When (or Why) Social Media Fails to Sell Books

There are countless articles/posts out there, by professionals as well as established authors, that claim social media has had no (or marginal) impact on their sales or success.

Such posts then get trumpeted by writers everywhere who feel like online marketing and promotion responsibilities have been shoved down their throats (and look for every affirmation that such efforts are a waste of time).

When I do muster the energy to start an online argument on this issue, eventually I’m asked to provide hard evidence that social media activities lead to significant book sales—and I DO have such evidence, but it always fails to convince. People have already made up their minds.

But here’s the bigger problem with asking for evidence:
Social media isn’t something you employ only and just when you’re ready to sell. If that’s your plan, then YES, you will fail magnificently. You will be ineffective when people can smell you shilling a mile away—when you show up only when it benefits you, when you have no interest in the channel/medium other than personal, short-term gain.

Social media is about developing relationships and a readership over the long term that helps bolster your entire career (and sales too).

When people claim that social media hasn’t worked for them, I can usually guess why—because I see it used wrong EVERY day, very directly (because it lands in my inbox or social media stream).

Here are scenarios when social media DOESN’T work to sell books.

  • You tweet only to push your book, and that’s clearly the only reason you’re on Twitter. As I mentioned in this interview, authors who get on Twitter because they’ve been told they should are automatically bound to fail. Stay off it, please, unless you’re there for the relationships, or to inform others (not to sell them).
  • Your blog or site just focuses on selling books, and not providing anything of value beyond informing people how to buy your book.

Maybe you’re not committing flagrant online self-promotion sins. The next question to ask is how patient you are. I talk to writers who get discouraged if they don’t see results in a week, a month, half a year.

It takes longer than that. Don’t expect to have an immediate impact.

There are many personal anecdotes I can share about the difference social media has made in my life—many that I can’t air in a public forum like this, but I would share with you over a bourbon. (Catch me at a conference.)

But here’s at least one anecdote.

  1. I opened my Twitter account in May 2008.
  2. I started meaningfully using the Twitter account in fall 2008. (It took me that long to wake up to its potential. This is often the case with any new tool.)
  3. Publishers Weekly mentioned me as someone influential on Twitter in May 2010, two years later.
  4. Someone of importance read that article, Googled me, found my website, and 3 months later, offered me a wonderful opportunity (an opportunity I’ll disclose later, in spring 2011).

I didn’t start my Twitter account intending for #4 to happen. And #4 might not have happened if I didn’t have a solid and discoverable website that expanded on who I am.

All of these online pieces work together and reinforce one another—which is another important thing people forget when arguing social media doesn’t work.

So. Your social media involvement and platform building won’t work as a one-time effort (though, of course, you might have a specific campaign for a specific book that’s very strategic, which is excellent).

You have to be consistent and focused over the course of your career.

Most importantly, it has to be about more than selling books—or whatever your goal might be. It has to be about what you stand for, and who you are. (Go read Justine Musk’s great post on this.)

Otherwise you will fail.

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29 thoughts on “When (or Why) Social Media Fails to Sell Books

  1. SarahLeaSales

    To be perfectly honest, I buy books off the shelves all the time without caring who the author is. If it sounds good, and got good reviews on Amazon, I’ll try it. But you are right about using social media to develop relationships, not just sell. I quit following most people on Twitter because I was sick of the Direct Messages asking me to like their Facebook page, etc. That’s what your feed is for, and the most boring people will only tweet about their book and nothing else. I entertain first and take interest in their pages, if it interests me. I will never fake interest. Even though it’ll be a few years before I publish my book, I’m already promoting myself, laying the foundation.

  2. Mark Hoult

    Social media, like life, should be more about giving than receiving and more about the other person than “me, me, me”.

    This applies as much to authors as the seller of any other product.

  3. Valerie

    @Marty: the problem is getting new readers to care about your book in the first place. And by "you" I mean any author. You can tweet about it until your face is blue, but if I don’t know you from Adam then what incentive do I have to waste my precious time clicking a link to information about your book? To actually go find it in a bookstore or read an excerpt on Amazon? I’m never going to buy your book because you’re never going to get me to take that first vital step.

    If your book is all you talk about, your Twitter feed is the equivalent of a never-ending commercial and I’m going to stop following you, or won’t follow in the first place. Unless you develop a relationship with me, you’re nobody, and your book is nothing. I’ll never know how well it’s written or how interesting it is because I’ll never get that far. I’ll tune you out just like I tune out commercials, or I’ll change the channel and never look back.

  4. Monica

    Social media should be, first and foremost, about people. It is not used for the same purpose everywhere else in the world. In fact, the U.S. has the highest percentage of marketers online.

    The thing is, social media really isn’t for everyone because not everyone "is" social. If you’re not social, then don’t get on it.

    Lastly, I’d also like to point out that there is another important factor for an social media campaign: measuring it. While it’s difficult to track, there are ways to get basic metrics to help you understand if what you’re doing is worth it.

