Author Know Thy Business: Using Social Media to Grow Your Readership

By: Marie Force, NYT, USA Today and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author

Over the last few years, on various author loops, I’ve heard a lot of people say they “don’t do Facebook” or they “don’t do Twitter.” I wince every time those words come from an author who is looking to grow his or her readership. Social media certainly isn’t for everyone. My husband is what I call a “conscientious objector” to Facebook. I tell him all the time that I think he’d love it since he is retired from the Navy and has a big family spread across the country. It’s a great way to keep up with your Navy buddies and your nieces and nephew, I tell him. Eh, he shrugs. Not interested. The kids and I have given up on trying to convince him that he’d enjoy it.

If you’re a professional author, and I’d like to think we all are professionals no matter what stage of our careers we may be in, you’re grappling with issues of discoverability and economical ways to market your books to readers. That’s why I believe it’s critical that every author take full advantage of the FREE opportunities available to them via social media.

At the outset, I want to say that ONLY these things have worked to elevate my career and build my readership (in this order): 
  • Writing series/books that readers want more of, releasing them regularly and pricing them affordably
  • Free books
  • Interaction with readers via Facebook, and to a lesser extent in my case, Twitter
  • BookBub advertising
Nothing else has had any noticeable effect on my career. Blogging and blog tours have not made an impact, especially in recent years. Advertising in industry publications and on industry blogs has not had any impact. Attending conferences hasn’t done much beyond grow my social circle of other authors. Book signings haven’t worked. So let’s talk about what HAS worked.

Obviously, everything goes back to writing books that readers want to read. A successful writing career begins and ends with creating stories and characters readers want more of. My motto is that Quality is Job One. Quantity is Job Two. Job One: Put out professionally edited books with professionally designed covers. Job Two: Keep them coming as quickly as you possibly can. Once your books are on sale at retail sites, how do you make readers aware of them? That’s where the other three items on my list come into play.

I’ll talk about free books and the impact on paid sales next week when I publish the results of my latest survey on free books. Find the survey here. BookBub advertising is an outstanding, effective strategy that almost always yields measurable results. For a variety of prices, depending on the genre list you wish to target, you can reach hundreds of thousands of readers with one email about your discounted book. One of my BookBub ads put my book, The Wreck, on the USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists in March. Numerous other authors report BookBub bestsellers. My BookBub ad put my free book, Maid for Love, on the Amazon Top 100 Free list at no. 2 and at the iBookstore at No. 1 on the Free listing this week. BookBub works like no other advertising I’ve seen in the book business, but there is a cost involved. BookBub has rigid requirements for permitting books to be advertised, so it’s not open to everyone.

That leads us to Facebook and Twitter. Think back twenty years ago, before e-mail became a mainstream part of the business world, before the Internet became a vital aspect of daily life. How did authors reach their readers? They used the U.S. mail to send printed newsletters, they sent bookmarks, they went to bookstores to sign books and they replied (as much as they could, I suppose) to actual fan letters they received via their publishers. In between these events/mailings, they had little to no actual contact with their readers.

How lucky are we to be “down on the street” every day with our readers? How lucky are we to be able to hear their thoughts and ideas about our books? How lucky are we to share in their enthusiasm for our books? And how do we do gain this access? Through Facebook and Twitter. You may think social media is not for you, but trust me when I tell you it’s where the readers are. It’s where they’re going for information and access to their favorite authors. It’s where they’re connecting with other readers to hear their recommendations for books and authors they need to check out. Of course, the readers are also hanging out on Goodreads, but that site is much more difficult for authors to access in a meaningful way. Goodreads is a reader-driven site. Your Facebook and Twitter profiles are entirely author driven.

So what’s the secret to building your following on Facebook and Twitter? Let’s start with Facebook. You have two pathways available to you: a profile and/or a page. I recommend you have both. Set up your page with a name that relates back to you and your books. Mine is I’ll tell you how I built my profile/page following. I can only speak to my journey, and I acknowledge there are many other ways and paths to follow. This is what worked for me. I focused first on my profile. I spent an hour every Saturday for a year friending people who had hundreds of friends in common with me. That meant they were either readers or other authors. While I’m not a big fan of “preaching to the choir” with other authors, we have to keep in mind that authors are readers, too, so friending them is not without benefit.

Once I reached 2,000 friends, I noticed a big influx of people starting to come to me, so I had to do less outreach at that point. It took about a year of active effort (this was before my books started to take off a bit) to max out at 5,000 friends. That’s the limit enforced by Facebook on a profile. At that point, my focus shifted to my page, which I had established early in my Facebook life. Every time someone “friended” me on the profile, I sent them a message that said:

Thank you for your friend request. Unfortunately, I’m maxed out on friends and can’t accept any more. Please connect with me at or on Twitter @marieforce. Thanks for reading and for your interest in my books!

