Selling Yourself Online

Seems to me to be bleeding obvious that tweeting and facebooking and blogging and whatever other social media is the flavour du jour do not automatically equal vastly increased sales. Of any kind. But I’ll talk about books that being what I am in the business of selling.

So I agree with Nick Earls’ post about how social media works for us author types. Except I don’t have a cat and have never had a cat and will never have a cat.1

Loads of authors are being told that they MUST tweet, blog, facebook, tumblr, whatever. Because if you do not have a social media platform NOT ONE BOOK OF YOURS WILL SELL EVER. And they freak out and do it and notice they have hardly any followers and no one’s clicking on the buy links and it’s not working and clearly their career will be a total failure and AAARRGH.

Here’s everything I know about authors promoting books via social media:2

No one knows how to sell books. Not for sure. Not online and not offline.

Many books have had the full weight of their publisher behind them, big publicity budget, huge tour, saturation marketing online and off—the works—and died on their arse. Or, sold well below expectations.3

It’s really easy to look at, say, Hunger Games and declare, “Of course it did well! Look at the promotional campaign behind it.” Sure. But what about all the other books who got the same or bigger campaigns and haven’t sold anywhere near as well?

Some books catch with the wider reading public. Some don’t. A big campaign behind your book sure does help but guarantees nothing. Unless that good old word of mouth takes off your book is not going to shift many units.4

There are also books that come out of nowhere and do really well. Most recently, Fifty Shade of Grey. When it was a self-published ebook—before mainstream publishers picked it up—there was no huge publicity campaign making it sell like hotcakes. Word of mouth did that magic.

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

Which means that publishers and publicists and authors tend to latch on to whatever they can in the hope that it will generate that blessed word of mouth. Telling authors that they should social media their little hearts out has the virtue of giving them something to do. Something that, occasionally, does work.

I know two authors for whom social media has been crucial to their success as writers: John Scalzi and John Green.

Data point: it helps to make it via social media as an author if your first name is JOHN! *considers changing name to John Larbalestier*

Obviously there are loads of writers who use social media really well who sell loads of books.

However, unlike the two Johns, I see no straight line between their use of social media and their sales. I reckon most of them would sell just as well if they had little online presence. Suzanne Collins certainly does. Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love sold stratospherically without either of them having much of an online presence and much of a publicity campaign on first publication.

And many of these successful authors were selling fabulously before social media existed. Most of their followers follow them because they are fans of their books. Not because they’re good at Twitter.

There are also many authors who are amazing at social media, have loads of followers, but don’t sell stratospherically. For some there seems to be an inverse proportion between their sales and their number of followers.

I follow heaps of writers whose books I’ve never bought. Just because I find their tweets witty and amusing doesn’t mean I’ll find the kinds of book they write appealing.

Plenty of people have told me they’ve bought my books because they’re enjoyed my blog or my tweets. Which is lovely. Yay! But I doubt they’re a big percentage of the people who buy my books. I’ve had many more people tell me they read my blog and/or tweets because they like my books.

I’m not saying having a social media presence doesn’t help. I’m sure it does. I’m just saying that there is not a direct impact on sales of books.

Selling Stratospherically

I think part of the problem is that all too many aspiring authors look at the success of a Suzanne Collins or an E. L. James and think that’s attainable for any author.

Um, no.

The vast majority of published authors do not make a living from writing books. I’m talking about novelists published by mainstream presses.5 Most writers have another job. Or supplement their novel writing income with school visits, teaching, other kinds of writing etc.

Most of us feel like we’re doing well if we can support ourselves from just writing novels. So the idea that if you only devoted more time to online marketing than you do to the actual writing you will become the next E. L. James is nutty.

Becoming an author to make bank is nutty. Social media’s not going to make it happen any more than any other form of marketing will. And the fact that it worked for one in a million6 doesn’t really prove the case.

So why social media?

I am not on Twitter because my publisher told me to be.

Okay, actually, I think I am. I was very resistant to Twitter at first. But a publisher said I should so I did. Even though they also told me I had to myspace7 and I hated it and gave it up pretty quickly. Or, at least, forgot about it. Perhaps that myspace page is still there. Is myspace still around?8

I digress.

I stayed on Twitter because it’s fun. It’s a great way to keep up with sport and politics. Especially women’s sport that mainstream news sources do such a terrible job of covering. I really enjoy tweeting with a wide range of people from all round the world about politics, sport, books, film, TV, publishing, random silly stuff. Worst place to get a mostquito bite? Your eyelids. Clearly.

I have come to love the brevity of Twitter. It certainly is way less tough on my RSI than blogging is.

It’s fun to field questions from fans. It makes my day when someone is excited that I followed them. Hey, I was dead excited when one of my favourite basketball players started following me. I so get it. Though perversely I hate being asked to follow people. I’ll follow you if I want to! Sheesh.

I was offline—not blogging and not tweeting much or anything—for almost a year. I saw no effect on my books sales. I came back to it partly because I had a new book out and felt I should. A lot of the publicity Team Human‘s publishers organised was online.

