Social media for writers


‘Oh, you’ve written a book? You have to be on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Goodreads, and Google+ … or you will never sell a single copy.’

Does that sound familiar? New authors can find social media a bit of a minefield, and there’s a lot of contradictory advice out there. The (bad) advice above stems from the common belief that your main purpose on social media is to sell books.

I’m here to tell you that social media isn’t about the hard sell. It’s about being a social human being and networking with fans, readers and colleagues. It’s also about protecting yourself against its negative aspects.

In this article – an updated and revised version of a feature I first wrote in 2013 – I’ll discuss what I’ve learned over the last few years as a writer and editor. I’m mainly focusing on Twitter because that’s what has brought me the most success, but many of the same principles apply to Facebook.

A reality check

Books have sold, and sold well, without any social media presence from the author whatsoever. It’s very unlikely that anything you do on Facebook or Twitter will generate a bestseller. Social media isn’t a substitute for writing something worth reading.

Most importantly of all, remember that the purpose of social media is to turn people’s attention into money for tech companies. It doesn’t exist to serve you or to act as a force of good in the world. It can be a useful tool, but keep things in perspective and don’t be swept away by the hype train.

How not to use social media

If you set up a Facebook and Twitter account simply to sell at all costs, nobody will listen to you. You might gain followers, but they will be ‘shallow’ connections with no value to you or anyone else. Your goal should be to create deeper, more meaningful connections.

Don’t contribute to the noise. There is a lot of noise out there.

Most people are numbed to advertising because they are constantly bombarded with it. Here is an example of a blatant promotional tweet:

JUST OUT new #fiction on #Kindle “One of the most #anticipated #mountaineering books in recent years” 5star “#EPIC” http://goo.gl/aoUGJ

Perhaps nobody really uses #hashtags to such a #ridiculous #extent, but the point still stands. If you search for #Kindle on Twitter you will drown in an ocean of promo tweets, a hundred thousand voices all frantically bleating for attention, trying to convince the reader that their book (ON #FREE #PROMOTION FOR #TODAY ONLY!!) is the one they should download and read.

On the other hand, nobody will buy your book if they don’t know it exists. It’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma.

The alternative? Build a rapport with readers, and offer them something of value.

Add some value

Instead of being a promo-tweeting machine, constantly talking about yourself and your books in the hope that somebody listens, consider your readers. Turn the situation around. Instead of using social media to sell your book, use it to gather and nurture a community of people. Most importantly of all, build trust.

How can you do this? I believe that the key to social media success is to add some value to the lives of your followers. You have a blog, right? Instead of only using it to post announcements about your books and showcase your best reviews, you should start thinking about your blog as a destination for your readers. Figure out who your readers or customers are, then write material specifically designed to interest and help them.

Trust is built by being consistent, rational, and by helping to promote others. It’s called social media, so be social: strike up conversations, post links to material that will interest both you and your readers, and help others to be successful. Trust can be blown quickly if you spam people or act in a negative manner.

My readers and customers fall into a few defined categories:

  1. Outdoor enthusiasts
  2. Outdoor writers and authors
  3. Outdoor magazine publishers

It’s no accident that the vast majority of features I publish on this site are specifically intended to be useful and interesting for these groups. This focused approach has paid off over the years. Only by consistently publishing quality, informative material for your readers will you increase your influence and readership.

Have an overall strategy

An effective website should sit at the centre of your strategy. Social media can be useful, but it’s no substitute for a website – somewhere you can publish on your own terms, use as a CV and primary point of contact for readers. Most writers will benefit from keeping a blog (again, with a focus on quality over quantity).

Use your social networks of choice to point readers towards your blog and website. Although some networks allow you to publish content natively, I think this is a bad idea – it keeps eyeballs within Facebook, for example, instead of directing them towards your own content.

I recommend picking one social network to be the focus of most of your energies. It can be tempting to sign up for them all, but this will only dilute your efforts and drain your time. By all means have a presence on two or three social networking sites but don’t try to maintain the same level of activity on them all; you’ll never finish your next book.

The general idea is to build up a web of influence and presence, all of which points back to your website and (ultimately) your books — but in an oblique way. There is no right or wrong approach. Every author has a slightly different target audience that will respond to a different strategy.

Don’t overuse social media

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of noise on social media. Don’t add to it.

It can be all too tempting to spend hours every day on Twitter or Facebook, posting pithy quotes and memes, responding to readers, nervously checking how many likes you’ve received. But keep things in perspective – is this behaviour valuable, or could you be making better use of your time by creating something instead?

The reality is that spending lots of time on social media probably won’t translate into sales, and posting too often can put people off. It also has a well-documented corrosive effect on your concentration and attention.

I suggest siloing social activity into specific timeslots – say, half an hour a day, or even a couple of hours once a week. A useful trick I’ve learned is to write down ideas for updates and then sit on them for a while before posting. This gives you time to reflect on whether the update is actually adding anything of value.

Most tweets and Facebook updates contribute little and are instantly forgotten. Don’t become part of the problem; aim for quality rather than quantity, and don’t let it take over time you should be using for more useful activities.

An excellent example of someone who uses Twitter with a high degree of effectiveness is Robert Macfarlane.

A word on automation tools

Many tools exist nowadays to automate elements of the social media experience. You’ll probably have interacted with either partially or fully automated Twitter accounts.

Automation can be useful, but it can also be obnoxious. Few things are as annoying as following someone new only to instantly receive a direct message from a bot. If you’re considering setting up an auto-DM system, don’t.

I suggest cautiously embracing automation only where it can genuinely save you time without annoying your followers. My own use of automation is limited to automatically posting links to new blog posts and Instagram pictures1. For a long while my web server was configured to tweet archive blog posts at regular intervals, but I eventually decided it didn’t add much value for me, and I’d heard from some readers who found it annoying.

Put the work in and don’t give up

Social media takes a long time to nurture and grow. It certainly won’t yield results overnight, and you’ll have to apply effort for a sustained period before you start to see increased influence, exposure, and ultimately sales. They may not come at all. With virtually every writer now on social media and self-promoting at full volume, it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. But I believe that a steady focus on quality and value will help you rise above the noise.

  1. I use the web service IFTTT for this task.