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‘Work smarter, not harder’ applies to social media too: Catherine Ryan Howard in Interview

PI      How long have you been advising authors and publishers on how to use social media?

CRH      I’veCatherine Ryan Howard been advising authors since 2010 through my blog,, my book, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, and on a one-to-  one basis through The Inkwell Group. I’ve also been a tutor at Faber & Faber’s ‘Faber Academy’ in London for the past two years, teaching their first ever self-publishing and social media course, ‘Bring Your Book To Market’. I’ve been helping Penguin Ireland with their social media campaigns since October 2012.


PI       Your journey began when you decided to self publish, which can often be risky. How confident were you that you would be successful at it?

CRH      I self-published my first book, Mousetrapped, in early 2010, when the chances of success were even slimmer than they are today, so no, I wasn’t confident at all. I was the opposite: acutely aware that the odds were stacked against me, and brutally realistic about my chances of success. My goals were not to lose money and not to embarrass myself, two things I saw the self-publishers around me doing in spades at the time.

My book had had positive feedback from a number of agents and editors, but they all ultimately concluded the same thing: there was no market for a book like it. And they were right—it’s a niche book that has only achieved the success it has because I’m able to sell it globally, finding pockets of potential readers wherever I can. Mousetrapped would never have found enough readers here in Ireland or even in the UK to make a traditional publishing deal a good business decision, but as a self-published title, it’s done really well.

However while it’s worked for me, I don’t think self-publishing is the be-all and end-all; I’m the furthest thing from a self-publishing evangelist. I would still like a traditional publishing deal, eventually. But while self-publishing is rarely the best Plan A, it can certainly be a fantastic Plan B, especially for niche titles. I also think there’s a lot to learn from the way successfully self-published authors sell their books, especially for smaller publishing houses who perhaps don’t have the marketing budgets of their larger competitors.


PI      Everybody talks about social media’s connection to boosting sales, however, seeing the transformation from tweet to revenue can often be difficult. Is there any real connection between social media and financial reward?

CRH      Social media-based promotion can absolutely help to sell books. The problem is that there is a misconception about how it helps.


A typical argument against the effectiveness of using social media to promote books goes something like this: so-and-so has 100,000 Twitter followers, but he only sold 1,000 books. Therefore, Twitter doesn’t sell books. But that’s looking at social media as advertising, which is not what it is at all. Social media is about engaging directly with readers, and getting them to discuss, share and recommend your titles online. We’re still chasing word-of-mouth recommendations like we always were; we just want them to happen online now too, where the impact is greater and the numbers are huge. Whereas five years ago I might have pressed a book I loved into my best friend’s hands, these days, I can recommend the books I love to thousands of Twitter followers, hundreds of Goodreads users, and everyone who reads my blog and has ‘friended’ or ‘liked’ me on Facebook. Better yet, we can all discuss it once we’ve finished it, and then afterwards someone might say, ‘I read this similar book and loved it. Why don’t you read this next?’ and the cycle begins again.

The effectiveness of this is difficult to measure, but when it works, the results can be spectacular. When it doesn’t work, all it’s cost is time and imagination, and you’ll know better next time. So what have you got to lose?


PI      What is the biggest mistake authors make when using social media to promote their book?

CRH      The biggest mistake I see authors making is not understanding why people are on sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. in the first place. I believe it’s for one or more of the following reasons: because they’re looking to be entertained, they’re looking for useful information or they want to chat with people who like the same things they do. (Or perhaps don’t like them; there’s plenty of debaters online too!) This is why an hourly tweet that reads ‘Buy my book!’ is not only annoying but useless as well, while a clever book trailer—like How To Publish A Book: HarperCollins and Mhairi McFarlane Show You How (for McFarlane’s debut You Had Me At Hello. You can find it on YouTube)—gets shared and liked, and thus spreads the word about the book without looking like an ad.


PI      What is the biggest mistake publishers make when using social media to promote authors and their books?

CRH      Starting too late. If the book is already out when the idea of using social media strikes, it’s too late to begin.

I see social media as having three distinct phases when it comes to promoting books: building anticipation in the 3-6 months prior to launch, the launch itself (giveaways, book blogger reviews, e-book discount, etc.) and connecting with readers in the year after launch (Amazon customer and Goodreads user reviews, mailing list sign-ups, direct engagement between author/publisher and reader). This schedule offers the most opportunities and has the best chance of working, because it takes place over the space of a year or more, and so there’s time to build an audience, drive sales and assemble a loyal readership, and do it all just in time for Book No.2.

