Writers, Readers, Publishers and Social Media

Authors are often advised social media is ‘key’ to success. But very rarely is any evidence provided to back up this assertion.

Back in 2014, Book Business Magazine reported that 68% of publishing industry insiders identified social media as the marketing platform with the most future. Just two years later, their 2016 article questioned how this has panned out.

What are the big publishers doing?

Today, even the biggest publishers have relatively small numbers of followers on social media. While the largest of the ‘big five’, Penguin Random House, has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, and close to that number on Facebook, the publisher’s Instagram account has 405 thousand. While this might sound impressive, the average brand page on Instagram has around 1 million followers. For the largest book publisher by far to have fewer than half this amount is somewhat surprising.

As we go down the list of the largest publishers, their follower counts decrease in size, too.

Social media follower count of the ‘Big Five’ publishers by platform (1 August, 2019)

As does the number of platforms they have a presence on. The second-smallest of the big five, Hachette, has only 94k followers on Twitter, and 19k on Facebook. Meanwhile Macmillan doesn’t even seem to promote social media anywhere on its website. Macmillan’s official Twitter account has 17k followers. Searches for its Facebook and Instagram accounts turned up nothing for the US publisher on the first pages of results.

Number of social media platforms promoted on the websites of ‘Big Five’ publishers

Great expectations…

Despite their own lack of impressive online platforms, traditional publishers increasingly expect potential authors to come with a ready-made audience.

In fact, some publishers place too much emphasis on selecting authors based on their social media engagement, Book Business Magazine warns. This is despite the fact that social media followers can be easily bought and faked. Furthermore, even real followers are rarely engaged enough to purchase books. And, social media appears less effective than email.

One mid-size publisher I found had just over 200 Instagram followers. That’s only slightly more than the average user (150), and far short of the average brand page (1 million). The same publisher had 1.6 thousand Twitter followers. That’s better, but it’s still just over double the amount an average user has anyway (700). And on Facebook, 2.6k likes – a far cry from the approximately 5,000 some sources cite most small businesses as attracting.

This same publisher placed a lot of emphasis on their prospective authors’ social media presence in their submissions process. But attracting a vast tribe of followers, ravenous for one’s every word, is challenging for first-time authors, for several reasons.

The ‘Catch-22’ of traditional publishing and new media

Firstly, in my survey of close to 700 traditional publishers, more than a few indicated they are uninterested in publishing works already made public in part or whole. Some even specified they are uninterested in publishing completely original works from authors who have previously self-published.

It may be possible to build a following of fellow writers without having published or self-published anything yet. But it’s almost impossible to build a following of readers when writers are unwilling or unable to give them anything to actually read.

Secondly, the fact that publishers have been unable to attract more than a rather modest number of followers demonstrates the difficulty involved. These companies identified social media as key to their own financial success, and employ marketing and PR professionals. If they have not or cannot attract substantial numbers of followers, especially with the diversity of books they have available to offer, and the financial resources at their disposal, how can a poor, solitary writer be expected to?

Money, money, money

Nowadays, free posts on platforms like Facebook reach only a tiny minority of the intended audience. What originally was seen by perhaps 10% of those people who like your work enough to follow you is now glimpsed by perhaps less than even 1%. You must pay to sponsor a post to ensure more than one in a hundred sees it. And sponsoring posts is beyond the reach of most authors. Especially when they don’t have a product to actually sell yet.

Even hugely successful Facebook users with millions of fans rarely see more than 5% engagement on their posts. And when pushing book sales, this rate is (understandably) even lower. I’m definitely a book lover, but even I don’t like being spammed by ‘buy my book’ messages!

Social media may help in driving awareness of your book. But it’s not the panacea publishers expected, Book Business Magazine concludes.

[How much] should we use social media?

Joanna Penn says she splits her day into thirds: firstly creative work: developing intellectual property, including books, secondly, marketing, and then finally, running the business.

Kristen Eckstein even goes so far as to suggest authors spend 50% of their ‘writing’ time on marketing. That is, for every hour you spend writing, you should spend one hour on social media.

If you’re a full-time writer, spending a third to half of your time on social media could mean spending four or more hours each day posting, liking, and retweeting!

Yet, research from the University of Pennsylvania found that constant use of social media can have quite severe negative outcomes, in terms of mental health. When students in a trial reduced their social media use to 30 mins per day (10 mins per platform), they not only experienced reduced anxiety, depression and fear of missing out (FOMO), but paradoxically, reduced loneliness. That is, social media actually tends to make us feel less connected. Other studies have also found links between Facebook use and depression and loneliness, and the use of social media leading to a loss of self-esteem.

Given that many creatives are pushed for time and often experience anxiety or a lack of self-confidence when it comes to their creative output, is it possible to find a balance? That is, can we be successful authors, artists, or entrepreneurs and retain our sanity? Is devoting up to half our time to social media really the only – or most effective – way?

The tip of the iceberg

Chris Syme, author of SMART Social Media for Authors, divides social media marketing into four key tasks which require different portions of time:

  1. Research (e.g. choosing a platform) no more than 10% of your time
  2. Learning (e.g. discovering to use it) 10-15% of your time
  3. Editorial tasks (e.g. writing, scheduling, making images, putting together videos) about 45% or more
  4. Monitoring and connecting (e.g. the social bit) start with 20%

If we are to spend 10-30 mins a day on monitoring and connecting – that is, actually using social media as opposed to researching, learning about it, or preparing content for it, then we might devote somewhere between 50 mins and 2.5 hours to social media-related activity each day.

That’s a lot.

So how crucial is social media to becoming a successful author?

Do readers want more tweets, cat videos, and hearts, or more books?

In the next post, we’ll examine the social media use of twelve best-selling authors to find out.

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