There is an article that I have seen a lot of people share from The New York Times this week, where they talk about how Billie Eilish (97 million followers on Instagram) “only” sold 64,000 copies of her book. The implication that many readers walked away with: social media doesn’t sell books.
There has been a lot of reaction to the piece. As I look at Billie’s book on Amazon I see 2,678 reviews, with a stellar 4.8 out of 5 star rating. Reviews have quotes such as: “This is everything I have ever wanted and more,” and “If I could give this a trillion stars, I would.” So the measures for success here will differ depending on where you stand in this conversation. To tens of thousands of people who bought it, and a few thousand who left reviews, it’s a highlight of their year.
What else did Billie release this year in addition ot the book? A few things:
- An album
- A fragrance
- A documentary
- Two pairs of Nike sneakers
- A line of kids clothing
- A tour
- And more!
Did social media “sell” her fragrance? Or her tour? Should every product Billie releases be an instant bestseller? Where does that end? The more we dig in here, the more we have to consider our expectations. Nearly two years ago I wrote an essay which featured Billie Eilish, and aligns well to this conversation: “No one knows what will work.” It quotes how she and her brother Finneas (who writes songs with her) don’t know what works, even as they become more successful. Their success is massive, yet listen to how Finneas describes knowing what works:
Interviewer: “Do you think there is one clear formula to a hit record?”
Finneas: “No. Absolutely not.”
Interviewer: “Do you feel you have an idea of what it takes?”
Finneas: “No. Less and and less now that we have had more and more success, because it just teaches me each time that I don’t know.”
That applies to all creative work. Meaning: 97 million followers don’t guarantee a bestseller.
It’s worth noting that social media itself is just a tool, it is not the entirety of one’s platform. Just as 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have a headline of: “One author has a Rolodex of 5,000 names and only sold 60 copies of their book! Telephones don’t sell books!”
I added a new typewriter to my collection this week. The owner said that her mother-in-law purchased it in 1969 and used it to write letters. Nowadays, we tend to see a typewriter and consider how it may have been used to author a book. Yet more often it was used for basic communication through letters. 40 years ago, I can imagine a hopeful writer deciding to send out dozens of letters to help spread the word about their book in a similar way that we try to use social media today.
I collect old technology for this reason, to remind myself that these are just tools, and how we use them is what matters. Here are I am with a vintage tube radio, typewriter, and phone.
Your mileage may vary, and so much of what sells books depends on an overarching strategy. Let’s talk more about that…
Your Platform Isn’t a Place, It is a Connection
It goes without saying that what matters first and foremost is to write a good book that will engage your ideal readers. When we talk about “platform,” I have always defined that not as social media or newsletter or any specific tactic, but rather these two things:
In other words, your platform is about effectively sharing what you create in a manner that creates a connection between you and another human being. Could that include social media? Sure. But it’s through social media, not because of it.
I have seen writers and creators diversify the ways in which they connect with their ideal audience, no longer just relying on “followers” in one channel. For example, Rebecca Green established a following of a quarter million followers on Instagram, then launched a monthly newsletter. This gave her the opportunity to connect with her biggest fans on a different platform, one that allowed her direct access to them through email. After that, she started a paid Patreon community, where for $5 per month, fans can see exclusive content that she shares, and connect with each other. How many people do you think from her 278,000 Instagram followers now subscribe to her Patreon? 589. Is that lower than you thought? Higher?
It’s worth noting that I’ve found her Patreon to be such a lovely community of people who celebrate Rebecca’s work. Also, she earns more than $2,500 per month through these subscriptions. She is not only diversifying the platforms, she is allowing her biggest fans to stay connected with her in more and more meaningful ways.
Does this aspect of her platform help her sell more books? Maybe? Likely? Possibly? She did just get a deal with The Jim Henson Company to turn one of her books into a stop motion animation series. Is that because of her platform? Will that animation series sell more books? Again: Maybe? Likely? Possibly?
What I know is that how Rebecca Shares is a joy to be a part of. I mean, just look at her amazing blog, which is a deep dive into what it means to create and live a life full of creative exploration.
Last year I worked with author Julie Ryan McGue on the launch of her book Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging. It came out in March and currently has almost 400 reviews on Amazon, and her homepage lists the 7 speaking events she had in November alone. When I asked her about the reaction the book has received she talked about how much fun she is having in sharing the book, and the many connections she is making with readers. She says: “Everyday I hear from people in the adoption world and beyond about how inspiring and moving they found my story. It brings tears to my eyes to hear my journey is helping others.”
She said that she continues to be fascinated by podcasts, events, email promotions, webinars, book clubs, ads, and so much more. Was social media a part of all of this? Yes! Was the success of her book because of social media? No. But it did flow through social media. How many social media followers does Julie have? 62 on Twitter, 350 on Instagram, and 462 on Facebook. Yet, she has sold thousands of books. Why? Because her platform is about communication and trust, sharing a great book, and focusing on how to connect with people in a meaningful way.
I love hearing how much fun Julie is having sharing the book more than 6 months after launch. This is how books are sold. Not just through one channel, but by developing clarity in who you want to reach and the experiences you hope to create with readers. It happens by showing up again and again, and making connections in new ways, across channels. Oh, and it takes time.
In the process, she has sold thousands of copies. But her mission is not just about sales. She says: “Book sales are one thing, but inspiring and influencing the choices people make has become my focus now.”
When I work with a writer or creator, social media is part of a much larger process. That’s why I refer to this process as Human-Centered Marketing. It is about the people, not the channels. It is a holistic approach with the goal of ensuring the writer feels a sense of authenticity with how they share what they create, and that their ideal readers discover their work in a meaningful way.
To develop this for your own platform, here are three places to start:
- An intro to Human-Centered Marketing
- Details of the model I use: The Creative Success Pyramid
- My 2020 essay: “Social media doesn’t sell books, but…“