When authors think about promoting their book, their minds usually go directly to one method of promotion: social media. But social media networks change so quickly. The advice you received at a writers conference in 2019 doesn’t necessarily work in 2022. Even the best social media methods of 2021 may not work in 2022. Therein lies the challenge for authors.
I’ve been helping companies, politicians, nonprofits, and authors use social media since 2007. I’ve managed hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad spend and innovative techniques that have swayed elections and influenced policy.
Last year I released a history of Facebook for authors. A lot has changed for social media, and this article will address many of those changes.
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, whether you’re traditionally or independently published, you need to be aware of the changes and costs of social media.
One of the most unhelpful questions authors ask is, “Will doing X help me sell more books?” It’s a useless question because the answer is almost always “yes.”
“Will standing on a street corner waving my book help me sell books?” Probably. People get money panhandling, so you could likely sell a book from a street corner.
The better question is, “How does this promotional activity compare to my next best alternative?”
To make an accurate comparison, you need to know what your alternatives are. The more alternatives you know about, the better decision you can make about your next best alternative.
There are many social networks, and we’re going to explore the strengths and weaknesses of quite a few of them. But please note, the one sure path to failure is to try to be everywhere for everyone all the time.
And contrary to what you might have heard, social media isn’t a requirement for authors.
You Don’t Even Need to Be on Social Media to Be a Successful Author
As I work with bestselling authors, I have noticed that the more successful an author is, the less time they tend to spend on social media. What makes you a successful writer is… wait for it, your writing! You can’t Facebook or TikTok your way to publishing success without first being a good writer.
In terms of opportunity cost, the next best alternative for many successful authors is letting go of social media altogether.
While many unpublished authors spend lots of time sharing advice with each other on social media, bestselling authors spend that time writing.
Avoid any literary agent or publisher who pressures you to do social media. Such pressure is a red flag that they are either an imposter or a bozo. An imposter is trying to deceive you. A bozo simply doesn’t know that he doesn’t know and confidently gives bad advice.
It often takes an author years to realize their agent is a bozo, so this litmus test is a great shortcut. There are many people in publishing who don’t know that they don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to marketing.
But who knows, you might be a good fit for social media, so let’s talk about the different social networks.
For a long time, Instagram was almost useless from a marketing perspective. You had to have 10,000 followers before you could post a link so followers could easily buy your book. The vast majority of authors have less than 10,000 followers on Instagram, which means the platform was hard to use if you did not meet that threshold.
Some authors used LinkTree, but it added yet another conversion-rate-killing step to the sales funnel.
Instagram has softened this restriction, and now 99% of users can add links to stories. The trouble is that stories (and the links) disappear after 24 hours. You still can’t add links to a standard post, but now you can add a link to something.
The community of readers on Instagram calls itself Bookstagram, and they can make a big difference in terms of driving sales for certain kinds of books. In general, the popular Bookstagrammers are readers, not authors.
Who Thrives on Instagram?
More than any other social network, Instagram is a celebration of physical beauty, specifically female beauty. According to Instagram’s own internal research, the social network is harmful to the mental health of many of its users, who don’t feel they live up to the Instagram model standard of beauty.
The uncomfortable reality is that most people who are popular on Instagram are pretty. And not just pretty but “Instagram Pretty,” which means they spend a lot of time perfecting their makeup.
Becoming a Bookstagrammer is not a good strategy for most authors. Instagram is not a platform that primarily features or celebrates writing. It celebrates and features beautiful photos and videos. To be a successful Bookstagrammer or Instagram influencer, you need to develop a completely separate set of skills, namely photography and videography, neither of which display your writing skills.
If you are beautiful and talented as a photographer and videographer, you may find some success.
Instead of trying to become an Instagram influencer yourself, I recommend you sponsor popular Bookstagramers to feature your book. Sponsorship will cost you money, but you will be better off getting a day job and using your paycheck to sponsor Bookstagrammers than trying to become one yourself.
