Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Social Media is Overhyped

Ever get the feeling you're being super dumb?  

Yeah, I said it. And I’ll raise the ante a little more: I don’t think indie authors really need social media. It’s not a career essential, in other words. This isn’t just my opinion, either. I have actual evidence to support my conclusions.

The funny thing about being an author these days, indie or not, is that technology is pretty much the master of your fate. There’s no getting around it. And tech is really fickle—almost anything can and will happen. To demonstrate this, let’s get round to the evidence.

Full disclosure: I have grown to despise social media. So temper my remarks with that. I’ve lately been heard saying, “If I could cut social media out of my life, I would. I’m only on it because of my writing.” I think there are more productive ways to spend about an hour a day, broken up into four segments of fifteen minutes each. You can trim your nose hairs, for instance. You can unload the dishwasher. Or load it. OR YOU COULD FREAKIN WRITE, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. Anyway enough with the disclosures.

Here’s fact #1. Over the weekend, I managed to move about 5,500 copies of The Marsburg Diary, and on Monday, I managed to move about 2,000 copies of K [phantasmagoria]. Both of these were free promotions designed to get my work in front of more people, not to make me fast money. But if I added up all my followers from all the social media sites on which I’m active, and if all those followers downloaded a copy of my book, that number would not approach the number of books people downloaded for free. So that’s food for thought.

Here’s fact #2. I’ve noticed that social media is like direct mail (only worse): you’re lucky to get about 1% or 2% positive response. The math is real easy for me on Google+, where I have right around 2000 people in my circles. When I post up something about one of my books, my blog, or even news about my weekend promo book going totally viral, out of those 2000 people I will get 1 or 2 “+1’s” (the same as a Facebook “like”). So if you’re really paying attention to these numbers, social media is a lot like direct mail, only it’s one tenth as effective (not 2% but one tenth of 2%). I know, I know, there’s no way to quantify who clicked on the link and downloaded the book. But if you think all those downloads came from my social media contacts you’re crazy.

Here’s fact #3. When I woke up on Saturday morning, the first day of the Marsburg promo, global downloads of my title had already started going viral. Downloads in the first few hours of the promotion already exceeded or at least tied other promotions I did with other books on previous days, and those numbers for those books were the culmination of two days and lots of time spent on social media. The numbers for Marsburg mushroomed and went ballistic in a matter of a few hours, not two days. About two hours after that, Marsburg was already approaching 1,000 downloads. It wasn’t even noon on day one yet, and I still hadn't done anything on social media yet.

Here’s fact #4. In the days before my promo blitz began, I went through Amazon’s pages and did some tagging. If you've done this, you know how powerful it is. Aaron Patterson is the guy who taught me on this score. I’ll just say it like this: One of the inspirations for The Marsburg Diary is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I love literary fiction, I love the Victorian era, and I love that Stoker wrote his novel entirely out of the diary entries of his characters. It’s genius. I wasn’t able to pull that off, but there’s enough of a similarity from Marsburg to his work that I tagged Marsburg with Dracula and Dracula with Marsburg. It makes sense, it’s one of those things that made the book go viral, and by the way…if you want to sell books in the UK, Germany, and so on, you’ve got to do your tagging on those sites as well. Just Google “Amazon UK” or "Amazon Germany" for example.

Here’s fact #5. I sent out an email to some author friends of mine in preparation for this weekend promo blast. I included the link to the book, gave them the dates, and asked them kindly to help me blast it on social media over the weekend. In exchange, I proposed in the email, they could please let me know how I could reciprocate for them. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable proposition, being a little ignorant about author promotions still. Now, let me be very clear here: I do not harbor feelings of resentment. I’m not whining about anything. I think most interpersonal drama is just root selfishness anyway. But it’s telling that none of my author friends did what I asked them to do. Well, one of them did…kinda. But I’m suspicious that they’ve already figured out what I’m blogging about here, and that’s this: you can’t sell books via social media. At least not your own. The fact is, I was conducting an experiment on the overall worth of my time spent on social media, and it failed spectacularly this weekend. Winner? Time spent on Amazon. Big time.

Here’s fact #6. Most of my social media “friends” are—guess what—friggin authors, like me. That means that 99% of them are broke like me, and they aren’t even remotely interested in buying or even reading my books because they’re too busy trying to sell their books to me. But I’m too busy trying to get them to buy my books. Talk about bad business practices. Authors, especially the indie kind, are too broke and overworked to read other indie authors’ crapola. And you know what, I don’t even read fiction that much. I prefer history and really old dictionaries. So I’m the last guy to whom you want to market indie scifi. Yet how much time to all my author friends (God love 'em) spend marketing their books to guys like me?

Here’s fact #7. Marsburg broke into 2,000 units in the US by 5 PM on day one. At that point it was ranked #2 in short stories and was in the top 100 in free books. That’s for the entire Amazon.com Web site. By the end of the day it had blasted through 3,000 and was #1 in short stories, which is where it would stay for the duration of the weekend. My UK numbers for this title alone very nearly matched what I achieved worldwide for some of my other free titles on those other promos. Think you can use social media to get that kind of exposure? You're crazy.

