Social Media For Writers Is A Misunderstood Opportunity

You can sell books using social media.

You also can’t really sell books using social media.

The cat is both dead and alive.

Let me unpack this a little bit.

For quite some time, social media has been promoted by nearly everybody, including publishers, as a Very Good Way to SELL YOUR BOOKS. You have a Certified Platform. It is the place where you express your Authorial Brand. (My platform is cobbled together from the skulls of my enemies, and my brand looks like Calvin peeing on a tiny bigot.) Publishers say: YOU MUST TWEET. YOU MUST FACEYTALK. YOU MUST BLARGH ON THE BLOGS. Not-good publishers take this a step further and basically use an author’s social media presence — meaning, her brand and platform, or her “brandform,” if we’re into making up shitty corporate-speak — to sell the books instead of actually levying their own power as a publisher to do the same. (Note: if this is your publisher’s only marketing plan, please bill them for your time.)

And it has become quite understood across both traditional and indie publishing that This Is Now How You Sell Books. And that’s not entirely inaccurate.

But it is a little bit inaccurate.

You can, indeed, sell books on social media.

You can sell, depending on your outreach, 10s to 100s of copies of your books.

That’s not nothing. Every book sold is a pebble thrown into the water. And each pebble has the potential to make ripples that reach shores you had never previously reached. Word-of-mouth is the truest driver for selling your work, and where once our “circle of trust” in that regard was fairly small (and entirely IRL), it has grown much wider given our online networks. So, selling a book to even a single person has meaning. That person, if they like it, may go on and tell their friends (online and off) about the book. And they may tell their friends, and on and on.

Problem is, this is an effect with diminishing returns. You ping your social network a handful of times and after that, they start to feel besieged by the promotion. Here and there, “Hey, I have a book, and I want to speak earnestly about it?” That can work. But a constant barrage of LOOK BOOK LOOK BOOK HEY HEY HEY I WROTE A BOOK I WROTE A BOOK is you being a dog just wantonly humping legs. Maybe we’re not mad at you about it, but it’s still a little embarrassing for everyone involved. If you’re an author with a book out, it’s expected that you’ll advertise it, talk about it, and keep a little momentum going. But it’s also feared that you’ll become a nuisance with it, performing an action equivalent to hitting people in the throat with the damn thing.

So, to reiterate —

Social media can sell some books.

Publishers, however, don’t want to sell “some” books.

They want to sell all the books.

Selling 10s or 100s of copies is not enough to keep your publisher afloat, and it is not enough to justify your advance or their marketing budget (assuming that budget is more than just a shoebox full of bottlecaps and sadness). It will buy them and you too little whiskey.

No, your publisher wants to sell 1000s of copies.

So, how do you do that?

Mostly? You don’t.

The one aspect in your control here is the writing. You write the best book you can. Always and forever. Is this a guarantor of your success? Ha ha ha, fuck no. But it’s something, and at least you can feel good about the book you wrote. Writing a good book is not a prerequisite toward selling well, but it’s a noble, valuable start. Why, do you want to write a bad book? For shame.

Beyond that? Where do the sales come from?

It’s on your publisher.

The publisher has the means to push that book in ways that are both traditional and innovative — a variety of marketing and advertising efforts across the spectrum. Trade reviews and media attention and placement on tables and all that jazz is by and large up to your publisher and how much cachet and cash they have. Again, these things are not a guarantee for success, but remember how I said each book sold is a pebble thrown? Right, your publisher can throw a catapult full of pebbles. They have gatling guns capable of firing hundreds of pebbles a minute. Meanwhile, you just have your two hands. Your two ink-stained, Dorito-dusted hands.

Now, again, maybe you with your two hands can do better than your publisher.

But it’s less likely. Why is that?

Because success in writing and publisher is very frequently a game of luck.

But it’s not purely random luck — this isn’t fucking Chutes and Ladders, man (by the way, FUCKING CHUTES is probably a porn site so I’m sure I’m going to get some great search term hits from that). This is a luck you can tweak. Luck you can add to. Every pebble thrown is (in RPG terms) a modifier to your Luck score. So when the time comes to roll your Luck, well, you get a shot at a more favorable outcome because of all your modifiers.

(For self-publishers, the same thing applies but with the simple reminder that you are more than an author — you are an author-publisher. That’s why I prefer that term, because now you’re doing double-duty. You still can’t count on PURE SOCIAL MEDIA to sell your book. You gotta get savvy. Creative. And if you can’t do that directly…? Then you hire people who can.)

