12 Case Studies of Bestselling Authors’ Social Media

How much time should writers spend – well – writing? Or, put another way, how much time should writers spend on other tasks, like social media? In my old position as an academic, I spent a lot of time analyzing online engagement. So, I thought I’d turn my hand to analyzing 12 bestselling authors’ uses of social media.

The case studies

At the end of March this year, the top five best sellers on Amazon were:

  • The Other Woman, by Daniel Silva
  • Thick, by Alexa Riley
  • A Curve in the Road, by Julianne Maclean
  • Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owen
  • Secrets Never Die by Melinda Leigh

The NYT’s top five (combined print & ebook) were:

  • Where the Crawdads Sing (see above)
  • Wolf Pack, by C.J. Box
  • The First Lady, by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois
  • The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn
  • Toxic Game, by Christine Feehan

If we look at the print (hardcover) list only, Greg Iles’ Cemetery Road, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six, and Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient are also in the top five.

So how do these 12 authors’ online platforms stack up?

Best selling authors are rarely first-timers

The average author of this dozen has written 30 books. But this is massively skewed by the two romance/erotica authors, Alexa Riley and Christine Feehan. They’ve each written over 100 books (and Alexa Riley is actually two people). Other than those authors, only Julianne Maclean (another romance writer) has written more than 30 books. Melinda Leigh (another genre author – but thrillers this time) appears to have written 30 titles exactly. Fellow thriller writers Daniel Silva and CJ Box come close at 22 and 24 books respectively.

If we remove the authors who’ve written over a hundred books each, the average best selling author on this list has written 15 books. Only two writers on this list are first-time authors – AJ Finn and Alex Michaelides.

Engaging on Goodreads doesn’t make much difference

The average author of this dozen has close to 5,000 Goodreads followers. But again this is skewed by the romance authors Alexa Riley and Christine Feehan, with 9,000 and 19,000 followers respectively. Removing them, the average halves. This works out to about 565 fans on Goodreads per book.

Three-quarters of the dozen authors are ‘Goodreads authors’, who have an average of over 5,000 followers each. This is substantially higher than the approximately 3,000 followers the non-‘Goodreads authors’ have. However, it is skewed once again by Christine Feehan’s particularly large follower list. Removing her figure, and that of Brendan Dubois (whose catapulting to the best seller list appears to be a result of working with James Patterson) the figures are very similar (an average of 3333 vs. 3857 for non-Goodreads and Goodreads authors respectively). This suggests that engaging on Goodreads does little to alter an author’s follower count.

You don’t need to be hugely popular on Goodreads to win the choice awards

Looking at the winners of the Goodreads awards in 2018, we find some interesting statistics. The winner was Jojo Moyne’s Still Me. She has 38k followers – considerably higher than any of the authors in this dozen. But the next runner up was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, with 4k followers. This is somewhat lower than the average of around 5k the dozen bestsellers here have. Importantly, this book was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

Next was Fredrick Backman’s Us Against You (with 19k followers), which is part of a series. Then Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers (with 35k followers). Finally, there was Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (with just 3k followers – lower than even the adjusted average here.) Only first-timers AJ Finn and Alex Michaelides (along with Brendan Dubois who shot to fame thanks to Patterson) had such low Goodreads figures in the sample. This is perhaps fitting, since An Absolutely Remarkable Thing was Hank Green’s debut novel also. Green was, however, a major YouTube star before becoming an author.

No one will look at your author website until you’ve hit the big time

Ten out of the twelve authors had author websites. Notably, the only two without websites I could find were both the first-time authors. This suggests that having a website is unnecessary to become a best selling author. In fact, it likely follows success rather than being a prerequisite.

Facebook and Twitter are the most commonly used social media

Ten of the twelve authors examined use Facebook, with the exceptions of Brendan Dubois (who writes with Patterson) and first-timer Alex Michaelides. The average number of Facebook fans per user is 36k. The prolific Christine Feehan is again an outlier with 150k. (Removing her, the average is around 23k).

These authors have an average of close to 1.5k Facebook fans per book. Exactly the number of fans per book Christine Feehan has. The only outliers are Alexa Riley, who have a much lower than expected 281 fans per book. (Despite publishing the most books on this list, they have a below-average number of Facebook fans, at 31k). Greg Iles appears to have been very successful on Facebook and has more than double the average.

Twitter is also used by ten of the twelve authors. Delia Owen (who has written just one book alone, and two with her husband) and Brendan Dubois (who writes with Patterson) are the exceptions. The average number of followers among users is over 10k.

Twitter is for serious and scary, not romance and erotica

Interestingly, the two most prolific authors on the list have only average or below average numbers of followers on Twitter. Alexa Riley have 9k, and Christine Feehan 10k. This equates to 81 and 100 Twitter fans per book of theirs respectively. Quite low compared to the average of more than 1k followers per book across authors. Fellow romance author Julianne Maclean also has a low number of Twitter fans per book. (Even though her total number of followers is double the average). This suggests Twitter is not the best platform for romance authors.

