Book Marketing: Why I Gave Up Trying to Build a Big Social Media Following

I am a huge fan of Twitter and an increasing fan of Google+. But I use it more for the business of The Creative Penn and less for my fiction. I also know that there are always issues with time pressure and authors must choose methods of marketing that work for them. Today, J. Steve Miller explains why he’s given up trying to attract social media followers, and concentrates on other ways of promoting his book.

I’m an author who blogs casually – whenever I happen to feel like it. My Alexa ranking stinks, and I like it that way. I seldom tweet. I use Facebook to keep up with my real friends. Yet, I’m self-published and very pleased with my steadily increasing book sales.

I’ve studied and tried the “build a massive following” approach, which works great for some people; but don’t believe it’s the best approach for me, and perhaps most other authors as well. I actually use social media a lot, just not in the way many publishers and literary agents expect authors to use it.

Problems with Building a Social Media Following

First, building a following consumes lots of time.

Social media guru Chris Brogan recommends a minimum of two hours a day. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who taught full time and hung out with his family after work, writing books after his children went to bed. Had he spent those two hours blogging and Tweeting, we may have never read The Lord of the Rings.

Second, there’s no proof that building a large following can work for every author.

Granted, it works for some authors, but that’s not the proof we need. Compare social media to the California gold rush. Had I lived in New England in 1849 and read regular newspaper reports of people striking it rich, I’d need better evidence to warrant selling the farm and moving west. I’d want to know, “out of the last thousand people who made the move, what percentage struck it rich?” If eight out of ten, I might move. If one out of 1,000, I’d keep the farm. But that’s precisely the statistical information we lack concerning authors trying to build social media followings.

Third, when I studied low profile authors who sold a lot of books, I found very few taking this approach.

When authors reported on book marketing forums, “Twitter works for me,” I’d ask, “How many books are you selling as a result?” Typically, they sheepishly replied “a few” or clarified that they were defining “success” in terms of how many people they drew to their blogs through Twitter.

How I Use Social Media

Some good studies have been done that relate to the effective use of social media. Drawing on about ten of them, I crafted some principles that guide me.

Principle #1 – “Let others praise you, rather than praise yourself.”

This principle is at least as old as King Solomon, who advised, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” It also flows from Gallup’s study  of over 17,000 social media users which found that people don’t typically buy products as a result of companies pushing their own products through social media. People doubt our objectivity concerning our own products.

Razorfish found 61 percent of responders relying on user reviews, compared with 15 percent relying on editorial reviews. Unfortunately, trying to sell my books to my Facebook and blog followings is much like editorial reviews – it’s me pushing my own products.

Knowing the power of user reviews, I use social media extensively to give away free copies of my books for early input and early reviews. For Sell More Books!, I offered members of the popular Yahoo Self Publishing listserv a free digital copy for early input as I was still editing. After publication, I emailed those early readers a big thank you, and offered them a free paper copy, requesting an Amazon review if they felt compelled. Social networking allows me to find my niche audiences and get plenty of reviews, as well as allowing them to spread the word on their social networks.

Principle #2 – “Go where people already gather, rather than gather a crowd around yourself.”

According to Shiv Singh, social media guru for PepsiCo,

“The holy grail of social influence marketing is increasingly considered the ability to identify which referent influencers are the most powerful and have the highest impact on brand affinity and purchasing decisions. After you’ve identified them, the next question is, how does a marketer reach these referent influencers that surround their customers?”

Applying this principle to marketing my personal finance book, Enjoy Your Money!, I found the top 200 personal finance blogs and offered free copies to the bloggers for their review. Almost one in four asked for a copy. Eighteen came through with a review and/or giveaway. It was both cost and time effective. My sales tripled and I didn’t have to keep posting several times a week on my blog. Instead, I went into seclusion to write my next book.

Principle #3 – “Address the interested, rather than interrupt the disinterested.”

