How NOT to Sell Books: Top 10 Social Media Marketing No-Nos for Authors

by Anne R. Allen

Let's face it. Authors do a lot of obnoxious things online in the name of "marketing." I think that's because the average author isn't educated in the field and we don't realize that not all marketing is created equal.

Good marketing is not about bullying your customers. It's about enticing them.

A lot of online groups badmouth authors, especially indies, because of iffy social media marketing practices. We can avoid adding to the bad feelings if we learn to use social media correctly and ethically.

Both of these things are "marketing":

Which would be more likely to get you to want to buy a product?


Here's the thing: if you wouldn't like to be treated a certain way, chances are that other people wouldn't either. Thinking of your readers as "targets" or a generic "them" can lead to wasting time and money as well as just plain bad behavior.

Using hard-sell, intrusive, or unethical marketing techniques doesn't work to sell books. Your only result will be to make readers dislike you.

Ditto swaggering around social media with a literary or techno-nerd chip on your shoulder. Even if you have an MFA so expensive it won't be paid off until you're 93, you've memorized every word written by Marcel Proust—in French, of course—and/or you personally knew Steve Jobs, you're not going to entice readers by telling them you're better than they are.

Treating people with contempt doesn't convince them of your superiority. It convinces them you're a bully with all the erudition and savoir faire of a tomcat "marking territory" on somebody's leg.

These days, anybody with a keyboard and a some text in a Word.doc can upload it onto Smashwords or Amazon and call him/herself an author. (And the worse the writing, the more they will probably feel entitled to have a readership: it's the Dunning-Kruger Effect again.)

Also, a certain percentage of writers—the same percentage as you'll find in any demographic—are mentally unhinged, high, or just plain rotten human beings. Working online as much as I do, I meet people every day who essentially wear a virtual tee-shirt that says: "Hate me. I'm a Jerk."

Bloggers have to deal with them a lot. Suzannah Windsor, at the great writing blog, "Write it Sideways" discussed her encounter with one of the piddling tomcat types this week in her post, Here's the Type of Hate Mail Bloggers Get.

Do not under any circumstances engage with these people, because that's what they crave. If you need to deal with your anger, you can always put them in your stories and find imaginative ways to kill them off. (Although you may have to add a bit of humanity to your fictional version. These people can be so over-the-top in their efforts to be disliked that they'd be unbelievable in fiction.)

But these unfortunates are the reason why the rest of us need to work extra hard to pull away from the pack and present ourselves in the most professional light possible.

Here's my list of the Top Ten things authors do on social media—often in the name of "marketing"—that make people want to feed them into a fictional wood chipper.

They are all in violation of the Ethical Author Code.

10) Forgetting that social media is social.

Social media is for networking, not direct selling. It's for making friends. You are not here to broadcast your message but to engage with potential customers.

An endless Twitter, Google+, or Facebook stream of BUY MY BOOK is not friendly. Neither is barging into forums and groups to leave a drive-by promo without interacting with the other members.

Not only is this behavior annoying, IT DOES NOT SELL BOOKS. Yes, people may buy stuff like a Sham-Wow! or collapsible garden hose sold by screaming pitchmen endlessly replayed on late night TV, but this is because the pitches are designed to convince people they have a burning need for the product and will save a ton of money.

But nobody "needs" a book in that way, especially not a novel.

I once pointed this out to a writer in a workshop, and he said "but that's easy for you to say—you've got bestsellers—I'm just starting out, so I need to market!"

Nobody needs to use "marketing" that doesn't work. That's like saying. "I need to sell books, so I'm going to drive through your neighborhood playing my radio REALLY LOUD while flipping everybody the bird."

I don't know how else to say this: annoying people does not persuade them to buy books.

At least half your followers probably have a book to sell. Wait until you have a sale or a big announcement to tweet about it.

At least 80% of your social media interactions should be non-marketing.

9) Over-hashtagging and robo-posting 

The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created in 2007 as a way to categorise Twitter messages. Their creation is attributed to San Francisco blogger Chris Messina, "the godfather of the hashtag". They can occur anywhere in a Tweet.

