This article, written by Kristan Higgins, is from the March 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Marketing via social media can be an author’s full-time, unpaid job. Our publishers expect that we’ll do it well, consistently, in our author voice, making readers feel such a bond with us that of course they’ll buy our books, preferably by preorder or within the first week it’s out. A good portion of any marketing plan is based on the author doing more and more, and it can be exhausting.
To have a consistent, popular online presence takes a keen sense of what resonates with readers. We’re constantly promoting our books, but also constantly fighting to be seen in the vast ocean of online content. We know the challenges—engaging posts, new content, timing, staying on brand, being relevant, expressing our opinions intelligently, speaking out when we feel we should, standing up for our beliefs as humans at the risk of alienating those who don’t share those beliefs. All this while selling books.
This is not the job we signed up for. We want to write books, not market them. The reality, however, is that our participation in marketing our books consistently and well is part of our job.
We all know this. So what are the mistakes that some of us make?
Ignore your pages
If you have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, TikTok, Instagram, Pinterest, whatever the next new platform will be—keep it active, or delete it. A neglected account is worse than no account. It’s discouraging to readers when they reach out to you via social media and you never answer. One of my publicists said, “If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.” A rule of thumb is to stick to what’s comfortable for you, and what seems to pay off. Many of us link our various platforms when possible, so that, for example, Facebook posts show up on Instagram, too.
Expect social media to sell books
The time we invest in promoting our books, the number of followers we have, does not necessarily mean we’ll hit a bestseller list. Readers follow you for entertainment. You hope that this will also encourage them to buy your book, but it doesn’t always work like that. I know an author with more than 100,000 followers on Facebook, and when her book failed to hit the New York Times bestseller list, she was furious. All that time, all that humor, all that energy sunk into her page, and for what?
Just because you have one million followers doesn’t mean each one of them will buy your book—ever. Our readers owe us nothing.
Remember that while spending your time creating content. Balance the time and effort put into social media posts, videos, interviews, etc.
Force yourself to be on platforms that make you anxious or unhappy
Most of us will never be TikTok stars or Instagram influencers. If being in front of the camera gives you hives, don’t do it (or save the anxiety for Good Morning America, when it would really count). Your job is to write books. Some of the most popular authors in fiction do not have much of an online presence. If you have a traditional publisher, their reach is much greater than yours, and not because of social media but rather their sales teams, marketing and advertising departments, their connections. Even so, only word of mouth—readers—make you a bestselling author. Not your clever Instagram story.
Spend all your time on social media
Social media is the black hole of the internet. Whether you’re trying to find something to post or reading other people’s comments, that’s time you don’t get back. Time that you didn’t use writing your book. Learn to limit the amount of time you spend on social media so you can get your job done. If you spend hours a day on social media, ask yourself if A) it makes you feel better, and B) helps you get your work done.
Throw yourself down the rabbit hole
There are some things we need or want to research, read and look at, and then there’s procrastination. Be aware of the difference.
We all know the authors whose message is simply “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my backlist, buy my book.” Don’t be that author. Social media is just that—social.
Most of my posts announcing a new book is out have a lower engagement rate, especially if I post a link. Even a link in the comment section gets noticed by the mysterious algorithms and keeps exposure low. This is deliberate. These platforms want us to pay for exposure. I can ask friends and readers to share the post, but even so, it’s not as popular as the cartoon about the pleasure of cleaning out the lint filter on my dryer. That one was shared 419 times. One of my books on sale for $1.99? Seven comments, four shares.
That’s discouraging, but also an important reminder that our followers are there to be entertained, to engage with us, and not necessarily to buy books on the day we want them to.
If you only post cartoons of cleaning the lint filter, or links to your latest book, or news of a price drop, there’s a certain meh quality to your engagement. One author I follow has hundreds of thousands of followers because she posts awesome cartoons. I looked her up on Amazon and discovered she doesn’t sell a lot of books.
Contrast that with Kennedy Ryan, who recently blew up the internet by standing under a giant ad for her book in Times Square. People love Kennedy. She’s a genuine, kind, sparkling person. She invited us to share her joy, and she’s authentic. Did it sell books? I don’t know. But it certainly gave us the warm fuzzies to see this great moment in her career, and the reader engagement was enormous.
Ignore copyright laws
Speaking of those little cartoons… Be aware of the law on copyright infringement by posting work that’s not yours. There’s fair use, and there’s infringement. Do you know the difference? Me neither, and the answer depends on which lawyers you ask. Regardless, we should all be aware that if we profit off of someone else’s work, we can easily be sued by the original artist. Tread carefully.