The most successful authors on this platform are Daniel Silva (with 1.5x the average number of followers, and 0.7x the followers per book), Melinda Leigh (with 2x the average number of followers and 0.7x the followers per book), and Taylor Jenkins Reid (with 0.9x the average number of followers and 2x the followers per book). This suggests thrillers and ‘serious’ novels are more suited to promotion via Twitter than romance.

You don’t have to be always all a-twitter

The average author of this group tweets just over twice a day (not counting first-timer AJ Finn whose Twitter feed is currently on hold). Interestingly, frequency of engagement appears largely unrelated to success on Twitter. Despite tweeting twice a day, Christine Feehan has below-average followers on Twitter. And Alexa Riley, the other author with surprisingly low Twitter followers, tweets twice the average, at four times a day.

Again, this appears related to the audiences they are targeting rather than anything these authors are doing ‘wrong’. Melinda Leigh (one of the most successful authors on Twitter) also posts four times a day, and Julianne Maclean (another romance author and twice-a-day tweeter) also has a lower than expected follower count. Daniel Silva, one of the most successful tweeters, posts half as much as average, just once a day. Meanwhile, the least engaged author, thriller writer Greg Iles, has more than four times the number of Twitter fans per book romance author Alexa Riley has. Genre appears supremely important.

More engagement does not equal more followers

On average, each tweet earns an author three followers on Twitter. Greg Iles is far above this figure, with his average tweet earning him 11 followers. CJ box, on the other hand, has posted twice as many tweets as he has followers. His above-average frequency of engagement on Twitter (3x a day) does not appear to have translated into above-average follows.

Greg Iles may post the least often of all the authors (just once a week), but he has more followers than CJ Box (3x a day), or first timers AJ Finn and Alex Michaelides (1x a day). Removing Greg Iles’ significantly high 11 fans per tweet, the average drops to 2.

Daniel Silva’s successful Twitter engagement is also reinforced by his higher-than-average number of followers per tweet (4) matched only by first-timer Alex Michaelides. Both post just once a day.

Instagram success is a result, not a cause, of authors’ fame

Instagram was used by eight of the twelve authors, but none are frequent users. The average number of followers per user is just over 10k. This figure is largely skewed by romance writers Alexa Riley, whose ‘brand’ relies on visuals (they also have a Tumblr account, censored for sensitive material). Fellow romance author Christine Feehan’s Instagram account has attracted the next highest number of fans.

Per book, the authors examined have an average of nearly 2k followers on Instagram. First-timer AJ Finn skews this figure much higher than it would otherwise be, at 7k (though this is not a particularly remarkable figure for an Instagram user).

Instagram is for romance and lifestyle, not dark and scary

Removing the two first-timer figures, the average is closer to 1k. Even so, Daniel Silva, Alexa Riley, Melinda Leigh and Christine Feehan are well below this average, with figures in the low hundreds. In the cases of romance writers Alexa Riley and Christine Feehan, this is likely because they simply have so many books (over 100 each). In the cases of Daniel Silva and Melinda Leigh, who have far fewer books (less than a third of either of the romance writers) it may be a result of the suitability of the medium to their genre. Dark gloomy images do less well on Instagram, and these two writers are both authors of thrillers.

For every photo they post, authors have 34 followers. Rather than suggesting a higher return-on-engagement than the other social media surveyed, it is likely their fame precedes their Instagram engagement. That is, that authors have a lot of followers on Instagram because their books are popular. (Rather than their books being popular because they have a lot of followers on Instagram).

Delia Owen is the epitome of this, with 100 followers per photo. As a wildlife researcher, it can be argued that her work lends itself to the visual medium more easily than most. But she seems to have only had an account following the publication of her book. It is also apparent that she’s had a huge boost from Reese Witherspoon’s book club, which would be aligned with this medium.

Pinterest is a waste of time for most fiction authors

Two authors used Pinterest (Melinda Lee and Taylor Jenkins Reid), a thriller and serious novel writer respectively. Neither has attracted more than 500 followers on this platform.

YouTube is uncharted territory

Only one author, romance writer Julianne Maclean, had a link to YouTube, but it was broken and her channel could not be found.

Only one author used Tumblr, a writer of erotica who relies heavily on visuals to sell her books.

To summarise:

  • Engaging with fans on Goodreads doesn’t seem to significantly boost follower numbers on the platform. (Nine of the top 10 choice award winners were Goodreads authors in 2018 though, with the exception of Japanese author Haruki Murakami)
  • Not having an author website does not appear to be a barrier to success. Author websites appear to be a mark of having made it, rather than something to need in order to make it as an author. Having an ugly, outdated or broken website doesn’t seem to rule you out either.
  • Facebook and Twitter are the most used platforms by bestselling authors, although not all authors use them. Genre authors are more popular on Facebook than more ‘serious’ literature. On the other hand, Twitter seems especially good for promoting serious literature and thrillers, and not very good for romance or erotica.
  • Frequent engagement on Twitter appears not to be necessary. In fact, contrary to much of the advice that is out there, the least engaged authors were the most successful by a number of measures.
  • Instagram is the next most frequently used platform, but seems less useful for thriller writers. Frequency of engagement appears to have almost nothing to do with how many fans writers amass on Instagram. Their fame appears to be independent of Instagram use, and their accounts on the platform largely appear to have followed rather than preceded their rise to fame.
  • YouTube may offer some promise for authors, but has been underutilised to date.
  • More than an author’s social media use, getting a book into the hands of social influencers, especially those who run book clubs, seems crucial.

