Does Social Media Sell Books? A Vital Inquisition!

Your immediate reading homework is this, from the NYT: MILLIONS OF FOLLOWERS? FOR BOOK SALES, IT’S UNRELIABLE. It’s behind a paywall, of course, so be advised of that if you are the kind of person who is halted by them — but I’ll do some summary of the article in question in order to dissect and reassemble its salient bits. The summary is this: it has long been assumed that people with huge social media followings therefore also sell huge numbers of books, and given the apparently low sales numbers of some of the celebrity books in question — which is to say, celebrities with considerable herds of fans following their every online move — it might be safe to consider that assumption to be a grandly bullshit one.

Big social media followings do not become big book sales.

I’ve said it forever, and it appears to remain the case, here.

Now, it is worth noting up front, before we dig too deep a hole, that the article is flawed in that it’s using only BookScan numbers, and BookScan is wildly unreliable in that it only captures print sales from certain sales outlets. It does not track e-books. It does not track audiobooks. It does not track library sales. Again, it tracks print books sold through standard print book sales points like Amazon, B&N, Target, many (but not all) indie stores. Author Katherine Locke noted on Twitter that they found Bookscan caught only 12% of the sales of one of their books — which, uhhh, is a pretty notable deficit. So, the numbers in that article are probably lower than in reality, and further, it’s capturing only one real set of authors: celebrity authors. In this sense the article could just as easily be an indictment against giving celebrities giant fucking book deals, which, y’know, I happen to agree with.

That said, I still think there’s something here to talk about, and that’s the question of what social media brings to the table for authors, their books, and the sales of those books to an audience.

Way back in THE OLDEN DAYS, in the BEFORETIMES, at the outset of this current wave of social media (Twitter, FB, IG, eventually not Tumblr, eventually yes Tik-Tok), it was a common refrain that an author had to have a “platform,” which was something of a corruption of the notion that non-fiction authors had to have a platform. For non-fic authors, that platform meant they had to have a reliable reputation in the subject matter at hand and/or some kind of demonstrable expertise in it. But the dilution of that became simply, “As an author, you should have a social media following at one or several social media sites.” (At this time, blogs were still acceptable. Remember blogs? Yeah, me neither.) It was a little bit advice, a little bit mandate. What that social media following meant or needed to look like was a set of teleporting bullseyes, and though I’m sure some publishers had hard and fast numbers they hoped to see, they did not share them with any authors I know.

The purpose of this social media following was unclear, though it was usually sold as some combination of, hey, be funny, be informative, earn an audience, oh and don’t forget to SHILL YOUR BOOKS, BOOKMONSTER. Drop the links, use the graphics, do the hokey-pokey and shake it all about. You’re an author! Also a brand! Standing on a platform! Asking an audience to love you with money! You’re like the Wendy’s Twitter account — be funny, be individual, be the best version of yourself, get attention, but also get them to eat your goddamn wordburgers.

The question is, did it work then? Does it work now?

I have thoughts.

(I mean, obviously I have them, because here I am, with this blog post. Sorry, did I say “blog post?” I meant, uhhh, really long Twitter thread. Shut up.)

Note that these thoughts are artisanal data, by which I mean, my anecdotal experience and observations. I do not mean any of this as boot-in-the-ass fact. Take it as you will.

Answer Unclear, Ask Again Later

Moving copies of books via social media does and doesn’t work, and that is about as true and as useless an answer as I can give, so lemme try to give it some dimension.

First, yes, both now and before, you can sell books on social media, though the primary and best way to sell those books is to not be the author. Meaning, you can sell books, just not your books. Which is counter to this entire point, where publishers tell authors to promote their own books, but there it is. I’ve mentioned this before but it really bears repeating: when an author does a guest post on this very website (which is definitely not a blog, we hate those now, remember), they get X number of clicks through to their books. That number varies depending on the book and the post, to be clear. Now, let’s say in addition to promoting their own book, they also mention another book they liked or loved — the link to that book will get twice the number of clicks than X. It’ll double. Nearly every time. You get more clickthroughs to books you recommend from other authors than you do your own books.

Why is this? I dunno. I’m assuming because we naturally have a gentle, simmering suspicion for anyone hawking their own wares. We’d rather hear about a book you love than a book you wrote. We want to share and participate in that kind of love. And we tend to side-eye sales pitches. Which is good! We should. If someone has something to sell, we should be just a tiny bit wary of their wares, and as always, consider the source.

Then Versus Now

The other thing to consider is that social media now isn’t the same as social media then. It’s obvious that times change, and so does everything with it, and social media is no different. It is, in fact, an entirely divergent animal from five years ago, ten years ago, and beyond. Like the coronavirus, it just keeps fucking mutating, man, and like with a virus, so much of its mutation is unseen, on the inside, its effects cascading long before we’ve really even figured out there was any change at all.

