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Opinion: To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Is Twitter Worthwhile for Self-published Authors?

Headshot of Anna Belfrage

Award-winning Swedish indie author Anna Belfrage

Award-winning historical novelist Anna Belfrage from Sweden shares the results of her experiment to determine whether Twitter is an effective tool for selling self-published books, and considers whether the return in terms of book sales is worth the time invested.

Twitter bird imageTo tweet or not to tweet?

Let’s face it. Twitter can be severely restricting for us authors. 140 characters require discipline and creativity, and I imagine I am not the only one who finds the disjointed and brief Twitter conversations a tad frustrating. I never quite know what to do with it, truth be told, and the few times I attempt to tweet about truly relevant stuff,  like the recent terrorist attacks, I feel as if I’m dropping a very, very, very small pebble into a very, very, very deep well. No response – which has me breaking out in depressed song, along the lines “hello from the other side”.

About My Twitter Trial

Cover of A Rip in the Veil

Anna Belfrage focused on promoting two of her books during her Twitter trial

Still, I have a number of author friend who insist tweeting is a great way of enhancing your social image, which is why I decided some months ago to invest time and energy in my tweeting endeavours. I joined a tweet group, I started thinking about suitable Twitter pics, I revised my short-links and set about trying to formulate punchy little texts.

One thing about joining tweet groups is that unless you RT their tweets, people will not tweet you back. Ergo, time needs to be invested on retweeting other people’s tweets. Rarely are these tweets focused on the human condition in general. People who make the effort to join tweet groups are generally there to promote something. Like a book.

Consequently, when you start tweeting these tweets, your own Twitter stream runs the risk of becoming a blaring advertisement channel. Not good, IMO. I want my followers to find interesting articles, posts about history, the odd nice picture. So it follows that as a consequence of all my promo tweets, I now have to tweet MORE of the “serious content” tweets. Very exhausting, at times.

The Scheduling Imperative

Being serious about tweeting also requires that you learn to schedule your tweets, as otherwise you will drown. I use Tweetdeck or this, and mostly it works, but now and then it doesn’t. Once a week, I will invest two hours in scheduling a nice combo of promo tweets with “historical post” tweets. I do not schedule promo tweets for all days.

I have discovered that having the odd day without any promo tweets leads to a higher number of RTs the day after.

I guess people get tired of the same old, same old, even if the veterans among the Twitter community say it doesn’t matter if you use the same tweet over and over again, because chances are that anyone will see it popping up repeatedly are slim, seeing as Twitter activity is constantly high.

How Much Time Should Authors Invest in Twitter?

In the Shadow of the Storm smallThese days, I probably spend an hour a day on Twitter, five days a week. I RT, chase down interesting posts to mix in with the promo stuff, add the odd quote or pic. The truly distracting aspect about it is that I can’t spend that one hour in one go. I dip in and out throughout the day.

The big question is whether all this activity sells more books. Judging from my own behaviour, yes, it does.

I have followed tweets through to their Amazon link and purchased the promoted books. Often it has been due to a neat one-liner or a beautiful picture. Rarely is it because the writer in question sends off fifty identical tweets over fifty minutes. Those books, I don’t even look at.

Being a number person, I have estimated that the percentage of sold books is dismally low versus the actual tweets. Using myself as an example, I’ve bought around ten books in three months, which would put the percentage at somewhere like 0.00001% of all book tweets in my promo group,but at a substantially higher 0.001 % of the tweets I’ve actually seen.

Still, not the most impressive of numbers, as it indicates I need 909 tweets to sell one book.

Well, what I need is for 909 people to SEE the tweet to sell one book. And here is where the economies of scale kick in. Through my Twitter groups, I reach thousands upon thousands of people. I would estimate that 1-2% of all the people I reach actually look at the tweet, and one in nine hundred buy the book. If I want to sell 100 books a month, it follows that I need to reach 6-9 million people a month,or 200,000 to 300,000 a day. That’s a LOT of people. Depressingly many, right? So, does it work?

My Verdict on Twitter

Over the last few months, I have focused on promoting two of my books: A Rip in the Veil and In the Shadow of the Storm. And yes, sales have gone up by approximately 50-70 books a month.

