I was not shocked when I read journalist Elizabeth A. Harris’s 2021 New York Times article “Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, ‘It’s Unreliable.’ ” I was intrigued by the content of the article, and knew this was the perfect teachable moment to share with indie authors.
There is a belief that having an existing following is the most certain way to ensure a book sells big. Yet that is not always the case, as the experiences of the celebrities highlighted in the article show.
The pop star Billie Eilish, who now has 102 million Instagram followers and 6.7 million on Twitter, sold just 64,000 copies of her self-titled memoir from May 2021 to December, according to the New York Times. Justin Timberlake, who now has 64.5 million followers on Instagram, only managed to sell 100,000 copies of his autobiographical collection of observations, Hindsight, in the first three years. And the media personality Piers Morgan, who has 7.9 million Twitter followers and 1.8 million on Instagram, managed to move just 5,650 U.S. copies of his book, Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts, from September to December.
If being a celebrity with millions of followers does not guarantee high book sales, what does? Is there any hope for the rest of us?
Unlike the typical novice author, these people have access to the tools, resources, and professionals to create well-crafted, flawless social media content for impact and influence. Many have their own PR teams and media contacts along with celebrity or influencer status, that are supposed to lead to a home run independent of their publishers’ prowess. So why such dismal book sales?
Authors and prospective authors: the business of being an author is a marathon, not a sprint. Any tool, strategy, or step could potentially work for you. However, it is imperative that authors do not fall into the trap of relying solely on the latest gadget, fad, or social media trend for success.
There are many ways for writers to grow their social media presence quickly, but that does not necessarily work to an author’s advantage. As if the above celebrities were not proof enough, think about those who buy social media followers. You might brag about how quickly your social media following has grown with that strategy, but you will find that you have the added numbers without the engagement or leverage.
So where should you go from here? First, remember that business was conducted quite well before social media existed. While technology has given authors greater opportunity to reach a larger number of readers independent of geography, social media can also hinder the potential for success if it is not used responsibly. For starters, curating engaging content is time-consuming. Building a presence with other social media accounts regularly to gain attention can be time-consuming. Even more troubling is that these things in and of themselves do not help authors build relationships with followers. Relationship building is a large part of a successful business strategy, virtually and in person.
As an author, are you falling into the trap of copying what looks like social media success and having your business suffer as a result? Are you ignoring what needs to be done to scale your business and solidify short-term, intermediate, and long-term success to look “popular” on social media? Do not treat the business of being an author as a novelty. A lot of your time needs to be devoted to research, procurement, and increasing your level of influence. Social media can be a part of that, but it is not an accurate measure of how successful your book sales will be.
Every book is different, and every author is different, so forecasting demand for new titles can be challenging. There is no guarantee, and social media is becoming a less reliable metric for the success of a book than once thought. But knowing what solution your book provides and who wants that solution is one place to start. Knowing where the people who need this solution are is a second vital part of your book’s success.
In my previous article, “When Social Media Hurts,” I demonstrated how being present on social media is not enough for effective book marketing and why many authors spend copious amounts of time online with little or nothing to show for it. I outlined what authors need to prioritize and do to maximize their social media presence. If you want clarity on moving forward, I strongly advise you to read it and let me know what you think.
Alesha Brown is an entrepreneur, a book and magazine publisher, a consultant, and the CEO of Fruition Publishing Concierge Services.