I was not shocked when I read the 2021 New York Times article by journalist Elizabeth A. Harris “Millions of Followers? For book sales, “It’s not reliable.” “I was intrigued by the content of the article and knew it was the perfect learning moment to share with freelance writers.
There is a belief that having an existing audience is the surest way to ensure a book sells well. Yet that’s not always the case, as the celebrity experiences highlighted in the article show.
Pop star Billie Eilish, who now has 102 million Instagram followers and 6.7 million Twitter followers, 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 Instagram followers, only managed to sell 100,000 copies of his collection of autobiographical observations, Hindsight, in the first three years. And media personality Piers Morgan, who has 7.9 million Twitter followers and 1.8 million Instagram followers, managed to move just 5,650 US copies of his book, Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts, from September to December.
If being a celebrity with millions of followers doesn’t guarantee high book sales, what does? Is there any hope for 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 as well as celebrity or influencer status, which are believed to lead to an independent home run of their editors’ prowess. So why such dismal book sales?
Authors and potential authors: the profession of author is a marathon, not a sprint. Any tool, strategy or step could potentially work for you. However, it is imperative that writers do not fall into the trap of relying solely on the latest social media gimmick, fad, or trend to succeed.
There are many ways for writers to quickly grow their social media presence, but it doesn’t necessarily work to an author’s advantage. As if the celebrities above weren’t proof enough, consider those who buy social media followers. You might brag about how quickly your social media following grew with this strategy, but you’ll find that you have extra numbers with no commitment or leverage.
So where should you go from here? First, remember that business was happening long before social media existed. While technology has given authors a greater opportunity to reach more readers regardless of geography, social media can also hamper the potential for success if not used responsibly. For starters, curating engaging content takes time. Regularly establishing a presence with other social media accounts to gain attention can be time consuming. What’s even more troubling is that these things by themselves don’t help authors build relationships with their subscribers. Building relationships is a big part of a successful business strategy, virtually and in person.
As an author, do you fall into the trap of copying what looks like social media success and hurting your business? Are you unaware of what needs to be done to scale your business and solidify success in the short, medium and long term to look “popular” on social media? Don’t treat authorship as something new. Much of your time should be spent researching, sourcing, and increasing your influence level. Social media may be one of them, but it’s not an accurate measure of your book sales success.
Every book is different and every author is different, so it can be difficult to predict the demand for new titles. There are no guarantees, and social media is becoming a less reliable measure of a book’s success than previously thought. But knowing what solution your book offers and who wants that solution is a starting point. Knowing where the people who need this solution are is a second critical element to the success of your book.
In my previous article, “When Social Media Hurts”, I demonstrated that having a social media presence is not enough for effective book marketing and why many authors spend a lot of time online with little or nothing to show. I’ve outlined what authors should prioritize and do to maximize their social media presence. If you want clarification on how to proceed, I strongly advise you to read it and let me know what you think.
Alesha Brown is an entrepreneur, book and magazine publisher, consultant, and the CEO of Fruition Publishing Concierge Services.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 9/5/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: The enigma of book sales