NO: I go out of my way to help others because I believe in helping others.
Sanctimony is generally unpleasant, because it implies a moral superiority. No one likes that. But maybe you really do believe that. Give us an example instead. Did you shovel your elderly neighbor’s driveway?
YES: Me, shoveling the neighbor’s walk and being a saint. Took me 10 minutes, and I didn’t have to watch Mr. Smithers die of a heart attack. Don’t forget to check on your elders in this dreadful weather, folks!
This way, you show them a little of yourself; you acknowledge that you’re doing a good deed with humor; and you make a public service announcement. Humility and grace go a long way. Be the person who lifts up others, rather than turns the attention back to themselves.
Bragging is tacky. Wow! I sold 10,000,000 books this week! And they told me it couldn’t be done. Guess I showed them!
There’s nothing wrong with singing out your accomplishments, but try to do it with gratitude and a personal touch. Thank you, readers, for putting my book on the USA TODAY list! I’m so happy and grateful! My dog and I are dancing around the apartment!
There is nothing wrong with being proud of yourself. Just be aware that if you post pictures of the Maserati you bought yourself, you’ll alienate some readers who will think (and say), “I can barely afford groceries this month.” Some things are meant just for your friends, not your readership.
Then there’s humble bragging—when you try to deflect from your bragging by qualifying it in some way. Just embarrassed myself by not knowing I was drinking Dom Perignon on Emirates Airlines. Flying first class is wasted on me. #winedummy
Again, you don’t have to post everything. Consider the fact that most people will never fly first class and won’t relate to your oopsy.
This one seems obvious, but—don’t lie. If you say you sold 30,000 copies of your book in a single day in Korea, people can check that. The authors who post about their ginormous deals, the fact that they put their six kids through college on this week’s sales, or that Emma Stone may play the lead in your adaptation, it’s hard to believe. Don’t make people suspect you of lying by stretching the truth or exaggerating your success.
Using social media when you really need a therapist
I refer to vaguebooking and twhining—posting something sad or angry without being specific in order to provoke a response of sympathy and caring.
I hate when people choose to be cruel.
You think someone is your friend, and then you find there’s a knife sticking out of your back.
It’s possible you may need to instead call a dedicated hotline or see a therapist. Call 911 if you think you’re a danger to yourself or others. If it’s not quite that bad, you might just need your friends. Call them. Email them. Ask them out for a drink. But this kind of attention-seeking behavior on a public forum is not professional.
On the other hand, it’s absolutely okay to engage people in a conversation about a topic or tell them about something sad in your life.
Instead of “Crying buckets right now,” try “So hard to have to say goodbye to my dear doggy today. He gave us 11 years of happiness.”
However, maybe, like so many of us, you suffer from some kind of mental health issue. If you want to share that, go right ahead. Author Alyssa Day has been very open about sharing her struggles with depression, and in doing so she invites a compassionate conversation about the subject. Thousands of readers have related to her posts, which are honest and kind and humanizing.
The past few years have made us all a little meaner. It’s tough in a polarized nation. Maybe you feel everyone who voted differently from you is…(insert negative description here). Maybe you really hated Famous Author’s last book.
It’s probably not a good idea to say that (though, full disclosure, I have questioned people’s judgment on matters related to science). Recognize that in doing so, you will alienate someone. Maybe you don’t care at this point. But you might also ask yourself, “Does my voice need to be added to this conversation, or am I just venting?” Ask, “Is there a kinder way of making my point?” The internet is forever. That post could come back to haunt you.
Thinking your personal page is separate from your author page
It’s not. Your editor knows your real name. Most of your writer friends do, too. Readers who try hard enough will figure it out. It may well be out there publicly.
Put your foot in it
If you make a mistake on social media, take responsibility for it. Own it. We all stumble. We all need to learn more and try harder to be better. It’s the human condition.
A couple of years ago, I posted something that someone pointed out was appropriated from some Native American cultures. I apologized. I didn’t realize my mistake, having never thought too deeply about where the term came from (white privilege on full display). But when we know better, we do better.
In closing, remember that people follow you because it’s easy. They think you’re entertaining. That’s a gift. Use it wisely. Entertain. Connect. Be genuine. Then get off the internet and write your books.
Kristan Higgins is the New York Times, USA TODAY and international bestselling author of 21 novels. Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been translated into dozens of languages. She is the mother of two lovely grown children, the wife of a heroic firefighter and the owner of a very sweet dog.