“If you build it, they will come.”
Such is the dream behind social media marketing. But it’s also a dream distant from reality. While self-published authors hoping to successfully market themselves and their books are well-advised to establish a presence on the major social media platforms, in addition to creating personal websites and Amazon author pages, social media needs to be approached strategically.
An author’s presence on each platform—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Wattpad, Instagram, YouTube, or Pinterest—has to be maintained and updated with purpose.
“Some clients want to shotgun [social media] out to everyone,” says Jared Drake, new media director at Julia Drake PR, a boutique marketing and PR agency for authors. While Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads are the big three, other social networks, depending on an author’s vision and abilities to invest time and money, could come into play. An author with a photography book or a video series promoting his books should be on Instagram, Drake says, but not necessarily everyone should be. “Focus on those [sites] that make a difference,” he adds.
For instance, Colleen Hoover, a New York Times bestselling author who self-published her series Slammed on Amazon (she’s since signed a contract with Atria Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint), hosts videos on Instagram, which is easier for her to upload to than Facebook or Twitter. “People really like the videos, I think because I’m kind of ridiculous in them,” she says. “But I basically just use that as my main form of social media because it’s so easy to hit the button, and it shares.”
That’s another important element about social media: the platforms don’t exist in a vacuum. Interconnectivity widgets enable an update on, say, Twitter to feed to Facebook or the Amazon author page, extending reach. Drake approaches each social media platform as part of a larger marketing and publicity machine, one that entails accumulating fans and followers, engaging with that audience (especially leading up to and following a book’s release) and featuring advertorial messages designed to actually sell books.
But operating this machine means knowing how to pull the right levers at the right time. Certain strategies work better on certain platforms. Facebook, more than any other social network, is an advertising platform. By contrast, the Goodreads community can be hostile toward marketing messages. Social media marketing success means understanding the community on each network as well as the promotional and messaging tools built into the platform itself.
The world’s most popular social network has evolved significantly since its 2004 inception as “a place for friends.” In its early days as a marketing platform, Facebook touted itself as a great venue for small businesses to achieve organic reach. In other words, a self-published author with a Facebook business page could, in theory, send messages to friends and friends of friends, exponentially increasing her network and driving sales.
While Facebook’s marketing tools are now focused on advertising and paid reach, it’s still an effective platform to begin audience building. “Facebook is much more of a presentation: here’s what I’m doing, what I’m about, like my stuff,” says Drake. “It’s not conversational, but it’s a great way to build an audience, which you need to do.”
Beyond asking your immediate friends and family to like your official author page, what more can a burgeoning writer do? Drake advises authors, first, to define who their audience is and to come up with five different interest areas. From there, they should start targeting their messaging through ads.
Facebook has two types of ads: display banners that run on the right side of the page, called “right rail ads,” and ads that run in a user’s news feed as promoted posts.
“One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is not using our targeting options” when sending out marketing messages, says Bess Yount, Facebook’s small- and medium-sized business lead. “For small businesses with limited marketing options, it’s very important to use our targeting options to spend money on people who will be your customers.”
There are several ways to send targeted messages to people on Facebook. At the most basic level, you can upload to Facebook an email list filled with people who have previously purchased your books and target messaging to them. Interest-based targeting is a more advanced and slightly pricier tactic. If your book is a biography about, say, legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, you can target your messaging to 49ers fans, or if you’ve written a fantasy epic reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire, you might target fans of the series, author George R.R. Martin, or the HBO show Game of Thrones.
Also consider what you want your messaging to achieve. If you simply want people to be aware of your presence, you can toss $100 into the Facebook machine and get back around 5,000 “impressions.” On the other hand, if you want people to actually engage with your messaging by clicking on it or liking your page, the cost will be higher, and you’ll want to target a pool of users who are more engaged but consequently smaller.
Facebook also has a built-in ad reporting tool designed to show what sort of return—whether it’s clicks, engagements, or shares—you get for each dollar spent. Authors should use this to understand what they’re getting for their money so they can optimize their messaging and targeting.
But while it might be tempting to use Facebook’s advertising tools simply for promotional messaging, Yount suggests diversifying posts to drive engagement. “You need to engage with different customers and create content,” she says. “Understanding what people want to see and hear from you is really important. I’ve spoken to a couple of authors, and I tell them to make their Facebook page a glimpse into their process.”
For example, authors can upload images of their favorite place to write, or post about whatever power breakfast gives them the energy to write for a full day.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at what they’re doing,” Yount says. “Putting in that human voice is an engaging way to use your Facebook page.”