In 2013 Facebook started allowing them, and they're also used on Google Plus, Instagram and other social media sites.

They can be very useful. Some of the writing categories I check regularly are #amwriting, #writetip, #pubtip, and #amediting, but there are hundreds. There are also lots for sales and giveaways like #freebook and #freedownload.

Unfortunately, people abuse them. Hashtagged words are a paler color and hard to read. You should use only two or three, tops, or your message will be unreadable and annoying. Your tweet should be at least 50% actual tweet, and less than 50% hashtags.

Ditto your Twitter profile. A profile full of hashtags tells people nothing about you except that you're probably a spammer or a clueless newbie.

Learn to use them right. They really work to reach the right audience if you do.

And I know everybody tells you to automate your tweets and posts, and automating can work for a busy writer if it's done thoughtfully and sparingly. But repetitive auto-tweets (especially ones full of hashtags and "buy my book") seem to dominate feeds these days. It's all so overdone, nobody pays attention to any of it.

It's not marketing: it's just noise.

8) Emotional blackmail in demands for shares and RTs.

Memes with tags like "share if you care about abused puppies" or "If you don't care about child abuse, then scroll on" are usually scams or hoaxes. 

If you put a guilt-inducing tag on your post, it will look like a hoax too. Even a "please RT" comes across as guilt-trippy.

Facebook lists some of the most awful sick kid/abused puppy memes on the site.  Often the child is long dead and the perpetuation of the hoax is terribly painful to the family. Or sometimes they are just photos that have been stolen off somebody's personal page and the child wasn't abused but fell or was in an accident.

Be wary of sharing anything that's emotionally manipulative. There's one meme that's been going around recently that starts out with something like, "I don't have many friends on FB because I'm a stuck-up snob, so I'm going to unfriend you if you don't share this and make a comment to prove that you really know me in real life." I've been amazed at how many very nice people have shared it. One day I had 12 of them in my newsfeed.

It's not smart to share stuff that's going to annoy your peeps. Is the guilt-tripper really more important than all your other followers, fans, and friends?

And always check with before sharing something that's written in legaleze that's supposed to "protect your privacy" or whatever. Those things are hoaxes. There is no such thing as online privacy. We're all living in a fishbowl here, which is why #7 is so important. If you want any kind of privacy on Facebook, start a closed group for friends and family. But realize that's not going to add to your writer platform.

People will share if they like your post. Begging, bullying, or guilt-tripping just makes people less likely to want to share...or buy your books.

7) Projecting a snarky, nasty online persona. 

Always follow Wil Wheaton's law: "Don't be a D***."

Shocking headers may work as "click bait" to get people to your blog, and you may get more initial engagement on Twitter or Instagram if you project a "Mean Girl" image, but it won't work in your favor in the long run.

Reading a book, even a free one, is an investment in time. Strangely enough, most readers don't want to spend their time with jerks.

I know some people love to use social media to say nasty things about celebrities, but if you care about your writing career, you need to act like a grownup online—at least when using your author name.

That means cutting out the tweets about how all bestsellers suck and all readers are stupid.

And never make obscene or threatening remarks on social media if you intend to have a career other than picking up cans on the highway. That stuff is forever.

It's also not a good idea for authors to leave nasty reviews of other authors' books, especially in your own genre. You can say respectfully that you didn't enjoy this book as much as the last or whatever, but if you indulge in name-calling and insults, you're burning bridges you may desperately need later in your career. Even if an author has tons of reviews, they remember the nasty ones.

Do follow the top authors in your genre, but treat them with respect. If you diss a bestselling author, you're dissing all their fans. That's a lot of readers in your potential audience who won't buy your book now.


Also, don't say nasty things in response to a positive review. You wouldn't think I'd have to say this, but recently I saw one doofus author rip into a reviewer who gave him a 5-star rave, for no apparent reason except to make sure he will never be reviewed again. I see a great future for this guy in fictional wood-chippers.

NOTE: The "comment" function on Amazon's reviews is for other readers to agree or disagree with the reviewer. It is not a place for authors—even to say thank you. If you want to thank an Amazon reviewer, try friending them on FB or Twitter or following their blog.

