Branding for Nonconformists

Can Instagram Selfies Help You Sell Books?

Connecting with readers by sharing snapshots from real life

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It’s been more than a decade since social media became an essential part of an author’s job description, and after all this time I still feel like I’m doing it wrong — except on those days when a reader reaches out and the unavoidable time-suck momentarily feels worthwhile. Is it too late to become more proficient at Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook? (And how should we define proficiency?) We know that the more you use these platforms the more the algorithms will favor your content, so is it even possible to use social media effectively without diverting much too much time away from your writing? When is attempting to cultivate a presence on a particular platform simply not a good use of your time, and when is it worth putting the effort into learning how to use it effectively? At what point can you say for sure that something isn’t working, and move on to a new strategy?

Lately I’ve been making various simple experiments hoping to answer all of these questions, and in this post I’ll be sharing some initial takeaways for Instagram (with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube experiment results to follow). Before we get started, though, let’s establish a baseline in social-media fluency. I sometimes happen upon an account that is purely self promotional — each and every tweet is an Amazon link to the author’s own books, every Instagram post a photo of their paperback in a different location— and I have to wonder how this person hasn’t noticed that literally no one is responding. Ana C. Reis, PhD’s “I Wish Writers Would Stop Doing These Things on Instagram” is a must-read even if you think you already know better:

Work hard and smart to take part and give back to the book-loving community before you even think about trying to sell your books…You’re just here to find your audience, and to deserve it.

And you’ll only find that genuine engaging audience when you allow yourself to become vulnerable. When you own your opinions. When you speak your mind while showing others that you care deeply about them and that you respect their opinions too.

The ratio of thirds is a sensible guideline: one-third of your posts should celebrate and engage with creative work that isn’t your own, one-third should be other worthwhile content (like, say, pics and videos of your adorable feline companions), and the final third can be self promotion.

I’m a relatively new Instagram user, having only acquired a smartphone at the end of 2015. And because I’m a travel writer as well as a novelist, I really enjoy collecting my images of Ireland with the #moonireland hashtag (though if you click through, you’ll see I ought to have used something unique like #moonirelandguide). And of course Instagram is ideal for sharing photos of my stitching projects, from handknits to embroidery to the quilts and teddy bears and cute little sweaters I’ve made for the new arrivals in my family. I also feel strongly about posting photos of delicious vegan food as a form of animal-rights activism, along with photos of rescued farm animals themselves.

But can I share all of my interests on Instagram without coming across as scattered or dilettante-ish? Can my brand include books and writing and travel and ethical eating and fiber-crafting? My desire to share more than one interest is the reason I’m writing this series, and I could decide to use Instagram purely for my own enjoyment. Since the app’s most recent algorithm re-jigging many of us have seen a frustrating dip in engagement, and yes, sometimes I do think I should just post whatever I feel like. Instagram is our happy place, after all — far away from the toxic troll-scape that is Twitter!

On the other hand, if my ultimate goal is to be as useful as possible, then I should focus on the content my readers like best. Ana’s sensible advice brings me back to Jessica’s feedback on the first piece in this series:

[T]o me author branding means allowing your audience to get to know you better. Sharing with your readers not only your craft but the things that make you you. Your people will stay no matter if you like talking about ten different things. I think it has to do more with the way you deliver.

Our readers want to see behind our polished and confident performances behind a bookstore podium. Jessica’s input got me thinking about selfies: though posting photos of myself sometimes makes me uncomfortable, people really seem to respond to them. I wondered if author selfies can be self indulgent and somehow inspirational. For my first experiment, I posted a photo my friend Keith had taken of me in the 10,000 Suns project near my home in Providence. Before I show you the stats, let me tell you that whether I post a dinner pic, a screenshot of my latest Medium piece, my newest handiwork, or a #latergram of a picturesque ruin, somewhere between 8 and 10% of the people who see that post will click the heart.

Now check out these numbers:

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I took the screenshot on the left a few days later, hence the 113/115 discrepancy.

One hundred thirteen hearts divided by 428 unique accounts is a “like ratio” of more than 26 percent! This astonishes me. (And for further comparison: after the algorithm change my hearts went from 60–120 per post down to the 20–50 range. By the way, to see these stats you’ll need to switch to a business account, which is easy-peasy.)

I’m certainly not going to post selfies every day, but posting them perhaps a few times a month is definitely savvy. It may have nothing to do with your actual work, but at the very least you’re reminding folks that you’re here, you’re a real person who revels in sunny days and cheerful flowers as much as they do, and you’re still putting out work worth reading. Who knows — your face showing up in someone’s feed may remind them that they’ve been meaning to purchase your new novel or delve into your back catalog, more so than if you’d posted a link or even the actual book cover. (Notice that five Instagram users clicked on my profile even though this wasn’t a “link in bio” post.)

So how’s this for a sensible Instagram strategy: cultivate conversation in your own feed and participate in conversations on readers’ and colleagues’ posts. Reply to all comments and DMs. Use the hashtags Ana suggests — #writersofinstagram, #writingcommunity, and #writerslife — and post a balance of book promotion (yours and others’), other things you absolutely love (hobbies, nature, what have you — whatever feels right), and slice-of-life photos, including selfies, pics of your writing space, and trips to your local indie bookshop. Let us feel like we know you even if we haven’t met you in real life, though keep this in mind: when we do eventually show up at one of your readings, we want to feel that the real-life you lines up with the persona you’ve cultivated online.

Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (forthcoming in October 2019). If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).

Authoress: LIFE WITHOUT ENVY (“a self-help book that’s actually helpful”) and assorted fantasy novels.

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