Social Media is an Imperfect Sales Tool. Use it Anyway.

by | May 21, 2012 | Book Marketing, Social Media | 39 comments

I somehow missed this post the first time around, but Red Pen of Doom wrote a post at the end of last year that, while extremely complimentary of my physical appearance (blushing, RPofD!), pointed out that my social media following has not resulted in the same number book sales as, say, Snooki. Who, yes, has a book out.

The title of the blog post: The Twitter: it is NOT for selling books.

And you know what? I (mostly) agree with this post.

Social media is an imperfect sales tool. Even if you have a following of hundreds of thousands of people, a small percentage of those will see your posts about your work, a smaller percentage of those will click through, and a smaller percentage than those will actually buy.

Social media alone is not going to make a book a bestseller, which I hope is an eye-opener for publishers who are relying on an author’s social media efforts alone to sell books. The list of megabestsellers who haven’t so much as sniffed at Twitter are legion.

But that still doesn’t mean you should abandon social media. Here are three main reasons why:

1) It’s not perfect, but it works

Social media hasn’t made my novel Jacob Wonderbar a bestseller, but I do know I’ve sold way more books than I would have without it. How do I know? I recognize the names of a lot of the people who are reviewing my books on Amazon and Goodreads.

I wasn’t one of those authors who was the recipient of a major marketing campaign. Jacob Wonderbar was released relatively quietly. And I’m happy with the sales after a year, especially under those circumstances.

Social media sells books. It’s likely an overrated sales tool, but it does work.

2) Social media is one of the only free marketing tools available to authors

One of the conclusions RPofD reaches is that in order to sell thousands you have to reach millions. Mass media is the only way to really propel something into the stratosphere. This is absolutely true. But most authors don’t have access to mass media.

You do have access to social media. And what’s more: it’s free.

There’s a reason social media has become overrated – it’s the first time there has been an actual tool at authors’ disposal that can help sell books. Now authors can actually try and move the needle themselves, without access to a media platform. That’s very exciting, even if we need to keep expectations in line.

3) There are benefits to using social media beyond sales

If you’re only using social media to sell books you are absolutely using it wrong.

Yes, it can sell books. But the sales benefits are far down on the list of benefits that you will accrue using social media the right way.

More likely: You are making friends, you are learning about what else is out there, you are exchanging knowledge, you are discovering, you are communicating, and opportunities will come your way as a result.

So, yes. Social media does not a bestseller make. It’s never going to match the effectiveness of a national media campaign. It’s never going to match the efforts of a dedicated publisher’s marketing efforts.

But publicity is all about giving a book a boost, and social media will help. And there’s no better time to start than now.


  1. February Grace

    Yes, I giggled when I read that article originally- you DO look like a movie star (and a Jedi Knight but that's all I'm going to add.)

    Great post.


  2. Mr. D

    I'm using social media too a small extent. I started a couple years ago, and my debut novel comes out this August. We'll see how that goes. As time goes by, I hope to use it more.


    This is so true, all of it. For me, the way I hope to "use" social media is as a gift I'm offering (found on my blog). Will it help me sell my novels? Probably not. Will it make me rich in other ways?


  4. Matthew MacNish

    Once upon a time, I was planning on writing a post that compared you to Tom Brady (your hair, your looks). It would've made a great post, but now RPofD stole my thunder.

  5. abc

    I think in this age, it would be downright crazy NOT to use social media. Also, is it fair to compare your book to Snooki's'?. Totally different audience. Middle Grade books probably have a smaller buying group than the celebrity memoir. I don't really know this absolutely, I'm just guessing.

  6. Steven J. Wangsness

    Well, I have a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, Pinterest page (don't even understand the point of Pinterest, but there you go), a Goodreads page, and even a Tumblr account (I also don't get Tumblr). And pretty good reviews. The only things I don't have are a video (can't come up with a clever one) and killer sales.

    So, yeah, social media has its limitations!

  7. Gregory K.

    It's your point 3 that resonates most for me: social media is a serendipity engine. Social media creates opportunity – sometimes a sale, a school visit, a review, a connection to someone who can write about your book, a connection to someone who handsells your book leading to how many sales, and on and on. A focus simply on copies sold misses the bigger picture, I think.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that one should spend unlimited time on social media, but particularly if one hopes to have a career, not just one book, it's a pretty fabulous place to build relationships with readers and champions galore.

  8. D.G. Hudson

    It's hard to look at picture of 'Snooki' early in the morning. Train Wreck indeed. I did love that comparison. I can't think of anything nice to say . . .