As a bonus, by working a day job instead of spending time on Instagram, you are protecting your own mental health. The more time people spend on Instagram, the more stressed, anxious, and depressed they tend to become.
The US Surgeon General recently issued an advisory about social media. If you feel more depressed and anxious, it’s likely because you are spending more time on social media. Social media is like smoking for your soul. It can be very harmful.
I got my start helping authors by teaching them how to create their Twitter accounts. Some of Author Media’s first viral blog posts were about Twitter, and some of my first presentations at writers conferences were about how authors could use Twitter.
But Twitter has changed dramatically since those halcyon days a decade ago.
For example, Billie Eilish has 6.4 million Twitter followers. She got a million-dollar book deal based on her social following. Her book sold about 64,000 copies. That comes out to a 1% conversion rate which would actually be very good for Twitter if she were only on Twitter, but she’s not.
Billie Eilish also has:
- 98 million followers on Instagram
- 32 million followers on Facebook
- 44 million followers on YouTube
- 36 million followers on TikTok
- 6.4 million followers on Twitter
Billie Eilish has hundreds of millions of followers across five different social networks, and she has fewer book sales than independently published author Chris Fox, who has almost no social media presence.
Eilish’s publisher lost a fortune on her book.
This is why I say that an agent, publisher, or guru who says you have to be on social media to be successful as an author is a bozo. A bozo does not understand the market.
Twitter has become too toxic and vapid to work for book marketing. If your book has any substance at all, it’s probably not a good fit for Twitter users. However, if your book is super political or controversial, you may be able to find an audience for it on Twitter.
If anyone tells you they are successfully using Twitter to sell books, ask to see their recent sales numbers and then watch them clam up.
TikTok is one of the fastest-growing social networks right now. It recently topped one billion users and continues to grow. TikTok focuses on short videos and is particularly popular among teenage girls.
Unlike other social networks, TikTok is less about who you follow and more about the TikTok algorithm finding content for you. The TikTok algorithm can identify your preferences better than your closest friends can, which makes the platform very addictive.
It’s the only platform I have seen that warns you to take a break and get a drink of water. Imagine what must have happened for them to feel it was necessary to add that warning to the platform.
BookTok is a vibrant reading community on TikTok. But if you look closely, you will see that most popular BookTokers are readers rather than authors. Booktockers drove sales for several bestselling books last year.
Those bestselling books jumped to the top of the charts because teenage readers made TikTok videos about the books. The authors of those books were not making TikToks. In fact, many of the books that spiked were backlist books that the publishers had nearly forgotten about.
Who Thrives on TikTok?
While many authors are trying to become TikTok famous, most of them are failing.
It is hard to get the TikTok algorithm to smile on you, especially if you are 30 years of age or older. I’m the young guy at most writers conferences, and even I’m too old for TikTok.
Of course, you can find outliers, people over 30 who are popular on TikTok, but it’s rare.
It takes a massive investment of time to learn how to TikTok. For starters, you must be really good at video editing. If you have never edited a video, TikTok is not for you.
TikTok is not a new social network, and the early adopters are some of the most popular TikTockers today.
TikTok also favors people who look good on camera. Like Instagram, it tends to be an endless scroll of beautiful people. If you want to be in that scroll, you need to look like the people in that scroll.
Finally, the skills required to make a viral 30-second video do not overlap with the skills needed to write a compelling 200-page book. There is little synergy on TikTok for authors.
I don’t think trying to become a BookToker is worth the time investment. The better bang for your buck is to get a day job and use the money to sponsor BookTokers, who already have a following.
You will be happier, and your time and money will be better spent if you pay someone else to TikTok on your behalf.
Discord is another platform experiencing massive growth, and it’s the photo negative of TikTok.
- On TikTok, all the content is on one “For You” page, which is sorted by the algorithm. On Discord, there is no algorithm and no single page where all the content lives.