So, social media sells books.

Just not as many as you want.

And more importantly, not as many as publishers might hope.

Now you’re asking:

What, then, is the missed opportunity? The one mentioned in the post’s title?

Social media is not great for authors selling books.

But it is an excellent way to make and cultivate professional connections — and, dare I say it, friendships. Listen, social media is a fucking gonzo great place to hang out with other writers, editors, artists. It’s an awesome place to meet agents, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, readers. It is a fundamental vortex of book-love. You can meet people telling stories across a wide variety of media: books, comics, movies, games. Just talking to folks — and being the best version of yourself when you do it — is another way to throw pebbles. But what you build here aren’t front-end sales. It’s a kind of personal infrastructure. People are awesome. And people make up the industry in which we hope to work. I don’t mean you should get on social media just as some crass promotional exercise — a way to “get work.” But it is a damn good way to meet like-minded folks and learn things from one another. That has huge professional and personal value.

Worry less about selling books online.

Worry more about being a COOL HUMAN meeting other COOL HUMANS.

That last one will take you far.

* * *


An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Out now from Harper Voyager.

Doylestown Bookshop| WORD| Joseph-Beth Booksellers| Murder by the Book

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58 responses to “Social Media For Writers Is A Misunderstood Opportunity”

  1. I really really dig this. I’m trying so hard not to hump legs. I love doing parties on Facebook to meet new people and every time someone says “I loved your book” it’s one more floatee/waterwing to keep me going. And I want to keep on corrupting people! Thanks Chuck for validating my wish not to hump legs!

  2. I’m an indie writer (or, author-publisher if you prefer) and one thing I hate about the marketing aspect for those of us without major publishers is that while social media is one of our main avenues for reaching customers, it’s also polluted with leg-humpers. I get, BY FAR, more sales via festivals and conventions (I’m pretty awesome in-person) than through any social media strategy I’ve ever been able to conceive in my feeble mind. And as much as I love being indie, I cringe at the thought of relying on a medium that’s overrun by thousands of other authors all shouting over each other.

    Sorry, no real point to make that you haven’t already made. Just venting. 🙂

  3. I shed a little tear after reading this. I love you Magic Talking Beard Head!

    Less sarcastically, I haven’t sold my book much at all over social media. It’s just the simple truth. I have made some amazing connections, however, that have helped me pick up some work, pick up some tricks, expand my network, and help get my podcast up and running. Is that what I expected it to do? Fuck no, but it’s what the Interwebz has given me and I’ll be damned if I am not going to ride the stallion deep and hard and with lots of digital lube.

    What? How do you ride stallions?

    If not for the webs, I never would have met you Chuck, and you’ve been a huge source of inspiration and advice for me over these.. fuck, five? Six? A bazillion years? I’ve met a ton of other cool cats through it, also. I am still writing, probably more than ever before, and where all this looked like some murky brown wasteland before, now I am all about seeing the terrain, the peaks, and valleys.

    To sum up: Book sales? Not so much. Fucktons of awesome? Hell yes.

  4. So then what about those who self publish? No publisher to turn to to sell books. Do we just accept we won’t sell as many? Or pay for advertising? Or what?

    Does that mean if you’re self publishing you better damn well also wear the marketing hat, too?

    And from what I’ve heard from those who also have publishers, is that they’re required to do much of the legwork themselves anyway. So that doesn’t automatically count out the self publishing.

    Just thinking a bit out loud here, but would love to know your thoughts.

    • “Does that mean if you’re self publishing you better damn well also wear the marketing hat, too?”

      Bingo. Just because you are also the writer doesn’t stop you from being the publisher. Which means you have to act like a publisher.

      • That’s right. But it doesn’t mean humping legs (I love that analogy). It means spending dough to have the book edited, have a professional cover design, have it typeset, and spending advertising and marketing dollars. Just going onto social media and crying “buy my book, buy my book” doesn’t hack it. (not that the commenter would do that, just sayin’)

  5. I made every mistake that could possibly be made with social media in the beginning – basically because I had no idea what I was doing. It took me a long time to learn the truth about social media as a marketing tool.

    But I am glad I made those mistakes because they showed me how to actually behave with social media. And I do believe I am better for it.

