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Does Social Media Really Help With Success?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


By JodyHedlund, @JodyHedlund

How much of a role does social media play in pushing a novelist toward success? Does a strong online presence equate strong sales? Do authors without blogs or twitter have less success? Or are there other factors that influence success more than social media?

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know I believe social media is important. It's critical in a lot of ways.

One, it allows us to develop a team of writers and readers who support us and promote our books, especially around a release. They can help create a lot of buzz.

Second, social media allows us to connect with our readers in a variety of formats. When they take the time to reach out to us through facebook or twitter, we can be there to interact (just like we would at a book signing or other event).

And third, for those who are self-publishing, a strong web presence is even more important in spreading book buzz (although with the overwhelming numbers of writers now self-publishing, I'm beginning to wonder how anyone can be heard above the clamor—but that's the makings of another post on another day.)

Yes, social media is vital to the modern author on many levels. I'm not arguing that.

But, in all the social media hype over the past couple years, have we elevated its importance too high? Does social media really give a boost to an author's sales, land them on best seller lists, get them bigger publishing deals, or turn them into national celebrities?

After several years and several books, I've decided that even though my social media presence is fairly strong, it has NOT been the most significant factor in my success.

In fact, I've done an informal comparison with another author friend who started publishing about the same time I did. We're both in approximately the same spots in our careers. Same genre. Same publisher. Same high quality of editing and cover development. Same overall marketing. Same general audience.

We have a lot in common.

But our approaches to social media have been different.

This friend decided she wasn't going to have a blog or get on twitter. She maintains a website and personal facebook account. But beyond that she limits herself.

On the other hand, I do just about every social media out there. Through consistent hard work and determination, I've been able to build significant followings on most of my sites. I've made a large number of genuine, wonderful connections as a result of social media.

If social media makes a big difference, then you'd think my sales and my success would be significantly higher than that of my fellow author since I have a large web presence.

But the truth is that my friend and I are very comparable. In fact, in some aspects, she's probably doing better than me.

The conclusion I've come to is that for fiction writers, especially traditionally published, social media can create buzz, but there are other factors that play a larger role in whether an author achieves success.

Here are a few of the more significant factors:

• Getting a stellar review from a major review site like Publisher's Weekly.

• Having significant publisher marketing dollars behind the book.

• The publisher's sales department and inroads they have at various brick and mortar stores. (For example, getting into Walmart or a big box store can really boost sales.)

• Placement of books in bookstores. (For example, my publisher is able to display some books in prominent positions on the ends of aisles.)

• Getting the support of book buyers and retail distributors in displaying the book in high traffic reader areas (in catalogs, flyers, or front pages of online stores).

All of the above can help propel an author to success at a faster rate and wider scope than what an author can accomplish on her own through social media. Because really, what we do in our limited scope on twitter or blogging is merely a blip in the wide-world of publication—especially with so many other writers on social media all scrambling to be heard.

While we may not have control over many of the factors that can lead to success, we do have control over THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR OF ALL. And that is this: Write a compelling, knock-your-socks off story. And then keep writing the absolute best books you can, book after book. 

Building a readership takes time and quality books. When we deliver amazing stories to our readers time and time again, we'll slowly expand the scope of our reach.

That's what my friend has done. She protects her writing time and focuses on writing award-winning stories with each book. And it's starting to pay off for her. She's finaling in contests and making the best seller list.

I certainly don't advocate giving up on social media. I'm still planning to utilize it to the best of my ability. Why not take advantage of every little bit of help in promoting our books?

But, we can't let the social media hype get in the way of what really matters most to a novelist—the STORY.

As fiction writers, we need to spend our best energy and time on what's going to ultimately help our careers the most: growing in skill and writing excellent books.

Do you think social media has been over-rated in its importance in the success of an author? What factors do you think help make an author successful?


Photo Credit: Flickr by thinboyfatter


41 comments:

  1. So interesting that you were able to compare the two perspectives. I am not good handling social media, so I will probably defend the right of any writer to maintain some level of privacy and focus on the art itself. I do however see the many merits of being involved with the readers and just making friends online, because writing is such solitary work and we all need an escape from time to time.