This leads me to conclude there is something to be said for Twitter promotion – but it has to be done with care.

Tweets need to look professional, they have to be varied, and now and then they must be about other things than the book you want to flog. Quite often, actually.

In conclusion, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, Twitter can help you sell books, but be prepared to invest the required hours. In my case, around 30 hours per month for 100–140 sold books.

Do the maths, peeps. Not the biggest return on investment, is it? However, I am still a newbie at this, and as I learn I expect to become more efficient. Or not, seeing as the biggest time drain is all the time I spend reading the stuff that pops up on my Twitter feed!

OVER TO YOU What’s your experience of Twitter – have you discovered a strategy that helps you equal or surpass Anna Belfrage’s tweet-related sales? Or do you think Twitter is simply a net drain of time better spent writing or doing other promotional activity? We’d love to hear your views!

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32 Responses to Opinion: To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Is Twitter Worthwhile for Self-published Authors?

  1. Martin December 24, 2016 at 12:20 am #

    Hi Anna,
    I have just come across your interesting ‘warts an’ all’ article … Very enlightening.
    I’m about to embark on a Twitter – I was going to say adventure, but after reading your article, and the responses, perhaps ‘gruelling trek’ would be more apposite.
    Grim reality notwithstanding, I’ll give it a committed go for a couple of months.
    Of course, all of this could be avoided if the Readerverse realised one simple fact … lives would be enriched by spending more time reading my books than reading Tweets …

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  3. Sarah May 28, 2016 at 7:19 am #

    I’m actually considering a combined approach myself. If I can pin the ad at the top, anyone who visits my profile can view the book at their leisure. I spend the rest of the time chatting in stuff like Leafypages.

    Then I pins some things related to my varied interests. I happen to be interested in sketching, cooking, writing, gaming, and anime. So I would tailor to pins to these varied audiences. Then perhaps let them found out I write books later happening on a book cover board.

    It’s a conversation like anything else. Friendship is give and take, and readers are my friends!

  4. Kristen Steele May 27, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

    Ultimately you need to have a Twitter presence for reputation purposes. If someone has never heard of you and wants to learn more, they’ll check your social profiles. Twitter is one of the big ones and if you can’t be found there your authenticity may be questioned.

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  6. Sam Flint May 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Thanks for this honest warts and all post. I have not used Twitter and on the basis of your experience I will do other things before committing the effort it needs. I struggle with premise of having to say something everyday when I might not have anything useful to say. In my case it may be a gender thing. Men don’t even pick up the phone just for a chat with their best friends. Why would they witter on to the world?

  7. C T Mitchell May 27, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Twitter for book promotion? I’m not sure.

    Over 12 months I gained 7500 followers. I tweeted book writing stuff from leading blogs, authorities etc. I occasionally tweeted my books, reviews etc.

    I thought I got book sales from Twitter but I’m not sure.

    However….

    I ran foul of Twiitter. For some reason they suspended my account. I only posted book stuff – NO porn, racism etc

    When I tried to contact them I got an auto reply. View our policies.

    They they completed suspended my account – never to be opened again.

    Lost 7500 followers.

    You don’t own your data on shared platforms like Twitter, FB etc. you need to get your connections details (email address) onto to your own email service and start communicating with them and build a real relationship.

    I will only use social media now to build my email list where I control my engagement and build relationships with value content that may create some sales of my books.

    Don’t be fooled by your following – you don’t own that space

  8. ed May 27, 2016 at 1:46 am #

    I think twitter is useless. It’s just like entering a NOISY market place and shouting at the top of your voice. I pay no attention to tweets by people. I kid you not. If you tweet your book i doubt i would buy it or even click it. No time. Just noise.

  9. Tahlia May 25, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    i find that all social media is not a big return for time investment, but if I don’t do it, my sales decrease, so I only do what I enjoy and just make sure I keep up wit the basic 3, blog Fbook and Twitter. My Twitter is sometimes pretty erratic, bit i usually sell a few more books after each effort.

