Millions of followers? For book sales, ‘it’s unreliable.’

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From The New York Times:

A book by Billie Eilish seemed like a great bet. One of the most famous pop stars in the world, Eilish has 97 million followers on Instagram and another 6 million on Twitter. If just a fraction of them bought her book, it would be a hit.

But her self-titled book has sold about 64,000 hardcover copies since it came out in May, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks most printed books sold in the United States — not necessarily a disappointing number, unless Eilish got a big advance. Which, of course, she did. The book cost her publisher well over $1 million.

It’s difficult to predict whether a book will be a hit. A jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change that much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to forecast demand for new titles, it is, however thoughtfully, guessing. Because there are so few reliable metrics to look at, social-media followings have become some of the main data points publishers use to try to make their guesses more educated.

An author’s following has become a standard part of the equation when publishers are deciding whether to acquire a book. Followings can affect who gets a book deal and how big an advance that author is paid, especially when it comes to nonfiction. But despite their importance, they are increasingly seen as unpredictable gauges of how well a book is actually going to sell.

Even having one of the biggest social-media followings in the world is not a guarantee.

“The only reliable part about it,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, “is that it’s unreliable.”

An author’s platform has long been something publishers look at — does she have a radio show, for example, or a regular guest spot on TV? But as local news outlets and book coverage have dwindled, the avenues for book publicity have shrunk, making an author’s ability to help get the word out more crucial. And when an author speaks to her followers about a book she wrote, she is talking to people who are at least a little bit interested in what she has to share.

“It’s become more and more important as the years went on,” said Marc Resnick, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press. “We learned some hard lessons along the way, which is that a tweet or a post is not necessarily going to sell any books, if it’s not the right person with the right book and the right followers at the right time.”

Take Justin Timberlake. His book “Hindsight” was acquired for more than$1 million, but when it came out in 2018, Timberlake had bruised vocal cords and was unable to promote it as planned. The 53 million Instagram followers he had at the time weren’t able to make up for it. “Hindsight” has sold about 100,000 printed copies since its publication three years ago, according to BookScan, not nearly the number his publisher was hoping for.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is no global pop star, but she has a significant social-media presence, with 3 million Twitter followers and another 1.3 million on Instagram. Yet her book, “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” which was published in May 2020, has sold just 26,000 copies across print, audio and e-book formats, according to her publisher.

Tamika D. Mallory, a social activist with more than 1 million Instagram followers, was paid more than $1 million for a two-book deal. But her first book, “State of Emergency,” has sold just 26,000 print copies since it was published in May, according to BookScan.

Journalist and media personality Piers Morgan had a weaker showing. Despite his followers on Twitter (8 million) and Instagram (1.8 million), “Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts” has sold just 5,650 print copies since it was published a year ago, according to BookScan.

It’s difficult to know why this happens. Sometimes, publishing and marketing executives say, there is a mismatch between what people post about on social media and the subject of their books. Perhaps the books don’t provide anything beyond what they’ve already put on Instagram. It could be that the author hasn’t pushed the book to his followers effectively, or that those followers (the ones who aren’t bots, or paid for) aren’t terribly engaged with what he posts.

Or maybe the book isn’t that good. Social media is only one part of why a book does or doesn’t work, just as it is only a piece of why a book is acquired — publishers were interested in Billie Eilish’s book not just because of Instagram, but because she is Billie Eilish.

In an effort to mitigate these issues, some book contracts now specify the number of posts required before and after a book is published.

“In addition to hearing from the agent and reading the manuscript, we want to hear from the celebrity that they are invested in the book,” said Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. “To say, in the nicest way possible, what would you say about this project and where would this fit in with all the other things you’re doing?”

Link to the rest at The New York Times (via The Baltimore Sun)

18 thoughts on “Millions of followers? For book sales, ‘it’s unreliable.’”

  1. The main problem is that the Twitter/Facebook/Instagram demographic only shares a small slice of the Venn diagram circle with the reader demographic.

    Personal blog hits and followers are a somewhat better indicator, if the writer has one – although still not highly indicative of success.

    In my opinion, there really is no good substitute for old fashioned, tightly focused, market research.

    • Heretic!
      Just because every other industry does it doesn’t mean the Manhattan Mafia has to.
      Books are special!

    • Given the examples in the OP, I have the odd suspicion that the publishers desperately wanted the books to be successful, but for reasons other than profit.

      • Possibly. Or maybe it’s blindly doing as they used to do without understanding neither book was a bet to sell. A kneejerk reaction.

        Certainly anybody who understood who those ladies are, how they achieved their celebrity, and who their followers are, would have politely declined an agent’s offer. Or fired whatever unpaid intern suggested investing in either book.