In the BEFORETIMES, social media was smaller, more nimble, and I think it was easier to establish yourself there. It still didn’t move tons and tons of books, but I do think you could find easier reach. Now, that user base is considerably larger — which sounds good, right? You wanna reach more people, so it’s good that there are more people to reach. Except, do you?

Culturally, social media is a raging brushfire. It’s an apocalyptic stock ticker of news and rage and memes and condemnation and indignation and dunks, so many fucking dunks, dunks upon dunks upon dunks. (This is a harsh take on it, and I recognize there is a lot of vital work done there, too, and a necessary platform for social justice. But it’s also a platform for shit that masquerades as social justice, too, which is tricky. But that’s a whole other conversation.) We view social media — or, at least, publishers view social media — like it’s an audience-in-waiting. But it’s not. Everybody on social media is equal parts performer and product. We’re all on the platform, and the platform is a stage, and we’re dancing for the social media companies. So, it’s hard to get above all that and actually let people know about your books. This is an attention economy, and the way to get attention isn’t… y’know, a link to your book. I wish it was. But it’s not. And it’s not, in part because Twitter doesn’t want it to be. Which leads me to the next point:

Algorithmically, it’s also a brushfire. We know that certain things generate algorithmic attention — meaning, the unseen sentient elves pulling all the levers and yanking on all the ropes are interested in juggling tweets to the top that are attention-seeking, emotion-farming tweets. Will this make you angry? Will it make you laugh? THEN HERE, LOOK AT IT. Rage and memes and dunks and such. The platform rewards the brushfire. The algorithm says, “Fire is bright and colorful, people like bright and colorful and are likelier to look at it, so MORE FIRE FOR THE FIRE-LOVERS,” and then the elves splash around gasoline and lighter fluid while chewing through the electrical cords, cackling.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve mentioned, say, a book that is coming out or already out, and had more than one person on Twitter say, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this before.” Even though I’ve yelled about it. I’ve shrieked. I’ve done my ass-shaking buy-my-book dance. I’ll endlessly promote and then go to a bookstore event (or did, in the Beforetimes), will get done said event, will thank the bookstore on Twitter, and inevitably multiple people respond, “Oh I didn’t know you were in town! I would’ve gone!” (To quote Scott Lynch on Twitter: “Painful Coda: On top of this, social media algorithms are working dark sorcery behind the scenes to throttle the actual reach of anything fucking NORMAL that we try to talk about. You have 185k followers. Does that mean 185k people see your announcement of a new thing? Lol. No.” He’s right. They don’t. I suspect it’s closer to one percent, if I’m being honest. Ten percent at the optimistic level.)

Social media is stacked against you, now more than ever.

Think Of It This Way

You’re in a plane.

You have thousands of your books in boxes.

Below you, on the ground, are your readers. Somewhere. They’re down there. It’s fine!

You want to tell them about your book, so to do so, you throw thousands of copies of your book out of the plane, in the hopes that they get copies. They will not. The books will fall into lakes and rivers, they will smash car windows and oh god you just killed a schnauzer, you fucking monster.

Even if you tell your potential readers, hey, look for my plane, wait for my book drop, it won’t matter very much. You might slightly increase the number of people who find the books. But that’s it.

(Note: please do not do any of this, it’s a metaphor.)

(Though mayyyybe it could work. Anybody have a plane? I got books!)

What I Used To Say

I used to say this:

On social media, you can sell tens or hundreds of copies of your book, but publishers really want thousands to be sold. The true value of social media is connecting with other professionals in your creative space — you gather around the digital watercooler and get to talk to other writers, agents, editors, artists, booksellers, librarians. It makes you a part of a community, and you meet these people not to use as rungs on a ladder but as compatriots and cohorts and, in many cases, as friends who honestly understand what you do and get what you’re going through. Yes, of course, definitely promote your book because that’s what your audience is following you for, they want to know about your books. Just don’t bludgeon them over the head with it, and you’ll be fine. The goal is to talk about your books in an earnest, personal way, not to be manipulative or as a sales pitch but because it’s the best way to talk about your work. And the hope is that you create that essential background noise called “buzz” simply by making people aware, because awareness is the most difficult thing to achieve. Many of our books have died, smothered by the suffocating blanket of obscurity.

What I Say Now

What I say now is that the above is still true-ish, but it deserves an asterisk as big as a kaiju’s cartoon butthole — a monster caveat, an epic yeah, except.