Have we got it back-to-front?

All in all, while all twelve of these authors engage with social media to some extent, it’s very difficult to say whether any of their efforts have been of much use when it comes to making more people aware of their work. Rather, it appears that authors are popular on social media largely as a function of their body of work, and their time may be better invested in writing more books.

Research on publishing at Simon Fraser University seems to confirm that successful authors don’t always have a big digital footprint. Take Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on The Train. Despite essentially eschewing social media, the trade paper edition of her book sold almost a million copies (according to Nielsen Bookscan 2017).

Publishing@SFU says Hawkins was active on only one of the top five social networks (Instagram). She shunned both YouTube and Pinterest, infrequently updated her Facebook page, and had a Twitter following of just eight people. She did, however, have a Goodreads following of over 15,000, and won the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Personally, I cannot think of a single occasion on which I’ve bought a book because I saw it advertised by a publisher or an author on social media. And I’ve certainly never bought a book I saw on Facebook, as, other than parking my pen name there, I don’t use that platform for a variety of reasons.

So how do readers find books then?

If authors and publishers’ social media promotion isn’t the answer, how are readers finding out about books?

Author Gigi Griffis surveyed 355 readers of various genres, and found 82% said they bought a book by an author they already knew they loved (which suggests we’d be better off spending our time writing more books than liking, tweeting, and posting).

A whopping 77% said a friend had pointed them towards at least one of the books they’d read in the last year. Sales and freebies, exceptional cover art, and recommendations from established authors, were also common reasons, with between 40-50% of respondents giving these answers.

And you know what reasons turned up at the bottom of the pile? Facebook (35%), Twitter (28%), Instagram (12%) and librarian recommendations (11%).

That’s right, Instagram is about as effective as librarians in getting people to buy books. We hear a lot about using social media to promote our books, but hardly anything about fostering libraries.

But which of these was the most common reason readers bought a book?

An author the reader loves writing something new (23.3%), closely followed by recommendation from a friend (22.73%).

In other words, we’re much better off getting readers to love (and want to pass on) our books than we are focusing on social media strategies.

Prominent placement in a store or online, and the book being on sale or free both came in at around 6.5%.

I’m sure you’ve noticed what isn’t in that top four:
social media.

An infographic from Penguin Random House says the most common ways readers learn about books are recommendations from a friend/relative, in store displays (in the case of print books) or reading an excerpt/retailer recommendation (online), bestseller lists, and the author’s website/mailing list.

Once again, social media is not mentioned.

According to an infographic from Author Marketing Club, Facebook and retail sites are essentially tied for readers’ primary sources of book information. And Facebook and authors’ sites were also tied for where readers get their information about their favourite authors, at 62% and 63%. When you include authors’ newsletters (at 36%), a favourite author’s individual online footprint appears far more important than their social media presence – once they’ve been discovered and become someone’s favourite, of course. Goodreads comes next (27%), followed distantly by Twitter and retail sites.

Penguin Random House’s most recent list of trends in publishing only mentions social media obliquely- in the form of book clubs and social influencers. Not the author’s or publisher’s social media presence. What’s important is the readers.

Build it and they will come…

Social media, at least in its early (often pre-monetized) days appeared to be a wonderful equalizer. Finally, smaller publishers and independent authors could compete with the ‘big boys’. Or so it seemed.

It become increasingly expensive for authors to actually be heard (since you need sponsored posts). Furthermore, most of us readers don’t want to have ‘BUY MY BOOK’ shouted at us.

I could be wrong, but my overall impression was that the 12 authors analyzed here developed a fan base on social media as a result of their writing success. That is, they don’t appear to have devoted all of their efforts to building a ‘platform’ first, like some gurus – and some publishers – would like to believe.

What about indies?

Independent authors and publishers in particular may be disappointed by these findings. It’s all very well to say that success on social media appears to be a result of bestsellerdom rather than a cause of it when it comes to traditionally published authors. After all, they (supposedly) have huge marketing budgets and teams of experts behind them. But what about indies?

Certainly, the majority of best sellers on this list were published by the ‘Big Five’ or their imprints – Hachette (4), Harper Collins (3), and Simon & Schuster / Macmillan (1 each). (Interestingly, Penguin Random House, by far the largest publisher of work in the English language, had no books in any of the top five lists analysed at time of data collection.) Of the three remaining authors, one was published by romance specialist Harlequin, and the other two by divisions of Amazon publishing.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at how indies without the ‘big budgets’ of the ‘Big Five’, without the loyal fan base of Harlequin, and without Amazon prioritization fare. Are successful indie authors obliged to spend half their day tweeting, posting, snapping and chatting in order to compete? Stay tuned!

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