’t, but somebody’s buying those books.
You’re doing the same thing with your world. You’re sending out feelers so that people who would love to spend time with your characters discover you. How bad is that?
So you want to write posts that reflect your world, your stories, your interests where they intersect with your stories.
Here’s where your imagination has to take over and draw the connection between what you write and what you can tell your future fans. If you write historical fiction, you can use your research and talk about why French noblemen had colorfully decorated tick boxes to keep the little buggers they picked off their clothes (ew!). If your field is contemporary thrillers, you can write about the favorite weapons your Spec Ops heroes use. Romance writers? How about praise for your fellow authors who write in your genre? Their fans would love to hear your thoughts, and consider looking at your books as well.
A post a week, spread out over social media with the right hashtags so they could be seen, is one way to get your message out without exposing you to the sometimes toxic environment and arguing that pervades social media.
Establishing Your Outposts
It can take only one idiot to make your life hell online. On the internet, no one cares who you are, and an alias gives people license to expose the worst part of themselves.
Most men can handle this kind of criticism. It’s not that much different from what we heard in high school showers, or in a bar on Saturday night. Think of it as rutting stags bellowing at each other. Most of us don’t take it personally, unless someone pushes it too far and blows are exchanged.
But women do not have that protective armor. They take criticism personally. The dietary, beauty, and fashion industries would collapse if women suddenly became immune to the words “you’re going out looking like that”? It’s not just that: women are vulnerable to attacks personal and physical. Threats scare them, and they’re right to be scared.
Believe me, I’m not minimizing or dismissing their fears. But it is possible to use social media for your purposes without exposing yourself to most personal attacks. It requires building a few defenses, and that means establishing your outposts.
By that, I mean that you post your material on your blog and your Facebook fan page (not your personal page. Use that to talk to your family and friends, and keep it private). Then you use the other social media sites to broadcast your post, with proper art and hashtags, so that people can discover you there, and visit you here.
And we’ll get into the details of that next time.