"Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few." - Twitter defined
With the advent of social networks, such as FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, an intense amount of hype has labeled these channels as the future of book marketing. However, as the allure continues to grow, the real marketing power of these resources doesn't actually knock your socks off.
For the most part, social networks leave publishers and authors scratching their heads when looking for real results. This problem arises for two reasons. First, online social communication generally works at the lowest common denominator. Messages are often too inane or too brief to convey a real solution or conduct a complete transaction of information. When communication is abbreviated, a lot of value gets lost in translation. In other words, the full benefits of an author's book won't be understood when people converse online at an elementary school level. (My buk iz gud. Pleez bi 1. K? Thanx!)
Secondly, social networks have the power to amplify anyone's message. But, that's just the problem. They amplify everyone's message, which means that the resulting competition and noise level becomes so intense that no one stands out. Social networks tend to bombard users with so many voices and choices that it's hard to keep their attention. Sure, social networks may help raise awareness, but if that awareness doesn't translate into actual book sales then it shouldn't be a priority of your marketing plan.
For example, at Book Expo 2009, John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan Publishing stated, "Viral marketing doesn't sell a ton of books." He mentioned a video based on a Macmillan book that spent time in the # 1 spot on YouTube in the U.K. Yet, it wound up only selling a whopping 200 extra copies.
Some people claim social networks are responsible for the runaway success of bestselling books, such as Stuff White People Like, The Pioneer Woman cookbook, or the cat-related humor, I Can Has Cheezburger. When you examine these books, however, their success had less to do with the social networks and more to do with the originality of the concept. The content of these books were so unique that you can't transfer their results to the average book idea. These titles are more like lottery winners than the average joe's of the publishing industry.
Please don't misunderstand my point. I'm not suggesting that social networks are bad. They represent a unique and inexpensive way to quickly communicate with a lot of people. However, these online tools just aren't the cure-all that many techno-evangelists want you to believe. And, the ones preaching the loudest are usually the ones trying to make money off of these new platforms. Their goal is similar to a pyramid scam or a Ponzi-scheme. The gurus need you to participate in social networks because they're financially invested in the growth of these channels. The larger the numbers, the more they can sell late-adopters their products and training services on how to use these new tools. I find their approach odd, because there's really no secret to using online platforms.
Social networking is best used to market books by pumping legitimate value through those channels, such as giving users free resources, coupons, contests, samples, humorous videos, etc. Advertising will work against you, whereas giving away content creates trust and attraction.
Avoid getting starry-eyed over sexy, new technology. Keep things in perspective, and maintain a focus on the tried-and-true methods that still sell books in a modern world, such as author speaking events, direct mail / newsletters, radio and TV publicity, author websites, high-profile book reviews, preferred shelf space in bookstores, book clubs, etc.
I've got nothing against social networks. If they actually helped sell more books, I'd be singing their praises. My hope is that online tools like FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube will continue to evolve in new ways that provide greater levels of value to users and marketers. Until then, use these resources as a balanced part of your marketing plan...just like a doctor suggests eating desserts in the context of a healthy diet. As social networks continue to overwhelm people with voices and choices, don't ignore the proven book marketing methods that still possess the ability to capture a reader's attention - and sales.