Rethinking Author Branding: Why Social Media is Marketing Poison
Posted on August 18, 2018
Category: Zeedub Inkwell
Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. Well, more like a meh-hate. More accurately, a hate-hate-meh-sigh-hate relationship. Cards on the table, I hate social media. I know how to use it and leverage it appropriately, but I still hate it. As an author, I am bound to the mindset of building a brand, which demands an active social media presence. But at the same time, I have discovered MUCH better ways to promote myself outside of social media (more on that later). Thus, an inevitable question arises. Do I even need social media?

The irony is not lost on me that many of you will find this post through social media. We have been led to believe that social networking is the end-all-be-all of marketing tools, a necessary branding platform, a virtual playground for anyone who wants to sell something. As one such person, and after many years of book-hawking, I have come to an inescapable conclusion. Not only is social media largely worthless, it is actively poisonous to my brand.

Cue the retorts. You’re not using it right. Self-promotion depends on it. It’s great for advertising. You’ll miss out on important things.

To which I say, “Yes I am, no it doesn’t, no it isn’t, and no I won’t.”

Many of us have read Delilah S. Dawson’s Please Shut Up: Why Self-Promotion as an Author Doesn’t Work and watched Dr. Cal Newport’s TED Talk on Quitting Social Media. If you haven’t, then I highly recommend doing so. They were eye-openers for me, to the point of shattering the foundation of my campaign strategy. Please Shut Up in particular sent me into a two-week hiatus from social media where I questioned everything I knew. When I came back, I learned a valuable lesson: nobody had noticed my absence. I was just another voice in the chaos.

Since then, I have thoroughly mitigated my social media presence. I automate most of my posting and the majority of my interactions are chats with friends (which I also do through texts and apps, which kinda negates the utility). My existence on social media diminished to the point of a random lurker. And would you like to guess how that has affected my author brand? Ding ding ding, not in the slightest. In fact, the shift away from social networking has significantly improved it. But before we delve into the details, let’s take a moment to highlight the pitfalls of each platform.

Facebook

Once the peak of personal networking, now a bunk-barking carnival. Searching for nuance on Facebook is like searching for a needle in a mountain-sized haystack. There are some useful groups hidden in the muck, but the majority of users seem addicted to political meme vomit. This on top of the privacy concerns, shady practices, and high-profile scandals. The platform has devolved into a misinformation machine, and doing business within its walls makes me feel like a tiny mouse in a trap-filled room.

Twitter

Sports, jokes, and clever anecdotes? Nope. Just a bunch of rage-spitting about current events. And holy crap, the vitriol on Twitter is second to none. I have to double, triple, and quadruple check every tweet for anything that could be remotely perceived as insensitive. All it takes is a tiny misconception to set off the outrage machine. Brand tweeting is basically a giant game of saying “buy my stuff” without actually saying “buy my stuff.” It’s mentally exhausting, and the penalty for getting it wrong is not worth the price of admission.

Instagram

From an artistic perspective, I can see the appeal of Instagram. It’s visual, colorful, and fun to play with pictures. But as an author, it’s a worthless time sink. Nobody, and I mean nobody, comes to Instagram to find new books. Most people who “like” my pics are annoying randos who just want follow-backs. Most comments are blind self-promos. “Nice pic (emoji). Here’s a link to my unrelated hustle.” Instagram is the undisputed champion of superficial vanity. It’s a never-ending game of “like” hunting, which feels empty and tedious.

Combining them all, I came to the depressing realization that none of them were doing much to promote my brand. Does sharing a blog post on Facebook generate book sales? No. Does posting a clever comment on Twitter generate book sales? No. Does sharing a cool picture on Instagram generate book sales? No.

So what’s a no-name author to do?

The solution ended up being quite simple: I started using paid promo services like BookBub, Freebooksy, and The Fussy Librarian. (And no, I am not getting paid to say this, but I would happily accept some freebie runs, wink wink.) Early in my author career, the concept of paid promos seemed rather luxurious, something that only big publishers did. But once I took the plunge, my jaw hit the floor. These services generate thousands of downloads for my books, a figure that dwarfs social media marketing to a comical degree. They have massive readerships that I can only dream of reaching on my own. Plus, using them freed up valuable writing time that I would have otherwise pissed away on social media.

Everyone say it with me: time equals money.

Speaking of money, this strategy has dramatically simplified my marketing investment. Every promo run spikes my sales and rankings, which pays for the service and generates web traffic. They also result in more ratings and reviews, which are invaluable to indie authors.

And so, I decided to ditch my social media presence (for the most part). It’s a strange thing to say because I rode the bandwagon for a very long time, especially when I was first starting out. But after several years in the promo trenches, it’s hard to argue the ROI between paid services and social networking. This is not to say that I will delete my accounts and walk away (yet). I’m just limiting my time to big news and special events.

To quote a popular mantra, “I’d rather be writing.”

All that said, I would like to make one final observation. I think one of the root problems with social media is that we’re using it backwards. We see our daily interactions as building a brand, but as Cal Newport rightly points out, the market is only interested in a distinctive value. As an author, that value is contained in my works, not in my followers. Social media is something you should leverage after your value is established. At that point, you can offer a more genuine persona and are less susceptible to the enraged masses. Think authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, both of whom have massive social media networks that are largely immune to the court of popular opinion. Why? Because the market has already spoken for them. In other words, they are not building a fan base. They are mobilizing a fan base. And until I can do the same, I’ll be busy writing the next book.

Follow-up post:
My Big Fat Social Media Marketing Experiment

Read more:
No, I’m Not on Facebook (And No Author Should Be)
I Have Slayed the Twitter Dragon (And Bid Farewell to Social Media)

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