I get asked this question a lot. There is a lot of hype around authors being on social media and how it can make or break your career. I do think it’s harder to gain readers if you aren’t on social media at all. But I also don’t think you need to be on all the platforms to do well. Pick a few that speak to you and build from there as it makes sense.
When I talk to authors about this I usually see three responses: aversion to using it at all; an agreement to use it as little as possible; or an obsession with the competition of getting the most followers and trending as often as possible. Unfortunately, none of these is very effective. And if it becomes an obsession you will find yourself very unhappy.
I admit to doing all three before settling into a middle-of-the-road acceptance of my personal mix of disdain, wariness, procrastination, and occasional interest. The key to making it work is by choosing your poisons and capitalizing on it by understanding the audience and how it is used most effectively. It is also important to invest in a good tool that makes posting easier and allows you to schedule your posts so that you don’t have to be on the platform every day.
Social Media and I Have Always Had a Volatile Relationship
I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I never got into My Space or other early platforms because I didn’t see the point of making “friends” with people I really didn’t know. I blogged a lot but didn’t do social media. In early 2012, I was drawn into Facebook kicking and screaming because my extended family had chosen to use it as the primary communication avenue, including my then 79-year-old mother.
My family had stopped writing actual letters sent through the post office sometime in the 1990s and switched to emails. I was fine with that. It was quicker, yet still personal. Then in 2010 some of my younger siblings started using Facebook. I figured it was a fad, but then it became the only way I could keep up with family and friends. It was as if emails were already dinosaurs. Knowing my mother was fine with it was a blaring signal that I was behind the times.
Twitter didn’t start for me until nearly 2014. About the same time, I added Pinterest, Google Plus (which no longer exists), and YouTube. Communication was changing so quickly since I began publishing in 1998 that I felt overwhelmed by having to learn it all and catch up to everyone else who made the move more quickly.
Even though I have a good technology background, I’ve always seen it as a tool for big business, not something a small business writer would use regularly. As a writer, I am both enticed and repelled by the need to have a consistent presence on social media. It does make a difference in not only getting my name noticed but in reaching new readers and engaging with current readers. In terms of actual book sales, it’s hard to know because tracking sales (unless you are running ads) based on daily posts or engagement is very difficult.
Competing in an environment that produces more than 100,000 new books per month is daunting — particularly if one relies on selling books for an income. I had to face the fact that the world was moving to social media a lot faster than me, and I better get on board and figure out where my readers were most likely to congregate.
In 2007, you could get away without using social media. According to Statista.com, in the U.S. only 7% of American households used at least one social media application. That means it was likely a lower percentage in other countries. In fact, probably until 2011 or 2012, you could get away without using social media to stay in contact with your readers as that percentage never topped 25%. By 2017, a whopping 81% of all adults in the U.S. had a social media profile. Furthermore, the trend was for people to engage on social media more than they did through email.
I can attest to the drop in email engagement. It used to be that,, out of a list of 12,000 fans, I would get above 60% open rates in 2014, 2015, and 2016 and usually anywhere from 25% to 38% clicks on links to my books. Starting in 2017 email opens dropped to 40% and clicks to 20%. Today my email opens are closer to 35% and clicks at 12–15% unless I’m offering something for free. That is a marked change in engagement. Without social media, I wouldn’t have an income from writing.
Which Platforms to Use and Why
Each platform serves a slightly different purpose, and therefore attracts a different audience. That also means that understanding that audience requires you to engage differently.
Any social media platform can work well if you are willing to put enough time and energy into it and build a following. But don’t expect it to happen overnight unless you have thousands of dollars in advertising to spend and free product to give away. In other words, don’t let it stop you from writing. Without product to sell, even the most popular social media maven will be without income.
There were two initial questions I asked myself in deciding which platforms were viable for me.
- Which platform provides the largest possible reach for my audience and the geographic areas I am targeting (i.e., English-speaking countries)?
- Which platform has the highest engagement with my type of readers?
REACH AND AUDIENCE: As of August 2018, here are the rounded numbers for the top four social media platforms. These numbers reflect Monthly Active Users
Facebook — 2.23 billion (worldwide)
YouTube — 1.9 billion (worldwide)
Instagram — 1 billion (worldwide) Note: This is a big change that occurred after Facebook bought Instagram)
Qzone — 563 million (China and countries where Mandarin is spoken)
You may be wondering where Twitter or LinkedIn falls in this list. Both are often mentioned by most authors for promotion. Twitter is at number six with 336 million active monthly users. LinkedIn is at number 13 with 106 million.
However, you might feel about Facebook personally, what this data tells me is that choosing to ignore Facebook is choosing to ignore the largest user base in the world. It is the equivalent of an author choosing not to load her books on Amazon (particularly in the English-speaking world).
YouTube has climbed to number two in the last two years, reflecting the growing importance of video in the current marketplace. Again, this shouldn’t be ignored. There are a number of ways an author can use YouTube if they want to put in the effort. However, if the idea of creating videos or seeing yourself on screen is crazy-making, then don’t do it. At this point, I’m not convinced it has made a difference in my ability to actually sell books. I’m mostly dabbling and learning so I’m ready when I need to capitalize on it.
Instagram has become infinitely more popular since being purchased by Facebook. Part of that is because it inherited Facebook’s reach, and Facebook automatically includes it as an option in any advertising an author might do.
