I’ve been doing a bit of research lately on book marketing. This will come as no surprise to my blog readers who have been with me through various book launches. At every such juncture, I dig out my research skills to see if there is any actual hard evidence on what really works to sell books. Lately there’s been an inordinate amount of material on the need for a (huge) social media presence. Indeed, it seems to be the collective wisdom that publishers won’t touch you with a ten-foot pole if you don’t have thousands of Twitter followers, huge numbers of Facebook ‘friends’ or ‘likes,’ and more than a foot in the door of Google+. And it’s not only the traditional route to publication that seems to beg for this: there are more blog posts for indie authors on this topic than perhaps any other single current issue. But now, as it was the last time I tried to find real numbers, there doesn’t seem to be any data. I need data, people!
This search for evidence comes at the juncture of three events in my life: the release of my most recent business-related book Beyond Persuasion by the University of Toronto Press, my search for a new agent, and my foray into fiction. Add that to a media story I read last week (tweeted by a fellow academic) about the usefulness (or more specifically the uselessness) of current Twitter metrics, and I’m seriously doubting the collective wisdom.
Since publishers don’t seem to have the data, let’s start with an industry that has done their homework here. The story tweeted by my colleague focuses on a study of the use of social media by charities. Facebook users give their ‘likes’ — but not their dollars — to charities: study reports gives me some evidence.
A PhD student at the University of British Columbia studied the correlation between someone ‘liking’ a charity and actually being moved to volunteer or donate. What he found might come as something of a surprise to the more naïve among us. The more likely someone is to click like, the less likely that person is to actually give money. The researchers characterize these people as slactvitists – a new breed of individual who likes the feeling of publicly supporting a good cause but then feels no need to actually do something about it. So, if this is the case in the non-profit industry, can we not extrapolate to the book buying industry to theorize that the more likely someone is to follow you on Twitter, the less likely that person is to buy your book? It’s an interesting argument.
Okay, let’s take this argument a step further. Wait a minute, you say, even if that’s true (and maybe the book’s not for them), if they are active tweeps, then at the very least they’re more likely to tweet it. This is actually unlikely if they follow more than a few hundred people (studies do show that if you follow numerous peeps on Twitter, you cannot possibly follow their tweets with any degree of regularity), but for the sake of argument, let’s say they do tweet it, and then someone else re-tweets it and on and on. If our original premise is correct, none of this matters. Your book will be tweeted all over cyberspace and still not a single person might buy your book. Indeed, many indie authors would be millionaires (or at least making a luxurious, regular wage) if this were true. So, we’re back where we started.
It seems to me that the notion of a platform and a social media platform are two different but related concepts that need differentiation.
Just as I’ve always thought, a non-fiction author still needs a platform – and that doesn’t necessarily mean thousands of Twitter followers. That means the credentials and expertise to actually write the book. You can rest assured that neither the UTP editors nor the reviewers cared a bit about my online presence for the new book mentioned above. What they did care about was my background, education and experiential credentials, and my ability to write authentically, clearly and correctly.
Those thousands of Twitter followers might also be impressive, but they are at the lower end of what’s needed at least initially. According to one agent, this is the kind of platform you need for non-fiction and for fiction, well, it is just as I suspected, unnecessary. Interestingly, though, she does indicate that when she looks at a potential fiction client’s tweets, she’s looking for the unique voice. She further considers blogging and what it might mean if you have a blog that is outdated and never used.
Literary agent Carly Watters says, “Twitter is a place for authors–who live a very solitary existence–to engage with other writers going through the same experience, follow industry veterans, follow writers they admire, and learn about how the book business works.”
In her very good post A Definition of Author Platform, blogger Jane Friedman give us this useful advice: “Your platform should be as much of a creative exercise and project as the work you produce. While platform gives you power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by posting “Follow me!” on Twitter or “Like me!” on Facebook a few times a week.”
So what might your social media presence be good for?
- Finding beta readers far afield.
- Doing background research and getting tips.
- Finding support from like-minded, unknown writers.
And as for this last bullet, I’m reminded of the phenomenon of co-dependency – next blog post.
 Elizabeth Harvey in Does a virtual presence ACTUALLY help you get a literary agent?
 Carly Watters, 6 ways social media doesn’t help you get published