Social media doesn’t sell books. It lights sparks.

When it comes to book sales, does a social media following guarantee sales? Of course not. That’s what’s behind the New York Times piece, “Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, ‘It’s Unreliable.’ ,” a naive and oversimplified take on what it takes to sell books.

How books sell

In the olden days — before COVID and before Amazon — the equation was simple. You wrote a book and a publisher published it. The publisher helped you publicize it, and got it stocked in bookstores. People read about it and maybe picked up a copy of what they’d heard about. And if they liked it, they told other people: word-of-mouth.

Now almost all of that is happening online. Half of sales go through Amazon. Bookstores are closing, because the pandemic has reduced traffic. If you read about a book, it’s probably online. And authors have varying degrees of social media followings to drive interest — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, podcasts, and so on.

Think about the last book you bought. How did that purchase happen?

Maybe you heard about it from the author, who is someone you follow or is a friend.

Maybe you heard about it from an article somewhere, like an op-ed or a contributed piece in a trade magazine site.

Perhaps you heard about it on a podcast.

It’s unlikely, but maybe you spotted it in a bookstore.

Or you saw an ad for it on a bookstore site or some other site.

And maybe you heard about it from somebody else who read it and said “Wow, this is excellent.”

It’s probably some combination of those. It often takes multiple contacts to get somebody to buy.

I’d like to offer you a way to think about those sales. Think about sparks and flames.

Every one of the ways of creating awareness is a spark. Your social media posts, ads on bookstore sites, articles you place in other sites, podcasts interviews — they’re all sparks.

If someone buys a book because of one of those sparks, that’s a little flame. But a little flame here or there don’t make the difference.

If the person who buys the book likes it, and tells someone else, the flame spreads. If there are a lot of people reading and sharing, the flame spreads widely. Then the idea of the book races out of control like wildfire. And you have a success on your hands.

Why books don’t sell

The New York Times article talks about notable “failures” of social media. Billie Eilish has 97 million Instagram followers and sold 64,000 copies of her autobiography. Justin Timberlake: 53 million Instagram followers, 100,000 sales. Representative Ilhan Omar: 3 million Twitter followers, 26,000 sales. Piers Morgan: 8 million Twitter followers, 5,650 sales.

I don’t know what went wrong in these particular cases. But if these authors or their publishers thought that just having a huge following on social media was sufficient, they were deluded. Just because a lot of people follow you doesn’t mean that they’ll buy something. That’s one of the points that Chuck Wendig makes in his post about the article.

Here are some possible reasons that a large following might not result in a lot of sales (again, using the wildfire analogy):

  • You didn’t use social media to tell them to buy the book (duh). No spark, no flame.
  • You only told them to buy the book once or twice. Social media is leaky. Sending out sparks once or twice is not enough.
  • The book is boring to your audience. This impairs word of mouth for obvious reasons. It’s like sending out sparks in a rainstorm: nothing spreads because there is no flame.
  • You didn’t share things about the book that would energize your followers. If your followers are interested in politics and you share that you wrote a medical thriller, why would they care? This is like attempting to set a fire using the wrong fuel.
  • You neglected to give them media to share: photos, audio, video, links, graphics, things like that. The more you have — and the more closely related they are to the book’s content and your followers’ interests — the better. Media is an accelerant, like kerosene; it’s more likely to catch fire and spread.
  • You didn’t ask your friends with large followings to share things. Having friends (with their separate groups of followers) share stuff about your book is like setting fires all over the place, not just in one spot where the flame might burn out.
  • You didn’t use a publicist to get featured in media, on podcasts, on TV, on radio, and so on. A publicist knows where the media flames are already burning, and sharing your content over there is like fanning the flames of a fire that’s already lit.
  • You didn’t stage a stunt. Stunts — like, say, showing up at a protest, or picking a fight with somebody — get attention. Staging stunts is like upgrading from spreading sparks to tossing out burning logs; it’s a lot more likely to start a fire.
  • You didn’t ask people to post Amazon reviews. Amazon reviews keep the fire from sputtering out just as it’s about to catch flame.

This is far from a complete list. Everything you do should be oriented towards spreading sparks, creating the means to encourage them to spread, and fanning the flames.

As Jane Friedman comments in her post about the article, all of this requires a coordinated effort from both the author and the publisher. Not just a few social media posts, no matter how many followers you have.

A big social media following is like sending out a million sparks. If you don’t do the rest of the publicity work, it’s unlikely to generate much more than a flicker here and there.

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  1. Interesting article. To state the obvious, the makeup of the potential audience often matters more than the sheer number of followers. Consider Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly’s forthcoming book.

    I’d be willing to bet that it will sell better than many books by folks who sport more followers. Marillion fans—and yes, I’m a proud member of the tribe—are obsessive passionate. We’re not young. We read books. Oh, and the title is awesome. (I may have had something to do with it.)

  2. All wonderful points here.

    As a totally separate aside, one book publishing marketer I know and respect, Peter McCarthy, values authors’ social media mainly for analytics generated. Demographics, psychographics, behaviors, semantics and a sense of what resonates. Social media, even if not well used by the author, can provide the necessary data for publishers to aim efforts *outside* of social to sell more efficiently – being more smart about spreading those sparks.