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  2. I think the most difficult aspect of building a social media presense prior to publication is that you NEVER know when publication will happen. And if one book doesn't sell, the writer must start over with another, and another.

    Writing stories (esp. good stories) takes time. Blogging takes time. Visiting other blogs, Facebooking, Tweeting - all take time.

    Novelists who have no clue as to when they might taste a morsel of success need to concentrate on the aspects of writing that will get them closer. If a writer can do it all, great! But so many can't, and I'm afraid that pressure to be everywhere in social media when you don't even have a book to sell yet can really take it's toll.

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  3. Yes, I think social media is overrated in its importance for fiction writers, but it's only ever been a feeling I've had. It's validating to hear your personal perspective and comparison to your friend's success. I think it's another craze that began with a good and positive purpose, but now the hype and pressure have distorted its vision. I've found that the people who've elevated its necessity are usually those who have some sort of service/business that depends on other people needing to use their service.

    I also agree with Heather's Sunseri's comments, referring to the role social media plays for novelists. I do, however, think a strong social media presence is necessary for non-fiction authors (more so than fiction writers).

    Thanks for this post. It's great to hear your opinion on this topic.

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  4. Jody, I'll admit that my relationship with social media isn't love/hate--it's more like tolerate/dislike. But, like all authors, I do it...because I'm afraid not to. Sure, there are times when I get tired of trying to keep all those balls in the air, but it's been drummed into my head by so many people: "You have to have a social media presence." So, despite valid studies that show word-of-mouth is still the best catalyst for sales, I keep doing it.
    Thanks for bringing this up. I'll be interested to see how other people feel.

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  5. This is really interesting, Jody. I have read so much about the necessity of social media for authors that I dove into it. Now, I enjoy it, whereas others don't, but sometimes I can let it take precedence over my actual writing. I think that's the thing...making sure that I have time to do both, and to focus more on my actual writing. Because if that's not good, then social media won't get me anywhere in terms of improved book sales, etc.

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  6. Off the top of my head, I can think of five books that I have purchased over the past year, or so, that I purchased ONLY because I followed and liked the authors on social media platforms (your two books, Nathan Bransford's two books, and Snow Day by Billy Coffey). There have been others that I purchased based on recommendations/hype I read through social media sites.

    As an avid reader with a limited book budget, I almost always purchase books based on some form of personal connection. Often this connection can be a word of mouth recommendation which doesn't necessarily require social media, but more and more, I am choosing my books based on my online connections.

    I would love to know, though, how much of a role social media plays for the authors who are not personally involved in social media. (i.e., readers who hear about the book through traditional marketing take their recommendations online and it rockets from there.)

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  7. Good morning, everyone! I'm appreciating all of your thoughts this morning.

    Sarah, perhaps my online presence has given me a small boost. I'm sure there are a good number of readers who have purchased my books as a result of my blog and my online presence. But I don't know that it's a significant number that would make a huge dent in my sales. Maybe I would be doing significantly less than my friend if I hadn't had my online presence. There's really no way to measure exactly how much of an impact social media has played in getting me to where I'm at today. And as I said, I will keep doing everything I possibly can, because every little bit helps.

    As I mull over this issue, I'm concluding that as writers we WANT social media to be THE answer to all of our marketing woes. We want blogging and twitter and facebook to help us. They're tangible things we can control. But my feeling is that they may help to a degree, but the BIG push toward success comes from other greater factors, including a break-out story.

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  8. I think part of what's important is to know your audience and purpose for your web presence. Your web presence is very writer-focused and so draws a large audience that isn't your readers. This is good for all the reasons you stated: networking, valuable connections, a few readers, etc., but it's hard to say whether it's having a web presence if that web presence isn't aimed at your audience of readers, which is largely composed of non-writers.

