• Thursday, March 23, 2023

Social Media Fame doesn’t sell books

It's difficult to predict whether or not a book will be a success.
on Jan 19, 2023
Social Media Fame

A book by Billie Eilish seemed like a good bet. Eilish is one of the world's most famous pop stars, with 97 million Instagram followers and another 6 million on Twitter. It would be a success if even a small percentage of them bought her book.

However, her self-titled book has sold approximately 64,000 hardcover copies since its release in May, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the majority of printed books sold in the US—not a bad number, unless Eilish received a large advance. Of course, she did. Her publisher paid well over a million dollars for the book.

It's difficult to predict whether or not a book will be a success. The price of a jar of tomato sauce does not vary significantly from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is unique, a unique work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry attempts to forecast demand for new titles, it is merely guessing, however carefully. Because there are so few reliable metrics to look at, social media followings have become some of the primary data points publishers use to try to make more educated guesses.

When publishers are deciding whether to acquire a book, an author's following has become a standard part of the equation. Followings can influence who gets a book deal and how much of an advance that author receives, especially in nonfiction. Despite their importance, they are increasingly viewed as unreliable indicators of how well a book will sell.

"The only reliable part about it is that it's unreliable," said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble.

Consider Justin Timberlake. His book 'Hindsight' was acquired for more than $1 million, but when it was released in 2018, Timberlake was unable to promote it as planned due to bruised vocal cords. His 53 million Instagram followers at the time couldn't make up for it. According to BookScan, it has sold about 100,000 printed copies since its release three years ago, which is not nearly the number his publisher had hoped for.

It's difficult to understand why this occurs. According to publishing and marketing executives, there is sometimes a mismatch between what people post on social media and the subject of their books. Perhaps the books don't offer anything more than what they've already shared on Instagram. Or perhaps the book isn't all that good. Social media is only one factor in why a book works or fails, just as it is only one factor in why a book is acquired—publishers were interested in Billie Eilish's book not just because she is Billie Eilish, but because she is Billie Eilish.

To address these concerns, some book contracts now specify the number of posts required before and after the publication of a book.

"We want to hear from the celebrity that they are invested in the book, in addition to hearing from the agent and reading the manuscript," said Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books. "To put it politely, what would you say about this project and how would it fit in with everything else you're doing?"

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