Can Social Media Really Sell Books?

There’s no shortage of people explaining how to work social media to sell more books.

But there is very little hard evidence that it really can convert to sales.

Social media requires significant time and emotional investment for authors, bookshops, and publishers who are already stretched thin. Is it worth doing?

Book-related social media, very briefly

Book-related social media flourished during COVID-19 lockdowns as platforms attracted book-themed content sharing. People creatively share books and virtual tours of bookshops from anywhere in the world. They share information about book festivals and events. They’re creating book blogs and vlogs, book reviews, photographs of books, cover reveals, unboxing, and so on. Most book-related social media accounts are visually beautiful, fascinating, and compelling. Bookshops are wonderful places indeed, and their social media accounts can reflect this. The visual element is the most important for many platforms.

So, bookshop owners and authors have been finding their niche, setting up their accounts, buying cameras and ring lights and props, creating content, growing their brand, and building a following.

One way that social media converts to sales is by attracting people to the store. One bookshop manager in LA, Katie Orphan, says: “We get so many people who come to the store to get those Instagram shots, and then my job is to try and capture them with our actual books and our actual inventory so they buy books.” Social media in this case is just a preliminary step to getting people into the store.

Coffee and Book
Photo by Timothy Barlin on Unsplash

Another way that some businesses capitalize on social media is by converting a social media following to sales of merchandise rather than books. Books Are Magic, a bookshop in Brooklyn, has positioned itself as a lifestyle brand through its Instagram presence. Sure, the store sells books, but it also sells pantloads of merchandise – totes and mugs and more – with its aesthetic pastel blue and pink “Books Are Magic” graphic that people seek out for Instagram-worthy photo opportunities.

But does social media sell more books?

This isn’t a crass commercial question. It’s an important question. Authors and booksellers need to earn an honest living, and the community benefits from learning and personal growth. Does social media bring more books into people’s lives?

This has led to a thriving environment for book lovers on social media. Many commentators believe that’s been a good thing for independent bookstores because their key strength – in contrast to big bookstore chains and online stores – is creating community. It’s an authentic online presence that avid readers recognize and appreciate. It facilitates real human connection, something people are still yearning for even (especially!) in the digital age.

Are book sales growing?

It’s exciting to report that the number of independent bookshops in the USA has grown by 35 percent from 2009 to 2015 – and all this during the “retail apocalypse” in which Amazon undermined almost every retail sector. Independent bookshops offered an experience that Amazon couldn’t: a personal engagement in a brick-and-mortar environment, with other people, in the flesh, and to hold real books. Amazon, in contrast, was about buying something quickly at the cheapest price. Landlords were happy to rent to the independent bookshop to take advantage of its sense of authenticity and its community spirit, something anchors the population to each other and the locality.

Print book sales spiked in 2021, at over 8 million compared with 7.5 million in 2020. Another source reports that book sales rose by 8.9% from 2020 to 2021. This increase was led by adult fiction and YA fiction.

Photo by Sara Cohen on Unsplash

But it wasn’t all good news. Because, while print sales are up, readership is down, according to the Authors Guild. American readers are at their lowest numbers in decades, with declines especially seen among women. And shockingly, 17-25% of Americans say they don’t read at all.

Is social media driving those sales?

Although there is massive growth in social media AND healthy growth in book sales, this does not mean that social media sells books.

About converting social media into book sales, the Director of Books at Barnes & Noble said in the New York Times recently that, “the only reliable part about it is that it’s unreliable.”

How can this be? It’s the million-dollar question.

Maybe the books in question just aren’t very good. Quality still matters in publishing!

Maybe the followers are not genuinely interested in reading, or in reading those particular books. Or perhaps they are only interested in the social media content, and not in whatever a book may offer.

Perhaps the followers aren’t engaged. Are they commenting and sharing? Or just liking and scrolling by?

Having a very large social media following does not necessarily convert to book sales. Followers might even be primarily bots.

Rob Eagar from BookBusiness wrote about some of the problems with using social media to drive book sales.

First, some platforms require you to “pay to play” – in particular, Facebook. Sponsoring your own content reduces your return on investment, and may not even be an option for smaller independent bookshops.

Social Media
“Social Media Marketing” by socialautomotive is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Second, social media offers very low response rates. Publishers in particular are yet to confirm that investment in social media brings great returns.

Third, spreading resources over multiple platforms is not always efficient, and content often gets lost in the noise. And finally, social media tends to be an echo chamber, in which your content is noticed only by those already interested in your product. It is not the place to attract a broader base of customers.

So What’s the Point of Social Media for Selling Books?

Social media certainly has a place in the world of books.

In another post, we’ll talk about how to use social media as one of the many tools in your basket for connecting with people, growing your community, and ultimately getting books into the hands of book lovers.