Indie Authors and Social Media: 12 Case Studies

In my last post, I examined the social media profiles of 12 bestselling authors. As the results showed, a lack of a huge social media platform doesn’t appear to be a barrier to making it onto the bestseller list. At least for traditionally published authors. But is the same true of indie authors, who often lack the marketing resources of the ‘Big Five’? (Or even their smaller counterparts?) Could social media be indispensable for indies?

The indie case study

To answer this question, I picked another dozen authors. This time, from Smashwords’ top 20 at the end of July this year. Three of the top 20 are non-fiction titles. The remaining 17 (fiction) bestsellers were written by 12 authors:

  • Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Legend (#1))
  • Natasha Preston (Broken Silence (#2), Players, Bumps and Cocktail Sausages (#15)
  • Jamie McGuire (The Edge of Us (#3))
  • Emma Heart (The Accidental Girlfriend (#4))
  • Leeanna Morgan (Once in a Lifetime (#5), The Sweetest Thing (#6), A Christmas Wish (#16))
  • Abbi Gilnes (Best I’ve Ever Had (#7))
  • Devney Perry (Letters to Molly (#8))
  • Sam Crescent (Sold to the MC Men (#9), Blackmailed by the Mafia Boss (#18))
  • Evangeline Anderson (Deceived: Brides of the Kindred 24 (#12))
  • Gemma Halliday (Chocolate Covered Death (#13))
  • Kirsten Ashley (The Slow Burn (#14))
  • Amelia Hutchins (Sleeping with Monsters (#19), Becoming his Monster (#20))

So what do these authors’ online platforms have to teach us?

Best selling indie authors are rarely first-timers…

Only two of the bestselling authors I examined in my previous post were first-timers. The average author in that pool of a dozen traditional and indie authors had written 30 books.

Of the dozen bestselling indie authors I examined on Smashwords, however, none were first-time authors. The average author in this group had written over 45 books!

Once again this figure is highly skewed by one author on the list in particular. Sam Crescent has written well over 200 books (all short erotica novellas). Removing Crescent’s unusually high figure, it drops down to 30 once more.

Not a single author of the top 12 at the time I checked was a first-time author. Only two authors (Sullivan and Perry) were on their second book, the rest had well over 10 under their belts.

…nor are their series

Those two authors on their second books were also the only authors who had only written one series. The average bestselling indie authors at the time I checked had written over five series. Even if we remove Crescent (who has written a mammoth 28 series), the figure still sits at almost 4.

Followers on Smashwords don’t mean much

Just as an author’s engagement on Goodreads appears to have little impact, indie authors’ follower count appear to have very little (if any) relation to their success. The #1 author at the time of survey had been marked as a ‘favourite author’ by only six readers. Meanwhile, the author with the most Smashwords followers (803) came in at number #14. (The average was 170 followers.)

It is noteworthy that the author with the most followers on Smashwords was highly prolific, having written over 50 books. Meanwhile, the author with the least had written only two. It’s likely that authors accumulate followers on Smashwords as they produce more books and are discovered by more readers. The only other author who had significantly more followers on Smashwords than average (381) was also a prolific writer. (With over 80 books published to date.)

No one will look at your author website (or mailing list) until you’ve hit the big time

(and maybe not even then)

Only 10/12 of the best-selling authors in my last post had author websites I could find. In this sample, only 9/12 of the indie authors examined listed working websites in their Smashwords profiles. Two listed URLs that appear to be no longer owned by them. One listed no website at all.

At least two of the working websites appeared to be created from templates rather than professional designs. The #1 book’s website is a blogspot site, suggesting that while a custom URL may give a more ‘professional’ look, it is not a prerequisite for success. (Only seven out of the twelve authors had websites which worked, were appeared professionally designed, had custom URLs, and encouraged readers to sign up to a mailing list in an obvious fashion, despite this being recommended as ‘crucial’ by almost every book marketing guru).

Facebook and Twitter are the most commonly used social media

Like the traditionally published authors in my previous post, bestselling indie authors use Facebook and Twitter the most. All twelve authors listed links to Facebook. However, only ten were found to be active (the other two authors’ pages appear to have been closed).

Links to Twitter were listed by ten of the twelve authors. Yet again, two were found to be broken, leaving 8/12 authors active on Twitter.

Indie authors are more popular on social media (or, they have to work harder)

These authors have an average of close to 2.5k Facebook fans per book. This is considerably more than the 1.5k average of the authors examined in my previous post.

Likewise, the indie-only group appeared to be have more followers on Twitter. The indies had an average of over 30k (compared to the over 10k of the first set of authors). It is notable, however, that one author’s particularly huge Twitter following (of over 100k) skews this figure considerably. Removing her follower count from the equation, the average Twitter using indie still had over 20k followers. That is, double that of the first set of authors.

Only one author provided a link to Instagram. Notably, this was provided in her bio section. (Smashwords might not have a specific field for authors to add their Instagram handles.) At least one other author uses Instagram, as it was clearly linked to on the website I visited. (But there may be others.)

