Does Social Media Sell Books?
Not all by itself it doesn't.
The most important takeaway from a recent New York Times article on the disappointing sales of some authors with big social media footprints (“Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, ‘It’s Unreliable.’”) is that even though I am a nobody, and my books sell very modestly, when it comes to U.S. sales, I am crushing Piers Morgan.
Morgan’s 8 million Twitter and 1.8 million Instagram followers did not result in blockbuster sales of his most recent book Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts.
I haven’t read the book, but I wonder if one of pieces of evidence of a world gone nuts is thinking that Piers Morgan’s social media following would for sure translate into book sales.
As my former editor, now friend and publishing guru Jane Friedman points out, social media is obviously very useful when it comes to selling books, but it’s not just an on/off switch. Publishers need to plan a campaign around that audience, like they would any other audience. Twitter followers aren’t just lemmings waiting for the command to go purchase something from the people they follow. Given the dynamics of Twitter, it wouldn’t surprise me if a decent proportion of Piers Morgan’s followers follow him so they can tell him what an idiot he is.
While Morgan’s sales are the most anemic of the authors highlighted, books by Justin Timberlake, Ilhan Omar, and Billie Eilish are also cited as examples where sales did not live up to expectations based on their social media presences.
I do not want to be too harsh on publishers because publishing is a tough business which requires taking risks and a fair amount of good fortune, but reading the article made me feel like publishers were failing to ask and answer two key questions before publishing any book by a high profile person.
Are the fans and followers interested specifically in a book from this person?
Is the book, you know…any good?
For question one, you have to at least be able to get to “maybe.”
For question two, the answer better be “yes.”
For Piers Morgan, I’m confident the answer to both of these questions is “no.”
Consider a book by a famous person that was a sales success this past year. I’m talkin’ ‘bout Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey. Now, I don’t know how many people were looking for a book from this very famous, very successful person. I do know that I was not among them, and yet I read, and enjoyed, and even recommended Greenlights because McConaughey managed to successfully put his rather odd self on the page in a way that allows the audience to see the world through his eyes.
In contrast is one of the underperforming books from the Times article, Billie Eilish. It is billed as an intimate insider look at Billie Eilish through the years, filled with 100’s of photos. It looks very well produced, a nice package, but what does this book deliver that fans want that they can’t get elsewhere like the almost concurrently released documentary about her life, or I don’t know, the Internet?
Billie Eilish is not a book. It’s a product. For me, for a book to be any good it has to establish a base level of intimacy with the audience, and products don’t clear that bar. It’s a relationship, and a book above all must be interesting company.
Now, if Billie Eilish had written a book as candid as her recent interview with Howard Stern, in which she dropped some bombshells about her personal experiences and traumas, I’m betting the book would’ve received a different reception.
It worries me when publishers throw the dice and make these foreseeably bad bets because, unfortunately, publishing is a zero sum game. The money required to secure the rights to a Billie Eilish picture album could’ve gone to books by 20 other authors whose primary focus was on writing a good book.
We’ll never see those books.
Publishers have to be in the book business, not the product business.
Why not wait until famous people have a story that, above all, they’re excited to tell? This is the recipe for a good book that’s more than a product.
I’m experiencing this at the moment, as I read All About Me by 95-year-old Mel Brooks. I imagine that Brooks could’ve secured a publishing deal at any point in the last thirty years, but he waited until he was ready to deliver something more than a product.
Also at the Tribune this week, Christopher Borrelli takes a look at Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism & Creativity in Chicago.
Pen American has released its longlists of nominees for their 2022 awards. They got a bunch of different categories, so you have to go look for yourself.
I swore I was done with “best of” lists for they year, but I’m a sucker for “underrated books” (from Bethanne Patrick @thebookmaven) and this list of “75 Best Queer Books of 2021” is impressively comprehensive.
We’re right out of the best books season and into anticipating next year’s books. Here’s “30 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022” from Parade, the “Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Adult Fiction” for the first half of the year, “15 of the Best and Most Anticipated Books of 2022” from Good Housekeeping, and “the 21 Most Anticipated Books of 2022” from Time.
We had two significant losses in the writing world this week. Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire passed away at age 80. Also, bell hooks, perhaps the most significant Black feminist scholar, cultural theorist, and philosopher of progressive education of her generation passed away at age 69. Teaching to Transgress: Education at the Practice of Freedom has been an enduring influence on my own classroom practices.
Another awesome week for affiliate income to reach a total of $275.65. Factoring in the pending credits, we’re over the goal of $300 for the year, but let’s keep going for the stretch goal of $400 that I’ve promised to match with a matching donation of my own.
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
Recommendations are always open. Some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.
1. We Are The Brennans by Tracey Lange
2. The Magician by Colm Tobin
3. The Overstory by Richard Powers
4. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
5. Empire of Pain; The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
Bob R. - Boston, MA
I’m going to dip into the classic American literature subsection of my personal favorites bin and recommend Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which is actually two separate novellas that just happen to come published together.
1. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
2. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophy by Voddie Baucham Jr.
3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
4. The Short and Tragic life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbes
5. Memorial Drive by Natasha Tretheway
Mary Ellen M. - Chicago, IL
Jennifer Haigh is great at setting a human story against a big picture issue. In the case of Heat & Light, that issue is fracking in a Pennsylvania town.
I hope all those who celebrate have a wonderful holiday filled with the arrival of great books.
See you next week,