        – Omar is a junior congressional representative, one of 500, and an extremist agent provocateur whose stock in trade is aggressively insulting American society. She owes her national presence to her constant demonization by FOXNEWS and regular spouting of controversial, usually gratuitously antisemitic, diatribes. With a few campaign spending skeletons that have come to light. A recent national poll gave her unfavorables larger than the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (65%, with a large segement of “who’s that?”) Given her lack of legislative accomplishments other than the innevitable barrels of pork for her district, she has no real political power to be bought with a big advance.

        – Eilish is another outlier celebrity but of a different breed.
        She made her splash as a teenage pop singer with a decent but not terribly unique voice and an image based on subverting expectations, particularly on clothing.

        Of note:
        “Much of the media attention surrounding Eilish has revolved around her fashion style, which consists primarily of baggy, oversized clothing. In 2017, she stated that she likes dressing out of her comfort zone to feel like she grabs the attention of everyone around her. She tries to be “really different from a lot of people” and dresses opposite to what others wear. Aiming to “look memorable”, Eilish said that she “proved to people that [she’s] more important than they think” and likes being “kind of intimidating, so people will listen up.” In 2019, she stated: “Over time it’s kind of become a thing, ‘Billie Eilish, the creepy, weird, scary girl.’ And I don’t like that. It’s lame. I just don’t want to stay one thing.”

        “In May 2019, Eilish appeared in a Calvin Klein advertisement, where she mentioned that she dresses in baggy clothes to prevent people from judging her body. In a March 2020 live show in Miami, as part of the Where Do We Go? Tour, she premiered Not My Responsibility, a short film which addresses her experiences of body shaming. Not My Responsibility was later uploaded to Eilish’s YouTube channel in May 2020.

        “Eilish was on the cover of the June 2021 issue of British Vogue. The photoshoot by Craig McDean featured her dressed in lingerie, specifically focused on corsets.[185][186] Eilish made her first appearance at the Met Gala in 2021, which had the theme “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, wearing an Oscar de la Renta gown under the condition that the fashion house would permanently end its use of real fur. Though the dress was inspired by the original Barbie doll, fashion critics observed its likeness to Golden Age star Marilyn Monroe, who also wore a tulle Oscar de la Renta gown in the early 1950s.”

        Music aside, her early clame to fame was her baggy and bulky attire meant to hide her phhsique and attendant pronouncements which created a mystique and mystery about why she didn’t flaunt it. Aside from being a minor until recently. The assumption she was a chubby dominated over the stringbean faction but both were proven wrong once she came of age and indeed flaunted her rather zaftig body. The Monroe-style dress-up making it clear why she (sensibly) hid it while underage. Being objectivized is no fun, especially for teens. Unless you’re the one monetizing it on fashion magazines.

        In essence, she aspires to be another Madonna, but one anchored in social media. Anybody interested in being spoonfed her team’s message du jour can get it for free online. Unlike the pre-internet Ms Ciccone who charged the media and masses directly instead of indirectly via vast numbers of youtube and instagram. It may be, though, that her team believes her celebrity won’t last until her 60’s like Madonna and chose to “take the money and run” before her metaphorical 15 minutes expire. It may be that the book might have sold better when the contract was signed but the standard BPH pipeline killed any such chance. The book *might* have moved at concerts, though it is doubtful, but then the pandemic…

        In both cases, even a minor exercise in market research would’ve revealed that the followers of the two were not likely to be dropping measurable income on dead tree pulp regurgitating material readily available online for free. Not that the failures are likely to keep the Manhattan crowd from trying to monetize online celebrities. Like gambling addicts, they’ll keep pumping quarters into the slot machines, certain that the next one will hit jackpot.

    • Most of them, actually.
      Eilish probably makes more money off Instagram and Youtube than off streaming music services.
      The failure here is failing to understand the difference between followers and fans and *paying* fans above all. And how they spend their money.
      Look at Eilish’s endorsements;

      “In April 2019, Eilish released clothing in collaboration with Takashi Murakami, inspired by her music video for “You Should See Me in a Crown”, also directed and animated by Murakami, as well as a limited edition vinyl figure of herself from the video. Eilish also collaborated with Adobe Creative Cloud the same month for a series of advertisements as well as a social media art contest, where users would submit artwork with the hashtag “#BILLIExADOBE”.

      “Eilish appeared in the debut of Calvin Klein’s #MyCalvins ad campaign in May 2019, as well as the Ad Council’s “Seize the Awkward” campaign, a series of public service announcements targeting mental health awareness. She fronted MCM Worldwide’s fall 2019 advertising campaign in July 2019, and later that month, collaborated with Los Angeles-based clothing brand Freak City for a clothing line. Also in July 2019, she performed at a dinner hosted by Chanel on Shelter Island to celebrate the brand’s pop-up yacht club.