39% of people surveyed unfriend people on Facebook who try to sell them something. Even if you limit your sales pitches to one of fifty comments, many question your motives for keeping in touch once you start mentioning your books. Rather, I visit forums, blogs and listservs where people are looking for information on the topics I write about. I link to my books in my signature.

Principle #4 – “Consider your strengths and passions, rather than assuming you can replicate any marketing scheme.”

A Gallup study of over two million people concluded that people need to concentrate on their strengths. If your strengths and passions incline you to blogging, Facebook and Twitter, you may do well building a following there. But if it’s a chore that you endure solely to sell your books, don’t be surprised if you make little impact. There are hundreds of ways to market your books. Choose methods that fit your unique passions and strengths.

Let’s Talk!

My approach goes against the flow, and a brief post doesn’t give the subject justice, so feel free to agree or disagree below in the comments and I’ll interact. Thanks, Joanna, for letting me share!

About the Author

J. Steve Miller writes a wide range of books on topics ranging from personal finance to philosophy of religion to writing and publishing. Social Media Frenzy expands on the topic of this post. Sell More Books! helps low profile and debut authors narrow down which marketing methods might work best with their unique strengths and books. Publish a Book! helps authors decide on the best self-publishing company. Over 1500 people a day visit his website for teacher resources on life skills and character education.  He loves hanging out with his family, giving talks, caring for his 106-year-old granny, and doing weird stuff like spelunking. Connect with him at .

Image: Flickr / AslanMedia

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  1. says

    Thank you, J. Steve, for standing up to the social media gurus who insist that writers MUST use social media to market their books. I’m glad you did some research and came up with solid numbers on how well twitter or facebook work for marketing.

    My other concern about using current tools is that new social media will come along this year, next year, or whenever, and everyone will abandon the old social medias for the new ones, touting their excellence, simplicity, and effectiveness just like what we are hearing now for the popular sites.

    To me, the best way to get published and sell books is to write, write, write, until your books are so good, people will clamor to buy them.


    • says

      Chris, thanks for the encouragement, and for your priority on writing! There’s definitely got to be a balance, and some can’t find time to write the next book because they’re over their heads in social networking.

      I’m not sure where that balance will come in for other authors; I suppose it’s different for each of us. But I’d heard some successful authors, years before social media, spending half the year writing their next book, the next half marketing (speaking, traveling, etc.). In fact, I heard one local author say, “Writing is rewriting; publishing is marketing” – an overstatement, I know, but I do read of the John Grisham’s going from town to town marketing their early books to get the word out and get word of mouth going.

      So my advice is, prioritize writing, but don’t neglect the marketing. Tons of great books go unread because the authors never let anybody know they existed.

      Social media, in my mind, is one great tool among many possible tools.

  2. says

    Thanks for this refreshing point of view. I’ve been doing a social media challenge since the end of February. Although I have learned a lot and seen my followers grow, I have hardly written seven words in my current WIP.

    Guilt prevails.

    Good-bye for now. I’m opening my Word Document now!

  3. says

    Thank god for some honesty! I have come across dozens and dozens of writers sites that suggest “get blogging and tweeting” as a way to achieve more sales. I’m an author (link at the bottom) but i also run a digital media business and we use these social resources not as a sales tool but as a way of spreading information. We do it thoughtfully and spend a lot of time and resource sending engaging messages. Building up a following is incredibly difficult but then to convert these to hard sales is almost impossible. I see writers taking this advice in the literal sense and hammering out desperate “please buy me” tweets (using an autotweeter) day after day, week after week, and its just awful. They follow many thousands of people so its clear they are not engaging in twitter in any other capacity than to try to flog books. The worst is when they connect it to their Facebook page. Its like this constant drip drip drip of banal “buy my book” tweets or boring factoids which all point to, you guessed it, “buy my book” and it doesn’t work! Its the crappest form of marketing ever. And also i agree about the people that say it works but never declare their sales numbers. In the interests of openness my book went live this weekend just gone. I’ve sold 7 copies so far.

    great article. thanks for writing it.


    (The Accidental Pornographer)

    • says

      You said,

      “Building up a following is incredibly difficult but then to convert these to hard sales is almost impossible.”