I found that I’d really missed blogging. Even though hardly anyone comments anymore. *pines for the old days* *is super grateful to those of you who do comment* *realises I don’t comment much on people’s blogs either* *shame spirals*

I digressed again! Sorry.

Has returning to the wonderful online world led to increased sales? I have no idea. Certainly it’s led to some. It’s been a useful way to let people know I have a new book out. Though I suspect my publishers’ efforts in getting advance copies of Team Human to book shops and libraries and other important places all over Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA has been even better at letting people know it exists. Their reach is way bigger than my reach.

Do I think social media is essential?9

If you have a well-known publisher behind you, who can get your book widely distributed and reviewed then, no, I don’t think it’s essential. Do it if you’re good at it and enjoy it. It will lead to some sales.

Don’t do it if it feels like a chore. If you resent it because it takes you away from writing. If you don’t enjoy it people can tell. Especially if your every tweet, blog post, facebook entry is about your book and where to buy it and how good it is and how we should all buy it. Don’t do that.

The audience for my blog before I stopped blogging was much bigger than it is now. You can build up an audience but it will vanish if you don’t keep feeding it. After a month back blogging those numbers are slowly growing again but they’re nowhere near where they used to be.

Those numbers, however, can be misleading. It’s easy to fall into thinking that there’s a correlation between visitors to your blog and sales of your books. Even though I had thousands of people visiting here daily back in 2009 I wasn’t selling thousands of books every day. I was selling around the same number of books per day as I am now with the much diminished blog audience.

Basically all my going away did was reduce the number of people who read my blog. Not the number who read my books.

The big effect of returning to blogging has been reigniting my love affair with blogging. *hugs blog*

In Conclusion

The link between online presence and books sales is a hard to prove. It depends on so much. We are still in the very early days of the online world. We’re all pioneers and early adopters and none of us really know how this is going to transform publishing. It’s like people driving in the 1920s. The new car-centred world hadn’t fully formed yet. Neither has the internet-shaped world of publishing.

Right now the people who are most successful at selling themselves online are the ones who do not seem to be selling themselves online. Neither of the Johns, Scalzi or Green, are standing up shouting BUY MY BOOKS. They’re doing what they do, being themselves, and it works. They’re a natural fit, and they started their mostly inadvertent platform building early on in the truly pioneer days. And it worked.

But there are millions of others who started blogging and youtubing around the same time for whom it has not paid off the way it has for the Johns. Two successes do not a model for success make.

The one true path towards a successful writing career is to write. Write a lot. Write well. Spend at least 80% of that precious writing time on writing, not on marketing. And only do it because you love it. Because you can’t not write.

And try not to freak out too much about social media as book marketing. Try to enjoy it for its, you know, socialness. Follow people outside of your industry, who have nothing to do with selling books or marketing, who aren’t useful to you. Follow fabulous,10 wild,11 interesting people12 and crazy all-caps newspaper feeds. Have fun!

  1. Apparently pets would not be down with the whole going back and forth between Sydney and New York City thing. []
  2. I was very tempted to leave the rest of this post blank. But aren’t you lucky? I’m going to ramble on anecdotally instead. Woo hoo! []
  3. No, I’m not going to name the books. It seems kind of rude. []
  4. “Shift many units.” Tee. I’ve always wanted to say that. I feel like a 1950s A&R man. []
  5. For self-published writers it’s even harder. []
  6. Or is it one in a billion? There are an awful lot of books being published these days. []
  7. Back in the day. []
  8. My experience with myspace is why I’m not on facebook. []
  9. However, for self-publishing I imagine that it is essential. But that’s an area I know very little about. The people I know who self publish, such as Courtney Milan, started out with a mainstream publisher and were well-known before they switched. []
  10. A lawyer from Perth, Australia. She cares passionately about refugees in Australia and cricket and Bollywood. She makes me laugh. No, I’ve never met her. []
  11. She’s an awesomely cranky NYC lawyer who likes to argue about social justice. No, I don’t know her. Discovered her via @sunili. []
  12. He’s tweeting small fates from 1912 culled from NYC newspapers. Some are pure poetry. Though of the limerick variety. []


  1. Aleta on #

    I follow authors on Twitter because just by their nature, I think that they might have interesting things to say and may say them well in 140 characters. I am fickle, though: I’ll unfollow anyone who shamelessly self-promotes. Personally, I choose books by reading reviews or already liking an author’s work – I’ve never bought a book because of a tweet, and I don’t like FB. Although it isn’t always reasonable, I’d rather have an author do a signing or visit, but reading a blog is also satisfying.

  2. Liviania on #

    Recently, people have been telling me to get a Facebook to promote my book blog.

    Um, no.

  3. wandering-dreamer on #

    “I follow heaps of writers whose books I’ve never bought. Just because I find their tweets witty and amusing doesn’t mean I’ll find the kinds of book they write appealing.” Oh good, I always wondered if I was the only person who did this, some people are just very witty yet the taglines for their books never grab me and I used to feel really guilty about that. ^^

  4. Justine on #

    Aleta: There are, indeed, many writers who are AWESOME at Twitter. Maureen Johnson, for instance. Then there are the Brett Easton Ellises of this world. Worst tweeter EVER.

