Brave New World: Marketing Books Online

With the rise of e-publishing, online bookstores and social media, mastering the web has become increasingly important for authors and publishers when it comes to selling books. But how do they navigate this brave new world? Should you dip your toe into every form of social media, or immerse yourself in one? How often should you use social media to sell and promote, and how often to chat and share news? And perhaps most controversial of all … to retweet or not to retweet (compliments)? We put these questions – and more – to a selection of authors and publishers.

Getting social media right

‘My favourite social media outlet is Twitter,’ says Alaina Gougoulis, who works in editorial and digital publishing at Text Publishing – and provides the voice behind its social media. ‘It’s immediate; you can have a conversation in ways you can’t on other forums.’ Her preference for Twitter is widespread among the publishers we spoke to; that conversational element makes it a natural fit for sharing ideas (which books do, too). Facebook, on the other hand, is perfect for events or sharing images; it’s popular for promoting illustrated books (as is Pinterest, to a lesser extent).

Text’s social media voice is bookish, cake-loving and fast-quipping, complementing the inevitable self-promotion with links to news and pop culture posts, wry one-liners and conversation with followers. Alaina describes Text’s approach as ‘the classic 70/20/10 formula: 70% interesting content relevant to our followers, 20% interaction with others (retweeting, reposting and commenting on other posts) and 10% self-promotion’.

But does it sell books?

Author Benjamin Law has an enviable social media following, including more than 25,000 Twitter followers. Does it help with book sales? ‘Absolutely,’ he says. People follow him for reasons as diverse as ‘crass poo jokes’ and links to great articles – but for whatever reason they’re there, they notice when he’s making an appearance at a book festival or event, and some of them turn up to say hello. The key? ‘Make every tweet interesting, educational or funny. If it’s none of these things, maybe – I don’t know – write it in your journal. Tell it to your cat! Or nobody at all!’

Novelist Kylie Ladd says that while she ‘knows’ her online presence has helped her sales, she’s not sure if that help has been significant, though it has directly led to jobs – as a guest commentator on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters and creative writing teacher at the Australian Writers Centre.

She believes that it’s important to be consistent; to commit to a form of social media (whether that be Twitter, Pinterest or a blog) and show up regularly enough for people to get to know you and connect with you. It’s those connections – with readers and other writers – that she enjoys most about her social media presence. ‘Don’t do it because you have to, or your publisher says you have to – that always shows through eventually. Find an online medium that works for you; keep your voice real and authentic. Anything else is just too hard to sustain.’

Paddy O’Reilly started using Twitter – which she had previously disparaged – last year, at her publicist’s suggestion. She doesn’t think it helped her sell books, but she was surprised by how much she enjoyed it – for finding links to articles, book recommendations and making friends. ‘Twitter has become a conversation, often about books and writing, which is great.’

Damon Young, author of Philosophy in the Garden, believes that Twitter contributes to his commercial success. ‘It’s hard to match tweets with sales. But I certainly see Twitter followers reading my columns or extracts (or listening on radio) then buying the book. (And sometimes tweeting photos of the book in their hands.)’

Promoting your work ‘without being a total pain in the arse’

‘It’s great if authors can be engaged (and engaging) online,’ says Catherine McInnis, digital marketing assistant at Melbourne University Publishing – and Damon’s publisher. ‘Maybe it won’t make you sell thousands more books, but it helps. And it keeps publishers interested in your next work, and the one after that, because you have a following.’

She doesn’t want her authors to straight-out spruik their books online, though. ‘It’s about opening up conversations that people can join, or witness, on things the author is passionate about. For the same reason, having a website about your book rather than yourself is not terribly useful. Whether you like it or not, people want to know about you, the author.’

‘I see some clever people on Twitter who manage to promote their work without being total pains in the arse, but it’s not easy to get it right,’ observes Paddy O’Reilly. Maybe part of the reason authors like Benjamin Law manage social media so seamlessly is that their personal ‘voice’ is so central to their books – so just being themselves is a kind of promotion. Others, like Damon Young and MUP stablemate Antony Loewenstein, trade in ideas, both online and in their work. ‘They’re also ideas-driven people in real life, it’s not just a persona they’ve created,’ says Catherine McInnis.