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    1. Good point, Liana. I guess that's the struggle most of us fiction writers have with blogging--how to reach our readers. And it's definitely something I've considered off and on, how to reach out to fiction readers with my blog. I haven't come up with any easy answers at this point. And since I enjoy "teaching," gearing my blog to writers has seemed like a natural fit for me. But I do occasionally evaluate how I could offer more to readers through my blog.

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  9. This is nicely put together.
    The internet is such a large world and sometimes as a reader, you like to connect with your favorite authors, through blog posts (for example). Just to get to know the person behind the book, you know? (Their interests, their writing journey etc..)

    Thank you, Jody.

    :-)

    Ganise

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  10. I appreciate this post, because I do feel like authors have this constant pressure on them to be as involved in social media as possible. Blogging every day, getting on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, making the rounds to other blogs, etc. In a lot of ways I appreciate the community, but sometimes it feels like a burden when I actually just want to write. Or, you know, sleep.

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  11. I think it depends on how we define success. For me value in writing should be the first, and dissemination should come after. I was not much positive at the beginning, but after spending a while around the social media, I think it can help both. Management of time still being the most critical point, to be able to read and write the books in the heavy traffic of the Internet communication.
    Thank you for your contribution to build the roads.

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  12. Thank you for a great post and for sharing the pros and cons like you did Jody. I personally have backed off from my social media. I do enjoy the connections but found I needed to write more than I did blog all day:)) I have read books because I heard about them online but I also browse and find books just because of their back cover blurb. It does come down to writing a great book and the rest will come.

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  13. I worry about my presence in social media and try and do the best I can, but when the time comes, it's good to know it'll come down to the book and how well it does not how many contacts I have.

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  14. This has also been my exprience this debut year. Social media (I really just do the blog) has given me support, taught me things about other writers, offered an outlet - but I seriously doubt it has translated to enough sales that would change the novel's trajectory. That has come through reviews (as you said here).

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    1. Great to hear from you, Tess! Hope your debut year has been a good one. And I appreciate you adding to the discussion about how blogging has played into your sales. I think you summed up the benefits of blogging really well. It's helped in many ways, and possibly even added to sales. But not enough to change the novels "trajectory" as you put it so aptly!

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  15. Great post Jody.

    Social media is a fantastic outlet for marketing. We are actually blessed to have it so freely at our disposal. However, I do also agree that good reviews and, more importantly, good writing, is the best form of marketing.

    Social networking is a great tool to make those connections when seeking reviews!

    I will be tweeting this post later. :)

    Ryan.

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  16. I've wondered about this same thing. Interesting. I do the very best I can with social media and have no idea at all if it's made any impact regarding sales of my novels. Thanks for sharing your findings, Jody. Also, I think that the longer we continue to produce quality stories the more we will see in the future regarding success related to sales, etc. I'm discovering for myself that I don't think I can produce quality work if I'm writing more than one book a year. I'm not going to get rich and I make far more at my day job than I've seen with my writing. But, if I keep at this and you and others keep at this for another 20 years we may find ourselves pleasantly surprised. Or we could be burnt out if we don't self-manage well. So hard to guess what the future holds. So I just plan to keep plugging along, doing what I love to the best of my ability and utilizing social media as I can but not allowing it to dictate my days.

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  17. I truly appreciate hearing from each of you on this topic. It's a touchy one. I think the picture of my post sums it up well. The road to success is still being built. Although in the short term, blogging and other social media don't really seem to play a HUGE role in a novel's success, we just can't predict the long term effects. Perhaps one day, my sales will be significantly higher as a result of my online presence. I'm just not seeing that right now.

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  18. I have to put in my two cents as a reader, and a reviewer for the last 3+ years for my blog, that I have seen some authors 'behaving badly'. In this sense, the social media such as twitter/facebook really goes against them from this consumer's point of view.

    I see having a blog, promoting your work in that way, in your platform, on your own site, is perfectly acceptable and every author should have one to showcase their work or wip.

