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When (or Why) Social Media Fails to Sell Books

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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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