Most of them took the leap and “liked” my profile, which was great because I wanted to “keep” anyone who was interested in connecting with me. At this point, it became critical that every update that was posted to the profile also be posted to my page. I still do that. I have 300 friends who have also liked my page, so they get all the updates twice. In the few instances someone has mentioned to me that they get all my updates twice, I encourage them to either “unfriend” me or “unlike” my page. I now have 5,211 friends (not sure how those 211 snuck through the 5,000 limit, but I’m not giving them back—LOL) on my Marie Force profile, an additional 1,800+ “followers” of the profile and then 7,800 “likes” on my page, for a total of 14,600 connections on Facebook.

In addition to these followers, I manage nearly 30 “groups” on Facebook—a Marie Force Book Talk group for my most active fans, groups for each of my series and a separate group for each of my books where readers are encouraged to talk specifics (and spoilers) about the various books. Joining the individual book groups has become a big part of launch day in my world, with readers flocking to the book’s group to chat about it with other readers. The McCarthy Series group has more than 5,200 members who are very active and vocal about their love for the series. I have no idea how many of those 5,200 are unique to that group only—meaning not connected to either my page or profile—but I suspect it’s several thousand. You can find a listing of all the groups here, if you want to know more.

Does this Facebook presence take a lot of time to manage? You bet. And until January, I managed it all myself. I now have help, but I try to pop in daily on my page and profile as well as within the more active groups. On my profile and page, I post funny little tidbits about my family, my oh-so-glamorous writing life (including my Nick Nolte mug shot hair yesterday!), updates on my works in progress and other little things that keep me connected to my readers between books. Over a period of years, I’ve built a thriving online community around my books—they are at the center of it all.

How do I know this effort is paying off? On launch day I post info about the new books and ask the group members and followers to post them on their walls to help me spread the word about the new book. They love to feel like they are helping the cause and are happy to help with promotion. The most telling incident came a couple of years ago when I saw a post from a woman I’d had no contact with on Facebook (that I could recall). She said, “My friend Marie Force’s new book is out today. Make sure you get XXX book!” While I didn't know her at all, she felt that she knew me well enough to call me her friend. Remember the old shampoo commercial? I told two people and so on and so on? It’s the “I-told-two-people-you-told-two-people” school of marketing. There is simply no substitute for word-of-mouth publicity that includes endorsements from happy, satisfied readers. Facebook provides them with the outlet to express these opinions to their friends, sisters, coworkers, cousins, etc. And then they tell them where they can speak directly to the author, and you gain another reader for life when you write back to them.

Twitter is a more complex build because followers have to come to you, rather than the other way around. I don’t “auto-follow,” meaning if someone follows me, I don’t automatically follow them. I’ve tried to stay away from following tons of authors on Twitter. I’m far more interested in connecting with readers, and I try to keep my Tweet stream contained to outfits and people I’m truly interested in knowing more about. Of course I follow a lot of my author friends, and they follow me, but my focus there tends to be on readers vs. industry folks. I make an effort to reply to everyone who contacts me directly @marieforce. I try to retweet items I think will be of interest to my 6,300 followers. My account is a verified Twitter account (meaning Twitter confirmed that I am THAT Marie Force), which gave me some major cred with the teenagers in my life, but it hasn’t done much to grow my following. In total, I spend a fraction of the time on Twitter that I do on Facebook because my Facebook following is much larger than my Twitter following. Facebook also falls more naturally within my comfort zone, so it makes sense to put more time in there.

One word of caution about using services like Tweet Deck and Hoot Suite to set up your tweets in advance… When the country plunges into a situation like the Newtown shootings or the current events in Boston, Twitter as a whole tends to be unforgiving toward people who carry on with business as usual when the rest of the country is gripped by tragedy. I’ve seen authors vilified for posting about their books during an event like Newtown. While it’s obvious they are either away from their computers or living under a rock, tweeters can be very unforgiving toward these individuals. For that reason, I never schedule tweets in advance. You’re much better off to save your tweeting for when you're there to manage it real-time. Who needs that kind of blow back when you’re trying to build a following?

So what do you post to these social media outlets? I post news about my books, funnies about my family, my dogs, my writing life. I keep it conversational and give the readers just enough that they feel they know me without telling them too much. I write under my real name, which means it is also my children’s name. For that reason, you will never see pictures of my kids on my author page or profile. I’ve refrained from sharing my daughter’s final college choice out of deference to her privacy. I maintain a much smaller profile for close family and friends where I do post kid pics and other info that most of us would share with people we know. In this oh-so-public world we live in, it’s important to maintain your privacy, which is why I recommend a totally separate presence for your author pages. When my author profile started to take off, I realized I was going to run into privacy issues, so I separated the two profiles—one personal, one professional. No one gets into the personal profile unless I know them. Personally. Separating them took a lot of time at the outset, but it was well worth it to keep my public and personal lives separate.

Remember: Facebook and Twitter are FREE. They have the power to connect you with THOUSANDS of new readers. Can an author in today’s digital world afford to not be as active as possible on these platforms? I say no, but you may say otherwise. J

How do you feel about social media and the impact it’s had on your career? Are you as active as you can possibly be on these platforms? Or are you an author who feels you can manage your career without it? If you are, I’d love to hear more about how you are keeping in touch with your readers between books.

If you are an author who has offered your books for free, please remember to take the Free Book Survey by Thursday, April 25. I'll post the results next Friday, April 26.