    However, I don't want to see so much on your political outrage, or your negative review outrage. (I'd rather not see you comment about a negative review, because then you unexpectedly unleash your fans on an unsuspecting reviewer, and the hijinx is not pretty). I am about to step away from accepting review copies because of authors behaving badly, even though their behavior was not intended at myself personally. But as a reviewer it has come to the point where I am another marketing-arm for the author, and I do not want to get put in the position of reviewing your book and then you make a fool out of yourself on Facebook in a month or so.

    And on Facebook/Goodreads, please do not spam me every time a showing/alert/review/event occurs that mentions your book. Feel free to do this on your own Facebook page, but don't message me about it twice a day that you got a starred review.

    So, going back to your original concept as far as marketing yourself as an author via social media, always remember that everyone is watching. Be careful out there, and be friendly.


    Posting this Anonymously because I don't want to give anyone a complex or think I am talking about THEM in particular .. and if I was referring to you, Jody, when I mention Authors Behaving Badly I would not have been visiting your blog at all... :)

    I just really think Authors should realize there should be a limit to how much they put out there about themselves. I miss the good old days where all I knew about an author was the back flap or Author's note.

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    1. Whew! You had me worried there for a minute! Glad I wasn't one of the Authors Behaving Badly! :-)

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    2. I'm not a reviewer, but I agree with this. Social media is an awesome tool for the ones who can wield it, but if an author's "platform" turns into a funnel of word-vomit and frustration, they're only damaging themselves and making their fans feels like idiots. That's definitely undesirable and the damage more often than not can never be undone.

      I think this is particularly risky if an author is predominately blogging about writing and earning a social media following of other writers, because she gets accustomed to talking to her peers (and yes, writers do complain about reviews and rejections and whatnot, when they're among themselves) and she might forget that her readers also have access to those poisonous rants. Not good.

      In my opinion, social media serves writers well when it comes to getting a feel for the industry, gaining savvy and learning to be more professional. But it won't push sales, unless the product is relevant to the social media universe.

      Thank you Jody for discussing this openly. :)

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  19. This really puts things into perspective. Not that we should be limiting ourselves, but all the hype about social media can take over one's life to the detriment of other things. (Like writing) In the end, your advice is spot on - its all about the story. Thanks for providing such a great example for the rest of us.

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  20. I think I'm one of the few - I like social media, probably a little too much. It's my 'talking to adults' time because I'm a freelancer and SAHM, so much of my day is spent at imaginary tea parties and reading princess books. I love it, don't get me wrong, but there are times I need to sep faaaar away from mommying.

    That said, I try to limit how much I talk about my books, try to promote other authors and talk about non-writing things...it's a balancing act that I hope I'm doing well...

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  21. Great post, Jody! It certainly gave me a lot to think about. As a writer who is still learning the craft, working on a book, entering contests and working in a full time day job, I wonder how I could keep up with all of the social media pressures if I were ever published. I love your blog, it is a great study source for me...thank you!

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  22. Jody, I just want to thank you for your fabulous blog. You are providing such a valuable service, such a wonderful resource. I've learned so much from reading your blog - you are so encouraging and it's so informative. As a beginning writer, I've just started a blog, mainly to chronicle my participation in A Round of Words in 80 Days. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with social media, so I'm taking it slow and using it as an opportunity to practise while I work on my first novel. I'm trying to create more relevant, inspiring blog posts and I notice that I'm becoming more comfortable with being online. It's a gradual process but I'm not letting it interfere with my writing...Thank you so much for all your hard work, all your positive energy.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Andrea! I appreciate the sweet words so much!

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  23. I'd been thinking this for awhile only because I've seen best sellers and compared it to the author's social media. Sometimes it seems there is a connection when the author has a great social media but then I see other breakout books where the author does barely anything: and this goes for both self pubbed and trad. pubbed.

    I think social media sells books but not our social media selling our own books. It's other people spreading the word about books they love through social media. I think it's good we're here for fans and readers to find us; and for us, to find community. But I agree that it's the book that counts. Our small circle of social media barely makes a dent.