Genre matters

When examining the twelve best selling authors in my previous post, interesting patterns emerged regarding genre. Twitter was most used for scary and serious books, and less often for romance and erotica.

The current Smashwords dozen, however, is dominated by romance/erotica, making it difficult to draw any conclusions about genre. Only two books were not in this category: #1 (Fantasy) and #10 (Mystery). Still, once more suggesting Twitter is not a vital channel for romance authors, all of the all authors whose profiles did not list Twitter or whose Twitter links were broken were romance authors. (That is, only half of the romance authors in this samples had working Twitter profiles. Meanwhile, both of the non-romance authors did).

This is not to say that Twitter can’t be a useful platform for romance authors. The author with the largest Twitter following in this sample was an author of romance. It’s perhaps noteworthy, however, that her Facebook page appeared broken. Readers may have had few other choices to communicate with this author. (No other social media were listed on her profile.)

Frequency matters, too

The average author in this sample tweets just under five times a day. (This compares to just over twice from the previous group). Again, frequency of engagement appears largely unrelated to success on Twitter. The most prolific tweeter of this sample tweets a mammoth 15 times a day on average. That author has a large following (78k). Yet another, whose engagement is slightly below average, has even more followers. This is despite both authors having been on the platform since 2009. It is true, however, that the two users who tweeted on average less than once a day had two of the lowest follower counts. (With the exception of a user who posts just over once a day, and has only been on the platform a couple of years).

It takes time and effort to build a following

The average author in this sample had been using Twitter for 8.5 years. The three authors who had been using Twitter for less than this amount of time, (7, 6, and 3 years respectively) all had lower than average follower counts. (The relationship was not linear, however. The author who had been using Twitter for three years had more followers than the author who had been using Twitter for twice as long). The more successful author tweeted just over once a day. The less successful one (by this measure) tweeted on average once every three days.

Of those authors who had been using Twitter for more than 8.5 years, all had been on the platform for over a decade. Their average follower count was around 45k. However, there was enormous variation. One author, whom we’ll call Author A, had 103k. Another, whom we’ll call Author B, had 2k.

A vs. B: a case study of Twitter use

How did Author A get a follower count more than 50 times the size of B’s? And in less time (10 years vs. 11)? This is an especially pertinent question when we consider A has also only published 15 books compared to B’s 86. (Meaning A has attracted around 6,800 Twitter followers per book, compared to B’s 23 followers per book).

We’ve already noted that A’s Facebook doesn’t appear to be working. While she may have another page elsewhere, it could be the case that some of her fans who might otherwise have connected with her on Facebook and not bothered with Twitter have had no other choice but to use Twitter. But this still doesn’t account for the vast disparity. Even adding B’s Facebook and Twitter following together doesn’t come close to approximating A’s Twitter following.

Their frequency of engagement gives us another part of the picture. A’s frequency of tweets is around average (about 4.6 times per day compared to 4.9). Meanwhile, B’s Twitter use is one of the least frequent (less than once every two days on average).

Of course, these are only very crude averages. The content as well as the timing of their posts is also essential to consider. Detailed analysis of timing (e.g. time of day, day of week, and consistency of posting) is beyond the scope of this blog. However, a quick overview of these authors’ profiles and 20 most recent posts, provides insight into their differences:

Profiles and photos

A’s profile has a professional yet friendly looking photograph of herself, and a custom banner which advertises her latest book.

B’s shares similar wording in the bio, identifying her as an author and sharing some personal details. But her profile photo and banner are simply pictures of her latest book cover, and not edited to fit their use.

Qualitative analysis of tweets

A’s 20 most recent posts consist of 15 retweets or non-promotional tweets, and just 5 tweets or retweets relating to her own books. She never ‘spams’ readers. That is, only once did I see two tweets in a row relating to her own work (and that was because she was responding to reader questions).

On the other hand, B’s Twitter feed is almost exclusively self-promotion. Scrolling down the page feels like a never-ending series of advertisements. And always for the same book (her most recent release). Of the 20 most recent tweets, 18 were self-promotional, and just two were tweets or retweets relating to anything but. Her ratio isn’t just the opposite of A’s: it’s even more heavily skewed towards self-promotion. B tweets about her own books six times as much as anything else.

One way of judging the ‘success’ of Twitter users is in terms of the number of followers they attract on average each year. With her style of engagement, A has attracted 10.3k followers a year. While no other author approached this figure, it would appear that the most successful Twitter users were those who use a professional-looking photograph and a custom banner, tweet about non-promotional things (including promoting other authors) at least as much as promo tweets, and when they do make promotional tweets, they make sure they aren’t recycling the same old boring cover images over and over again.

Pinterest can work for some genres

Of the two authors in the first sample who used Pinterest, neither had much success with their genres – spooky and serious. On the other hand, Ashley had considerable success with her Pinterest board, attracting 13k fans of Romance. Romance and erotica in particular look well suited to visual platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr.

