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Social Media for Authors: A Bubble About to Burst?

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Ewan Morrison's recent article in The Guardian, "Why social media isn't the magic bullet for self-epublished authors," deftly lays out many self-published authors' deepest fears. Faced with the self-destruction of traditional publishing and scratching their heads over the byzantine alleyways of Facebook fan pages and the like, authors weigh the effort it takes to promote their work against the creative imperative to write, and worry that their chances for a positive outcome are slim.

Like most authors, Morrison's definition of a positive outcome is for good writers to make a decent living, and he doesn't think that goal is best served by spending most of one's time building a social media platform. Morrison suggests that the hype surrounding social media is indicative of a marketing bubble, and that investing in a Facebook or Twitter presence does not correlate to actual book sales for most authors:

For those who self-epublish and those who have been downsized by their publishers, it's a question of how long they can keep going before they run out of energy and money; before they lose faith in the effectiveness of this platform that might not be a launchpad for them, but for the net companies that created it.

I agree that the big players in social are in the game for themselves, and that their interests do not necessarily align with those of authors. I even share Morrison's distaste for many smaller-time players who sell dubious services to desperate authors. I do not, however, think faith has anything to do with success or failure in this game.

Social media is not a tent revival, it is a set of tools that are best used as part of an overarching, long-term strategy to build visibility and grow your audience. Throwing money at things like paying people to tweet for you, without a solid plan for where you want to go and how best to get there, is a misuse of resources and bound to result in a crisis of faith, if that is your organizing principle to begin with.

Fortunately, I wrote a great guidebook on how to be smart about platform building, available right here. And I talk for free about it all the time. (See how seamless that was? And no mention of cats anywhere.)

But in the big picture that Morrison paints of the author's predicament, my first point of departure with him is right at the beginning. He writes:

authors who have contracts with the big six publishers are now being asked, or obliged, to "get out there" and self-promote; something that 10 years ago would have been seen as selling-out is fast becoming the norm.

On what happy planet are big six publishers only now instructing their authors to self-promote? My experience writing under contract with Bantam (now Random House) fifteen years ago was that even then, they relied on us to promote the book they had spent so much to acquire. And ten years ago, no big six publisher would even consider a book by an author with no tangible "platform."

True, the marketing pressure on authors has increased as the publishing industry implodes. But contrasting today's social media craze to a fantasy time when authors earned decent advances and publicity departments actually publicized books isn't the best way to conceptualize -- let alone respond to -- that pressure. The publishing industry is hurting. Writers are part of the publishing ecosystem. We're hurting too. Now, what do we do about it?

To Morrison's credit, he never completely dismisses social media as a way to sell books, though in an earlier article he does suggest that authors not abandon publishers for self-publishing, but rather demand better services in exchange for their content. He even floats the adorably British idea that ultimately writers must demand a living wage for their work! (What next -- nationalized health care?)

Here's the thing, though: nobody worth listening to will ever tell you that social media is the only way to sell books. I spend as much time networking in person as I do online, and the cumulative effect on book sales is great. I sell a lot of books through Twitter and Facebook, and whenever I speak in public I sell books, too -- sometimes I sell a stack on the back table, but more likely today it's via electronic download onto people's e-readers while I'm talking.

Yes, marketing of any type takes a whole lot of time away from writing. No, social media is not a magic bullet -- but there never have been any magic bullets here in the trenches. Having a smart, solid plan really does work if you pace yourself and keep at it. Maybe Ewan Morrison should buy my book and find out how! Or possibly retweet this article. I'll definitely return the favor.

This article was originally published at Creative Content Coaching.