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    1. Laura, thanks for sharing your perspective. As I look at some of my self-publishing friends who are having great success, I would have to agree that social media hasn't really played a huge role in sky-rocketing them. Take Addison Moore, for example. Yes, she has an online presence and blog. But that's not what's driven her sales. Her stories have. And likely also the fact that she's priced her stories right and had them in quick succession.

      So I agree, that whether trad or self-pub, social media can create some buzz, but there are likely a lot of other factors that will cause books to really break-out from the pack.

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  24. Wow, super interesting post, Jody. That gives me a lot to chew on. Also, I liked Anon's comment and will be chewing on that too. Hmmm. Thank you!

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  25. Thank you for this post! You're absolutely right. Networking has its place, but it can't ever eclipse writing a good book in the first place. :D

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  26. AMEN!! I could not agree more. One thing I realized after my debut novel published. Our efforts are seriously a drop in the bucket. I think it is all too tempting for author to buy into the lie that the success of our books is up to us. That if our sales are poor....then we better do something MORE. More blogs, more tweet, more clever updates.

    When really...the BEST thing we can do is work on our stories. Pour our energy into that. And at the end of the day, not lose sight of what it's all about. Which is connecting with readers, sharing the work we love, and loving on our fams and friends.

    As Dan Walsh says....God things have to happen for books to be successful. And God things are beyond what we can control. We just have to bring our two fish and our seven loaves. At the end of the day, it's up to Him to multiply or not.

    I'm writing a blog post on Monday about this. It sorta goes with Jill Kemerer's recent post about what we can control and what we can't control.

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    1. Will look forward to your post, Katie!

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  27. She protects her writing time and focuses on writing award-winning stories with each book. And it's starting to pay off for her. She's finaling in contests and making the best seller list.


    The longer I'm in this, the more I think this is key. And just as much (even more so) for self-pub as trad-pub authors.

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    1. I really appreciate hearing your perspective (and Laura's above) about self-publishing. I think ultimately, no matter what choice we make with publishing, our STORY is the key to propelling us to success. Yes, it helps to have a base of supporters already in place who can start some buzz. But there are so many other factors that are necessary to sky-rocket us off the ground, and I imagine it's the same with self-pub too.

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  28. Thanks for being open about this, Jody. Your experience sounds pretty normal, from what I've heard and read and discussed. Perhaps when only a few writers were blogging/tweeting, a social media presence had more impact on fiction sales? I don't know.

    But it's a Catch 22. For those seeking to follow the traditional route, agents these days are tending to demand a strong web presence before they sign up new writers. And for self-publishers, social media is the biggest and cheapest marketing possibility.

    I write both fiction and non-fiction, and I'm blogging and tweeting to build community and connection. The sense of not being alone, and the real practical support I've received from other writers, is worth it for me. Rather than being necessarily a direct generator of sales, perhaps it is more of a support framework that encourages me to persevere in the writing business.

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  29. Jodi - Great post. Even your agent, Rachelle Gardner, posted on something like this for fiction writers, specifically those trying to break into the field. Her advice was quite similar - don't get hung up on platform. Write a good book first, platform-build as you can. It was good advice from her and your words simply back that up. I know there are a lot of different opinions about this but I believe that your angle is especially true with fiction.

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  30. Thank you, Becky! I don't think it's an all or nothing approach. I think we can work at finding a balance and that's why I'm trying for! :-)

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  31. I feel overwhelmed by all the social media sites that we are supposed to keep up with. I was already overwhelmed and then came pinterest, supposedly the 3rd most important site to be on. I still cant figure out exactly how that helps. I am losing interest lately with all social media. I just want to write. I have picked up some new fans and made some book sales from social media, especially facebook, but it is minimal.

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  32. Very good list and I certainly use most of these, although there are a couple that are new to me. Just to ass
    to this (and I oculdn;t see it on a quick skim through), you can use onlyWire to automate your submissions.
    It definitely saves time but the only downside is all of your submisisons will have the same description.social media craze
    Hope this helps

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  33. I am always searching online for articles that can help me. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also. Keep working, great job!
    graphic designer

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