Does Twitter Sell Books? An Unscientific Study

I love technology. I really do. Last year when I thought my book was going to be published (before the publishing company went pear-shaped) I set up a twitter account and happily set about building up a following, employing a combination of automated tweets (using Tweetadder), and personal engagement from the Twitter application on my smart phone. Twitter would form part of the platform we authors are supposed to build.

I fell out of tweeting and the twitter world when my publisher failed before my book was published and I have stayed dormant on social media whilst I awaited news of my book (which I have submitted to Storylines for the Tom Fitzgibbon award).

A couple of weeks ago I got chatting to an author friend who has moved from traditional publishing to self publishing. Julie has written a fabulous series for girls featuring a trio of baby griffins and a feisty but messy heroine. The books are well-written and fun to read, and bang on the subjects that young girls love. I can’t recommend them enough. Julie’s primary strategy for selling books is a personal one – she gets out and does school talks to promote herself and her books. She’s not much into social media although she has a beautiful website that would turn most children’s authors green with envy (check it out here). During our conversation she made an interesting comment – she doesn’t get many book orders from her website.

It got me wondering whether I could use my Twitter following of around 3000+ people to direct traffic to her site, and if that would help with her online sales. With her permission I set up an experiment – for one week I tweeted (up to 15 tweets a day) a combination of: links to her website (with a recommendation of her books or an intriguing comment), links to my own blog, and links to other interesting writer-focussed blog posts.

At the end of the week, I gave her a call to see what the results of this very unscientific study were, and if there were any conclusions to be extracted from it.

Here is what happened over that week:

  • Some people retweeted the links to Julie’s site so the exposure to Twitter users was extended beyond my own followers
  • Traffic to Julie’s site increased slightly, but nowhere near the ten-fold increase I noticed in traffic to my blog
  • The increase in traffic to Julie’s site did not result in any additional book sales, nor did it result in any personal contact being made to Julie to book her for author talks etc.

Of course, the results are open to interpretation. Maybe I didn’t tweet enough. The question of how much to tweet is a judgement call. For those who follow only a few people, a large number of tweets originating from a single person is very annoying. But tweet too little and those who follow thousands will never see your tweets. Perhaps I didn’t use the right hashtags. I tried a combination but were they the right ones? I tend to connect with other authors on twitter – that might not be the right audience to try and sell books to.

Any of those factors could have affected the result, but here is what I think happened:

The marketing tweets were ignored – like billboards on the side of the road, followers learn to recognise marketing at a glance and to disregard it, as if it were never there. Twitterers are more likely to click on links that lead to articles of personal interest to them. My blog posts are focussed on writing and I think that explains why there was a higher increase in traffic to my blog than to Julie’s author website.

The logic behind my reasoning is simple. It’s because this is how I behave on Twitter. I almost never click on marketing links to other author’s books – at least not without having had some personalised contact with the author first. There are thousands of book marketing links being tweeted every second of every day. It would be difficult (impossible even) to write a 140-character tweet promoting a book that was so original and gripping, I would be compelled to click the link and then take the additional step of actually buying the book.

The one and only time I have purchased a book from a Twitter follower was when that author made personal contact with me after reading one of my blog posts. He had some really helpful advice to share. After that interaction I was willing to spend $1.99 to purchase his book, and curious to see what it was like.

Does Twitter sell books? I think relationships and  personal interactions sell books. Twitter is simply a communication channel you can use to facilitate those interactions.

I’d love to hear about other authors’ experiences with social media. Has anyone found a method of using social media that translated into increased traffic and book sales? Was my approach wrong?

I’m also interested to hear if anyone has purchased a book from an author they didn’t previously know after a social media interaction.

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15 thoughts on “Does Twitter Sell Books? An Unscientific Study

  1. I think you’re spot on with these observatuons, which match my own experiences. I don’t automate tweets but have run ‘volume tests’ manually. More tweets definitely pump hits on your blog. But they don’t sell anything. They also run the risk of annoying people.

    Writing posts definitely get more hits than others. I conclude that people go to social media to learn how to write books they can sell online, not to buy what others write and sell online.

    • Thanks for your comment and I find it interesting to note that you have found the same. Since joining Twitter I have observed what others do there to promote their books and I tried to emulate it for this experiment. I thought it would generate more significant results – at the very least a big jump in traffic on Julie’s website. The fact that this didn’t happen makes me wonder why anyone bothers. Perhaps it is the accumulation of presence across a variety of media that makes the difference?

  2. That’s interesting, SJ. I had been wondering if that was a way to go, but for me perhaps not.

    It’s a shame others didn’t take their look at Julie’s site as an encouragement to buy her books. I have bought both of Julie’s books, and they are gorgeous. My granddaughter loves them and is waiting eagerly for the next in the series.

    The problem with social media is that there are so many ways to get it wrong, or perhaps so many ways to not get it right. I’m working on facebook at the moment, and I have got a couple of sales that way. Not a lot, because the books aren’t available as ebooks yet. But we are getting there.

    What ever we do, it takes time, and there is no easy answer. One thing I have found is that if something can go wrong, it will and in the most annoying and time consuming manner possible. Nevertheless, it is all progress, and I guess we are looking at baby steps.