      Some do convert to sales, but it would do us well to identify the cases in which this works best. Example: I write a variety of books on disparate topics like philosophy of religion, book marketing, publishing, ethnomusicology, etc. So if I have a blog and a newsletter, what the heck should be its topic? Perhaps “God, The Universe, Books, and Other Interesting Stuff”?

      To have a successful blog and newsletter AND to sell books from them requires at least that that everything is intimately tied to your niche subject. I have a character education newsletter that’s tied to my character education/life skills site, which targets public school educators. Knowing that some of these educators teach personal finance, I mentioned my personal finance book in one of the letters (which goes out to thousands who have opted in). I don’t think I sold one book as a result. A few asked for a free copy for review, but that’s the only impact I could gather. I think the problem is that very few of those educators who read my newsletter teach personal finance.

      But that’s only one reason that some may have a successful blog or newsletter, but fail to sell books on the platform they worked hard to build.

      That’s a key point, Gavin. Thanks for bringing it up and offering your experience on this important subject.

  4. says

    This article is very valuable, and comes at just the right time for me. I am currently writing my first ebook, which I intend to self-publish to Kindle. At the same time, I am educating myself about indie marketing and the use of social media. I always read Joanna’s columns, because I know the content will address my questions. (Sometimes before I even think to ask them!) I have to say that your approach to social media, J. Steve, speaks to me. As I write in my blog (not always frequently) and wonder how to interact with people in other ways without bugging them, I will take this information to heart.

    • says

      Good luck on your first ebook! Publishing to Kindle isn’t very difficult. If you get confused, especially being your first time, just ask some friends who’ve been there before.

  5. Sabra Bowers says

    I’m so glad to read this blog post today. Exactly what I needed to read since I’m spending far too much time reading about and doing things for an online platform. Thanks, Joanne.

  6. says

    Excellent article! Thanks for the ideas to go where the crowd already is… I’ve been doing Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest… The last few months or so, I’ve been feeling a serious information overload.

    Hundreds of emails daily, 5,000 “friends” on Facebook, I can’t keep up with the interesting and important posts. Twitter, I don’t even follow… I have my own blog and mailing list through organic google search.

    Thanks to your article, I will focus more on going to the groups that are already interested in my subject. I guess, I will still post on Facebook as I always do, to motivate people to feel good, live healthy and become fit and injury-free. But Facebook is not selling many books… it is the same circle of friends, and those who want my book, they already have it.

    I think another great idea is guest blogging. We can reach new crowds and make them aware of us and our work, without direct selling. If they like our post, they will check our blog, and find the books there :-)


  7. says

    Thanks for the great article! I think we each have to find what feels comfortable to us in the social media realm and go with it. I like blogging, but don’t care for twitter. Enjoy Facebook, but don’t get into Link’d In (can’t even spell it.)

  8. says

    At last! I’m not alone. I joined the social media bandwagon over a month ago when I self-published and believe me, it is time-consuming. It works well for some but I’m introverted and facebook is for personal use. Twitter has gained a following, albeit small but I’ve met nice people and authors/writers! I use it weekly to tweet other useful writing blogs. articles on self-publishing. WordPress took some time and now I’m evolving it into a cosy place to blog about my writing life with photos and short quips in the long term. I don’t want to spend so much time marketing when I hacven’t even got a sequel up. I need to write it! So, like I said in my blog: “Build it and they will come.”

  9. says

    Great post.

    Social media conversations, like offline conversations, are destroyed by excessive sales pitches. For example, good car salesmen are not pushy or always out for the sale, but rather are interested in just having a friendly conversation. They do his because they know that people are more likely to buy a product or service from someone hey enjoy being around.

    A book is no different. Although much cheaper than a car, it is a huge mental commitment to allow your mind to follow the author’s train of thought. And people are much more willing to take his risk if there is a degree of trust built up. Hereford, social media, like the offline world, should be about meaningful conversations instead of meaningless banter or droning sales pitches.


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