Does a Million Social Media Followers Translate to a Million Book Sales?

by Ameesha Smith-Green

When it comes to pitching a manuscript to agents or publishers, having an author platform is seen as essential these days. However, a recent article from The New York Times is causing a big stir on the subject of followers; titled Millions of Followers? For Book Sales, ‘It’s Unreliable.’, it argues that millions of followers doesn’t necessarily equate to millions of sales. We’re here to spill the tea…

Case in point: Billie Eilish

The article cites the perfect example, popstar Billie Eilish’s 2021 offering to the publishing world: Billie Eilish: The Official Book. She was paid an advance of $1 million by publisher Wren & Rook (an imprint of Hachette), but to date the book has only sold 64,000 copies. Now, 64k might sound like a lot to a self-publishing author, but with such a big advance, it means the publisher has made a massive loss.

So, what went wrong? How can an artist who has 97.8 million fans on Instagram alone sell only 64,000 books? That means not even 1% of her fans bought it, which is an unceremonious flop. How is that possible? How can so many fans translate into so few sales?

Let us count the ways…

There are several reasons why social media followers might not lead to book sales. The most obvious is that a lot of them might be bots or fake profiles. However, in the case of a well-known celeb like Billie Eilish, it’s fair to say she probably does have millions of genuine followers.

Another reason is that the publisher and the author failed to effectively promote the book. This is entirely possible, but would an imprint of Hachette really not know how to market it? And would a celebrity as famous as Eilish not have a team of incredible publicists?

The less obvious — but most explanatory answer — is that the person’s followers either don’t engage with books or don’t engage with that type of book. Billie Eilish’s target audience for her music and her aesthetic is teenage girls. Her book is a “stunning visual narrative journey” according to the blurb, which actually means it’s an expensive hardcover photo journal.

Would that appeal to teenage girls? Are they buying coffee table type books? Nope.

Does the cover at least match Eilish’s aesthetic? Nope — and frankly, it looks like it was mocked up in MS Paint. It also commits the cardinal sin of adding “By” before the author’s name.

What do the people want?

In this case, it seems like the publisher, and Billie, totally misjudged what her target audience would want in a book. If she started selling knitting kits, would they sell? Probably not, because teenage girls by and large aren’t into knitting. Essentially, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have if your offerings are not relevant to your target audience.

The lesson here is clear, and it’s one that book coaches have been shouting about forever: when it comes to books, you have to know your audience and give them what they want. This is true whether you’re a self-published author with five fans, a big publishing company with international reach, or a global popstar with millions of followers.

Your audience has to want what you’re selling, which means you have to know yourself, know the reason why people would buy what you’re offering, stay on-brand, and meet your audience’s needs. Otherwise, your hundred or hundred million followers will keep their hands in their pockets.

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At The Book Shelf, we help aspiring nonfiction authors bring their books to life.

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