August 26, 2012

Does social media sell books?


“I’m convinced that epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months.” Bold words, and not mine.

Ewan Morrison made this pronouncement yesterday on the Guardian books blog, in a long post that takes aim at social media as a tool for bookselling. A pretty radical thing to do, given that for five years or more authors self-published and otherwise have been told time and again that their number-one priority must be building an online ‘platform’ of followers, readers and potential buyers. That platform, Morrison contends, will not equate to sales.

The most interesting part of the article focuses on Facebook, and the ways in which recent advances in its technology have made it less useful as  a marketing tool:

Many self-epublishing authors claim that you can “trigger Amazon’s algorithms” and get on to “Amazon recommendations”, after you get 30 – or 50 – or 100 favourable reviews. They sometimes say this gleefully, as if it’s a trick they’ve learned and are secretly passing on to you. The idea is that you contact all of your friends on Facebook and get them to post reviews. Although it’s a bit crass, and may be dishonest, it’s not illegal.

The problem with this is what I term the Facebubble, or what Eli Pariser calls Filter Bubbles. The hard fact is that since Facebook started tracking our behaviour, no matter whether you have 1,000 friends or 100, you’re only going to get updates from the two dozen people you’ve most recently been in touch with. You’re not speaking, let alone marketing, to the vast world of the internet at all. You are only a few steps removed from your old school friends and your mum. This problem is compounded when you try to sell books directly on Facebook to your friends. You’re in the Facebubble and you’re stuck with the 80/20 rule. You’re spending 20% of 80% your time trying to market to the two dozen people who will see your feed. So you sell 10 books, and you feel dirty for having given the hard sell to your mates.

He’s also damning — as others have been recently — about the power of paid advertising on Facebook. In the comments section he quotes LA music start-up Limited Run, who recently announced that they would be deleting their Facebook page after working out that 80% of the clicks on their ads came from bots:

Hey everyone, we’re going to be deleting our Facebook page in the next couple of weeks, but we wanted to explain why before we do. A couple months ago, when we were preparing to launch the new Limited Run, we started to experiment with Facebook ads. Unfortunately, while testing their ad system, we noticed some very strange things. Facebook was charging us for clicks, yet we could only verify about 20% of them actually showing up on our site. At first, we thought it was our analytics service. We tried signing up for a handful of other big name companies, and still, we couldn’t verify more than 15-20% of clicks. So we did what any good developers would do. We built our own analytic software. Here’s what we found: on about 80% of the clicks Facebook was charging us for, JavaScript wasn’t on. And if the person clicking the ad doesn’t have JavaScript, it’s very difficult for an analytics service to verify the click. What’s important here is that in all of our years of experience, only about 1-2% of people coming to us have JavaScript disabled, not 80% like these clicks coming from Facebook. So we did what any good developers would do. We built a page logger. Any time a page was loaded, we’d keep track of it. You know what we found? The 80% of clicks we were paying for were from bots. That’s correct. Bots were loading pages and driving up our advertising costs. So we tried contacting Facebook about this. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t reply. Do we know who the bots belong too? No. Are we accusing Facebook of using bots to drive up advertising revenue. No. Is it strange? Yes. But let’s move on, because who the bots belong to isn’t provable.

(Oh and by the way, there’s also news that 2 million US users left Facebook recently — a 1.1% fall in users over the last six months.)

Morrison argues convincingly that social networking sites don’t have the magical marketing powers that have been attributed to them in recent years. But is he right to assume that that will spell the end of self-epublishing?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.