Sunday, 31 March 2013

Social media for the indie author

Twitter for the indie author

"The purpose of social media is not to sell to your followers;
it is to look after your fans and add some value to their lives."

Update, August 2014: a new, expanded version of this article has been published on the Pinnacle Editorial Blog. The old version has been left here for posterity.

In this article I would like to share what I have learned about social media and how authors can best put it to use. If you've just published your first book you will hear a lot of conflicting opinions about this; some will tell you that you HAVE to be on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Goodreads, Google+, MySpace etc. otherwise you WILL NEVER SELL A SINGLE BOOK. This is absurdly untrue, and comes from the false (but common) idea that your sole purpose on social media is to sell books.

Books have sold, and sold well, without any social media presence from the author whatsoever. This article starts from the assumption that you have decided to explore social media in the hope it will be of some benefit. I think it can have a very positive impact on a writer's career if used constructively.

How not to use social media

If you set up a Facebook and Twitter account simply to sell, people will not follow you or listen to what you say. The general public is numbed to advertising because we are bombarded with it constantly. Here is an example of a blatant promotional tweet:
JUST OUT new  on  "One of the most   books in recent years" 5* "
Perhaps nobody really uses #hashtags to such a #ridiculous #extent, but the point still stands. If you search for #Kindle on Twitter you will drown in an ocean of promo tweets, a hundred thousand voices all frantically bleating for attention, trying to convince the reader that their book (ON #FREE #PROMOTION FOR #TODAY ONLY!!) is the one they should download and read.

On the other hand, nobody will buy your book if they don't know it exists. It's a chicken-or-egg dilemma that is very difficult to solve.

Adding value

Instead of being a promo-tweeting machine, constantly talking about yourself and your books in the hope that somebody listens, consider your readers. Turn the situation on its head. Instead of using social media to sell your book, use it to gather and nurture a community of people.

How can you do this? I believe that the key to social media success is to add some value to the lives of your followers. You have a blog, right? Instead of only using it to post announcements about your books and showcase your best reviews, you should start thinking about your blog as a destination for your readers. Figure out who your readers are, first of all, and then write articles of use and interest for them.

For example, the majority of my readers are outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy walking and mountaineering. Consequently the majority (~70%) of my blog posts are on these topics. I write trip reports, opinion pieces, mountain portraits, gear reviews. I also write book reviews because, of course, my readers also like books (but I only review books that fall loosely into my genre).

If you want to increase your influence and hence your exposure, you need to encourage retweets, comments, likes etc--and that means saying something of value.

Some 'added value' blog posts which have proven very popular with my readers:


Have an overall strategy

However deep you decide to go into social media, plan it out beforehand and have an overall strategy. What do you hope to gain? Hopefully you want to connect with your readers and increase your influence and exposure, but how will you do this?

To illustrate, I will outline my strategy.
  1. This website sits at the centre of it all. It has static pages for my books and a blog which is updated several times a week.
  2. New blog posts are announced on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ automatically. I sometimes post my articles on the UKClimbing forum if relevant.
  3. My Twitter account is updated most often and is my primary social media outlet. I use it for connecting with readers, talking to people, sharing links of interest, and generally being as active and helpful as I can. It has seen steady growth over the last few months and currently has 572 followers. Note that virtually none of my tweets are even vaguely self-promotional, and yet I have seen direct evidence of dozens of sales thanks to my activity on Twitter.
  4. My Facebook author page is rather more modest (138 followers). It is updated far less frequently and is mostly used for important announcements and blog post notifications.
  5. Goodreads is a vital way of connecting authors with readers, but the various forums and groups are impenetrably complicated and I haven't had time to fully explore it yet. Nevertheless, I maintain an author profile and my books are kept up to date. I recently ran a Goodreads giveaway which was moderately successful.
  6. Google+ is more modest still and is generally neglected as I find I get more success elsewhere. It's only used for posting new blog articles.
  7. My Pinterest account is a different beast altogether and is used for collecting a scrapbook of interesting pictures related to certain topics (mostly mountaineering and 19th century history). It has 78 followers and is definitely 'small beer' compared to the others, but is nevertheless useful as it provides a very visual insight into my work.

The general idea is to build up a web of influence and presence, all of which points back to your website and (ultimately) your book--but in an oblique way. There is no right or wrong approach, in my opinion: every author has a slightly different target audience which will respond to a different strategy. It is of key importance to get to know your readers and tailor your social media strategy to suit them.

Don't try to do everything

However, it's just as important to realise that you can't be everywhere and do everything, otherwise you will never find time to write! If you don't like a particular social network, don't use it; I doubt your sales will be crippled if you don't happen to have a Facebook account, for example.

Put the work in and don't give up

Social media takes a long time to nurture and grow. It certainly won't yield results overnight, and generally speaking an author will have to apply effort for a sustained period of time before he or she starts to reap the benefits of increased influence, exposure, and ultimately sales. Whatever strategy you decide to use, post often but not too often, look after your fans, don't relentlessly self-promote, and concentrate on producing quality content that will be of use and interest to your readers.

Authors: what strategy do you employ? Do you think social media increases sales?
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