Does Social Media Sell Books? Gillian Flynn's Agent Gives Her Perspective

How important is social media for book sales? I decided to ask this question to someone who has had a front row seat to the success of Gillian Flynn as well as many other authors.
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Those of you who know me are probably shocked at the title of this blog. You know I am a true believer in digital marketing and publicity and always suggest to authors that they should spend time developing a relationship with their readers. So why am I asking this question? For a couple of reasons: One because I am seeing social media burn-out in authors and second because I realized that two of the top selling authors of 2012 did not invest much time in social media.

According to Publisher's Weekly, the three biggest selling authors last year were E. L. James, Suzanne Collins and Gillian Flynn. Neither Suzanne Collins nor Gillian Flynn spend much time on social networking. So how important is it for sales? I decided to ask this question to someone who has had a front row seat to the success of Gillian Flynn as well as many other authors.

The following is an interview with Gillian Flynn's literary agent Stephanie Rostan (Levine Greenberg):

Hi Stephanie, I appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions about the success of Gone Girl:

Q. I noticed that Ms. Flynn's website is great but not updated often. I could not find a blog, a mailing list, or a Twitter handle. I may have missed them, but it was not obvious. She has a Facebook page with 13,000 people which I assume is updated by someone other than her and only about her events. Clearly in this case, the books are hugely successful without the author's investment in social media, so do you think an investment of social media/digital marketing is important for an author's success?

A: Yes, but it is not always the author's investment. There has certainly been a lot of social media chatter ABOUT Gillian's books, although it's true that for the most part she was not out there participating in or generating the conversation. I think a lot of this was ignited by media coverage of the book (online and off) and early on it was helped by a widespread galley distribution that the publisher executed for Gone Girl. The book itself really encourages discussion, so as more people read it, more people felt compelled to talk about it.

If the main function of social media, for an author, is to get the word out that this book is worth reading -- ideally to the people who will be most likely to read it -- and this can be accomplished in other ways (media coverage, ads, bookstore placement, online retailer promotion), then the social media component becomes less important. I also think it's critical that no matter how active an author is online, the conversation about them and/or their book must be picked up and carried on by others for it to truly have an impact on sales. It can't be ONLY about the author talking (blogging/tweeting).

Also... there is a big difference for fiction vs. nonfiction authors. For nonfiction authors with a specific expertise, being out there in the community that has interest in that expertise will most likely be effective in selling their book. For fiction authors, trying to "sell" their personality may not be as useful for getting someone to read their book for the first time -- this isn't a popularity contest, it's about the reading experience. I do think readers like to form relationships with authors whose books they love, but that comes AFTER they've read the book. So it can be more useful in building and maintaining an audience over time.

Q: So in your opinion, novelists are better off focusing all their attention on writing the best book they can?

A: I think they absolutely need to focus on writing the best book first. Without that, what is there to talk about? That said, once the book is written, every author should take some time to consider how they will work with social media. What are they comfortable with? What are they good at? What will the publisher do? What fits best with the book? These answers will be somewhat different for different authors. I always try to help authors find something that makes sense to them and feels organic -- I don't think it works well to fake or force a social media presence. And as I said above, there are other ways to develop visibility for your work -- social media is appealing because it's free (if you don't count the massive time commitment!), it's accessible, and it's directly under your control. Many other avenues for promotion are not.

Q: Do you feel Gillian is an exception then?

A: Yes and no. The level of her success is exceptional (and her books are exceptional!). But I work with other authors who have upward-trending sales without a lot of personal online interaction. This doesn't mean that OTHER people don't talk about their books online, just that their own level of activity may be low (an updated Facebook page and fan mail/email, for example). Many of these authors have multiple books (so they have spent time over several years building an audience), and write in a specific niche that helps them find their readers. They also receive various kinds of support from their publishers.

Q: In your opinion, what was the tipping point in her success?

A: This was her third book. The first two books were widely and well-reviewed, had been nominated for and/or won awards, and had had solid sales. There was a foundation to build on with GONE GIRL. The moment when you could tell this was going to be a different publication was right around the pub date for the book, when we saw how many really outstanding reviews, from such a wide range of national media, were lined up. The publisher had executed a really flawless campaign -- sales, marketing and publicity together. The book is also incredibly good and engaging -- it was that combination of hard work/foundation, a fantastic book, and a gathering storm of media coverage that all broke at once.

Q: Do your other authors benefit from interacting with their readers on social media and being pro-active with their digital branding strategy?

A: Some of them do, and some of them don't. But isn't that how publishing is? Nothing works all the time, or for everyone. It's important for authors to leave no stone unturned and consider how social media can work for them, but also important to consider the whole picture of getting the word out about their book and reaching readers. I'm sure there are examples of authors whose success is directly related to their social media strategy/efforts. But there are also authors whose success has come mostly without that. Without diving too deeply into it, I think there are different kinds of readers out there who use and don't use social media in different ways -- when there's a match between the author's efforts and the potential readers they are reaching, that can be magic. But when there isn't, a lot of energy can go to waste. Not to mention that things are always changing in the social media world. As I said above -- the best advice I can give is to write the best book you can, and reassess your social media involvement/strategy often.

That was truly great and honest advice. Thank you so much for taking the time. You can learn more about Stephanie on her companies' website.

Fauzia Burke is the Founder and President of FSB Associates, a digital publicity and marketing firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors. For online publicity, book publishing and social media news, follow Fauzia on Twitter: @FauziaBurke. To talk with FSB and ask your book publicity questions, please join us on Facebook.

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