On a very basic, simplified level, it gives you a valid reason to talk to me, the potential reader, about this book three distinct times. 1: This book is coming out soon, I think you’ll like it. 2: Remember that book I told you about? It’s out now and the e-book is a special low price at the moment. 3: What did you think of that book? If you enjoyed it, the author’s working on another one. Sign up to this mailing list and I’ll e-mail you when it’s out… Start late, and your opportunities to tell me something different each time dwindle.

That’s why you see those repetitive ‘buy my book’ tweets—it’s because the author started late, and has nothing to tell us now except that the book is out. Long before we know the book is out, we should’ve been given at least a few good reasons to care.


PI      How necessary is Social Media? Why do publishers need to engage with it?

CRH      How necessary it is depends on the situation. Take Gillian Flynn, who was one of the biggest selling authors of 2012. Her third book, Gone Girl, topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, caught the eye of Oprah and will soon have a big screen version directed by David Fincher. But Flynn doesn’t tweet, blog or use Facebook—because she doesn’t need to. This was her third book, so there was already an established readership, and Gone Girl was featured in the New York Times, Time, The New Yorker, Publisher’s Weekly, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly, O Magazine and People magazine, just to name a few. She also had the backing (and marketing budget) of one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.

Compare this to self-published authors, who have none of this at their disposal—and usually no money, either. Take Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, for instance. Faced with having to leave the tech-thrillers they’d written together languishing forever in a drawer, they decided to publish them on Kindle in 2011. Mark spent his evenings spreading the word about the books on Twitter, Facebook and other online reader communities, like forums and message boards. Within weeks he and Louise were #1 on, and they went on to sell hundreds of thousands of e-books and sign a 6-figure deal with HarperCollins. Their books only started to sell because of social media, and then continued to sell because the reviews were good and readers were recommending the books to their online friends. Mark and Louise had no choice but to use social media, and it worked fantastically well for them.

If you are a publishing house whose budget is closer to Mark’s than it is to Gillian Flynn’s, then social media represents a huge opportunity for you to sell more books in a cost-effective way, and to reach readers beyond those who might happen to walk into Eason’s and see them on the shelf.


PI      A lot of publishing houses have had to seriously cut down on overheads and staff resources. Social media just seems like an extra headache when a couple of phone calls and an email seems like it would do the job. This is a problem faced by many. How do we make it easier and more time and cost efficient to use these tools?

CRH     Well, I’m not sure how a couple of phone calls and an e-mail could potentially reach the same number of people (unless perhaps you’re calling The Late Late and e-mailing Richard and Judy…) but I know what you mean: social media can be extremely time-consuming, and if there’s no guarantee of success, why even bother when time and manpower is already over-stretched?  

I think the solution lies in targeting your social media promotion. Direct your efforts to specific readers who you’ve already established like the same kind of book you’re promoting. You could spend days sending tweets into the abyss, not knowing who’ll see them or if anyone will be interested. But how about going to Goodreads, looking up a similar book and contacting the users who loved it, to see if they’d like a review copy of your title? That’ll take less than an hour, and it will definitely lead to success, because you know these readers (a) liked a similar book and (b) publicly share everything they read with a large number of people. ‘Work smarter, not harder’ applies to social media too.


PI       The problem for many is that social media seems like it’s aimed for the ‘social media’ generation, in that much of the content on twitter a little mundane and repetitive. There are, for example a lot of authors turned self-publishers that churn out the same tweets all day. This is an obstacle – do publishers need to ‘dumb down’ their content to appeal to a teenage audience?

CRH      Absolutely not. Teenagers may indeed use Facebook and Twitter to hone the new vowel-free, acronym-rich version of the English language they seem hell-bent on inventing, but the idea that social media in general is just for adolescents is just ridiculous. One of the biggest and most active groups on Twitter, for instance, is the book community. This includes publishers, agents and editors; trade publications like The Bookseller; aspiring writers; established names like Margaret Atwood, Susan Orlean, Harlan Coben, Neil Gaiman and our own Marian Keyes; and (of course!) readers. Trust me when I say none of us are tweeting about Justin Bieber…


PI         Should publishers be thinking about dedicated book and author pages?

CRH      I’m downright suspicious these days when I Google an author and find nothing online. There should at least be a website, if only so there’s somewhere for interested readers to go and find out more about the author after they’ve reached ‘THE END’ in the author’s book. I think responsibility for that ultimately lies with the author though.


PI       If you could give Irish publishers just one piece of advice, what would it be?

CRH    Don’t panic. Bestsellers are still made by word-of-mouth. Social media has just spread this process online, and multiplied the numbers. It’s not replacing anything, it’s just a new, additional opportunity, and one that can make the world seem much smaller. At the core of bookselling, very little has changed, at least from the publisher’s point of view. It just looks different.

On Twitter @cathryanhoward


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