Does Social Media Promotion Really Work for Writers?

So you just had a short story published. You hurry over to Facebook and Twitter to post links to your success. Within minutes, you have several likes. The comments start to flow in. By the end of the day, you have dozens of likes. A few days later, another story goes up. You do the same, but at the end of the day, only a couple people have liked the post, and no one has commented.

Just how effective were those posts? Does five “likes” mean five people read your story?

Well, chances are, the people who liked your posts actually read your stories. People who didn’t like your posts probably didn’t read them (although some people “like” everything they see in hopes of return, and others “like” nothing at all as a matter of principle).

As writers, our work is never complete. When the story is published, the real work begins. We need people to read it, and getting readers is often more time consuming and more frustrating than all the rounds of editing. So we post on Facebook and Twitter. We blog about it. We climb to the roof of a tall building and throw flyers while shouting the story’s URL.

And no matter how much we promote, we only reach a small percentage of the people we target.

Think of it this way: you’re probably friends with lots writers, and you probably follow a lot of writers. Your writer friends all do the same. By the time they log in to see what’s going on, your post is buried under dozens of posts bragging about the latest publication credits. You can read only so many stories in one day. You can buy only so many books.

Some writers have thousands of friends and only a few sales. Others have just a few friends and thousands of sales. The number of friends or followers you have doesn’t necessarily correlate with your readership or fan base. Not too long ago, I read about the futility of social media promotion. The article cited this specific example: if you have 17,000 followers on social media, no matter how much you promote, you won’t have 17,000 sales.

In hopes of making things more scientific, I created an online survey regarding social media promotion. I shared the survey with all my friends and fellow writers and asked them to help spread the word. I promoted the survey more than I promote any of my stories. Still, it took two weeks to get 50 people to reply to a 5-minute survey (by the way, thanks to everyone who took the survey or passed it along to someone else). Most of these respondents said they frequently read stories or buy books posted by their friends. Over 50% of respondents said they read most stories posted by their friends. Only 7% said they never do. Thankfully, none of the respondents said they “like” posts without actually looking at the links.

Not to brag too much here, but over 80% of the respondents said they read my stories at least half the time. I guess that makes up for the 8% who didn’t know who I was, and the one respondent who thinks my links and stories are annoying (yet you took the time to do the survey, so the joke’s on you!).

These results shouldn’t be surprising. Of course the respondents read the links. They took the time to respond to the survey. But what about those who didn’t reply (which is most of them)? Do they just have no interest in reading stories that people post on Facebook?

For frame of reference, I have over 450 friends on Facebook and over 2000 followers on Twitter. Not exactly staggering numbers, but for someone who just figured out how Twitter worked a few months ago (combined with my obstinate refusal to “friend” people until just a couple years ago), those numbers are decent enough.

I must confess, in my nascent days of the whole writing and publishing thing, my social media use was a bit lacking. I would log in, post a link, sign out. I didn’t comment on other links. I didn’t post anything to suggest I was a human.

No surprise, my sales numbers were disappointingly low on my first novel.

But why should they have been higher? I was an unknown author released through an independent e-book publisher. Without the proper promotion, who was going to buy my book?

I’ve noticed that the more active I am on Twitter on Facebook, the more followers I get (and the more “likes” and comments I get on my posts).

If these people take the time to follow you or friend you, why wouldn’t they read your stuff?

Well, first of all, many of these people have hundreds of writer friends as well. By the time they log in to Facebook or Twitter, there are dozens or maybe even hundreds of posts to cycle through. By the time they get to your story, they might not have the time to read it, if they ever get to it. Maybe they’ll “like” it, because they like you enough. But they might not be able to read it.

Second, some of them follow you and “like” your stuff because they hope you will do the same. Although you may want to, you just don’t have enough time to read everything that all your friends have written and published.

So what’s the strategy? How can you balance promotion without being annoying?

Be a person. Respond to other people. Post frequently. “Like” stuff. Be a real human, not just a promotional machine. If all you do is promote your own work, people will stop paying attention to you. It’s great to post your links, but post other things as well. And don’t over promote the same story or book. People find it annoying when the same thing keeps popping up.

Also, keep in mind that your friends and fans aren’t necessarily the same. Surely there is some overlap, but you have to have a fan base that is separate from your friends, otherwise you won’t get those sales numbers where you want them to be. If all of your friends published a book during the same month, would you buy them all? Of course you wouldn’t. You couldn’t. And you can’t expect all of your friends to buy everything you put out.

In case you’re wondering, the survey results suggest that the top two factors in determining whether people buy your books are the reviews and the cost. This isn’t much of a surprise. People like cheap stuff, and they like good stuff. At the same time though, 37% of respondents are willing to spend over $13 on a friend’s book. But people are typically more willing to buy a print book (at least the people who responded to the survey).

Interestingly, I typically get more “likes” and comments on a post about an acceptance than I do on a link to one of my stories. There’s nothing wrong with this. It shows people support my work and are excited for me. It also shows that most people don’t have the time to go read a whole story. I’m glad most people don’t “like” or comment on a link they don’t bother to read.

You should post your links. You should ask for comments and feedback. Just don’t expect everyone to get involved. There’s too much out there and too little time.

At the end of the day, no matter how many “likes” or comments you get, be happy that anyone reads your stuff at all. Even if it’s only one person. And even if he or she only reads half your story. It’s a start, right?


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