When I first started publishing twenty years ago, there was no such thing as social media. The only way to promote your books was to pay for it or hope your publisher did a damn good job for you.
Much has changed in that time, for better and for worse. With the advent of social media, authors found that they could do their own promotion by building a presence online. That presence could be used to connect with readers and network with other writers and potential publishers.
That was before social media outfits like Facebook and Twitter began to rely so heavily on paid advertising, authors were able to have successful marketing campaigns that cost nothing upfront simply by posting to social media channels. Today, it’s a lot harder to get your books to go viral.
The Social Media Giants
On Facebook, posting about your newest book to your fan page results in very few people actually seeing it, regardless of the number of followers you have, unless you shell out money. If you do, Facebook will deign to let a selection of your followers see your message in their feeds—if they don’t deem your ad to be in poor taste.
If you’re in erotica author, there’s a high likelihood that some random person on the Facebook staff is going to think your book is in bad taste, even if it does include the most inventive uses of maple syrup and whipped cream. So you’re out of luck on both accounts. People can’t learn about your books unless you pay Facebook, and Facebook won’t let you pay them so you can let people know about your books.
On Twitter, the marketing pipeline isn’t so strict. But posts by real people often get drowned out by the voices of bad actors—people who open multiple fake accounts to amplify their own voices and make their opinions seem more popular than they actually are. (And lest I be accused of bringing American politics into this blog, I was actually talking about Kenya, where misinformation campaigns meant to sway elections were orchestrated from outside the country, with Twitter hashtags playing a role.)
Twitter recently changed its policies to take away the megaphone from these bad actors. The new policies prohibit one person from publishing the same message to multiple Twitter accounts or using a hashtag on multiple Twitter accounts to make it seem more popular than it actually is, and seem to discourage coordination among users who are working together to get a particular topic or hashtag trending.
These changes could help authors, but Twitter’s vagueness over the last part of its new policies could also harm them. I know plenty of authors—including erotica authors—who depend on group tweeting tools like Triberr and Thunderclap to get the word out about their books. But Twitter leaves it unclear as to whether those tools violate the new rules.
Other social media
Facebook and Twitter are the most established players, but sometimes authors use other social media channels to reach their readers.
Instagram, a photo-based social media platform, is popular with millennials but not an ideal marketing platform in terms of direct book promotion because any links that you put in your post won’t work. Instagram does not allow hyperlinks in personal accounts, only business accounts— and because Instagram is owned by Facebook, you can be pretty sure that it will soon follow Facebook’s steps and hide posts from businesses on readers feeds unless the businesses pay advertising fees.
I’ve heard from romance readers that Pinterest can be a great marketing tool. How? I have no idea. But self-publishing genius Mark Dawson offers a free download, Pinterest for Authors, that promises to explain the process.
Teens and preteens make up a huge segment of Tumblr users. Older users tend to be diehard fans of specific television shows or movies, and very rarely engage with anything on Tumblr that doesn’t directly relate to their fannish or political interests. So despite the plethora of Russian porn bots plaguing the site, it’s not a great place to share erotic unless it’s of the fanfic kind. But if you’re a YA writer, sign up!
What’s a writer to do with social media?
Still, many publishers expect authors to be active on social media. It’s not uncommon these days for publishers to include a contract requirement that authors have a social media presence.
That’s why I got on social media when I started publishing fiction again a few years ago. It wasn’t the most comfortable move, as I had intentionally or closed down most of my social media accounts over privacy concerns. But it wasn’t completely foreign, either. Despite my own qualms about the technology, I’d actually managed social media for several small businesses even when I wasn’t playing with it on my own.
Does social media work as a book marketing tool?
Now that I’ve been intentionally interacting on social media as an author for a few years, probably spending around an hour a day on it, I’m in a place where I can start to evaluate its effectiveness.
Does social media work as a book marketing tool? Directly, no. Gone are the days when it was easy to go viral. If you are looking for a quick return that is proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into it, social media is not going to help you.
It takes an enormous amount of energy to rise above other voices on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest—or even to get heard at all. And Facebook sabotages most attempts at connecting with readers by actively hiding them from readers’ newsfeeds.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If readers have never heard of you, they’re not interested in hearing about your books. And if you don’t tell them about your books, how will they know who you are?
Creating effective social media…
To become known on social media, you have to offer something unique to your followers. An endless stream of advertisements is not unique. You have to make friends with them too, at least to a degree. You don’t want them to feel like they’re nothing to you but dollar signs. So share some things within that you care about. Your cats, your horrible puns, your favorite paint colors.
What does this have to do with writing? Nothing directly. But over the years (yes, years), your online presence starts paying dividends. At first, this will probably be through the connections you build with other authors. You’ll scratch each other’s backs by sharing each other’s book news. Then you’ll start to genuinely like some of them, and they’ll start to genuinely like you. Maybe they’ll gush about your book on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, and a few of their readers will check it out. And a few more years later, when those readers have told their friends, who told a couple of their friends, and so on and so forth into infinity, you might have a decent-sized readership.
…and social media that bites you in the ass.
In the meantime, you’ll alienate other readers with your political rants, your pictures of your cat, or the fact that you used the word “moist” in a tweet. You’ll have gotten emotionally caught up in a few online dramas that seemed very important at the time, but were really only important to those following a specific hashtag—and you can no longer remember why you cared so much about them. These emotional dramas will take your focus away from writing. So will the time you spend responding to tweets and commenting on photos of other people’s dogs and pinning inspirational photos on Pinterest.
And no matter how many followers you have, it’s unlikely that relying on social media as your only marketing platform will lead to so many books sales that you can make writing your full-time job.
So, Dale, should I be on social media?
Social media marketing can work, but there is a cost. you need to figure out how much of that emotional and time cost you can bear. If you do engage in social media, be intentional about it:
- Try not to get caught up in arguments and drama that end up taking away from your writing time.
- Before you open that Facebook or Twitter page “just to see if I need to respond to any tweets or comments,” set a timer for ten minutes. When that timer goes off and catches you watching a video of the cutest little capybara clan grazing next to the Amazon River, close the browser, even if you didn’t get around to responding to any of those tweets or comments. Sooner or later, it will train yourself to use your time wisely. (Of course, if your latest project is a paranormal tale centered on capybara shifters, keep on watching that video. Research is important.)
- Install an app like StayFocusd on your browser to limit the amount of time you spend on social media each day. If you direct it to limit your time on Facebook to half an hour, Facebook will disappear from your browser at the thirty-minute mark, and you can go back until the next day.
In other words, if a new author asked me whether they should get in involved in social media, this would be my answer: “Yes, but …”