Friday, October 5, 2012

Social media doesn't sell books

Sorry, but it doesn't. It just doesn't.

So you got 30,000 visitors to your author's blog last month, but you sold all of 3 books? Yup. It happens.

That's because social media doesn't sell books. But here's what does: Amazon.

Look beyond the half-truths & failed 
promises of 'social media' and 
you'll find your answer. 
And boy, does it ever. Amazon sells books like no other retailer or publisher in history. Time and again, when you look under the hood of a book skyrocketing to fame, you'll find the Amazon Engine at work. Amazon, releasing new Kindle tablets begging to be filled with content. A vast ecosystem of 'free e-book' websites rebroadcasting Amazon's 'free e-book' lists to their bargain-hunting readers. Amazon customers doggedly following their 'best sellers' in various categories. Customers checking out purchases and being told about what other customers like them bought. Amazon Prime customers being exposed to your book, free. Amazon Vine Reviewers. Amazon customer forums.

Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. It's where folks go when they're ready to buy. The 30,000 folks on your site last month? They weren't there to buy. They were just browsing, or they arrived by mistake, or they blindly followed a link, or – who knows why? But it sure wasn't to spend money.

So what I'm telling you, Mr. Author, is that you're wasting your time on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, right?

Wellll... not exactly.

See, even Amazon can't sell your book if Amazon doesn't know about your book. Amazon's policy is 'come one, come all' where books are concerned, so many - some say TOO many - have indeed come to the party. Essentially, in publishing terms, Amazon is now The World's Largest Slush Pile. And if you know anything about a slush pile, you know it's not easy to emerge from it.

Happily, unlike the slush pile at, say, Simon & Schuster, it IS possible to emerge from the Amazon pile. No, you won't be able to bribe an Amazon intern to read your entry and pass it along to an editor. (Yes, Amazon does have editors, these days, in their newly-established publishing imprints. But there are no interns slogging through the slush.)

Instead of interns, Amazon has free e-book offers attended by a vast audience eager to pounce on whatever catches their eye. And enticing those readers to download your wares, Dear Author, is the way to persuade Amazon to place its vast and powerful marketing machine at your service. Do that, and you will sell books. Lots and lots and lots of books. Hoo-boy, will you sell books!

But how does one do this? Unless you live next door to Jeff Bezos, the most obvious way is to wade into the Amazon community and pitch your book. And because it's so obvious, that's exactly what many before you have done. Unfortunately, they have largely poisoned the well and scorched the earth for all who followed. While an author can still wade into the Amazon forums to peddle his wares, this must now be done with such trepidation and backwards-bending discretion that the strategy will likely be negligible in terms of results.

A few savvy publishers, such as Tor Books, understand the need to prime the Amazon pump before a book is released. As such, Tor has established a series of blogs to raise online awareness of their upcoming books so that, once they are released, early adopters can find them. A few authors, such as John Scalzi, have built themselves a similar online presence that makes readers search out their books as soon as they appear on Amazon.

Here's why this is important. Amazon calculates the 'value' of a book strictly by analyzing early acceptance. A new release that performs better than the average new release will be given the benefit of some portion of Amzon's marketing muscle. Those that get such a boost will, in turn, be judged against each other, and those that outperform their peers will enjoy an even larger boost – and so on and so on. Amazon will keep boosting a book that outperforms until it reaches the level where it finally fails to outperform.

At least equally important is that those books that do not perform above the average will remain mired in a daunting slush pile so huge that even the books' authors will have trouble finding them. This is Amazon's solution for disposing of bad offerings without engaging in the awkward business of actually removing them from its galactically-vast system. It's a situation reminiscent of the closing scene in the original Indiana Jones flick.

This is your book without social media. Any questions?
The single best social tool for building awareness, and for the Vitally Important Task of begging – er, I mean driving traffic to Amazon during the All-Important Free Download period (which, BTW, you must have) is Twitter. You must learn the ways of Twitter and its various adjunct tools (notably ManageFlitter and TweetAdder), young Padawan, before you can become a true Amazon Jedi.

Since many of you will not take the trouble (and trouble it is!) to master these tools, there is a second method to accomplish the desired end. It's still work (sorry), but presents a far smaller learning curve: Pursue the sites I referenced earlier which publicize free Amazon books, and inform them of yours. Pixel of Ink is probably the most popular (and effective) of these, but there are many more. These sites have become quite popular, but one drawback to this approach is that some (especially the picky Pixel) may not accept your book, while others may charge you for the privilege of being listed.

No, social media won't sell your book. But it is a fulcrum on which you can place a lever long enough to do the job.

UPDATE: Further discussion here.


  1. Well written, makes sense and all with a touch of humor. Thank you!

  2. One trick that's not mentioned here is the idea of having a lengthy fiction series where the 1st novel of the series is FREE All The Time. Publish that 1st novel in Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Sony Kobo for FREE, and Amazon will price match (reluctantly). Then publish all other novels of the series in Amazon KDP select. Use the 5 FREE days wisely, but use the 1st novel to hook readers into all your other publications. Create fans and expand your readership far more rapidly.

    Check with me in a few months and I'll give you some stats on how well the strategy I outlined worked for me.


  3. A new release that performs better than the average new release will be given the benefit of some portion of Amazon's marketing muscle-???????

    I received a letter this week saying my book "Ghosts of your past" was being recommended in Mystery & Suspense.

    It has been on sale for over 6 months now and sold 3 copies in the USA.
    In the UK it is so bad that it has no rating at all, the only thing that DID happen was owing to a glitch at HQ it got stuck in the top 3,000.
    WITHOUT a sale??????????????

  4. I see a lot of question marks but I don't see the questions. However, if your book is written this way, your problem is self-evident.

  5. Excellent post, Jeff. Just about to release my supernatural thriller NORTHMAN and I need all the advice I can get.

    I particularly like your reference to Amazon as the World's Largest Slush Pile - so apt. My novel has a waterproof cover to cope with it.

    Travis, I have three free short stories on Smashwords and Amazon US has only price matched one; Amazon UK, none, so it doesn't always work out as you suggest.

  6. Thank you, JD. The proof will be in the pudding. My own book comes out soon, and its release promo strategy relies 100% on this strategy. So, if the book launches well, you can place more confidence in this approach.

    Of course, once a book is launched - once you're past the free period and made your mark with Amazon and so on, then I think your strategy changes. You move on to other things, because there are other factors to consider. But one thing at a time - that's a post for another day.