    • The trial-and-error aspect of selling creative works seems inseparable from the endeavor. Intrinsic in the notion is throwing crud at the wall to see what sticks. By definition, some of it has to fail, has to slide down that wall. That’s always going to teach what finally does work. The hard part is the time and cash that can be spent along the way. I find that this is how social media, in a roundabout way, helps “sell” creative product. You chat and learn was does and doesn’t work. I have done some “don’ts”, but I have also avoided some don’ts and picked up some pretty good “dos” from social media. I’m still in my infancy, but I’m walking. Some of the people who helped me glide along the coffee table to get to the couch were twitter buddies.

  6. Social media isn’t about hammer-nail-selling things. It’s about building rapport and finding your “tribe.” (Or, Trybe, as I call my Facebook group.) It’s about slowly building relationships and drawing people to you who genuinely want to be there, and who you genuinely want there as well. In my Facebook group, we talk about lots of things, including my books, but not only or even mostly my books. My peeps post funny pics, jokes, talk, kvetch, commiserate with each other, talk about other books. We’re a group of acquaintances and friends who come together in a drama-free zone to just chill. And inherent in that is that I do talk about my books from time to time, and they’re free to ask me questions about my books. But the key point is, they WANT to be there. They’ve opted-in, they’ve requested membership. I didn’t force-add them. If they want to leave, they can. Because they’re there, they also get stuff like sneak peeks of stuff I’m working on, early cover reveals, etc. On my Twitter feed I talk about stuff other than just my books. On my blog I talk about stuff other than just my books.

    And in general, I try not to piss people off, because I cannot count how many times someone has told me a variation of, “I was pimping your books out to friends of mine…”

    THAT is where an author sells the most books, especially if they’re an indie author or a self-pubbed author without a massive trad-pub co-op program behind them.

    It’s NOT a get-rich-quick scheme. It takes time and WORK to build up a reader base.

    And it starts by writing good books to start with, and repeating that, and being decent to people. You can’t buy followers or intimidate people into buying/reviewing your books.

    Writing the book is the EASY part of the process.

  7. Thanks for this post. Indie authors, and those published by small “publishers,” are told they have to market and sell through social media. It’s possible, as you say, to sell a few books, but by engaging people, not by beating them over the head.

    I hate it when a “publisher” or even an agent, asks for my “marketing plan” as part of a submission. Wait a fucking minute. I’m a writer. I give part of the dough my book earns to a publisher so they market the book. I write books, you market books. That’s how it works. I’ll help in that effort. I have a website and a social media presence, but I hump not the leg. And I wouldn’t know a marketing plan if it humped MY leg.

    One of my novels was published by a small “publisher.” Just to piss them off, I asked what the marketing budget was. Well, fuck, there was none. Then they got pissed because we didn’t sell any fucking books. Well, I guess it was in proportion to the marketing effort they put into it, i.e., none.

    If you see a publisher asking for your marketing plan along with your submission, don’t submit. If you do, tell then that you are a writer, not a marketeer. Tell them you want to know their fucking marketing plan.

  8. Here is my comment. I am interacting. Please interact with me. And follow me on Twitter. And my blog. And buy my book.

    Also, fun fact: in the UK we call it Snakes & Ladders. I don’t know why you fall down the snakes. Or why the ladder factory is riddled with reptiles. But there you are: history.

    Anyway. Don’t forget to subscribe to my mind and read all my thoughts!

  9. I yelled, “Preach it!” at your final paragraphs. I skulk about in two online worlds: writing and classic film. By far, my favorite social-media interactions are with other folks in these groups. My classic film social media ‘hood is the best place on earth. If we see each other IRL, the minute that conference or event ends, I look forward to seeing some of those people for the 361 days it will take until the following year’s event begins. It’s enriching for enrichment’s sake to be online with other folks who are just trying to figure it out. It can help ease the pinch of the price of admission–rejection–into the world of hawking your writing wares.

    Great post.

  10. I’m glad someone (whom people listen to) finally said this. The onslaught of BUY ME BUY ME BUY ME on social media makes me numb. We live in a world where everything is constantly being shoved in our faces all the time by advertisers and aggressive marketing is actually so common we barely take note of it anymore.

    I feel a certain contempt for publishers who want me to do all the legwork instead of utilizing the resources they much more readily have access to than I do. Why exactly am I giving you the lion’s share of the royalties on our joint product if you don’t flash it around too? You make money, I make money, shouldn’t we be in this together?

    The best way I’ve found to sell my books is:

    1.Go to places where people like talking about what I write and talk about what I write.
    2. Write more books. Never let people forget you exist.