And never, ever link to a blogger's negative review from any of your social media pages. If your followers bounce over and say mean things to the reviewer, your reputation can take a hit that will last a lot longer than the sting of the bad review. I know of naive authors who have had that happen, and they very much regret it.

In fact, don't make nasty comments, period. You can disagree respectfully, but choose your words carefully when you're wearing your author hat. People usually visit a blog because they like the blogger. If you don't, and say so in unpleasant terms, you've just made enemies of everybody who reads the blog.

Insulting people does not make them respect you or buy your products. It makes them want bad stuff to happen to you. And if they decide to gang up on you, it will.

6) Starting lots of blogs, webpages, and social media accounts 

I've read marketing advice that tells writers to start a new website and Facebook page for every single book, and others suggest you have a Twitter account for all your major characters. I can't think of anything more annoying for your readers (or exhausting for writers.)

When somebody Googles you, they do not want to have to click on 50 different links before they can find your main web page. You need to have one "hub" for your social media presence. This can be a free blog like this one, or a professionally designed self-hosted website, but it should be your primary spot where Google will send people who are looking for you.

That means an inviting site where they can find everything about you and your books and where to buy them. (DO NOT neglect your "About Me" and "contact me" pages!)

If you write for children, you may want your website to have pages for your main characters so kids can interact with them, but I don't think that works for adult fiction, and certainly not on separate websites or landing pages.

A good place to have separate pages for each character, setting, or book is Pinterest, where you have one hub and people can explore all your "boards" easily.

Don't fragment your audience with multiple blogs unless you have separate writing careers with totally different demographics. (For instance, if you write Christian YA fiction as Mary White and BDSM erotica as Marva Whippington, then you'll need an entirely separate platform for each one.)

Authors should Google themselves regularly. If dead and seldom-updated pages come up first, that's going to work against you, big time. People will think you've quit writing or kicked the bucket. Make sure that any dead blog links to your present one.

5) Pop-ups and other annoying gimmicks on your blog or website

Pop-ups are everywhere, but that doesn't mean people like them. Lots of websites won't let you read a word until you deal with that annoying window that demands that you subscribe to the newsletter, buy their ebook, and/or give up your personal information.

How do you know if you want to subscribe when they won't even let you enter the site?!

A pop-up is like an UNWELCOME mat at your front door.

It says, "whoa! You don't get what YOU want until you jump through MY hoops."

Just because you've hired a web designer who knows how to put an automatic pop-up on your site doesn't mean you should. I often click away if there's a pop-up. You just lost a reader. Is that really what you wanted?

 4) Auto Direct Messages in reply to a follow—or advertising in a DM

Direct messages are personal. Get to know somebody in regular tweets or comments on their posts before you cozy up to them with a DM.

This is especially true of messages that say stuff like: "You followed me, sucker! Now go subscribe to my blog, buy my book, like my FB page and pick me up a latte: cashew milk, half caf/half decaf, with half a packet of Stevia, and step on it!!"

Um, how about I just unfollow you?

And never send an ad for your book or service in a direct message on social media unless you're GOOD friends with the recipient.

This is true of a @Tweet as well. Don't tweet an ad to a person you do not know, telling them to buy your book, visit your blog or grant some other favor.

You're there to network, not sell. This is like walking into a Chamber of Commerce mixer wearing a sandwich board advertising your business. Everybody there has a business. You have the one run by the nutjob wearing a sandwich board.

Looking needy, desperate or demanding does not sell books.

3)  Pitching your own book on somebody else's Facebook Page

A person's FB page is like their home. Putting your own ad on their page is like spray-painting your message on their front porch.

This is especially creepy if it's on their birthday or book launch day. Hey, you know people have lots of visits on their page on a birthday or launch day, so wouldn't this be a great chance to piggyback on their following and hijack the peeps over to your website?

"Have a happy whatever, whoever you are, and eff you, because it's all about ME. Here's where you can BUY MY BOOK!!"

Do NOT do this. Ever. It's like putting your own name on somebody else's birthday cake.

2) Buying or trading reviews and trading "likes".

I know it seems as if everybody does it, but it's not ethical.

