The Cargo Cult of Social Media

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The recent revelation that many successful writers don't seem to use any kind of social media has hit rather hard. Writer Unboxed's article on this very subject was a well-written and thoughtful examination of the whole thing. But the reactions have somewhat baffled me - I hear a chorus of writers suddenly trumpeting that they don't use social media and they're glad not to, because it doesn't work. I also hear a somewhat quieter chorus of writers who want to know what they're supposed to do, then, to promote their books, and the response is usually something like 'Just write more books!' This is bad advice.

No, I'm not saying writers shouldn't write. That's ridiculous. I'm saying that, as a means of promotion, just writing isn't going to cut it. Without properly delving into the mechanics of promotion and marketing, new authors are going to read this, write plenty of books while ignoring any other kind of marketing, and... well, be surprised and confused when they get no sales.

The Why is Important

See, part of the initial problem is that writers were told a lot of not-very-useful things. They were told that they needed Facebook, and Twitter, and all those social media accounts, and they had to update them every day and do all this other social media stuff to get followers and retweets and good grief, is that the time? I could have been writing for the last six hours!

In retrospect, I'm not surprised that the pushback has been so vocal. They were told to do a lot of things without ever being told why or how it's supposed to work, so of course it failed and their time was wasted. It's a cargo cult of authors going through the motions of social media but not actually getting results (i.e. sales). But the why is important, and understanding the process is important, because using social media for promotion just won't work otherwise.

Back to Basics

As I like to say, let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

You have a thing you want to sell. There are people out there who you think would be very interested in buying your thing. Marketing is all the stuff you do to let them know about it and make those sales happen.

Do you think that books are somehow different from any other product? Yes, yes, you've poured your sweat and tears into writing the best book you can, but really - the work you did is no different from the work a car designer does to produce the latest Bugatti Veyron concept. The principles are the same, and if you want to sell the book, then you have to think of it in the same way. Here is your product, and you want to find customers for it.

Now, consider this: do Bugatti, makers of one of the most expensive vehicles in the world, market the Veyron in a manner similar to how Toyota markets the Prius?

No, of course not, because a Veyron driver and a Prius driver want completely different things and likely have completely different lifestyles, even though both are cars.

So how does this apply to books?

Simple, really. There are lots of different kinds of books, and lots of different methods of marketing. Yes, they're all books, but what methods work best for each one will vary a lot.

Social Media Connections

So here's your product. You should have some idea of who'd be interested in buying it - your target customers. Now you have to figure out the methods that will sell it.

Marketing, at its heart, is about communication. It's about letting the right people know about your product, and giving them a reason to buy it. Of course social media can be included in this, because it's another means of communicating - you just have to make sure you're talking to the right people. If your customers don't use a particular service, then obviously you don't need to use it either - no point talking to an empty room, of course.

So how does this apply to books?

If your readers hang out on Facebook, then you can use Facebook to talk to them. No, I don't mean you saying 'BUY MY BOOK!' all the damn time, and I may just scream if I see another author doing that. You need the hook, the reason for them to take notice of and follow you - usually just you being yourself, or a version of yourself that's awesome and followable. The same is true for any social network where you know the readers of your genre like to congregate.

When it doesn't work

Making sales is all about pitching the right message in the right communication medium to the right people. Get any one of those three things wrong, and you can kiss your sales goodbye. The same is true if you don't even try to reach your customers at all. (Zero communication = zero marketing = zero sales.)

The right message? That's the one that makes people want to know about you and the thing you're selling. The right medium is whatever can get your message in front of your customers, whether that's a billboard or a Facebook update or a message on a blimp. The right people are the ones who have bought similar products to yours, and who - through whatever you know about them - seem to have the means and interest in buying more.

So how does this apply to books?

Writers frequently get the last part of this wrong. They'll get on Twitter and start following other writers. They'll post links to their promo in forums that only other writers frequent. They form networks with other authors who like their Facebook page and comment on their blog. All the support is nice, of course, but they're still missing the whole point by a mile because they're not connecting with readers.

If you're an author, you have to start thinking about what you've been told about promotion, and you have to figure out if and how your target readers are seeing any of the promotional stuff you do. You can't pitch a crappy advertising message to the wrong people and expect to get sales.

Figuring it all out

The Writers Unboxed article had one main message: that there isn't one true way to find success. This doesn't mean that social media is a waste of time, and it doesn't mean that you can get by without doing any marketing. It means exactly what it says: that how you find an audience is up to you and, contrary to what you've been told, not every method will work for every author.

So look, here's my advice on this. Can you get sales just by writing more books? Sure - if you've got a readership already who are hungry for anything you produce. Can you get sales using Facebook? Sure - if your target readers use Facebook a lot and you put some effort into connecting with them. Can you get sales by blogging? Sure - if you're blogging about funny, awesome, interesting, informative, whatever kind of stuff that your target readers like, and if they know about it.

Can you get sales by doing nothing? No.

There is your challenge. You have to do something to sell your work, and that something depends on so many different factors that trying to codify it will likely give you a migraine. But there is a fuzzy kind of structure to all this, and understanding the most basic ideas of how and why you should be promoting your work will let you work out the shape of it.

Authors have finally broken out of the cargo cult mentality of promotion. Now they have to stop rejecting it wholesale and learn how to do it right.