  5. Elise Allen

    Jane — I actually found this post because Tawna Fenske Tweeted it, and I’m so glad I read it. It reaffirms everything I enjoy about social media. I admit I started Twitter and my website because I was told I was supposed to, but the minute I started meeting and interacting with people, I was hooked. I love the people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve made. It’s like hanging out at a party filled with people I really enjoy… except I can stay in my pajamas.

  6. Tawna Fenske

    Fabulous post! Bravo!

    I’ll admit I was skeptical about joining Twitter last February when my agent tried to coax me into it. I went out and read every Twitter-related book I could get my hands on and realized pretty quickly that what you’re saying is 110% true — Twitter is about RELATIONSHIPS, not selling. It’s true that people like to do business with individuals they consider friends, but that can’t be your sole reason for doing it.

    I’ve heard a lot of other authors griping about how they don’t want to tweet or blog or use facebook or whatever, and my response is always DON’T DO IT. You truly have to be in it for the right reasons or people will see right through you.

    Love the post!


  7. Jane Friedman

    @Marty – Placing all value on the book itself is a strategy that works as long as that book’s readership (and the culture at large) continues to do so.

    What I’m seeing is a world that increasingly looks for experiences, information, and value outside of book form. Or, as Seth Godin put it, the book becomes the SOUVENIR of something much larger.

    Perhaps for some authors (or for some BOOKS), the book can be the end all, be all.

    But I think that will become more and more of a rarity. And it requires that the book be of immensely high quality, also a rarity these days.

  8. Marty Beaudet

    Making friends and being part of a community is great. But how does my sharing useful information about a variety of subjects make my book any more interesting to a potential reader than the content of the book itself does? Either you will like what I have written or you won’t, regardless of how good of a Netizen I am.

    And if it doesn’t interest readers today, why will it interest them a year down the road? The book will not change in that time. If it is good, it is already good today. Why should I wait to promote, or why should readers wait to see if I’m a witty twirp before reading it?

    You ask, of what value to you is a post or tweet about my book, its pricing, or where to buy it? If you’re a reader, a tip about a good new book is something of value! And a tip about a discount on its price is of greater value! Why do you suggest that my telling you about these things is of no interest to readers?

    I buy books based on their descriptions and the reviews they receive, not on how long the author has been tweeting. I have some author friends on Twitter and FB that I like as people, but whose genre is of no interest to me. Conversely, I have bought books from other online authors whose posts I have never read; because I like what I’ve read about the BOOK.

    It’s all about the BOOK, not the author. Why not point readers to where they can find out about the book? That is a thing of value.

  9. Theresa Milstein

    I can’t wait to hear your news.

    Talli Roland just did what looks to be a pretty successful book launch. She’s built her readership over time and, until the book launch date was imminent, wasn’t all about self-promotion. Her warmth made me want to support her. And starting before she had a novel to promote did make a big difference, I’m sure.

  10. Tom Bentley

    In-your-face social-media selling isn’t too classy, and as you indicate, probably not too effective either. It’s why we turn down the amplified volume of tv commercials. But having a conversation, in which it might develop that you’ve got a new book out—that’s a different matter.

    Thanks for the post Jane. I would like to hear the anecdotes shared over a bourbon (my favorite hootch), but I will want my own glass.

  11. Andrea Costantine

    Thank you for telling it like it is. It’s crazy how people think that social media is an overnight fix to a long-term problem. I’ve often touted that social media can take a longer amount of time to gain that credibility and trust than in person networking or other forms of marketing BUT – when you get it, you got it.
    It makes me sad when I see people only posting, participating, and engaging online when they have something to sell. I’m always teach my authors NOT to do just that.
    Thank you again for a great post.
    Andrea Costantine

  12. Kristen Lamb

    Amen! Amen! Amen! I always love your blogs so much because they reaffirm what i know to be true….the servant’s heart must come FIRST! My fave quote by Zig Ziglar is "How do you get what you want in life? Help enough other people get what they want." And it is soooooo true. People who use social media to basically spam shouldn’t succeed. Social media is about relationships, friendships and all the emotional things we need as human beings to be healthy.

    You are such a blessing and I am so glad you take the time to blog and share your wisdom with other writers.


  13. Samantha Francis @pronunciate

    This is solid advice for authors, but it’s also something that publishers need to know. They also need to understand how to relate to book readers, and they need to be able to give their authors intelligent advice. Publishers’ expectations of social media are a bit naive at this point.

  14. Noel Farrell

    This is one of the best posts I have read in my time in social media. For it is the essence of what Social Media offers and why it gets rebuffed based on ill thought through focus on what is important. The people I read are the people that offer more to me than the words contained in their pieces of work. It’s an added bonus to see what motivates their words in real terms, and that may include being a little more personal sometimes. Some can see a divide between work and business but I don’t think writers are made from such material. It’s that inquizitive nature, that want to explore, that want to portray a certain honesty that will never be missed by readers. That’s where the power in social media lies and the opportunity for writers to build up something memorable throughout the course of a lifetime. It’s like an ever evolving story being mapped by time. And it’s there now for everybody should they choose to use it.

