Most writers think social media interaction is essential to sell their book or books. (You’re probably only reading this because you clicked a link from social media.)
Being on Facebook or Instagram or some such sites is probably a big slice of your day right now. So you’re probably not going to like it if I tell you that it’s most likely a huge waste of your time as a writer. In which case, I’m not going to tell you quite so bluntly — I’m going to break it to you in a roundabout way.
Back in ancient times, before the dawn of the Internet Age — like perhaps twenty years or so ago — writers had to find readers through the narrow ‘keyhole’ of established publishers. There really was no other way. They had to painstakingly type out manuscripts, package them up and ship them off by post to big cities where publishers had their headquarters, and then wait. If they ever heard back, it was usually after a long time — and more often than not it would be a rejection letter that arrived, if anything arrived at all. During the intervening time, the writer had not much to do other than write: there weren’t even that many people around in his or her local vicinity, probably, to talk to about the whole activity of writing.
Gradually, as electronic communication between people became more widespread, this picture changed: writers could more easily contact potential readers themselves — or they thought they could. As technology continued to develop, it seemed to become possible to ‘cut out the middle man’ and transmit manuscripts directly to readers, without any need to go through anyone. There was a lot of excitement, a boom in self-publishing, and the marketplace flooded with material. That’s still the situation right now.
But there was more to the old traditional publishers than simply the task of getting manuscripts to readers: they did they work of selection at both ends of the line — publishers chose which manuscripts they would circulate, and they chose to whom they would circulate them. This saved the writer — at least, those few writers who had been chosen by the publisher — the arduous task of trying to find readers: publishers had access to bookshops which in their turn had shelves divided into genres and kinds of books, acting as a filtration mechanism so that of the people who flowed through the shops, the right readers could more easily find the right books.
We mustn’t forget that this still meant that 90% of books failed as commercial propositions: even with all this infrastructure, publishers still only made money on 10% or less of the books that they had initially chosen and circulated in this way. In all of this scenario, though, the writer’s tasks were merely to write, to package, to post, and to wait. Twenty years ago, no one had really heard of ‘social media’ or imagined the idea of communicating so much with others about the job of writing. A much greater percentage of work than today never saw the light of day at all.
The purpose of marketing is to get products seen by, and connected with, particular target markets in the hope of eventually converting some individuals in those markets into customers. The ‘fishing net’ in those ancient times consisted of huge, labyrinthine and highly selective publishers with their associated networks of shops with neatly delineated shelves across the country. Commercial yields were low and poor.
Today’s ‘fishing net’ consists of largely undelineated - i.e. full of all kinds of people - networks of social media groups all over the world, awash with largely unselected or un-quality-checked works accessible through electronic means.
Commercial yields are low and poor.
A successful book in the old system succeeded for two main reasons:
1. It contained enough archetypal attractive factors to convince editors and publishers to invest in it
2. It reached sufficient numbers of the right readers.
The old system wasn’t particularly geared to do 1. and 2. — it just happened that 1. and 2. occasionally happened through that old fishing net process, just often enough to sell enough books to keep a few traditional publishers afloat. Most of the books chosen by publishers failed — they either didn’t contain enough archetypal attractive factors or they failed to reach viable numbers of the right readers, or both.
It might surprise you to learn that what is successful in today’s marketplace succeeds for the exact same reasons: it contains enough archetypal factors to generate appeal, and it happens to make contact with a viable number of the right readers. In the whole, huge, saturated and overflowing fiction market today, the same principles are at work as in yesterday’s market — and in fifty or a hundred years’ time, those same principles will still underpin the fiction market.
You need to have a book which contains sufficient universally recognised elements to appeal to readers; and you need to get that book in front of sufficient numbers of its target market.
Unless you do those two things, the book will fail, like 90% of the books that are out there today.
Don’t confuse size with success: just because a marketplace is huge and full of buzzing activity doesn’t mean that it is more successful or easier to succeed in. Size has nothing to do with it: only archetypal elements and viable target markets lead to success.
You can probably see that these two factors play off each other to some extent: if a book has only a few archetypal aspects and is perhaps quite poorly written overall, but is placed in front of enough readers who don’t mind that, it can still commercially succeed. Some popular fiction successes like the ‘Fifty Shades’ series fit this category — they're not great books, but what they do have is a low grade appeal for a wide sector of the marketplace.
Similarly, if a book has tremendous qualities and is very well written, it can just about survive on a smaller audience and tends to build up viability over a longer period of time. Such are the categories of ‘literary fiction’ or well-written genre fiction.
So how does social media fit into all this?
Well, as you can probably see, it doesn’t. At least, not as most writers seem to think it does. The commonly held view is that if you can get enough social ‘likes’ and reach a large enough number of people in general through Facebook and such, you’re helping your book to achieve its commercial aims. It’s the old ‘Marketing is a numbers game’ idea, which is powerful enough to linger even today. So writers spend many hours a week telling the world at large about their latest story, or novel, or series, and garnering ‘likes’ and generating chat, in the mistaken view that this is all going to boost sales.
Imagine you’re back in the 1980s, before anyone had ever heard of the internet. Imagine spending hours and hours each day writing letters to everyone on a list of friends, telling them about your latest book. The most polite might write a note back and say ‘That’s nice’ or wish you luck, but most of those letters would be ignored and end up in the bin, wouldn’t they? Do you think the letters would help sell any copies of your book? Perhaps a few — just enough to encourage you to write more letters. But nowhere near enough to make serious money.
What’s wrong with that picture?
The brutal truth is that all that communication is doing very little to help the only two factors which can truly result in success for your book: it’s not helping the book itself get any better written; and it’s not particularly helping it find its correct readers.
Yes, social media seems to grant the author the power to bypass the publisher and reach readers directly — but it’s an illusion, albeit a powerful and convincing one. What creates success is built-in reader appeal based on archetypal factors, and finding the exact right audience for a book.
So what should you do? How should you spend all those hours?
You’ll be pleased to know that there is a correct way to employ social media to help your book, though few do it. That’s what we’ll look at next.