    But, Nathan 'A muffin of stud', that should boost the old ego a bit. We agree with this description. QQQ-Matt could still write his post.

    Celebrity books never get my money, especially by the most vacant of starlets and tv soap stars. Publishers want their bread and butter (celebrity books) but we don't have to buy them.

  9. Mirka Breen

    There’s only one way to climb the major charts: publish with the well-oiled machines of the Big Six (or seven) and be on their promotional A-list.
    But literary writers can take solace in smaller successes, which are respectable. No need to walk with Snooky. (I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea who she is, that’s how out of it I am.)
    I think whatever social media a writer uses (or not) should have other benefits.

  10. Anonymous

    What you said. Agree totally. And I read, rated, and loved your book (s) and I'm not even following you on social media.

    Also, social media can turn potential readers off if authors are too pushy. Or if they come off looking stupid. At least they've turned me off in some cases.

    I think the biggest benefit to social media is that it allows readers to get to know you, and to get to know who you are. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you do it.

  11. Heidi

    I think a LOT of authors and other entrepreneurs are missing the boat on social media. What social media does, quite simply, is build your brand. When readers, clients – web surfers in general – come across your material here and there, they will begin to recognize you as a brand.
    Then when you do have something to offer, if they like you already anyway, they are more likely to buy what you are selling. You are creating a relationship with your buyer before you even want to sell them something. That's half the battle.
    Then what you have is a type of connection. Since the reader is familiar with you and your work, they already like you, they are more willing to be supportive of you and promote you as someone that they have a cyber-kinship with.
    I do it all the time. I promote Nathan's blog, and a bunch of other bloggers and products because I see value in what they have to offer. Do I know Nathan? Is he my BFF? Not at all. But because we have this content-provider/reader relationship, am I more likely to tweet about Jacob Wonderbar than I would if I had never heard the name Nathan Bransford?
    You betcha.


  12. Kristin Laughtin

    Like you said, you've sold more books through social media than you would have without it. That seems reason enough to use it along with any other tools or opportunities available in order to publicize your work. If you give readers more opportunities to hear about your work, you make it more likely they will want it.

    You just can't expect it to do everything, so you should try to advertise through various platforms. And of course, you shouldn't focus on social media to the exclusion of creating actual content to sell. Balance in all things, etc.

  13. Guy

    Nathan, I agree with you agreeing with me.

    Also: completely agree with you. Writers and authors should definitely use the hell out of the Twitter and the Series of Tubes – but in the right way.

    And people are wrong about access to mass media. As a former reporter and some kind of expert on mass media and PR, hear me now and believe me later in the week: anybody can get free ink and airtime if (a) their idea or book has killer news hooks and (b) they know how to deal with the mass media.

    Easy? No. Open to anyone? Yes.

  14. Nathan Bransford

    Thanks Guy, and good point about open to everyone assuming those conditions.

  15. abc

    another point–one doesn't know how many books they've sold via word of mouth that started with social media. I may have heard about a book through facebook, twitter, or pinterest and then read it and loved it and recommended to someone else. In fact, I have! If it weren't for Goodreads, I wouldn't have read The Night Circus and I've recommended it at least a dozen times.

    Also, thank god good looks don't sell books. No one has ever called Stephen King a looker.

  16. Mary

    I've unfollowed (or considered unfollowing) several really good bands on twitter because 99 % of their tweets are promotional. Selling books (or music or movies or anything else) is not twitter's primary purpose and anyone who uses it like that is not going to get far. But just like any other social media site, it has tons of benefits if you use it properly.

  17. Guy

    You don't have to famous to go viral. But you can't pitch quality. I can't lasso reporters for a rock band full of 20-something music majors who are "really great."

    But I could get free ink and airtime out the wazoo for a bunch of terrible musicians who happen to be first graders playibg covers of Metallica — "Enter Sandman meets the sandbox."

  18. Jaimie

    Haha, you could pass as a Jedi knight.

  19. Naja Tau

    Your profile picture really is fabulous, Nathan.

  20. Peter Dudley

    Social media is still new. It's not entirely predictable; it's constantly evolving. I shy away from statements about what it is and isn't for.

    I am just trying not to be clumsy in my use of it.

  21. Anonymous

    "A Literary Muffin of Stud" 🙂

    It just needs to be repeated.

  22. Andrew Leon

    My very first book sale was to someone on Facebook that I didn't even know. I posted that my book was "live," and she responded almost immediately with "I just bought it!" Sure enough, that was my first sale.

  23. Robena Grant

    My first novel won't be out for almost a year.