- TikTok is for video, and Discord is for audio and text.
- TikTok is most popular with teen girls. Discord is most popular with teen boys.
Discord is a tool for hosting a private community. You can’t really go viral on Discord because each community is separate. So as a promotion platform, Discord doesn’t seem like a useful tool for authors.
But having a place for a private community can help your marketing. For instance, Discord is also a great place to connect with your most passionate readers and to let them connect with each other. I am part of a small in-person book group, and we have a Discord server. It’s the most active Discord server I’m on.
Discord is also a great place to host your launch team. While Facebook sells your group data to Amazon, which may result in having your launch team reviews removed from Amazon, Discord keeps group membership private.
Speaking of privacy, MeWe is the “privacy social network.” This is its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
About a year ago, I did an episode on MeWe. I wondered if it would be the next big thing. One good way to get a quick following on a social network is to get in early. Some of the people who left Facebook last year signed up for MeWe, and it was an easy place to grow a following.
I signed up for MeWe a year ago, and after using it for a year, I have made some observations.
MeWe does not share any data about its users with anyone. For instance, there is no easy way to determine how many people came to your website from MeWe. The traffic is logged by Google Analytics as “Direct Traffic” along with everyone who goes to your website directly. You could go viral on MeWe and have no idea the surge of traffic came from MeWe.
After a year of using MeWe, I can only say I have no idea how effective it is as a tool for driving web traffic. Book Marketing Commandment #4 says, “Thou Shalt Measure Thy Marketing.” MeWe does everything it can to make commandment #4 hard to follow.
As a MeWe user, I love the privacy it offers. As a MeWe book promoter, it’s a bit of a deal-breaker. I simply cannot measure its effectiveness.
Goodreads is a social network specifically for books, readers, and authors. If you’ve ever complained that social networks change too quickly, you’ll be glad to know that Goodreads never changes anything. Their website is like a time capsule from the nineties.
I like Goodreads because it doesn’t take much work for an author to have a good presence there. With a few hours of work setting up your author page, you are good to go. Most of the work required for Goodreads requires reading books which hopefully you are doing anyway.
One frustrating aspect of Goodreads is that their ads don’t work. They are too small to get attention.
What Works on Goodreads?
The tactic that works best is paying to host a giveaway of your book. Giveaways can help you get more reviews quickly, and they can help introduce your book to new readers.
The giveaway strategy works best for ebooks since paper books tend to show up on Amazon for sale. There is a cottage industry of people who win free paper books on Goodreads and then resell them on Amazon and make a profit.
Our first Novel Marketing episode on Goodreads is so old that it is about to fall off the podcast feed. My podcast feed is limited to 300 episodes, and now that Novel Marketing has over 300 episodes, each new episode kicks off an old one.
One troubling issue has recently emerged. Trolls are using Goodreads to extort money from authors. The threat goes something like this: “Pay me $100, or my army of bots will give you 100 1-star reviews saying you are a racist.”
Refusing to use Goodreads is no protection. If your book is on Amazon, it will also be reviewable on Goodreads. So even if you have never signed up for Goodreads, trolls can still threaten to review-bomb you.
All social networks deal with spammers. Facebook deletes one billion fake accounts every year, but Goodreads has not kept up with spam protection. If anyone still works at Goodreads, they don’t seem to be doing much to stop this extortion.
The best way to protect yourself from this threat is to get a lot of positive Goodreads reviews in the first place. If you have ten reviews, then 100 one-star reviews sound scary. If you have 10,000 reviews, then 100 one-star reviews are negligible.
Facebook has been in the news a lot lately because of all the recent research demonstrating its harmful effects on mental health. Facebook is the new smoking. But instead of being bad for your body, it is bad for your psyche.
Facebook growth is flat overall, and in many communities, usage is dropping. For example, conservatives have been leaving the platform over concerns about censorship. If your numbers on Facebook are dropping, it may be because your audience is spending less time there.
