Your Follower Counts Are Meaningless
One social media platform passeth away, and another social media platform cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
A few days ago, Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an article for the New York Times focused on books that sold much more poorly than expected, considering how many followers their authors had on social media. Television personality Piers Morgan, for example, has eight millions follows on Twitter, nearly two million on Instagram, but could barely crack the 5,600-copy plateau when it came to selling print editions of a book that came out in 2020.
Although the article didn’t mention it, I was immediately remind of the recent news about the new book by Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey—said news being that he’d only managed to sell approximately 2,300 copies in the book’s first week of publication, leading liberal commentators (plus more than a few conservatives) to gleefully declare his book “one of the biggest flops in history.”
Which is, frankly, more than a little silly.
Obviously, considering what Simon and Schuster probably paid for Christie’s book, they would have liked for it to do better than 2,300 copies—but that limp performance at the outset doesn’t automatically translate into “one of the biggest flops in history.” For one thing, BookScan, the agency on which the media relies for such data, tracks a substantial percentage of print book sales in the U.S., but it doesn’t track them all, and a lot of interesting things can happen in the places it doesn’t see.
Plus, what does gloating at the failures of others get you, beyond a fleeting sense of self-satisfaction? It’s not as if you’re immune to the vagaries of the marketplace, if you’ve even made it so far as to have a book published. As Clive James once wrote:
Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
For that matter, most authors, especially the sort of authors who don’t get money thrown at them just because they’re famous outside the book world, would be thrilled to sell 2,300 copies in a single week. It’s all a matter of perspective.
That said, the perspective of the publishing houses who throw ridiculous amounts of money at people like Piers Morgan and Chris Christie for books that stand little chance of earning back their advances isn’t likely to change. As much as any individual editor acquiring books for publication might love literature, they’re participating in a commodities market—and they’re expected to do business in volume. (I swear that pun was unintentional, if not unavoidable.) The larger the publishing house, the more product they’re expected to shift.
At that level, Elizabeth A. Harris suggests, books get marketed much like jars of tomato sauce, and though “a jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change that much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable,” she observes, “every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to forecast demand for new titles, it is, however thoughtfully, guessing.”
Increasingly, publishers turn to social media to inform their guesses. As I wrote a few years back:
“Book publishing is, for the most part, a risk-averse industry, and a large social media following allows publishers to feel slightly more comfortable acquiring a book. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but they can tell themselves the numbers are there! The potential audience exists! It should work!”
The truth is that nobody in publishing knows what works consistently. If they did, they would get it to work consistently, and everything would be fabulous. But they don’t, and it isn’t.
If I saw someone with a large social media following who had been given the opportunity to publish a book, I would ask myself: Does this book genuinely provide potential readers with anything more than what they’re already getting from social media? Can this person convince readers that it does?
Is this person someone readers will be willing to spend the time it takes to read a book with? (Personally, that’s why I think the Piers Morgan and Chris Christie books did so poorly, in that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to pay attention to either of them for more than a minute, but my imagination may be limited, who can say?)
Will people care about the book’s subject matter? To the extent that such things can be viewed reliably, it looked to me as if the books that did well were the ones that had huge social media followings because the person running the account took a back seat to their subject. I know almost nothing about the guy who runs Effin’ Birds on Instagram, for example, but I’m always glad to see a new picture show up in my feed.
Then again, I’ve been perfectly happy to follow along on Instagram, and haven’t bought the book, not even as a gift for friends or loved ones, but maybe there’s enough people more mentally and emotionally invested than me to make it work, who knows?
The way I see it, this all comes back to the problem I mentioned earlier: Most publishing houses, especially the larger ones, are forced by necessity to treat books as commodities; as such, they will always look for ways to streamline the process of marketing and selling their products, because they’ve got a lot of products to sell and it would be ever so much easier if they could, to some extent, sell themselves.
These days, that includes a never-ending quest for what one high-ranking editor described to Harris as the social media message that comes from “the right person with the right book and the right followers at the right time.” The only problem is that all of those variables are in constant flux, and few people prove themselves capable of defining them for any prolonged amount of time.
What does this mean for you? At the moment, probably nothing, especially if you haven’t finished your manuscript yet. Worry about that before you get agitated about whether your social media platform is strong enough to get you a book deal. And yet… now, at least those moments when you turn to social media for a break from your writing practice, is the perfect time for you to use social media to present the most authentic version of yourself you can, to make connections with people who share your interests and your passions, and to get them interested enough in you as a person, and interested enough in the things you share with them, that they’ll at least be curious when you’re finally able to tell them you have a book coming out.
I can’t guarantee you you’ll sell very many books that way. But it’s better than nothing.