    I like making friends–and connections–THAT’S what social media is for. Hence the ‘social.’ I agree it’s a terrible place to try to sell things. It’s kind of like trying to talk to a friend over lunch, but people keep rushing up to your table asking if you want to buy their book. It’s a good way to get hot coffee thrown on you (this is extra true for people you add on Twitter who immediately slide into your DM’s with a buy link–at least buy me a drink first, damn).

  11. Yup, it’s Social Media, not Marketing Media!

    I “get to know” an author (or artist, or musician) through some social means, and I’m often compelled to support them. I know very well that tweeting once or twice to a creator doesn’t make us buddies, but there’s still some connection made, like we’ve bumped elbows at the town social mixer dance thing. I, as the buyer
    of art, connect a nice feeling with the event and thus feel like that person there, they’re good people. I should be a patron of the arts and, even if that guy’s band isn’t phenomenal, they still should get my support so I’m going to show up for the gig. That’s how social media does sell books, in that way.

  12. I have been saying the same thing for YEARS. It has been exasperating being the social media expert who says and ALWAYS said, “NO, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NO!” to automation, marketing, and all that really annoying blasting out about the book. And I have had some nasty pushback from writers who believed that they could automate about their book on all social sites so they’d free up more time to count their money. It is and always has been about cultivating relationships and social media is merely a force amplifier of whatever we are putting out there. Great post as always ((HUGS)).

  13. I have met so many COOL PEOPLE online. People from many states and countries I’ve never visited, but have grown quite friendly with.

    I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet some people online, then meet them in person and grow a real (traditional?) friendship with them. Four years ago, this happened with a prolific fantasy writer. Last weekend, that writer invited me to join him for drinks with more writers.

    All from being nice online.

  14. Re: Social media is not great for authors selling books. But it is an excellent way to make and cultivate professional connections — and, dare I say it, friendships. Listen, social media is a fucking gonzo great place to hang out with other writers, editors, artists. It’s an awesome place to meet agents, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, readers. It is a fundamental vortex of book-love.

    Not !!!

    Not when you can;t ven add Chuck Wendig as a Facebook friend because his page is full. Not when you can;t hire good editors, cover artists because they are all booked up until April 2016. What social media is is a sewer of wannabee’s, recent grads with little experience looking to build careers at your expense.

    But Chuck is right. You do double duty as author and publisher in a vast sea of publishing. About 100,000 new titles every year by people whose writing skills are atrocious. A colleague of mine calls online publishing a shit volcano.IN order to make even a rpple or large splash, again, Chuck is right. You need to hire people but the right people and that takes mega bucks new career authors simply do not have.

    The big 5 have gatekeepers that make it almost impossible for new career authors t get their foot in the door.

    The issue today is not whether you are a good writer, many of you are but we will never see your work because online publishing and traditional publishing has become a shit storm, a Titanic with so many people trying to get into so few lifeboats. If you have any success at all, thank your lucky stars you made it into one of the lifeboats before the ship goes down.

    Kilburn Hall
    American author

  15. I’ve looked up a lot of things on “how to make yourself stand out on social media” and theres tons of advice. But i’ve only found 1 piece of advice saying “look, if you spend 4 hours a day on twitter/FB etc and you are not getting a visible increase in connections and followers there are better things you can be doing with you time.” Social media is a very vital tool and if you book or project or what ever goes viral well excellent, but you only have to look at the amount of time people dedicate to the social media platforms to show that most of it is water under the bridge. A solid flowing mass of sameness that allows passers by to gaze at it for a while before moving on. The pebble metaphor is very apt, in reality all forms of marketing are like this. Send an idea spinning out into the void that is the public domain and see what happens.

  16. Oh my god. Thank you. THANK YOU.

    I have literally been driving myself into mental breakdowns over trying to build a strong social media platform with an impressively-large audience that can be my whole, entire market because somewhere along the line one author or another said that publishers nowadays will judge you by your social media presence as much as by the quality of your writing. And between that, the relative lack of success that I have had in building a Very Large Audience, and my bipolar, this has noooooooot been good for me. At all.

    This really helps. Thank you.

  17. Great post, thanks. Many newly published authors don’t realize the difference between ‘marketing’ their book and shoving it in people’s faces. Not that I’ve ever been published- but I have observed this phenomena as an active member of writers’ and readers’ groups. Many of them seem to think that spamming people with promotional posts, like how their book is ranking on Amazon bestseller charts, is going to compel us to buy their books. Sadly, none of these people ever bother to engage with readers and other writers. Now, why should I buy a book, or promote it, when I don’t believe in the book or in the author? I hope those already published, or about to be published, learn something from this very ratiocinated article.
    Cheers 🙂
    Percy Kerry

  18. Without social media, there would be no tens or hundreds of book sales for independent authors. Every so often you need to put out a link to a book, otherwise you’re just some awesome person posting awesome links and interacting awesomely with an awesome community. Even traditionally-published authors, who presumably have no need to spam, somehow manage to let us know they have books available even if all they do is announce new titles once and once only.