Doing it in style: The Rosie Project

It’s somewhat tougher, perhaps, for authors of fiction, whose own personalities and ideas are separate from those of their characters. Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project, has worked around this marketing roadblock in a nifty way, by giving his protagonist, the wife-seeking Professor Don Tillman, his own in-character Twitter account. The Rosie Project is also supported by online quizzes where you can find out if you’re a match for Don, or that pose the question ‘Which character are you?’. Simsion, who has a background in business, worked with the publisher to create these companions to his book. The Rosie Project also has its own book trailer, though this device seems to be waning in popularity as a sales tool.

Are book trailers worth the bother?

‘Some work, lots don’t,’ says Roxy Ryan, marketing manager at Hardie Grant. ‘People are used to seeing really high quality film trailers, advertisements and film clips. So when a book trailer comes along that looks a little less than 100% polished due to the inevitably smaller budget, it can have a negligible or sometimes negative effect. The other issue is channels to show book trailers. If all you are doing is putting them up on your YouTube channel, then I wonder if the time and investment is worthwhile. But when they work, they can be a great way to get the concept of a book across really quickly. And good creative work can always flourish without a big budget. I thought the trailer for The Rosie Project was really cute and well executed.’

THE ROSIE PROJECT Trailer

The trailer for The Rosie Project.

Andrew Wilkins, of children’s publisher Wilkins Farago, is hugely enthusiastic about book trailers. ‘They can be really cheap to do and they really promote the book,’ he says. The production technology is free these days, so the only cost is the time to produce it. And it’s relatively easy to use – his thirteen-year-old son edited his last video for him. Andrew concedes that publishers need to think carefully about distribution, and that they need others to host the video in order for it to take off. ‘You need a strategy around it.’ Wilkins Farago builds book trailers into their data feed to online booksellers, and disseminates them to schools and libraries. ‘They love them, because they help engage kids as readers.’ Wilkins Farago’s most popular trailer has head nearly 130,000 views. ‘But there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between how popular your video is on YouTube and sales,’ he says.

Kampung Boy

The Trailer for Wilkins Farago’s Kampung Boy has attracted nearly 130,000 views.

‘There needs to be a rule book’

Monica Dux has been on Facebook since 2008 and on Twitter for the past couple of years; while she says the direct link to readers (and potential readers) is satisfying, she also finds it somewhat mysterious and terrifying. ‘It is such a weird medium,’ she says. ‘I suspect our generation are sometimes not very good at it because it’s really not what we expected when it came to promoting our work. There needs to be a rule book that can tell us exactly what is appropriate, and what will get us mocked.’

One of those things that can attract mockery is the practice of authors retweeting compliments about themselves – which can seem a logical thing to do. ‘I steer clear of it because it can be irritating for your followers,’ says Monica. ‘Having said that, I actually did retweet a compliment last week, and immediately felt dirty. Yet I understand why so many authors do it. We’re all told that we must promote ourselves, and then when we do we run the risk of getting attacked and mocked for it. So it’s a catch-22.’

‘Someone just said I was pretty!’: Retweeting compliments

‘It’s perfectly fine, as long as it’s done with some vestige of modesty,’ says Roxy Ryan. ‘But if an author is feeling a tad personally modest they could always alert their publisher and ask us to tweet it for them – it’s our job to be shameless!’ Catherine McInnis suggests authors respond to the compliment rather than retweet, ‘which will make the complimenter pretty chuffed too’.

But Benjamin Law counsels against the practice. ‘As my friend Sophie once said, retweeting a compliment is similar to someone running into a room and screaming out, “You guys, someone just said I was pretty!” I actually know people like that and actively try to avoid them in real life. Why would I want to follow them online?’

Alaina Gougoulis agrees that ‘it’s going to rub your followers the wrong way’, unless the circumstances are exceptional. ‘By all means, retweet the really out-of-this world ones – if you get praise from Joan Didion, I’d forgive you if you got it as a tattoo – but try to do it with charm and be humble about it.’

Damon Young disagrees. ‘I like to hear what’s said or written about authors I follow,’ he says ‘We reprint praise from reviews on book covers and websites. Why not retweet compliments on Twitter? And yes, I do it.’

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