Here’s fact #8. I saw the ranking for Airel, in which there appears a vignette (at the end) that Marsburg is based on, jump up about 500 spots in the ranking this weekend. I can’t verify 100% that any of it is related to the Marsburg promo, but it’s plausible that some of it is.

Enough of the facts. Time for some analysis. I think there are four things at work here.

Thing #1 is tagging. My sales were dismal until I started tagging smartly. Wanna know more? Talk to Aaron Patterson, the Amazon tagging guru.

Thing #2 is association. I am fortunate to have been able to start my writing career by co-writing with an established bestselling author like Aaron Patterson. I will never deny that co-writing the Airel series with him is equal parts inspiration and strategy, and he knows that full well; occasionally coaching me on essentials. Of course, one has to be a self-starter, one must have talent, the fire in the belly, and on and on. But part of the success for this weekend’s viral blast was that Marsburg is a spinoff from Airel, and all that implies.

Thing #3 is Amazon's KDP Select program; specifically the free promo. Hello, indie authors, are you listening? It may sound counterintuitive, but if you want to sell more than 5 copies a month, you have to give away a whoooooole lotta them first. I'm not bummed that I lost 5500 potential sales this weekend. I'm stoked that 5500 people took a chance on me for free. Do you have any idea what that will do to my career, if only 1% of them write a positive review on that one book, and tell a few friends about it? And here's the other thing: I removed this book from the B&N Nook site just a few days before I enrolled it in KDP select and set it out on promo. Here's something to chew on: you can read a Kindle eBook on every mobile device, whether Apple or Android or Mac or PC or on an actual Kindle, except for the B&N Nook. Seeing as how I only managed to sell 2 copies for Nook through B&N in the course of 4 months, I think I made the right decision to pull it. Nook owners: a brand new Kindle is $79. Make a note of it. I know it sucks that a Betamax machine won't play VHS, but life is like that sometimes. In this case, you may have bought an HDDVD player when the world went BluRay. Don't blame guys like me.

Thing #4, and this is mentioned last because it's most important, is Revelation 3.7. I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: Jesus Christ is the One who opens and no one shuts. What happened this weekend, and what continued to happen Monday for K [phantasmagoria], is nothing short of a miracle and I’m unafraid to say so. I’ll also say this: I pray all glory to God. Thanks readers and fellow authors. Thanks for going on the journey with me. This is just the beginning.

The Marsburg Diary can be yours for $2.99 by clicking here.
K [phantasmagoria] can be yours for $2.99 by clicking here.
The free book today and tomorrow is Strongbox. You can get it for free by clicking here.


  1. awesome post. i agree with it. Here's the thing, though. While I believe my being active on social media is not getting me new sales every day, (in other words, I know my sales are coming from ppl in no way connected to me on twitter, fb, etc.) its something I can DO when so much of this whole book-selling, indie-author THING is out of my control. So rather than sit back and twiddle my thumbs and wait for lightning to strike, I do what I can. Even knowing what I am doing is nothing more than a drip in the bucket. It makes me feel better to take some kind of action.

  2. Nicely done Chris and it's funny that sometimes it takes a while before we see the truth. I've started moving away from pestering my friends and am working on the tagging and blog tours. It was either that or all my friends would start "de-friending" me. =)

  3. Thanks for the comments; I so rarely get them. Cue laughter. (You only have to cue it when you're not really funny).

    Anyway, this isn't lightning striking for me. As of right now, with absolutely zero promotion on social media or email, Strongbox has been downloaded more than 1300 times today. Like, yikes.

    Now, I get that social media's not for selling books (or anything, for that matter). And I get that it's mainly for people to "get to know you" or whatever the latest spin is. But think about it: as a writer, wouldn't you much rather get thousands of people to d/l your WORK and get to know you that way?

    I'm doing my fallback gig this week: residential painting. It's what pays the bills (when work is available). And we have a saying that "work begets work," that you don't need to waste time and money on advertising when the best jobs and best leads come from word of mouth referrals. Well... it's the same with being an indie author. If we don't have the big six in our hip pocket (or rather vice versa), we need to maximize efficiency in how we market ourselves.

    Social media, largely, is a waste of time. Incredibly, most of us (including me) have been misusing it and even worse, expecting to get something from it that it cannot give. I knew this academically, but it never hit home until this weekend. I'm not going to waste my time on social media blasting links to my books anymore.

  4. Even if one person's experience is anecdotal, it is good to do this type of analysis of your actions. Asking questions like; What are my expectations of this? (What are my expectations of pitching my book on FB? for instance.) And then looking to see if that is happening enough to justify the time spent.

    Its not a waste of time to try something, but if you never look back to see if what you are doing is working, you can never improve the experience.

    Thanks for sharing. I love it when people put numbers to help quantify the results of these kinds of things.

    1. It's my pleasure. It's hard enough trying to make it as an author. We've got to build some kind of community resource in order to succeed. That's what my blog is (sometimes) about...when I'm not ranting about random things. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. I posted it on my FB and Twittet! And scheduled it but my flipping Hootsuite is crazy lately do it didn't go through. Sigh...

    ;) I'm with Roy. Great post. Thanks for sharing.