  19. First of all, I’m going to form a death metal ukulele cover band called Leg Humpers…Second, Spot on blog post. I published my own children’s poetry book with the intention of getting it into the hands of kids. That’s it. Of course, I hope many people buy and enjoy, but at the end of the day.. It’s about the kids getting the book and making a mess of it. If they can recall one line from a poem, that line might inspire them in some way. That’s the hope. That’s my goal. A few donors graciously bought books and I’ll be doing readings at the library…and social media helped that cause, but with apologies to Mad Men… Word of mouth is the greatest social platform.

  20. “For self-publishers, the same thing applies but with the simple reminder that you are more than an author — you are an author-publisher.” <—– This. Thank-you so much for this.

    Sometimes it's the slightest shift in trajectory that makes all the difference in where we end up. I needed that shift.

    Again, and again, and again, thank-you!!

  21. Yes yes yes thank you. This has been on my mind a lot in the last few days – I write YA, and while I have met awesome writer-y people on Twitter, and I am more and more often grabbing up their books with my greedy little hands, mostly we all talk about writing. My twitter buds aren’t my target audience. And while there are actual real live living breathing Young Adults on twitter, they are mostly busy doing Young Adult Things which do not include existing there to be marketed to. (And I can not imagine that a strange adult jumping into their space yelling HEY KIDZ DO YOU WANNA BE COOL??? READ MY BOOK! would go over well anyway.)

    So: I meet cool people on twitter. I do not yet know how to market (and my book isn’t out yet, so this is all just stuff in my brain and not yet a serious concern) but I have realized, that ain’t it.

    Also, a couple of days ago I tweeted asking friends for YA fantasy book recs. Some stranger replied with a link to his book, which was neither YA nor fantasy. I did not report him as a spammer but I was super tempted, because dude, that was not what I was looking for, stop humping my leg.

  22. It wasn’t just the “humping legs” that made me laugh. The “wantonly” added a little extra something special. Love a well-placed adverb. (And the rest of the blog was awesome, too. thanks!)

  23. Aw, man, I’m in two minds about this. You have to stay in the minds of the (potential) reader but you’re always thinking “how will this make me look to my readers?” Alexandra Franzen is a hero of mine and is not on any social media and believes that people find books via word of mouth for the most part. I agree with that to a huge degree. I’ve now published 2 books and love what I do to make money (I have my own business) so I’m happy for writing to be the thing I do on the side. So my new decision is to write write write, publish, have a (book launch) party with plenty of friends and booze, and repeat yearly. Sounds like fun to me! But that’s just what works for me. As you were.

  24. I too fear having to clamber to the top of the social media schlock pile with the biggest bull horn. I know peoples attention spans are short and that i’m really not that important. I’m hitting’ the bricks and wearing out my shoe leather one independent book store and a time, not to mention keeping my day job.

  25. […] Social media is a great tool for self-promotion and making your presence known, but let’s face it, it can only do so much. Using social media alone is not going to make you rich by any means. But it is an excellent start, and a place you can direct people to. Even if you have a publisher, self-promotion and an attractive web presence is pretty crucial. I will probably still offer my own thoughts about each type of social media, what’s good and what;s bad about them, and how best to use them in a future post, but for now, here are some excellent words of wisdom concerning that topic from Chuck Wendig on the Terrible Mind… […]

  26. WOW! I feel better. I’m an OLD writer, been traditionally publishing since ’83. Got beat down, took a break and now back in two different genres. I look at what everyone puts out on social media and want to pull my hair out. When you you write? And I’m so sick of some of my FB friends posting on different places two and three times a day I could scream! Still i though, yeah, but you gotta do it. I just sold a 3-book historical mystery series and will be working with a publicist for the first time. I plan on setting up some things, but it was wonderful to hear that to a certain point the responsibility is on them. That’s a load off this old gal’s mind. Can’t thank you enough! P.S. I’ve always lived by the golden rule and looks like that may take me farther than anything else. Great information!

  27. […] whether in writing or in visual arts, is about human connection and social engagement, which is a different thing than self-promotion, but perhaps even more than self-promotion, that social engagement takes consistency and care and […]

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