If you want people to like you, use Twitter.
“It’s so easy to reach out and shake someone’s hand and hobnob with a bigwig you otherwise wouldn’t,” says Drake.
Engaging on the platform is straightforward: find people who share your interests—especially the “influencers” with lots of followers—then follow them yourself and start commenting on or retweeting things they say. If they like what you have to say, hopefully they’ll follow you back, and voilà, you’ve expanded your network.
It also helps to figure out which of your followers are the most influential. Free online tools like SocialRank enable you to sort your followers based on influence.
Twitter also has paid options for promoting and targeting messages to its users. Like Facebook, Twitter allows you to upload and target users based on your existing email list or to build your own audience to message, based on factors like the keywords that appear in a public bio (so you can target tweets about your Bill Walsh biography to self-identified “49ers fanatics”), follower count, and tweet history. You can also request from Twitter a line of code to add to your website, which allows you to target Twitter users who have visited (Facebook has a version of this, too).
“You can target anybody on Twitter who’s visited your website in the past 90 days,” Drake says. “You know you’re targeting someone who’s a quality lead.”
One thing to consider when it comes to marketing on both Twitter and Facebook: both user bases tend to access feeds via mobile devices. Currently, 78% of Twitter users and 81% of Facebook users are mobile.
So links directing users away from either social network should lead to a site that loads well on mobile devices. If you’re trying to drive purchases via either Twitter or Facebook, make sure that path to purchase is both mobile-optimized and fluid. If a purchase on a mobile device requires too many clicks or requires extensive form filling, your would-be customers will abandon the page, and that may well mean lost sales.
This might soon become an outdated concern, however, as both Facebook and Twitter are experimenting with features that enable users to buy goods directly through their respective networks. Neither, however, has made these capabilities generally available.
Authors on Goodreads are going to want to drastically tone down their promotional messaging. Unless you’re interested in irritating prospective readers, approach Goodreads as a reader first and an author second.
“Authors who do well on Goodreads treat it as a big party,” says Patrick Brown, the company’s director of author marketing. “They add value not only by talking about their own books, but others’ books as well. They’re experts oN the genres they work in.”
After setting up an author page on the site, Brown recommends using the social network’s tools like Ask the Author to begin engaging with users, or to do a free book giveaway, in which Goodreads selects certain interested members to receive a free copy of a participating author’s book. Goodreads supplies the author with the mailing addresses of the giveaway winners, and the author pays for shipping and handling.
“I got a few thousand entries in the first giveaways I did,” Hoover recalls. Through this, she got more people to follow the author profile page she’d previously established.
The detriment is cost. Goodreads doesn’t support digital distribution (Brown wouldn’t comment on whether Goodreads would introduce this feature in the future), and printing and shipping books can be prohibitively expensive.
Hoover acknowledged the steep up-front costs. She buys the books involved in the giveaways at $7.50 each directly from the publisher, but she thinks it pays off in the long run.
“I spent a lot of money giving away the books instead of advertising, and that has helped with word of mouth,” she says. “That helps people want to come back to my page to see if I’m doing other giveaways.”
While digital-only authors are shut out from participating in the book giveaways, they aren’t shut out from the greater Goodreads community.
“So many authors go to Goodreads and look at it wrong: ‘Here’s a pond full of fish I can start marketing to!’ ” says Robin Sullivan. She is married to hybrid sci-fi author Michael J. Sullivan, who self-published his first books, then got a deal with the Hachette imprint Orbit, but returned to self-publishing with his latest novel, the Kickstarter-funded Hollow World. Robin oversees the business elements of Michael’s writing career, including marketing. “Goodreads is about a community of readers, and when you’re in it long enough, they talk about your books so you don’t have to talk about your books,” she says.
For example, Hollow World was selected, completely unprompted by the Sullivans, as a July read for a Goodreads group devoted to time-travel fiction that Michael participates in.
“If you’re helpful to other people, they’ll gravitate to you and when they find out you’re an author; they’ll advertise it for you,” Michael says.
The Sullivans recommend joining Goodreads groups related to your interests and hanging out for a week or two absorbing the culture. Occasionally, authors will enter a group and do something, like promote a project, that riles the community. Those are learning opportunities. Once you’ve grasped the culture of the group, start contributing. If people ask for book recommendations, give them a few options. Community members who click on your profile will learn you’re an author, but avoid mentioning it unless you’re explicitly asked about it.