To summarise:

  • Not having a big following on Smashwords doesn’t appear to be a barrier to success.
  • Neither does not having an (expensive) author website. It is noteworthy, however, that the indie-only sample seemed to have more attractive, better updated websites than many of the traditional authors, as a rule. This suggests indie authors may be more engaged with the whole production of their books, and traditional publishers aren’t always on the ball.
  • Visual platforms are especially suited to romance/erotica writers but they can make great use of Twitter too.
  • Facebook and Twitter are the most used platforms by bestselling authors, although not all authors use them. My previous analysis showed that genre authors are more popular on Facebook than more ‘serious’ literature. Meanwhile, Twitter seemed especially good for promoting serious literature and thrillers, and not very good for romance or erotica. The present sample, however, was dominated by romance/erotica (and genre novels more generally), including some authors who made superb use of Twitter. In fact, the social media account with the most followers in this sample was a Twitter account maintained by a romance author.
  • Constant self-promotion is a big no-no. In fact, contrary to what many authors might think, you’re better off to promote others’ work as well. More than frequency of posts, it is the way in which authors engage with social media that appears to matter. Having a professional-looking photograph of a human being, banners that fit the platform, and not spamming followers with constant, unvaried self-promotion appears crucial if you want to grow your platform. However, even authors who do this can make it into the top twelve if they are writing enough books that connect with readers.

When it comes to marketing, author of Discoverability, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, suggests writers use Scott William Carter’s WIBBOW test: Would I Be Better Off Writing?

#amwriting – really?

Five years ago, Penguin published a book ostensibly by (though ‘collected’ or ‘curated’ would be better descriptions) Corey Arcangel called ‘Working On My Novel’. Each page features a tweet by an author, inexplicably illustrated with sketches of kettles.
‘Now that I have a great domain name, I can start working on my novel.’
‘Having way too much fun on Pinterest… should be working on my novel’

Without context, it’s impossible to say whether the original authors of these tweets intended them to be tongue-in-cheek, or honest status updates. According to the reviews on Amazon, at least one author didn’t know their tweet had been included in the collection until after the book was published. And reviews have been mixed. Some novelists report finding the tweets highly relatable. Others have questioned why a major publisher would produce such a waste of paper, with only one tweet printed on each page.

What do you want to read/write?

Personally, I take the book as a warning. What is the legacy we wish to leave? The things we post online are, for better or worse, almost always both public and permanent. As writers, do we want our names to appear in print in the form of a book like this? Or on the cover of a book we have written? As readers, do we really want to know about whether our favourite author ate banana on toast for breakfast? Or, what their cat is up to today – if it is at the expense of them writing another book?

No one can devote all of their waking hours to writing. And if one did, I imagine their writing would become stale pretty quickly. We need to communicate, and to experience the world in order to be inspired. Social media can help writers, who are often in one of the loneliest of professions, connect with the rest of the world. But like everything in life, it must be a balance.

The balance

If you’re an author deciding between writing and tweeting, or writing and facebooking, please, consider writing. Not just so you can write more – which seems to be a much better predictor of bestsellerdom among both traditionally published and indie authors than social media use. But also so you can write better. Simply writing more will improve your writing more than any course, book, or new method ever will.

Likewise, it would be interesting to see a book like Arcangle’s produced about reading. Has anyone else noticed the wave of #bookstagrammers who post prettily posed pictures of books and describe how much they love the cover… only to admit they still haven’t read it? Of course they haven’t!

We can’t expect fresh content from book bloggers and booktubers and bookstagrammers every day – or several times a day – and for them to still have time to actually read.

I don’t have the time to read/write

One of my favourite quotes on writing is by Stephen King:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Most of us booklovers would love to find more time to read or write. We dream of vast, uninterrupted swathes of time in which to enjoy or create a book. But the reality is, almost all of us, no matter how busy, can carve out some time to read and write.

The average person spends about five hours watching TV or other video content like Netflix or YouTube each day. And, over three hours looking at social media. Some of those hours will overlap. Casually flicking through social media while watching video content on another device. Sometimes you’ll be multitasking – watching TV while making breakfast, checking your feed while you’re in the bathroom.

But even if you spend just four hours a day watching videos or using social media while doing not much else – not solid hours, mind you, but 5 or 10 minutes snatched here or there – that’s 1,825 hours a year. Or 76 full 24-hour days. 2.5 months.

If we think about it in terms of waking hours only, that’s 101 days after you’ve had your 8 hours sleep. Or 3.4 months.

Imagine what you could do if you had 3.4 months to devote to something.

Chances are, you do.

5 thoughts on “Indie Authors and Social Media: 12 Case Studies

    1. Thank you Michelle! You are too kind. I’m flattered to have someone interested in my long and often rambling posts 😉
      I uncovered what I think are some useful (and hopeful) pointers for indie authors in carrying out this research, hopefully they are of use to others on this journey, too.

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