Written by Elizabeth A. Harris
A Billie Eilish book seemed like a great bet. One of the world’s most famous pop stars, Eilish has 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter. If only a fraction of them bought his book, it would be a hit.
But her self-titled book has sold about 64,000 hardcover copies since its release in May, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks most print books sold in the United States — not necessarily a disappointing number, unless Eilish get a big lead. Which of course she did. The book cost its publisher over a million dollars.
It is difficult to predict whether a book will be a success. A jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to predict demand for new titles, it’s, even thoughtfully, guesswork. Because there are so few reliable metrics to look at, social media tracking has become one of the main data points publishers use to try to make their guesses more informed.
Author tracking has become a standard part of the equation when publishers decide whether or not to acquire a book. Tracks can affect who gets a book deal and how much of an advance that author gets paid, especially when it comes to non-fiction. But despite their importance, they are increasingly seen as unpredictable indicators of how a book will actually sell.
Even having one of the largest social networks in the world is not a guarantee.
“The only reliable part about it,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, “is that it’s not reliable.”
An author’s platform has long been something publishers watch – does she have a radio show, for example, or a regular guest spot on TV? But as local media and book coverage have dwindled, publicity opportunities for books have narrowed, making an author’s ability to help spread the word more crucial. And when an author tells his followers about a book he’s written, he’s talking to people who are at least somewhat interested in what he has to share.
“It’s become more and more important over the years,” said Marc Resnick, editor of St. Martin’s Press. “We learned some hard lessons along the way, which is that one tweet or one post isn’t necessarily going to sell books, if it’s not the right person with the right book and the right followers at the right time. “
Take Justin Timberlake. His book “Hindsight” was acquired for over $1 million, but when it came out in 2018, Timberlake had bruised vocal cords and couldn’t promote it as planned. The 53 million Instagram followers he had at the time couldn’t catch up. “Hindsight” has sold about 100,000 copies in print since its publication three years ago, according to BookScan, far from the number its publisher had hoped.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., isn’t a global pop star, but she has a significant social media presence, with 3 million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million on Instagram. Yet her book, “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” which was published in May 2020, has only sold 26,000 copies in print, audio, and e-book formats. , according to its publisher.
Tamika D. Mallory, a social activist with over a million Instagram followers, has been awarded over $1 million for a two-book deal. But her first book, “State of Emergency,” has only sold 26,000 copies in print since its publication in May, according to BookScan.
Journalist and media personality Piers Morgan had a weaker performance. Despite its Twitter (8 million) and Instagram (1.8 million) followers, “Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts” has only sold 5,650 copies in print since its release a year ago. according to BookScan.
It is difficult to know why this is happening. Sometimes, publishing and marketing executives say, there’s a mismatch between what people post on social media and what their books are about. Maybe the books don’t provide anything beyond what they’ve already put on Instagram. It could be that the author didn’t push the book to his subscribers effectively, or that those subscribers (those who aren’t bots or aren’t paid) aren’t very engaged with what he’s doing. publish.
Or maybe the book is not so good. Social media is only part of the reason a book works or doesn’t work, just as it’s only part of the reason a book is acquired – publishers were interested in the book by Billie Eilish not just because of Instagram, but because she is Billie Eilish.
To mitigate these issues, some book contracts now specify the number of posts required before and after a book is published.
“In addition to hearing from the agent and reading the manuscript, we want to hear from the celebrity that they are invested in the book,” said Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. “To say, in the nicest way possible, how about this project and where would it fit in with all the other things you do?”
Crucially, the executives say, there is also a growing awareness in the industry of the difference between the number of subscribers and their degree of actual engagement. Do they comment? Do they share?
“There are people who cease to be famous and still have their millions of followers, or people who left office eight years ago,” said Eric Nelson, editorial director of Broadside Books. “The important thing is why do people talk about this person? This is what drives engagement.
A new dimension of this conversation is TikTok, which has become a powerful force in selling books. Bestselling “BookTok” titles are usually driven by enthusiastic readers crying into their camera phones how much they loved the book, not authors shilling for their own work. But book proposals from TikTok stars are now snapping up.
Mary Ann Naples, publisher of Hachette Books, said she recently came across a proposal from an author who had quickly built a huge TikTok following. Naples said it wanted the book, but its price skyrocketed.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going to those heights,” she said.
There are, however, plenty of examples where a social media following helps sell books, like Wally Koval’s “Accidentally Wes Anderson,” a coffee table book of photographs from around the world of things that look like the filmmaker’s sets, like a pink, yellow and blue bowling. Koval’s Instagram account, of the same name and concept, had over a million followers when the book was acquired and now has 1.6 million. The book has sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies since its publication in January, its publisher said.
Another book that did well was “How to Get the Job Done” by Dr. Nicole LePera, a holistic psychologist with 4.4 million Instagram followers. Her Instagram bio reads “I teach you to heal + consciously create a new version of yourself,” and her book has sold around 216,000 copies, according to BookScan.
Tanya McKinnon, a literary agent, said it’s not accurate to say that social media doesn’t matter for book sales. But the truth is, the industry doesn’t really know what it will do with any given book.
“If we knew, publishers wouldn’t make any mistakes,” McKinnon said. “My whole stance on this is if you find someone who really knows, could you please share their information with me?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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