  10. Karen Charbonneau May 24, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    Thank you, Anna. I considered Twitter, but after reading your fine essay, I’ve decided to stick with Facebook and concentrate on the joy of writing. Your books look fascinating. By the way, my historical novel, The Wolf’s Sun, freshly edited and revised, is free on Kindle this week. Well, it’s supposed to be free worldwide, but I can’t really tell, looking at non-USA sites. So, how’s that for advertising? https://www.amazon.co.uk/WOLFS-SUN-Intrigue-Century-Brittany-ebook/dp/B004D4Y5GE?ie=UTF8&qid=12930

  11. Laurence OBryan May 24, 2016 at 7:17 am #

    I firmly believe in testing what we Tweet. Which Tweet appeals? Which doesn’t?

    Twitter def does sell books. I have a collection of “I just bought this, thank you for tweeting it,” replies to Tweets I am keeping for skeptics.

    How you do it is the key. As with most things.

    Your book also has to be well presented on Amazon. And you need a good amount of followers.

    If any ALLi member would like to have two Tweets tested, free for a week, to see which works better, please email me: lob@yourasms.com.

    We are building a data base of what works and what doesn’t.

    To see what we I am suggesting in more detail, see this post: Shattering The #1 Book Promotion Myth http://buff.ly/1RcSite

  12. Prue Batten May 24, 2016 at 12:30 am #

    Anna, how can you separate the other forms of your social media engagement in order to be definitive that Twitter sold your books for you? You are so very actively and perfectly engaged across the board, that I’d venture to say it is all of those forms that have increased your sales. That and the fact that your writing is superlative.

    For me, I left Twitter three years ago as it was a complete time-suck and I got fed-up with blatant sales pitches coming at me from everywhere. Worse then watching commercial TV. At that time I had a substantial ‘follow’ list but I like communicating in more than 140 characters. I went back last year and started to laboriously build a list again. It lasted a week and i never went back. Last night I cancelled my account. I think Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest are as worthy and where my own personal communication lies and I can be as engaged and non-commercial as I want to be without offending anyone. But my process may not be for everyone.

  13. Dee May 23, 2016 at 9:09 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your experience with Twitter, Anna. I feel sheepish to admit that I just don’t understand messages on twitter! They often don’t make any sense to me. I never send out; I only receive at the moment, still trying to grasp the point of it all. I catch tweets from my historical genre and will go look at that person’s website or book if it attracts my attention, but rarely understand what they are talking about if it isn’t about launching or selling a book. A few I appreciate, like this one: Elizabeth Hoyt tweeted: Mr. Hoyt abandons me, Day 5: I’ve started singing “You’ve Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille” to the dogs. That made me laugh!

    For now, I don’t want to invest the time to immerse myself as you did. I prefer to write than to read short, snappy messages. Perhaps when I have more books out and the patience to wade through tweets and respond and retweet… but I won’t hold my breath anticipating that time will ever come!

  14. Barry Knister May 23, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    Anna–
    Thank you for this real-world post on what writers can expect from Twitter–provided they’re willing to invest 30 hours per month doing what you describe. I appreciate the information.

  15. @Lissa_Johnston May 23, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    I’m still learning the platform ropes, but I agree Twitter is more for engagement than actual sales. But I just enjoy using it, so I make time for it. I do very little promo, and I don’t re-send the same tweets multiple times throughout the day. When someone visits my Twitter page, I want them to see a list of interesting topics, not the same spammy message 13 times in a row.

    I use Hootsuite for scheduling and organizing. Its mobile app is outstanding for digging up great nuggets to retweet on the fly. I also have had great success with pinned tweets getting me lots of clicks/views for that specific blog post. The more experienced Twitter users will pop in to check you out if you follow them, and maybe end up RT’ing the pinned tweet just as common courtesy whether or not they choose to follow me back.

    I also use Crowdfire to weed out the non-followers about once a week. I try to keep my number of followers to following ratio about 1:1; no more than 100 different. And I’m just getting the hang of using the Lists feature to best advantage. They’re great for finding people to follow.

  16. Ellie Firestone May 23, 2016 at 6:15 pm #

    I definitely use Twitter more for connecting with people rather than selling books. Though I have to say, using the “pinned tweet” option has helped to increase downloads of my permafree books …

    As for scheduling, I use Buffer, and in my opinion it’s the best tool out there. It has a list of specific times that it will send out tweets every day, so all you have to do to schedule a tweet is click “Buffer”. You can also schedule retweets, and with the Chrome extension, you can Buffer pretty much anything on the Web. I’ve managed to schedule a complete day of tweets in about five minutes with this tool. And best of all, it’s free!

