You can sell books using social media.
You also can’t really sell books using social media.
The cat is both dead and alive.
Let me unpack this a little bit.
For quite some time, social media has been promoted by nearly everybody, including publishers, as a Very Good Way to SELL YOUR BOOKS. You have a Certified Platform. It is the place where you express your Authorial Brand. (My platform is cobbled together from the skulls of my enemies, and my brand looks like Calvin peeing on a tiny bigot.) Publishers say: YOU MUST TWEET. YOU MUST FACEYTALK. YOU MUST BLARGH ON THE BLOGS. Not-good publishers take this a step further and basically use an author’s social media presence — meaning, her brand and platform, or her “brandform,” if we’re into making up shitty corporate-speak — to sell the books instead of actually levying their own power as a publisher to do the same. (Note: if this is your publisher’s only marketing plan, please bill them for your time.)
And it has become quite understood across both traditional and indie publishing that This Is Now How You Sell Books. And that’s not entirely inaccurate.
But it is a little bit inaccurate.
You can, indeed, sell books on social media.
You can sell, depending on your outreach, 10s to 100s of copies of your books.
That’s not nothing. Every book sold is a pebble thrown into the water. And each pebble has the potential to make ripples that reach shores you had never previously reached. Word-of-mouth is the truest driver for selling your work, and where once our “circle of trust” in that regard was fairly small (and entirely IRL), it has grown much wider given our online networks. So, selling a book to even a single person has meaning. That person, if they like it, may go on and tell their friends (online and off) about the book. And they may tell their friends, and on and on.
Problem is, this is an effect with diminishing returns. You ping your social network a handful of times and after that, they start to feel besieged by the promotion. Here and there, “Hey, I have a book, and I want to speak earnestly about it?” That can work. But a constant barrage of LOOK BOOK LOOK BOOK HEY HEY HEY I WROTE A BOOK I WROTE A BOOK is you being a dog just wantonly humping legs. Maybe we’re not mad at you about it, but it’s still a little embarrassing for everyone involved. If you’re an author with a book out, it’s expected that you’ll advertise it, talk about it, and keep a little momentum going. But it’s also feared that you’ll become a nuisance with it, performing an action equivalent to hitting people in the throat with the damn thing.
So, to reiterate –
Social media can sell some books.
Publishers, however, don’t want to sell “some” books.
They want to sell all the books.
Selling 10s or 100s of copies is not enough to keep your publisher afloat, and it is not enough to justify your advance or their marketing budget (assuming that budget is more than just a shoebox full of bottlecaps and sadness). It will buy them and you too little whiskey.
No, your publisher wants to sell 1000s of copies.
So, how do you do that?
Mostly? You don’t.
The one aspect in your control here is the writing. You write the best book you can. Always and forever. Is this a guarantor of your success? Ha ha ha, fuck no. But it’s something, and at least you can feel good about the book you wrote. Writing a good book is not a prerequisite toward selling well, but it’s a noble, valuable start. Why, do you want to write a bad book? For shame.
Beyond that? Where do the sales come from?
It’s on your publisher.
The publisher has the means to push that book in ways that are both traditional and innovative — a variety of marketing and advertising efforts across the spectrum. Trade reviews and media attention and placement on tables and all that jazz is by and large up to your publisher and how much cachet and cash they have. Again, these things are not a guarantee for success, but remember how I said each book sold is a pebble thrown? Right, your publisher can throw a catapult full of pebbles. They have gatling guns capable of firing hundreds of pebbles a minute. Meanwhile, you just have your two hands. Your two ink-stained, Dorito-dusted hands.
Now, again, maybe you with your two hands can do better than your publisher.
But it’s less likely. Why is that?
Because success in writing and publisher is very frequently a game of luck.
But it’s not purely random luck — this isn’t fucking Chutes and Ladders, man (by the way, FUCKING CHUTES is probably a porn site so I’m sure I’m going to get some great search term hits from that). This is a luck you can tweak. Luck you can add to. Every pebble thrown is (in RPG terms) a modifier to your Luck score. So when the time comes to roll your Luck, well, you get a shot at a more favorable outcome because of all your modifiers.
(For self-publishers, the same thing applies but with the simple reminder that you are more than an author — you are an author-publisher. That’s why I prefer that term, because now you’re doing double-duty. You still can’t count on PURE SOCIAL MEDIA to sell your book. You gotta get savvy. Creative. And if you can’t do that directly…? Then you hire people who can.)
So, social media sells books.
Just not as many as you want.
And more importantly, not as many as publishers might hope.
Now you’re asking:
What, then, is the missed opportunity? The one mentioned in the post’s title?
Social media is not great for authors selling books.
But it is an excellent way to make and cultivate professional connections — and, dare I say it, friendships. Listen, social media is a fucking gonzo great place to hang out with other writers, editors, artists. It’s an awesome place to meet agents, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, readers. It is a fundamental vortex of book-love. You can meet people telling stories across a wide variety of media: books, comics, movies, games. Just talking to folks — and being the best version of yourself when you do it — is another way to throw pebbles. But what you build here aren’t front-end sales. It’s a kind of personal infrastructure. People are awesome. And people make up the industry in which we hope to work. I don’t mean you should get on social media just as some crass promotional exercise — a way to “get work.” But it is a damn good way to meet like-minded folks and learn things from one another. That has huge professional and personal value.
Worry less about selling books online.
Worry more about being a COOL HUMAN meeting other COOL HUMANS.
That last one will take you far.