    But there are clear warning signs: Do they respond to no one? Do they follow no one? Then clearly they have no interest in the medium as anything but a means to promote themselves or to declaim at the world. No, thank you!

    Liviania: I am not on facebook either. It is the devil. Mind you, I once said that about Twitter . . .

    wandering-dreamer: They’re different things. I’d be the first to admit there’s not much similarity between my blogging and tweeting and my books. Probably HTDYF and TH are closest but not really.

    Many of my followers don’t like the genre I write but do like what I say on my blog and Twitter. No worries. I feel the same about many writers I follow. They’re different genres.

  5. Ted on #

    This is a more general issue than just for authors. Businesses of all kinds are being told that they have to have a social media presence. Because of this, for some businesses, getting Twitter followers / Facebook likes seems to have become a goal in itself. The fact that there are services that will sell you 500 Twitter followers testifies to this. Apparently, some businesses think that just having a certain number of followers, without regard to the quality or where they came from, will magically increase their business.

  6. Andrea on #

    Social media is about as essential for self-publishers as it is for trade published authors. ie. it’s possible that it can help, but it’s also possible to sell bunches without being particularly active.

  7. Phoebe North on #

    Justine, I just want to let you know that I’ve read and loved every single one of your recent blog posts. Your blog was one of the first ones I started reading when I began to research the YA genre several years ago–your thoughtful, honest style was instructive when I was just figuring out the social media stuff.

    Just wanted to let you know that there’s at least one old reader who has been reading and ecstatically happy to see your return to the blog-o-sphere! (But my reaction to pretty much each post has been “woo! awesome!” so I wondered if it was truly worth sharing. Seems it might have been.)

  8. Justine on #

    Ted: I can’t tell you how appalled I am by the selling of twitter followers. Seriously? Ugh.

    Andrea: Like I said, it’s an area in which I have zero expertise.

    Phoebe North: Awww. Thank you.

    I was mocking myself above. Though I do miss how many regular commenters there used to be. It is amazing how few people comment now as opposed to three years ago. What’s happened in the meantime has been Twitter’s leaps in popularity.

    So there’s been discussion of each of these posts there. Which is lovely but what drives me crazy as an historian (or ex-historian) is how hard it is to track conversations on Twitter. I keep wishing people would say the same things here. Or on any blog really. As long as there’s a permanent record.

    I worry that lots of cool, fabulous stuff is being lost.

    But I never worry about that when I’m at a party or whatever and lots of people are saying cool, insightful things. Hmmm . . .

  9. Phoebe North on #

    I’ve noticed that, too, Justine–not just a lot of the conversations going on on twitter, but so many of them happening on various social media networks too (facebook, google+). It definitely leads to a sort of fractured feeling that can make it hard to have anything resembling a real conversation. Frustrating.

  10. lalibrarylady86 on #

    Justine, I’m glad you are blogging again& enjoying it, mostly because I think that means you are feeling better. I have to say I was against Twitter at first (and many other social media sites), but now I am a Twitter-aholic. There is not enough time in the day to read EVERYTHING (sadly) but Twitter and short URLs allpw me to scan topics as I do in newspapers & decide to follow up more in depth if I want to with one click. And you are correct that following an author on Twitter does not lead directly to sales as I own all of John Green’s books, have watched all of Vlogbrothers, and own one of Hank Green’s albums, I follow John Scalzi because he is just marvelous. Although I do wonder if I am a red or brown shirt fan and when I will ever fit time in to read his books!

  11. Aleta on #

    Justine-Thanks for the acknowledgement. Some authors can be not so interesting on Twitter, but that’s no different than the some of the rest of the Twitter population. Personally, I don’t perceive or expect Twitter to be a “conversation”; it is more an intellectual feed than anything else. I have always joked that the only reason I am on it is for the apocalypse updates. I think for someone like an author, social media makes him or her more human and real to the reading audience, and that would be what I think the value is.

  12. Justine on #

    Phoebe North: Frustrating but kind of how the internet works. *shakes fist at internet*

    lalibrarylady86: Thanks for the kind wishes. I really appreciate them. But, no, my RSI is no better than it was. I’ve just learned to manage it better and to accept that it’s most likely not going away. That took awhile.

    I really disliked Twitter at first. I think it takes some time to figure out how to use it in a way that works for us, you know?

    Aleta: That’s part of what’s so excellent about Twitter. That it can function pretty much anyway you want it too. Me, I love the conversational aspect.

    But, yes, the immediate warning of Armageddon is pretty cool too.

  13. Bethany on #

    Hi Justine,

    I’m a first time visitor to your blog, but I am a big fan of your Twitter account! I’m actually a second year library student writing my Master’s thesis on authors and their social media presence. I initially started my study believing that most authors maintain a social media presence strictly for promotional reasons, but after two months of collecting Twitter data, I am realizing that isn’t the case at all–and you just helped solidify that fact for me. Thanks! 🙂

    I’m just wondering, do you see any educational benefits (as a YA writer) in maintaining a social media presence? Do you have many exchanges with your young adult readers that touch on more complex themes in your books — where you can maybe guide them or give them a little insight?

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