    • Anna Belfrage May 23, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

      Clearly, I need to check out “Buffer”.

  17. michael n marcus May 23, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

    Tweeting can’t hurt and might help (but I don’t see what being self-pubbed has to do with Tweeting)

    • Anna Belfrage May 23, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

      True – and many of teh authors in the tweet groups I belong to are not indies. I guess promotion is very much the author’s responsibility no matter route to market.

  18. Larry Edwards May 23, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

    Twitter has been a great source for my latest book, which is letters & diaries of a U.S. Civil War soldier. There is a lot of CW-related activity on Twitter, so I connected with a many people and organizations that way, including other researchers and writers, battlefield park rangers, re-enactors, and stores.

    • Larry Edwards May 23, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

      Correction: . . . a great REsource . . .

      • Anna Belfrage May 23, 2016 at 7:45 pm #

        lol – one syllable, major difference

  19. Chris Syme May 23, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Sadly, I wish I could say that Twitter is a great place to sell books. I agree with Barb about Twitter being more for building relationships than selling. If you are a fiction writer there to sell, the amount of time you need to invest to sell consistently might not be a good payoff. But if they ever get to the place where they have the kinds of commerce tools Facebook or Pinterest have I would think it would be a better use of marketing time. For those people who love the Twitter culture or for nonfiction writers, it can be a good investment. Some people can make Twitter work for sales–some cannot. Thanks Anna for your very transparent look at the work to payoff ratio. Good luck.

  20. Janet O'Kane May 23, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

    I’d say steer clear of tweet groups as it’s very obvious when writers are doing tit-for-tat tweets and they come across as blatant sales pitches. That’s a sure way to stop others from following you or, if they already have, ensure they mute you. The secret to Twitter is being yourself, making connections with like-minded people, which leads to friendships. I was lucky in some ways as I joined Twitter way before I had any books to sell, so was established as a person who loves crime fiction not as an author. Now, friends support me by retweeting me (though not to excess), especially if I have something important happening, like a new book or a promotion. I’m not going to set the literary world on fire with my sales but I can live with myself.

  21. Jean Gill May 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    Anna, your experience is similar to mine and, after experimenting, I now drop in to twitter when I feel like it and use RT groups when I have special news/a promotion or am trying to do another writer a favour e.g. promote their blog post. As always with social media things, I’ve found the networking really useful – I know your name and your books because of our social media contact, and that can’t be a bad thing. We all have too many books to read and the sheer volume of books that look interesting means that a lot float past on twitter ‘for later’.

    One thing I’d add to your experience is that genre tweeting and re-tweeting, with genre related interesting posts works much better than multi-genre tweet groups – or authors. I have gained lots of Historical Fiction fans – and lost my dog fans and living-in-France fans. A narrow genre/focus works much better – an does not fit with me as a writer. It was a relief to cut down from 2 hours a day on twitter to 10 minutes when I feel like it but at least I know how it works now and can get a message ‘out there’ when i want to.

    • Anna Belfrage May 23, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

      My experience is somewhat similar, in that people of like-minded interests tend to band together. But seeing as I deffo read multi-genre, I have no problem tweeting multi-genre. As I said, the challenge lies in keeping your feed interesting and varied. Some days, I succeed. Others, I most definitely don’t.

  22. Barb May 23, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

    I see Twitter as a method of communication, not a method of sales. And holy cow I don’t have 30 hours a month to spend on it!! I use a fair amount of automation and an iPhone to notify me when I need to pay attention to something. I have a bank of 600 or 700 tweets that are added to with every blog post and I occasionally manually add new tweets. The amount I spend on live Twitter can be measured in minutes every day. Check out Feed140 or Edgar to help you manage your Twitter stream and free up some of your time.

    • Anna Belfrage May 23, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

      I see it as both, although to be frank, I am still struggling with the snappiness required 🙂 And 30 hours includes the time I spend reviewing what’s happening – including the odd long-winded conversation with tweeting friends.

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