  15. EC Sheedy

    Great post! I’m still stumbling about in the Social Media world (just another author who’s always had trouble with self promotion), but I find myself very comfortable with Twitter, because I *don’t* feel I have to hype a book every day. Add to that, I’ve met some great Tweeters and shared some chuckles and solid info along the way.

    That’s enough for me.

  16. James G.

    Great post. Working with several authors myself (and SMBs) I find that many people come to the social media realm based on the hype of "gurus" with the idea that "social media" means an instant cash influx. They are soon disappointed and quit because SM "doesn’t work." Obviously the fault of the medium and not of their own.(?)

    What I find helpful is asking authors to specifically define their reader first. It’s a targeted approach that makes them sit down and consider who their audience really is before they start a ‘following frenzy’ that yields little to no results. Not everyone wants to read your book; so who does, how do you connect with them and what do you have to offer besides "buy my book"?

    When those questions are answered then we begin the real work of finding just where this reader hangs out. It might not be on Twitter, Facebook or Good Reads. It might be an online women’s or men’s group right in your own backyard.

    Focusing their online efforts, developing their own personal "brand" and eliminating the erroneous assumption that "everyone is my customer" usually yields vastly different results and makes for happier writers.

  17. Sally Pasley Vargas

    Jane, your posts are so thoughtful and useful! I hate the shilling factor, and so am somewhat ambivalent about social media–my ambivalence shows, sadly–but I think it is worth persisting because I learn so many interesting things. Still figuring out an approach that I am comfortable with, so these remarks are extremely helpful.

  18. Achim Wagner

    Hello Jane,
    as you write, everyone should notice the difference between promotion and social tweeting everytime they check their account. Still a lot of people go on posting tweets they would not want to read.
    achim wagner

  19. Wendy Bertsch

    The right attitude is tremendously important. It would be almost impossible, at least for me, to devote the amount of time that social media development requires, if money were the only reward. When it begins to look as though you’re making a difference, maybe even helping others along, the whole process becomes personal and something to actively enjoy.

    It may be a slow process, but it’s worth the effort. Thanks for reminding us again that a writing career is a long term investment. Those seeking instant gratification need not apply.

  20. Joshua Sandefur

    Thank you Jane! It’s very refreshing to hear someone talk about establishing relationship and community as well as having the patience to walk that out in this medium. I honestly have found many great relationships with other published and established authors. It has allowed me to ask questions and offer encouragement concerning their writings as well. It brings some humanity to what some would consider a part of "the machine". Thank you again.

  21. Bob Mayer

    I recommend social media to authors, but not as a way to sell books. It’s a way to network and to gain information. As I did with this blog, I lick on perhaps five or six links every day. Since Twitter is ‘live’, these links help me stay current with what’s happening in publishing. Things are changing so fast, you pretty much have to stay on top of it daily.

  22. Lindsay

    Congratulations on your success, Jane!

    I think social media sites are about networking, not selling things. People who log onto Twitter aren’t in buy mode, they’re in chat mode. I wouldn’t walk up to someone sitting with a friend at Starbucks, open my trench coat (if I had a trench coat), and try to sell my collection of books. It wouldn’t work, and I don’t think buy-my-book tweets work very well on either.

    That doesn’t mean social media is a waste of time. Networking with other writers and readers means finding folks who will… review your book when it’s released, interview you on their blog, link to your blog posts, etc. etc. etc. That sort of free publicity can be invaluable. 🙂

    Best wishes, all!

  23. Jody Hedlund

    Hi Jane,
    Excellent post. I agree with everything you said one hundred percent. Social media is just that, social. And it works most effectively when we’re using it to socialize and build relationships. Through all of my social media outlets, I’ve slowly (key word–slowly!) increased my online presence too. And with the recent release of my first book, that web presence has helped me in countless ways. While I have no hard proof, I asked my agent and in-house editor what their thoughts were on how my book made it to the CBA Best Seller List, and they both mentioned that my web presence probably contributed in some way. Even if it didn’t, I’m really glad that I established myself online long before my book released.

  24. Kelly James-Enger

    Great post, Jane. You may recall that I came late to the social media party, but I’ve already discovered that using it to connect is much more effective than using it to sell. It’s also something that takes time to harness…as you pointed out, opportunities tend to come later in the game, not just because you’re now on Twitter or are blogging.

  25. Carol J. Alexander

    Hi Jane,
    Thanks for the encouragement. I truly look at writing as a "pay-it-forward" career…paying myself that is. What I do today I may not see results of for a long time to come. But I have to have faith that the fruit will come–especially in the form of a paycheck. 🙂


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