  3. So sorry to hear about your publishing house disaster. That can’t have been easy. I’m not at the stage of publishing yet but use Twitter to try and boost traffic to my site. It doesn’t seem to generate much, but then I don’t tweet nearly enough!

  4. You’re right I think.The only person I ever bought a book from because of his tweets uses Twitter to chat and retweet. He hardly ever mentions his own books. His feed is full of reaction to tweets, jokes and the odd bit of information. That made me think I’d like what he wrote. As you say, it’s about the relationships.

  5. I’ve bought books because I’ve known the authors; I haven’t tended to investigate books that are just tweeted in front of my nose without any personal contact. So that’s a learning experience for me too.
    The responses I got to tweets about my first ebook were from people I already knew, and that didn’t necessarily lead to sales. I’ve been trying to engage people in my next book, which is about prostate issues, by following twitters who focus on prostate issues (mostly cancer). So far, after a couple of weeks or longer, I don’t even get replies to queries I make to their tweets, though there have been some retweets of my original tweets.
    Seems to me that Twitter is about chit-chat rather than sales…

    • Hi Mike, funnily enough when I was thinking about the results, I thought that perhaps non-fiction would do better to promote on twitter because it would be so much easier to target an interested audience. It surprises me immensely to hear that you aren’t having any success with that approach. I really believe that we all are exposed to so much marketing that we automatically shut it out.

  6. Very interesting post Suzanne. I haven’t bought books via Twitter, but I have taken out a lot of new ones from the library after seeing tweets about them. So that wouldn’t show up directly in author sales. But a) these are commercially published books by people whose names I already know slightly, not indie authors I’ve never heard of and b) I’m relatively new to Twitter and my twitter stream is still manageable. As it grows, I’ll probably not read tweets as closely.

  7. Hi SJ. I came here from Twitter because it is new to me and I was interested in how it is working for others. I wrote a book that was published last March without any social media platform (can’t say that I had a clue what I was doing, I just did it). Shortly after, I started my blog. Sales were slow, but I did make them and got some nice reviews. In December, I learned about Ereader News Today and did a promo through them, Unfortunately, I did not get the price reset from $3.99 to 99 cents in time for the promo but still sold 200 copies and improved ranks tremendously. The promo was one day only. It was a dead stop in sales after the promo. Even though I advertised on other sites during January, I sold next to nothing…a few sales (14) that I think were carry overs by word of mouth from promo in December. For February, I did another promo with ENT in a different genre at 99 cents. This time, again 200 copies (price mattered not at all). BUT I continued promotions with my brand new twitter account (fewer than 100 followers) but used hash tags all over the place with the many issues brought up in the book, prejudice, civil rights, abortion, adoption, women’s issue, etc…also hashtags for #BYNR, #KINDLE, and #AmazonKindle. I followed the hashtags that buyers followed like #StopBlackPanic, #BlackHistoryMonth, #womenshistory. AND it manged to sell another 200 copies in February. Bottom line…I believed Twitter was tremendously influential in sales. Many tweeted back to say they had bought the book. I think finding your audience is key, and hashtags are of paramount importance. I don’t hashtag writers. I hashtag and follow readers. I have a “List” of author friends (about 50) I keep up with on Twitter. I follow people who tweet on the issues my book is about. I apologize for taking up so much space here, just wanted to let you know how things worked for me.

    • Thanks so much for sharing–I’ve always wondered about how one reaches *readers* on social media as opposed to reaching other *writers*. I’ve purchased 2 books from authors I knew on Twitter because of the online relationships, but not because of any marketing efforts on their parts. Thanks for the insight into how you reach readers as well as other writers!

  8. My twitter experience matches your experiment results. I’m intrigued by sknicolle’s comment above. I suspect that I don’t use Twitter effectively. I rarely use hashtags and I follow and am followed by a whole bunch of other authors trying to do the same thing I’m trying to do. Doesn’t make much sense. I will definitely rethink Twitter. Great post, SJ.

    • Hi Francis, thanks for commenting. Sounds like we might benefit from a lesson from SK Nicholls on how to use Twitter effectively and figure out what hashtags to use! Blog post please SK on hashtags. Pretty please…

  9. I am a complete newbie to this marketing a book game. I met this self published author and loved his book, so I offered to help him figure out how to make it a best seller. What an experience it has been in just a month. I have been saying all along that SM doesn’t sell books that people do. I know that I want a connection with someone and I assume that most people are just like me. The whole thing is like a puzzle trying to figure it out. So much information out there that I am usually on complete overload. I wish you the best of luck and I would be happy to share anything I have discovered if it would be useful to you. Great article, so glad I found it today.

  10. Just to put in my two cents – I publish a lot of short work (flash fiction and essays) on other people’s sites – online magazines, literary journals, and so forth. While I do get an increase in hits on my blog from Twitter, they’re nothing compared to the traffic I get when I’m linking to one of my short stories on another publisher’s website. Food for thought.

  11. I have a writer friend who self-published a novel last spring, and since then she has maintained consistent double-digit sales every month. This author has promoted mainly through personal appearances. She networks and cold calls relentlessly to get herself (and her work) out there. It’s a lot of hard work, but the payoff is in her consistent sales numbers.

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