A few years ago, the publishing community decided that every author could build an audience online, and that would help us all sell more books. “Go, authors, to Facebook and Twitter! This is where you shall find your audience, and convince them to buy your book! You must have fans! You must get re-tweeted by the right people! You must Pin and Instagram and Snapchat!”

The philosophy was right: don’t make your readers come to you! Go to them! And stay in front of them!

But… we over-spoke. And millions (it seems) of well-intentioned writers flooded social media, a place where they were clearly uncomfortable, and they followed only one another (or they didn’t bother to follow anyone), and they sent out dozens of BUY MY BOOK messages (yes, in all caps) three times a day, which no one saw. They paid people to make Facebook pages for them, even though they’d never logged into Facebook before, and the pages sat, empty and neglected. They filled YouTube with awkward stock photos and sappy music and called it a book trailer.

The backlash was expected: social media doesn’t work, they said.

Well, no, not if you approach it that way.

Blasting a sales message without engaging the community is like standing in the doorway of a crowded cocktail party, shouting, “Buy my book!” and then slamming the door and running away before anyone responds. It’s not only ineffective, but rude.

No one needs that kind of marketing.

But what if you decided that, instead of signing up for another account and waiting for people to find it, you committed to being part of a community that happens to gather online, and you used the tools of that space to really connect with people and to build stronger relationships with your readers and potential readers?

What if you added value to people’s lives via social media?

Social media sites (the most popular arguably being Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, and Instagram) are valuable tools for writers to build communities and provide value. They’re relatively easy to use, with templates and content management that doesn’t require special technical knowledge or design skill. The audiences are already there. And the commitment to maintaining them is flexible enough to fit into the pockets of available time that every person has, somewhere. Once you get settled and comfortable, you browse and comment in Pinterest while the coffee brews, or answer your Facebook messages while sitting in the car pool line.

The important thing to remember, and the difference between a successful social media platform and one that flops, is that social media is meant to be social. Almost everything that’s wrong about social media happens when an author treats their account as an advertising channel, not a social one.

Take, for example, the incredible social media platform of George Takei. Best known for his role in the original Star Trek series and movies, Takei had maintained a steady presence in TV and films. But when he launched a Twitter account and Facebook page in 2011, his visibility exploded. At the end of the first year, he had 1.4 million fans on Facebook and 300,000 Twitter followers; by 2014 that number was up to 6.3 million on Facebook and more than 1 million on Twitter. A whole new generation has discovered his voice, which he described in a Forbes interview as “a curious combination of geek/nerd humor and somewhat raunchy and irreverent banter.”

What’s the secret? Takei has a great sense about what will make people laugh, and he uses it to draw an audience together and brighten their day, usually without asking for anything in return. He understands the power of visual images and shares pictures that stand out from the noise. And he does it every day, often more than once a day. He’s not spending lots of time or money creating original content. Instead, Takei has become a master curator of jokes, photos, and memes—often found elsewhere on the Internet or shared by his fans and followers. He works in the occasional commentary on the things he cares about—from LGBT issues to promotion of his own projects—but the tone of his community is pure fun, “combating idiocy with humor.” The things he posts brighten people’s days, and the human tendency is to share what makes us happy. So his fans have re-posted, shared, re-tweeted, and become the megaphones that have launched his social media platform “where no man has gone before.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Social media sites are constantly changing, and you don’t need an account on every new site that pops up. Pay attention to where your readers and influencers are, and then provide value there.So if you’re not telling people to buy your book, what should you be doing? Whether you’re writing in 140 characters or curating just the right Tumblr content, use social media as a:

  • Inspirational or educational engine.What’s your platform built on? Are you providing information? If so, extend this to your social media site. Share links to articles that support your position, or create your own graphics to remind your followers what really matters. Offer content that shows, over and over again, that you understand your audience, that you can answer their questions and solve their problems, and that they can trust you. Are you more inspirational? Use social media to encourage your followers and tug at their emotions. Use funny pictures, motivational videos, or quirky takes on current events. Quotes—from famous people, from friends, from your own work in progress, or from your precocious two-year-old—are always popular.
  • The reason you’ve gone to these sites is because your audience is already there. So show off what else you’re doing, and give your followers ways to engage more with you: if you’re blogging, post links to your new articles (and occasionally go back and link to some of your older, still relevant pieces). If you have a guest article on another website, share the link. If you’re speaking at an event or doing a bookstore signing, share the details and the registration site. Don’t assume that your fans have gone to your website to find out what’s new with you. Share it with them where they are.
  • Especially on community sites like Facebook and (arguably) Google+, recognize that your fans are mostly people who have already committed to you. Treat them as the friends and supporters they are. Give them timely updates, so that they feel like part of your writing life. Did you finish a particularly difficult scene today? Did you send off your manuscript to your writing group for final critique? Did a reviewer leave a great comment on your Amazon sales page? Use the space to offer “special features” and “behind the scenes” peeks: the corner of a page of the new manuscript? An opportunity to vote on two options for the next book cover? Ask questions. The more you let your friends and followers know that they’re special and you appreciate them, the more they’re going to support you.
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Editorial Department