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Social media is a terrible marketing tool

by Molly Flatt on 11 June 2012

Self-promotion through social networking has become a huge issue for aspiring authors.

I spent last Friday and Saturday at Writing in a Digital Age, a conference organised by The Literary Consultancy at which the likes of Hari Kunzru and Kate Mosse discussed the opportunities and challenges of being a novelist in a networked world. One question that came up again and again was: how do I get people to read and buy my book using social media? It was an understandable preoccupation. The publishers on the podium said that the first question their marketing department ask when they pitch a new talent is how active said talent is on social media.Random House even runs an in-house training programme to get technophobe authors online. E-publishing success stories – which often translate into traditional book-deal success stories too – are regularly attributed to grassroots social media advocacy.

As I listened to the assembled audience, many of them sounding truly terrified, ask how they were supposed to generate Amazon reviews, use Twitter to drive sales, and get bloggers to write about their masterwork, it was obvious how much anxiety and frustration the issue generates. Because most of these people had found out a simple truth for themselves: social media is a terrible marketing tool.

There, I said it.

Trying to establish yourself online once you have completed your manuscript, for the sole purpose of flogging said manuscript, will feel like bashing your head against a brick wall.

However. Social media is wonderful for building relationships, particularly relationships hooked on shared passions. If you want to use it to connect with likeminded people, get inspiration, read others’ work and have interesting debates, they’re great. And if you focus on doing those things, your community probably will develop curiosity about your own work and evolve into readers somewhere along the line. But this takes time and emotional investment. You can’t treat it like a PR project. You have to bring an authentic sense of your own self. If you really hate that idea, if you think it’s all so much timewasting, you really shouldn’t be there. We can tell.

In one early panel, Orange Prize-winning novelist Linda Grant spoke about how she initially hated being forced onto Twitter by her publisher. It seemed so banal, so pointless. Then one day, sitting writing inside the house while snow feel outside, she noticed a number of tweets posting pictures of buses skidding hopelessly down her street accompanied by warnings not to venture out. As she put it, “something clicked.” That community had suddenly become relevant to her in an practical and personal way. From then on, she realised that if she treated Twitter right, it would treat her right too. And she didn’t even have to push sales messages out there for her readership to grow.

This may sounds stupidly obvious, but it is evident that many writers are still torturing themselves with what they ‘should’ be doing when what they ‘should’ be doing will leave them feeling exhausted and grubby. The simple fact is that if you don’t learn to love social media for its own sake, it will never learn to love you.

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  • amayfield

    Spot on, Molly – really well put. 

  • http://www.mollyflatt.com Molly Flatt

    Thanks Antony.

  • http://www.joannejacobs.net/ Joanne Jacobs

    Great post, as usual, Molly.  Just one basic observation – “how do I get people to read and buy my book using social media?”

    This is fundamentally the wrong question for any author to ask.  Slightly concerning that any event would try to answer that question in any way other than to say, “you don’t”. 

    You get people to buy your book by producing something that is worthy of reading and after that, you reach out to your audience in the manner that suits you and your audience. Social media can be used and are used by some authors and storytellers and very successfully – Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold and many more jump to mind. But they succeed in social because they began in social. But it’s not the channel that makes people read and buy. It’s still the quality of the work that matters most. Community comes after, not before, engagement.

  • http://twitter.com/Tweet4OK Tweet4Ok

    Thanks for this post and pointing it out on Twitter!
    Almost daily I find myself swimming against the current of so called “Social Media Marketing Experts” telling people about strategies to get rich fast.
    Social Media is a marathon and not a sprint. It is a great tool to connect with people and be found by contacts you would have never been able to reach before. However, it takes dedication and consistency to create an effective network that you can use to get the word out.
    Social Media is real life too – if you aren’t communicating offline you might have a hard time online too (although I know examples to the opposite).
    Tweet you soon!
    PS: the attached image is my gift to you :-)

  • http://www.mollyflatt.com Molly Flatt

    “Social Media is real life too – if you aren’t communicating offline you might have a hard time online” well, quite. If you went up to someone at a party and started going on and on about your book and your writing process, you would very soon be alone in a corner. No different just because it’s pixels.
    Thanks for the comment.