Lots of authors contact fellow authors on social media saying "I'll like your FB author page/Amazon page if you'll like mine". They're almost always lying about the reciprocation part, and even if they do as they promise, "liking" something you're not actually fond of is a bad idea.

It confuses the algos and can mess up your profile and your feed on Facebook and Amazon.  If you "like" the fan page of an author of gritty thrillers even though you don't read them, you're going to get recommendations for gritty thrillers and miss out on genres you actually read.

And trading or buying reviews is not just morally wrong, it can get you banned from Amazon.


This means you should not:

This stuff is not just immoral, it's violates the Amazon TOS, which forbid, among other things, "Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package "

NOTE: NOBODY OWES YOU A REVIEW. Free ebooks are everywhere these days, so they're not that much of a "gift".

A thoughtful reviewer's time is the bigger gift.

And even if you give a free hard copy, you can request a review, but do not press for it. The reader may hate the book and is doing you a favor by not reviewing it.

Way too many authors feel entitled to good reviews and stage tantrums when bloggers don't review or give a less than enthusiastic notice.

Be a grownup. Some people aren't going to like your work. It stings, but that's the way the world works. Learn to live with it.

This kind of behavior has made it harder for all of us to get reviewed.

I know Amazon has been lax in enforcing its own rules for the last year or so, but that doesn't mean they won't run a big sweep again the way they did in 2012 as a result of the paid review scams reported in the New York Times.

I've heard personally from several big name authors who are working hard to lobby Mr. Bezos to do another clean-up. Don't get caught up in the next sweep. Be ethical even when you think nobody's watching.

Want to do your part to clean up the review system? Write an honest, real review of a book you've loved! It only needs to be one sentence, and you can build up some good review karma and become a respected reviewer.

1) Putting somebody on your mailing list who has not signed up 

This gets my number one spot because it's getting so much more prevalent. There's a huge push to get authors to go back to email marketing. All the marketing gurus are saying "the one with the biggest mailing list wins."

But guess what? That doesn't work if recipients didn't actually ask to be on that mailing list.

The worst offenders don't even have an unsubscribe button, so you have to write them personally to say you want off their list and then you leave yourself open to temper tantrums.

I've seen writers who totally don't get the "street team" idea, and they expect to launch a book using hijacked, unwilling fellow authors to tweet, share and guest blog for them without even asking first. They just send out a list of demands in the form of a newsletter.

Here's the thing: other authors are busy promoting their own books. They're not going to drop everything to work for you for free just because they once commented on your blog or shared your Tweet.

Yes, we would all love to have those "1000 true fans" who read everything we write and will work tirelessly to spread the word about our work. Heck, I'd like 10 fans who wanted to do that.

But you're not going to find them by skimming email addresses off your fellow authors' websites. If you want to have a newsletter, then put a sign-up window on your website and urge people to join. Offer a bribe of a free book or other perk if you need to. If they decline, that should let you know a lot of readers don't want to get one more annoying newsletter.

What about you Scriveners? What "marketing" stuff do you find most annoying? Have you been approached by review-traders? Do you take the time to leave reviews of books you've liked? Have you felt pressured to trade "likes"? Would you like to see Amazon clean up the review system? How do you feel about pop-up ads? 


We love all our email subscribers. You're some of our most loyal readers. It was brought to my attention by several of you in the past couple of weeks that a lot of you don't realize what you get in your inbox isn't the actual blog. It's the text of the blog sent by MailChimp. 

That means that if you want to comment on the blog, you need to click through to this url. You do that by clicking on the header in the emailed version. That's the thing that says "Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris". It should be colored blue in your inbox. 

When you get to the blog you need to scroll down to "comments" then click on that word. The best way to make sure your comment gets through is to sign into Google first. If you have gmail, or a Blogger (blogspot) blog, you have a Google ID and you are probably already signed in. A Wordpress ID should work too, but some people tell me they have trouble. If you do have trouble, email me with your comment and let me know you want it posted on the blog.

Commenting on blogs is a good way to get noticed by search engines and other commenters, so if you're just starting out with this platform thing, it's a good place to start. For more on commenting on blogs see my post: Are you Ignoring this Simple Platform-Building Tool? 


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