Yes, Social Media Can Sell Books. But Not If Publishers Sit on Their Hands

Ever since social media appeared in the mid-2000s, publishers and authors (and marketers) have argued about whether social media actually sells books.

I thought this was an open-and-shut case, but every so often it has to be re-litigated.

YES, social media sells books. See what’s happening on TikTok for the most recent example of how and why.

But does an author’s personal social media following sell books?

Often. Usually. But not magically without any effort whatsoever.

Which brings me to the New York Times article published yesterday about celebrity-authored books that aren’t selling all that well. It’s titled: Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, ‘It’s Unreliable.’

Is it really unreliable? Or is it publishers falling asleep at the wheel? Or is it the case of not-so-great books being published and no one wanting them?

There’s a lot of context missing from the article—things we don’t know about what’s happening behind the scenes marketing-wise. But if publishers’ marketing teams truly believe an author’s large social media following will, of its own accord, lead to enormous book sales, that’s pretty simplistic and naive. Maybe these publishers assumed the celebrity authors would do more than they did, on social media, to talk about the book and move copies.

But most authors, even celebrities, need to be assisted or receive direction on how to do this well and in a way that has meaning and leads to sales. The NYT article makes it sound like publishers are just sort of sitting on their hands, waiting for the millions of followers to just show up and buy the book. No decent marketer today with a pulse thinks that just happens, and publishers tend to employ smart people. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. Then I read this quote in the article:

In an effort to mitigate these issues, some book contracts now specify the number of posts required before and after a book is published.

That is not going to fix the problem. And it’s very depressing that anyone in publishing today thinks it will fix the problem. It sounds like an executive’s bad solution.

Here’s what good, thoughtful marketing looks like from a traditional publisher

Over the summer, at The Bookseller’s Marketing & Publicity Conference, publishers large and small discussed how they work with authors to plan book launches and long-term marketing and promotion, especially in relation to online communities or social media—ever more important, given the rise of online sales. While not all authors receive the same level of in-house support from their publisher, it helps to know what a strong effort does look like, to be educated and aware of what’s possible.

To start, authors have to buy in to the core message of the publisher’s marketing campaign as early as possible. At the start of every campaign, the publisher is (or should be) thinking about how to use the author’s platform effectively. But this must be approached in a collaborative manner to work. Senior marketing executive Sian Gardiner and senior publicity manager Jess Duffy, both of Bluebird and One Boat (imprints of Pan Macmillan in the UK), discussed how to avoid “battling with authors to get them to post something that we know is going to help the book but they don’t feel truly represents them.” Early conversations with authors help bring marketing in line with the authors’ persona and community. “[Our] tailored strategies are informed by the authors’ unique knowledge of their online communities and supplemented by our expertise,” they said.

The community surrounding the author (and/or publisher) should be engaged early in the process and be part of the journey, said Gardiner and Duffy. The marketing campaign will fall flat if there are scattered calls to pre-order and vague mentions of the book without sufficient “content wrapping.” The right strategy is to drip-feed information about the upcoming book (or existing books) through the year. If planned early enough, there can even be requests for input from the community (almost like a focus group), with lots of free content sharing and behind-the-scenes footage.

“That means when it comes time to truly hammering home that pre-order messaging, the audience is already completely invested in the print purchase,” they said. However, Gardiner and Duffy warned that, with nonfiction authors in particular, the majority of an author’s community may not be book buyers and are not necessarily choosing to follow them for book content. “This means it’s crucial that the author integrates the book messaging that feels true to the spirit of what they usually post.”

As a case study, Gardiner and Duffy referenced Laura Thomas’s nonfiction book Just Eat It. They knew the author’s audience had huge potential for growth. Through influencer engagement, exclusive snippets from the author’s podcast, and a series of giveaways, the publisher built the author’s following from 20,000 to 100,000 in six months. For Nikesh Shukla’s memoir, Brown Baby, the publisher helped the author launch a parenting podcast that was shared by the high-profile guests he interviewed—and the publisher also secured a lot of podcast interviews for Nikesh himself.

In a similar vein, Penguin Random House (UK) has been focused the last couple years on bolstering its editorial content for readers, according to Indira Birnie, a senior manager at the company. She described, ultimately, a content marketing strategy for reaching any and all readerships—content that can be created ahead of time and used for months if not years, including podcasts, online articles, video, etc. For instance, with Obama’s memoir (yes, it does need to be marketed, and without much access to the author!), Birnie’s team compiled a list of all the books he’s publicly recommended over the years and published it at the PRH site, which was then shared across social media. That piece of content has been popular and has continued to perform well even more than a year after the book’s release. Birnie said, “It makes a lot more sense to me to create one really good piece of content”—something that is tailored to the readership and to a particular platform—rather than churn out substandard pieces that get blasted everywhere but fail to engage.