    I've been on FB and Google+ (hate Twitter) for quite a while. What I've developed are friendships. Not a lot, not thousands, but enough that I know and enjoy the friends I do have. One thing I know that I won't do when it comes promo time, is the overkill. I have a FB acquaintance who overpromotes and it makes me cringe. My argument is she would not send all of her friends an email every day asking them to buy her book, so why does she do this on FB? I skim over her posts.

    I agree with you NB, if social media is used appropriately it can be an effective tool. But ya' gotta be respectful.

  24. J.C. Martin

    Very good point. Social media may not be the best way to market your book, but it's free, and it does connect you to a lot of potential readers. But your main selling point remains your book, so get off Twitter and start writing it already! 😉

  25. Colleen Walsh Fong

    Common sense tells me that every avenue available can help give my work visibility. Each little inroad can help build a highway.

  26. cgblake

    You're on target as usual, Nathan. I favor the slow and steady approach, making meaningful connections with other writers and readers online,sharing and giving to others with no expectation the favor will be returned.

  27. Mira

    That was a fun article you linked to. And, since it hasn't been said on your blog in quite awhile, Nathan, I will add that you have nice hair.

    So, I thought the author made some good points, but I think there were a couple of points I'd like to add.

    But first, I agreed with everything you said in this post! It's not an exact science, but I do think social media can give you a definite nudge.

    So, re. your book, two things:

    a. Your blog is targeted to writers, and that's not really your target demographic for your MG books. There may be some overlap, and certainly people will buy your books because they like you (and your nice hair) or they like MG, but I think it would be interesting if you created a targeted blog/social media presence for that audience. (And I know you have TONS of time to do that.)

    b. I suspect I'm not saying anything you haven't thought of, but I wonder if pricing is an issue for your book. I believe the e-book of JW and the Cosmic Space Kapow was originally priced at 12.99, and your newest e-book is 10.99. That may be alittle high for MG.

    I also wonder if MG readers buy hardcover. Delaying the paperback may also hurt MG sales.

    So, I know these decisions weren't yours – but unfortunately, I think legacy publishers can hurt their MG authors sales by artificially keeping e-book prices too high, and trying to get hardcover sales to the detriment of paperback and/or e-book.

    So, social media may be doing its thing, but if the book is priced too high, that will, unfortunately, have a real impact.

    Since we're talking about free tools, a free tool that authors can access is price promotion. This is where authors can host free giveaways, or set their price discounted for a short time. It's a shame that authors who are published through traditional publishers can't use that. I hope publishers wake up and see the benefit.

    When you can play around with price promotions, that is an outstanding tool when coupled with social media. It can also get you on Amazon lists, and Amazon's author promotion is lovely and relentless.

    But nevermind all that. The really important thing, Nathan, is that your books are absolutely terrific! Quality is important!!Your last one was so clever and funny, I loved it. I think it can take time for word to spread.

    Also, I suspect the landscape will continue to change, and new tools may come in that authors can utilize!

  28. Journaling Woman

    I thought I'd dip my toe in social media, and yet, I'm up to my waist thus far. It's a great tool for sure.

    Great post.


  29. Anonymous

    SO. TRUE.

  30. Meghan Ward

    I love this post, and I'm happy to know social media has boosted your sales (I'm one person who has bought your book thanks to social media!), but I don't agree that social media is free. It may not cost money, but it does cost time. A LOT OF TIME. And that's time that could be spent making money, writing more books, or doing other things you love. There's a huge opportunity cost, and you have to be sure that your ROI is high.

  31. K.N. Porter

    Social media sites certainly do not sell your work directly but they definitely help to build a fan base. Once you find a following that are interested in your style of work they will often find your website or blog and visit that for updates. The exposure from Twitter and Facebook has definitely improved my stats on my website and such.

  32. Sheila Cull


    I don't think any decent publisher is going to wait for their client to bring in more "social media" sales either.

    This is why I think social media may have had a publication blip, but in the long run, will be a near useless tool. Lol, unlike, say, the NY Times best's.



    I agree with this – people who spam me with "LOOK AT MY BOOK!", "Have you seen my book yet???? GO CHECK IT OUT NOW!" and "BUY MY STUFF!" and continually tweet every minute that I should buy their work are quickly unfollowed.

  34. Jia Tiger

    I am using social media for my own purpose. Like using twitter or facebook i just keep priority to the communication. Cause I can have a lot of information by using such tools.

  35. Jia Tiger

    I give priority on using social media like facebook or twitter to continue my communication with others so that there might be found some way to exchange our knowledge and other information.

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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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