If Goodreads revolves around reading, Wattpad revolves around writing. Because Wattpad is fundamentally an online publication portal, writers using it to host their work can build a fan base and eventually drive sales (though as with Goodreads, authors shouldn’t rely on it too heavily as a commercial vehicle).
“Keep in mind, Wattpad is a social network,” says Ashleigh Gardner, Wattpad’s head of content. Many writers, she’s noticed, use their Wattpad bios simply to blurb their books. If you do that, you risk coming off as a hack, not a human. Sometimes, a good Wattpad bio is as simple as writing in the first person or making sure your user name is your actual name and not, say, the name of your book.
Self-published authors like novelists Bill Gourgey and Brittany Geragotelis drove much of their early success posting on Wattpad. Geragotelis, after being dropped by an agent who couldn’t sell her novel, began putting her work on the social network.
She noticed most people published paranormal romance, so she came up with her own spin on the genre, called Life’s a Witch, “a reimagining of the Salem Witch trials set in the modern day, with a kickass heroine.”
Geragotelis got comments directly from people loving her work, instead of a stream of rejections from publishers and agents. In six months, she had six million reads. By 11 months, she had 18 million reads and people started asking where they could buy it.
Like any other social network, those interactions are important. Gardner emphasizes that authors on Wattpad should take advantage of its environment by following other users and commenting. Many authors join Wattpad and just use it to broadcast what they’re doing, she says. “But it’s important to engage with other users.” Wattpad shows which user is interacting with which story or author, so it’s easy to identify the authors who are active participants versus those who aren’t.
From a more strategic standpoint, it’s also important for writers to consider the keywords they’re using to tag their work. Often, authors can be a bit broad, tagging a story with something like “literary fiction.”
“Readers don’t search for stories that way,” Gardner said. “Tag it with something a user might search for.” Consider more specific tags like “divorce” or “coming-of-age.” Instead of tagging a story “paranormal romance,” consider “vampires” or “bondage.”
“Users search for universal themes, or cities, or they search for unique character archetypes,” Gardner says. “Using those words rather than a genre is much more effective.”
When self-published authors consider their social media presence, the last site they consider is probably Kickstarter, a platform on which people can explain the projects that they are working on and their fund-raising needs, and interested users can kick in a donation.
When Michael J. Sullivan decided to go back to self-publishing with Hollow World, Robin recommended he use Kickstarter to raise $3,000 to have the book professionally edited and produced (the Sullivans budgeted $6,000, and planned to contribute the other half). His Kickstarter campaign ended up raising just north of $30,000. In addition to replacing the advance Michael would have gotten from a traditional publisher, it turned out to be an unexpectedly efficient way to garner new readers and to hype the book well before it was released.
“Most people think that if you have no fan base whatsoever, there’s virtually no way you can succeed at Kickstarter,” Michael says. He believes more than a third of the people backing Hollow World had never read his books or even heard of him—they simply liked his project and decided to fund it.
However, Robin believes it helped that Michael had already completed Hollow World and simply needed editing and production services, so the project was largely complete when he began asking for donations. Additionally, he’d already published books, which legitimized him and likely convinced Kickstarter users he wasn’t a fly-by-night.
Kickstarter campaigners create incentives for prospective donors by giving out prizes based on the donation sum—the bigger the donation, the better the reward. Among the rewards Michael gave to backers were early copies of Hollow World.
“It was a great way of advertising a book. I got people who’d never heard of me to know about me, but part of the appeal is that those people got the book a year in advance of everyone else,” Michael says. “They received it a year in advance, read it, and promoted it. Because they were invested in the product, they generated buzz a year in advance.”
There’s another social component to Kickstarter: you can follow other backers. Robin, who is active in the community, follows backers who have a reputation of funding interesting projects, which is how she learns about work that she otherwise wouldn’t know about. In other words, the more funders your project attracts, the more exposure it’ll get on Kickstarter.
All Things All at Once
If there’s one characteristic that unites all social networks, it’s time. To effectively participate in just one community requires consideration and effort. And time you’re using to participate in social media is time you’re not using to write.
While Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads are obligatory when it comes to social media marketing, you still need to consider how much time you want to spend on each (“Michael’s Twitter and Facebook presence is pretty dismal,” Robin says).
Julia Drake, founder and CEO of Julia Drake PR, emphasizes that despite each network’s unique rules of engagement and promotional tools, social media marketing only gets out of hand when authors dive into everything without any strategy or understanding of their motives.
“Spend the time to really understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” she says, “or you can feel really overwhelmed.”
Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York City.