Social media plays a significant role in just about every marketing campaign. Gardiner and Duffy said one of the biggest sticking points when it comes to social strategy can be the regularity of posts required. Some authors worry about spamming their followers or appearing overly sales-y. But the lifecycle of social posts is incredibly short: 18 minutes for Twitter, 2.5 hours on Facebook, and 48 hours on Instagram. It’s possible and likely for followers to miss most posts. That’s why an author’s book must be incorporated into an author’s regular posting strategy, so the majority of their following will be aware of the book even if they miss most posts.

An ideal to strive for? A year-round marketing campaign. Gardiner and Duffy advocated for this approach, even though it may seem like an impossible task. In fact, it’s less labor intensive than people think. Start with the basics, they recommended. “We make sure to always let our authors know when there is new activity happening around the book and often will draft copy for them to post on their social channels.” For example, this could be a new Kindle deal, a new piece of media coverage, the launch of an international edition, or a shout-out from a high-profile social account. “We also ask our authors to forward any and all event requests they receive,” they said. Often an event that doesn’t seem to directly correlate with the book can still be a meaningful sales opportunity. “After the authors wow [the audience] with their brilliance, the book becomes a perfect physical takeaway from a potentially life-changing or inspiring moment.”

Smart publishers have been moving toward data-informed marketing campaigns

In such campaigns, success can be measured and audience data carries over from one book to the next. In a presentation earlier this year at Digital Book World, Andrea DeWerd, a senior marketing director at HarperCollins, described the shift that’s occurring in broad terms and also offered a case study focused on Jew-ish, an illustrated cookbook by Jake Cohen that hit the New York Times bestseller list. 

Going into the campaign, DeWerd’s team wasn’t sure if the book’s audience knew Cohen’s name or if they were more familiar with Feedfeed, where he’s a test-kitchen director. By using social listening and analytics tools Meltwater and Klear, they were able to quickly pull together insights on Cohen’s existing audience based on his social media presence: they were more female than expected, with a strong LGBTQ and New York City component. While the marketers knew some of this already, it confirmed their assumptions.

DeWerd said that they don’t have an in-house analytics team, so they need to use audience insight tools that the in-house marketers can understand even without a data background. That’s why they use Meltwater and Klear for this purpose; they are very user friendly. They can also export the data and share it with authors and agents to facilitate discussion and collaboration on the campaign. While individual authors typically can’t buy or afford enterprise tools like Meltwater, there are alternatives that can offer similar information at a more reasonable cost, such as SproutSocial, Mention, and SparkToro.

Study into Cohen’s online audience led to an important and early insight: amplifying his TikTok use would likely produce the best reach to his audience. So DeWerd’s team asked him to double-down on that activity. Then, the publisher placed TikTok ads for the book—but critically, these ads were identical to Cohen’s usual TikTok content except for the inclusion of a brief flash of the book cover. (Here’s an example: black-and-white cookie recipe.) The campaign was so successful that it now serves as a case study for a digital advertising agency, and DeWerd’s team shifted their ad budget away from simple banner ads over to TikTok.

But what about fiction—or debut authors, or those with little to no platform? I asked DeWerd about this via email after her presentation, and she generously responded with an in-depth look at how she handles such campaigns:

  • The first step is market research. What are the comp titles? Comps may include similar reads but also similar time periods, topics, or feelings. Do any of the comp authors have large social followings? (DeWerd defines large as more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter, which have the best public data.) Are there particular people or influencers talking about those comps? What hashtags are used in posts about the comps? On Goodreads, what keywords are used in reviews for those comps? What Goodreads shelves are used (the surprising ones, not general ones like mystery)? Do the Goodreads reviews mention other titles that did not come up in the initial round of comps?
  • The second step is to run reports with tools like Klear and Meltwater using the comp authors and influencers who talked about the comp titles. Who is talking about these comp authors and titles and where? Who is talking about specific topics and keywords related to the book? This requires specificity, e.g., “fiction about the Black experience in America.” DeWerd also runs more general reports on overall genres one or two times per year: What does a general contemporary romance reader in the US on TikTok look like these days? What does a mystery lover look like?
  • Finally, DeWerd and her team synthesize their learnings from all the reports. What audiences are similar and where is there overlap? Where is more information needed? If her team needs more data, they will get more reads by conducting another a Goodreads giveaway, NetGalley promo, or Instagram giveaway. That ultimately seeds more online activity around the book and surfaces more marketing data. Sometimes new comps will come up as a result of reader reviews.

DeWerd adds, “That last step is important—fiction takes a lot of ‘send books out, get reviews, wait, and measure,’ to be successful. It takes time to do that.” And, “On top of building buzz, it gives us time to get to know our audience, what they’re responding to, and the best way to engage them!”

Finally, for an agent’s perspective on this issue, see Kate McKean’s All Your Followers Will Not Buy Your Books.

I hope this shows how traditional publishers can be smart and intelligent in using authors’ social media followings to build a marketing campaign and sell books. They can’t and shouldn’t just sit back and wait for authors to know what to do or how to do it.

If you found this article insightful, it builds on content that I first published in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet. Try it free for 2 issues.

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