Yeah, except social media is a fucking wood chipper. It is not necessarily a safe or sound place for an author to be. It can become as much a distraction as an asset, and it can give you some very good days, but also, some of your very worst days. Publishers asking writers to join social media — or other writers giving this as advice — are deficit if they are not making it very clear that social media is not always a safe space. It is not a place to casually muck about, or fail in public in any way, or any of that. The ground is unstable. Beneath it are sewer clowns, and they are very, very hungry. Social media rewards you for being noisy, but it eventually punishes you for the same. And god forbid you, like many authors, have some manner of anxiety or depression. Spoiler warning: social media isn’t there to help. Sometimes it will. Individuals will be there to help you, and that’s part of the good side. But there are just as many who want to do the opposite, who not only want to stick the knife in… but who really want to give it a twist. Especially, especially, as your platform — remember, the thing publishers wanted you to have and to grow! — gets bigger and bigger. A big social media following is open water. It is deep and it is dark and you are in over your head.

Publishers should’ve never viewed this as an extension of their marketing and advertising plans. Authors should’ve never been front-line warriors in this crusade. I understand why it was sold this way — it’s a mix of, “Hey, this is just like authors going out to events and talking to people” and “Hey, maybe we don’t have to spend all that marketing and advertising money now that there’s this giant free space where we can just shill books 24/7 with the help of our new unpaid salesfolks, authors.” (Note, this last point is also why there is current resistance to getting authors back out into the world. Some of it is, yes, because COVID is still scary and uncertain, but some of it is publishers seeing and saying, “Hey, we sold books just fine in the Quarantimes of 2020, why should we pay for authors to do in-person events ever again?” It will be necessary for authors and booksellers and other event-having staff to push back on this narrative, because it has been born, now squalling in its crib.)

The problem with publishers seeing this space as that value-add is that there are also considerable value deficits in place — put more colloquially, the juice ain’t always worth the squeeze.

And it can be a real fucking squeeze.

Beyond that, if you can navigate it, it’s not that social media cannot have value. And it’s not that you can’t still try to get blood from that rock. But to my mind it’s a place you go because you want to be there, not because it is a necessary or even useful channel to Sell Your Books. It maybe never was, but now in particular it’s just difficult to sell books in the middle of a brushfire. I’m there. I do it. I don’t know that it reaches many people at all anymore. I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep doing it. It’s not a fun place to be. I don’t enjoy it. It feels more like an obligation, one whose yield is minimal, like I’m plowing a mostly-fallow field.

I still like this space, of course, because I can engage with points and own the space and inject a little nuance. Not that this is a blog, of course. No no no those aren’t a thing anymore.

*stares shiftily at you*

Wait But Should I Get On Tik-Tok Immediately?

That’s the current advice I hear. YOU GOTTA GET ON TIK-TOK. BOOK-TOK IS THERE. YOU GOTTA BE THERE, MAN. YOU GOTTA DANCE AND SHIT. YOU GOTTA DO THAT THING WHERE THERE’S TEXT ON THE SCREEN AND YOU POINT TO IT AND MAYBE LIP-SYNC SOME STUFF AND PEOPLE ARE LIKE, WOW. YEAH. SHAKE YOUR BOOK. LICK IT. I DUNNO YOU GOTTA DO SOMETHING TO GET THOSE LIKES.

(Does Tik-Tok even have likes? Shit, I dunno.)

(I’m so old.)

I am not going there.

First, because I don’t want to.

Second, because nobody else wants me to, either. I mean, if you thought I was cringe before, just wait till I show up there and gallumph about like Jedi Kid, trying to hawk my bookish wares. Jesus. It’s horrifying just imagining it, and I suspect the real thing would be a thousand times worse.

Third, it’s not even the written word. At least Twitter requires me to exercise my writing skills (“skills”) in some capacity. Tik-Tok is just, oof. I’m an, uhh, behind the camera guy.

Finally, like with all social media, Book-Tok is powered more by readers than by writers, isn’t it? Same as it’s been elsewhere — it’s readers talking about and showing what they love, and that is what moves books. Word of mouth continues to be the primary driver for how books are sold.

The chain is this:

Publishers should make as much noise as they can about a book. Booksellers and librarians help carry that torch. And at the end of the day, it goes to readers. Readers who want to share their love of certain books, and whose love is (excuse the abject cheesiness here) the eternal flame that will keep burning for a story and for an author. That’s it. The author doesn’t need to be in that chain at all. And honestly, maybe we shouldn’t be. Except at the end, to sign it and answer your questions.

But, as with all things, YMMV. This is all pure opinion and conjecture. Others will have very different experiences, and that is as expected. You do you, pikachu.

Anyway hey uhhh buy my books or I die!

The Book of Accidents! Dust & Grim! Holidays! Books! Huzzah!

*immediately creates an OnlyFans account*