The $64,000 question when it comes to social media is: Does it sell books? Many authors have written blog posts attempting to answer this question, and the consensus seems to be that yes, done right, social media does sell books, but in modest quantities. In other words, a rock star social media platform does not (necessarily) a bestseller make.
Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar novels, has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and 6000 Facebook followers and is the Social Media Manager of CNET, which qualifies him as a social media expert in my eyes. In May of this year, he wrote a blog post titled “Social Media is an Imperfect Tool. Use it Anyway”, in which he wrote, “Social media hasn't made my novel Jacob Wonderbar a bestseller, but I do know I've sold way more books than I would have without it. How do I know? I recognize the names of a lot of the people who are reviewing my books on Amazon and Goodreads.”
Romance author Roni Loren has had a similar experience. “I've had many, many people tell me I was the first erotic romance author they’d ever tried, and they tried it because they “knew” me through social media. I do think that is part of the reason my debut book did well—because I built up a presence online and had a community that wanted to be supportive.” I’m one of those people who bought Roni’s book because I “knew” her and wanted to support her, despite never having met her and never having read a romance novel before.
And yet Ewan Morrison, writing for the UK Guardian, is a little more than skeptical about the magic powers of social media. He’s downright cynical:
“I'm convinced that epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months,” Morrison writes. “The reason is this: epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn't, and we're just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.”
Morrison’s findings are based on both anecdotal evidence and hard research. He has an author friend who sold just three books after placing a Facebook ad. He has another author friend who didn’t sell a single e-book on Amazon after giving away 700 copies for free. He cites a Reuters study that shows that Facebook ads are ineffective at selling products. (But we all know that Facebook ads don’t sell products. Right?)
But social media is not about Facebook ads; it’s about networking, about making friends with people you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to meet—because they live in Ohio or Texas or Washington or just across town but your schedules make it difficult to meet. Like author Anne Hill wrote in The Huffington Post last month, “Social media is not a tent revival, it is a set of tools that are best used as part of an overarching, long-term strategy to build visibility and grow your audience.”
Social media is one of many tools in an author’s toolbox. Others include networking in person, hiring a publicist, building a mailing list, putting together a knock-your-socks-off press kit, and—above all—writing a great book.
As Hill puts it: “Nobody worth listening to will ever tell you that social media is the only way to sell books. I spend as much time networking in person as I do online, and the cumulative effect on book sales is great.”
And let’s not forget that there is more to social media than selling books. The relationships you foster online may very well have long-term, cumulative effects on your life and career that aren’t immediately apparent or quantifiable.
Like Bransford writes: “You are making friends, you are learning about what else is out there, you are exchanging knowledge, you are discovering, you are communicating, and opportunities will come your way as a result.”
And those opportunities may surprise you.