I admit to having an Instagram account. However, I haven’t yet invested enough time figuring out how to make it work well for me as an author. I’ve let it go dormant in the last six months or so. I know authors who use it, along with advertising and claim it works really well — even better than Facebook. For me, right now it’s a matter of writing time versus adding one more social media platform. I do post on occasion, but I haven’t quite decided how it is different from Facebook or Pinterest.
Qzone may not be familiar to an American audience. It is similar to Facebook in how it works. It is based in China, developed by Tencent, and has been around since 2005. The full version is only available in Mandarin. It skews to teens; so for those interested in reaching the teen market in China and other related countries, it is definitely a platform to be on.
Though I am actually interested in the Chinese market, I can’t read or write Mandarin and my books have not been translated to Mandarin. There is an option to share content through an abbreviated English version via QQ International. That version works more like Instagram. At this point, it would not be worth my time to learn it and use it. If anyone reading this article uses it, I’d love to hear more.
I also use Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Messenger for social media.
How I Use Each Platform to Engage Readers
Facebook has always been my go-to platform for reaching new fiction readers. It is easy to use. Almost everyone knows how to use it. It has a robust suite of ways to get to readers including pages and groups. And, of all the platforms I’ve used, it has the best advertising suite.
I use my business page for keeping readers updated on new releases and what’s happening in my writing life. I also post fun things, share other author’s books that I think my readers would like and do brand-related posts. I use a small private group for my superfans and reviewers where I engage more one-on-one.
The key to Facebook is to temper the desire to always talk about books for sale and instead post about other things that relate to my brand or are just fun and a part of my interests that I share with readers. My rule of thumb is a minimum of twenty posts on other things before mentioning anything I’m selling.
I use YouTube for book trailers, interviews I’ve done in audio or video, and any recorded reading of book excerpts at in-person signings. I have plans to use it for brief readings of book excerpts from my home office in the future. Video is a platform that can be time-consuming. It’s not necessarily hard to do with all the built-in tools people have on their computers. But it takes a while to do it decently.
However, I believe video is growing in prominence and it’s better for me to be investing a little now so that I’m prepared when it’s needed later in my career.
Twitter is one of those platforms I didn’t really understand until about three years ago. As a long-form writer, I couldn’t imagine what I could say in 140 characters (now it is 280 characters). Twitter has become the go-to place for my nonfiction book engagement. Because my fiction readers and nonfiction readers are very different, I’ve built my nonfiction business on Twitter. For me to build it on Facebook would require different pages and branding and I’m not willing to do that for the few nonfiction books I create.
I started building my twitter following early and found that it didn’t really give me much return for my fiction. I still occasionally post new fiction releases there for the people who are not on Facebook. However, it’s been better for my nonfiction books. Nonfiction readers are more interested in their perception of expertise. They begin building that perception by looking at articles, courses, comments that relate to that expertise. They are interested in anything that takes 15 minutes or less. Avid nonfiction readers scour Twitter for interesting links that fulfill an immediate need for information.
I have not found that I sell a lot of books there, and the advertising platform is far too expensive for me to gain traction. However, Twitter has been a good place to build a reputation for expertise and familiarity. Once I’m sufficiently vetted, a reader will seek me out when they need something and that may result in a book sale.
LinkedIn is another place I couldn’t imagine using for book sales. My association with LinkedIn has always been a place to network, find jobs, hire people. What would an author want there? Interestingly, it has ended up to be my best nonfiction social media platform. Like Twitter, people are looking for information; and having articles that interest them is key. Also, most people on LinkedIn are working or changing jobs, so they have income to spend. They aren’t looking for a free deal (as many of my fiction readers are). LinkedIn has also been good to promote my Medium links.
I occasionally connect with people there and they then follow me somewhere else. Interestingly, when I started a science fiction series and started researching pictures of space vehicles, colonies and the like I had the most engagement I’ve ever had. It has been useful for that series because I didn’t have a lot of cross-over readers from other series I’d written.
Messenger can be very effective with significantly fewer followers. And, because it’s also owned by Facebook, it has more than a billion active users. I use it primarily for a bot I have running to answer questions about my books. I have occasionally used it for promotion. I should use it more but it is, again, something that takes more time and planning and I haven’t put that into it yet.
Tools to Make Social Media Posting Easier
My favorite posting tool is Buffer. I like it better than Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, and any of those that provide the feed from the social media account. I don’t need the distraction of reading posts. I just need a tool that allows me to schedule posts everywhere I want with ease.
Buffer is primarily a scheduling tool. It allows you to customize messages for multiple platforms while still scheduling both date and time from a central area. If you have three accounts or less, you can use it for free. For me, I pay a low monthly fee to manage two Facebook pages, three Facebook groups, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
I do daily posts based on a theme for each day. I draft the post for Facebook and select the image I want to use. I then indicate which of my other accounts will get the same post. It automatically populates for all those accounts. I can then tweak the message for each account (e.g., Twitter posts are shorter; or what I would say for LinkedIn might be slightly different). Finally, I schedule the post and it automatically sends them out to all the platforms I’ve indicated on the date and time I selected.
If I’m on top of things I do this only once per month. It takes me half a day to schedule 30 to 40 days of postings for all eight platforms. Then I’m done. During the week, I check notifications to see if there is anywhere I need to respond. It cuts down my time for social media to 4 hours per month, yet I am posting something new every day.
As with all my suggestions, your experience may be different. It’s taken me years to figure out what works for me. So use whatever of this makes sense to you and I hope it makes your social media life saner and provides you with more time to write the next book.