I am not saying Facebook is about to become the next MySpace. But it is interesting that the company recently changed its name. The company that runs Facebook.com is no longer called Facebook. It’s called Meta. Companies often change their names in order to shield their brand from the collapse of their most popular product.
Facebook Pages Don’t Get Unpaid Reach
Facebook pages stopped working for authors years ago. There was some buzz about increasing the reach of pages in 2021. Facebook made a bunch of changes to how the page features worked, but I haven’t seen it impact reach or usage much.
Livestreams Don’t Work as Well
Facebook Live used to work well. When you went live on Facebook, every single one of your followers would get a notification that you were live. If you were interesting, you could get thousands of people to watch your livestream.
Then, some idiot in Christchurch, New Zealand livestreamed his mass shooting at a Mosque, and Facebook significantly diminished the visibility of livestreams.
It was a terrible tragedy, and I don’t blame Facebook for pulling back on the livestream features. I wouldn’t want such atrocities broadcast on my platform.
But if you were relying on that feature to reach your people, it effectively stopped working, not because of your content or your fans, but because of one person’s violence on the other side of the globe.
You can now scroll for quite a while on Facebook without seeing a single livestream.
Groups Are Overcrowded
Many authors turned to Facebook groups as a way to connect with their readers. Groups worked for a while, but to see the challenge of starting a Facebook group, go to Facebook.com/groups. Then go to the column that shows how many groups you are in. You may be surprised to see that you belong to hundreds of groups.
If you are in 200 Facebook groups and each group has ten posts per day, that makes 2,000 posts each day. Facebook will not show you all 2,000 posts. It will show you only a handful. The algorithm hides most posts most of the time.
If there is an algorithm between you and your fans, they are not your fans. They belong to the algorithm.
Over the last year, I have moved my Facebook groups away from Facebook. You can still find our pages and groups on Facebook, but our group interaction has been moved to AuthorMedia.social, and I could not be happier about that decision.
Getting away from Facebook is like breathing fresh air in a national park after being in the city. A million annoyances are suddenly gone. You can finally hear yourself think.
You don’t realize how noisy Facebook is until you get away from it.
Does Facebook Advertising Still Work?
Apple made privacy changes this year that have reduced the effectiveness of Facebook advertising. As a result, I have seen Facebook offering me a lot more deals on ads. I regularly get emails from Facebook offering me a certain amount of advertising at half the regular price. They never used to send me deals like that. I suspect fewer advertisers are spending money on Facebook, so Facebook is offering discounts in an effort to win them back.
Reduced effectiveness is not the same as eliminated effectiveness. Facebook advertising can and does still work. It works best for indie authors who write genre books in long series with very strong book covers. I hope to do another episode about Facebook advertising later this year.
Beware the Anecdotes
A lot of teaching about social media has been based on anecdotal stories. Some author goes viral on one social network for a few months and then spends years telling the story at conferences. Few authors realize that none of her students were able to go viral in the same way.
It’s similar to someone teaching that smoking cigarettes helped their career. Once they started smoking cigarettes, they started taking smoke breaks. On one smoke break, they met someone who gave them the “big break” in their career.
Now, that may have actually happened, but it’s not a reason you should start smoking. Smoking is bad for you. You could smoke your whole life and never get the same kind of big break.
Sometimes people get lucky. But luck is not a solid foundation on which to build a career. Neither is it a reason to engage in unhealthy habits.
I Give You Permission to Get off Social Media Completely
I, Thomas Umstattd Jr., the Vulcan of book marketing, host of the longest-running book marketing podcast, and he who knows 10,000 things, give you permission to get off social media.
You can do social media if you want to, but if it feels like a drag for you, get off and spend that time writing. You will likely be far more successful in your career and happier as a person.
If anyone tries to pressure you back onto social media, send them a link to this episode and ask them to dispute it with actual numbers.
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