First, a few home truths.
99% of books will never become successful. If you are a writer and you believe in your work, then you're also a reader, and you're good at suspending disbelief and believing in the impossible. So you have probably already ignored that part in bold or decided that you are the 1%.
The 1% which become successful are heavily promoted. This is true whether it's a big-name publisher or a little guy who goes crazy with his tweeting, facebooking, blogging and book touring. Even if you are a reader, you cannot magic this one away. There are no exceptions. You, your publisher or your marketing team are what makes your book a success (or doesn't).
WTF - I KNOW that I've heard of nobodies who had bestsellers. Yes. I never said that it required a million dollars, or that it required doing the work yourself. Just that SOMEONE has to do the legwork for at least the beginning. This includes jump-starting word-of-mouth, and includes viral social media. Word-of-mouth, the straw all authors grasp at, is part of your marketing team. In simple terms, your book's chance of success requires either money for marketing or self-marketing. Or both. And the easier it becomes for self-publishers to enter the game, the more that publishing houses expect that work to be done by authors themselves.
Now, onto the option that most indies seem to favour: self-marketing.
Even a casual glance out there will teach you that social media is supposed to be the key. It's possible to do in-store signings or launch parties of course, but without social media how will anybody know? So it comes back to social media. And sobering reality check #1: Facebook doesn't show all your posts to everyone. I've seen the official status listed as 5%, but my own use of it, with Facebook's data, is that for ordinary pictures, 1% of followers see my posts and only about a tenth of those ever click, like, share or comment. Text works a little bit better, but it depends on what you write.
Think about it. If you slog it out with massive effort and get 1000 people interested in your book who click on "Like" for your official author page, each picture you send out only gets 1 person engaged. Pitiful. Google+ will be exactly the same if all you post is book promotion. Twitter too. Pinterest and LinkedIn are doubtful for promoting writing and none of the others seem much better. Videos or blog posts are no good unless you can get people to click through and see them (remember how I said nobody's clicking?).
So everyone knows the key is social media and they think that they understand. And they go hard at it, and then get a shock that it does very little. I recently got talking to a professional, published author (and I'm talking write-ups and reviews in national newspapers, awards for best book, this man is really on his way up) and he is exhausted from constant effort yet still seeing nothing from his social media efforts. He had been ordered to tweet, plus, blog and facebook about himself and his book, by his publisher. He was getting very few replies and very few fans seemed to be interested in what he had to say. He had concluded there was no point and he admitted it to me, a relative stranger.
Let's backtrack. We have all seen the "power" of social media. Every single day we see posts or pictures with 100+ reshares. Now and then we see 10000+. We know that it's possible. We accept that social media can make things go viral. So we think of social media as having power to do amazing things. But what we completely forget is that social media gets absolutely ZERO "power" from ONE person. Sitting there and churning out posts about your book - zero power. Zero power to try and get 10000 shares. You, the author, will never have social media's "power" at your fingertips and all the solo effort in the world will not get you 10000 shares. That author up there above - who was definitely not silly - was absolutely correct that there was no point in what he was doing.
Let's dissect. How do those 100+ share posts happen? Simple - people like what someone writes (that part is relatively easy) and then they want to share it (that part is far more difficult). We already know that most people read and then scroll past without doing a thing. Even if they share, the chances are that most of their friends won't bother to share. To spread, it would need a lot of them sharing, which leads us to talk about incentives.
Give them a reason to share it. Even if that reason is a selfish one - like, for a free entry to a competition they need to share the competition. So they share it with their friends. Not all of their friends will be solely focussed on the competition - some of them might be interested in the book. Even if it's only one or two people, there are likely to be one or two more who are interested in the competition - and they will click through to enter. They then have to share it themselves, and the cycle continues. This, from my observation, is 100x more effective than your own solo social networking effort, which will generally only reach 1% of your followers and 0% of their friends. (Not to mention - do you even have a network? Or are you relying on your 100 Facebook friends to all buy your book? A competition will gain you a much bigger audience than you could reach on your own.)
I have highlighted that paragraph in blue because I have heard authors state that if you offer an incentive to click something, those people will never buy. That might be true. Competition junkies will probably never buy your book. It might feel like you are paying for competition junkies to take home the prize you paid for. They are - but it doesn't matter! (Wow. WHAT?) They are, but it doesn't matter. Because your giveaway got your book in front of all their FRIENDS and quite a few of them probably paid attention and might buy your book. Which is what you wanted, right? More eyes on your book, because now and then it turns into sales?
A competition can't turn a bad book into a best-seller. You still need a knockout title, an eye-catching cover and a captivating blurb. But once you have all those things, don't sit there in front of your keyboard and wage a solo effort. It is unlikely to get you far. Knowing two words - "social media" - is not the magic formula. You need to harness human wants and desires - people like free things and people like prizes.
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