      “In August 2019, Eilish partnered with Apple to allow Apple Store customers to experiment with her song “You Should See Me in a Crown” in Music Lab sessions in its stores. ”

      All those ventures are synergetic with her image and followers. None of which followefs are likely to want to sit down with a book and a bottle of wine to listen to her latest LP on their Technics stereo system. 😀

      • Sure. That’s all great. But how does that tell us what percentage are real? We can really observe and measure the items you mention. But followers?

        • Well, the folks in the fashion world paying her see followers. But followers interested in her fashion sense. Youtube and Instagram see followers interested in that and her music and what they pay her is but a fraction of what those followers make for *them*.
          The followers are real. They are monetized every single day.

          It’s just that what her followers are interested in isn’t dead tree pulp.

  2. I’m shocked — shocked, I say — to find that significant parts of publishing are both (a) trying to premeasure success based not on the content of the work, but its packaging, and (b) failing miserably to do demonstrably better than random chance when doing so.

    The Big Book (among other sources, but given the legendary three-martini lunch with agents it’s particularly relevant… and just about as likely to work) asserts that doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of “insanity.” On that basis, NYC-based publishing is completely insane — and has been for nearly a century.

    • Well, to be fair, a good portion of their “good old days” sales were from books that were never read.
      Packaging used to be what sold the book.

      Remember how they whined and grumbled and threatened to sue when AMAZON introduced “look inside”? And the panic that ensued among tradpub authors when Amazon moved KU payouts to KNPC, even when they avoided it (and still do) like covid19? The idea that people might want to know what they’re getting before buying scares the pants off them. (Plus shirt, shoes, socks, and undies.)

      They are called traditional publishing for a reason and the real reason is because *traditionally* their profits come from books sold but never read (book gifting, closets full of forgotten TBR, etc).

      • Your post appears to have a different definition of “sold,” Felix… and so does commercial publishing. The packaging worked to put books on shelves — but, despite the decades of BS and mischaracterization on royalty statements, that’s not a sale. It’s a consignment, and particularly so when looking at the substance of the returns system. The “sale” doesn’t occur until the end-user hands over cash/credit card — and a number of studies done at/through (IIRC) Fordham in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that there is not a replicable “good packaging” effect on sales for books (only an “Edsel effect” from bad packaging). It’s the content that matters — especially for prospective transaction n+1 (that is, actual satisfaction with the present book from Source X is the dominant factor in end-user purchase decisions for the next one from Source X). The sad, sad history of sales by “famous radio hosts” in the 1970s and 1980s should have been a hint.

        The tl;dr version: All of the “packaging” elements, from cover to substantive platform to media presence, influence not the end-users, but the chain-store “buyers” (deceptive title again!). Given the steadily decreasing share of sales at chain stores, I’ll leave the obvious implications as an exercise for the student.

        • Well, aside from being fascetious, I *was* referring to actual sales to individuals. Hence the reference to gifting and especially TBR, where folks buy books based on presentation (cover art, blurbs, reputation) for latter reading and then don’t. A practice in decline with the shift to just-in-time buying with ebooks and digital audio. Another way ebooks save readers money. 😀

          • And I should have noted that the key word is “replicable.” As noted by A Nonfamous Author in a seminar back in the day, in advertising only 10% of the efforts lead directly to income* — and nobody knows in advance which 10% that is. Bennett Cerf was variously quoted as saying much the same thing regarding publishers’ ability to only acquire bestsellers, back in the 1950s. <sarcasm> Obviously, we’ve learned a lot since then, right? So modern management theory (put forth by people who have not actually read the books, let alone their competitors) knows? </sarcasm>

            Publishing — and the entertainment industry as a whole — thinks it does know which 10% matters. With 20-20 hindsight, perhaps it can determine that for a particular item… but it can’t replicate that hindsight, not even for other items, and it can’t convert that hindsight to foresight (especially when that “foresight” ordinarily requires looking 18 months or more into the future, from acquisition decision to publication date). The chemist in me wonders whether some analogy to Carnot-cycle efficiency means that getting that 10% still requires the other 90% to establish the conditions that allow the 10% to exist, even if one cannot tie any of the 90% to the income. Given that there’s no demonstrated exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics anywhere else, my internal chemist is skeptical that publishing is that exception.

            * Even then, just about four decades ago, that NBA-winning-but-still-not-famous author was smart enough to understand that “services provided for money” are not a “sale.” Which, come to think of it, was implicit in parts of The Recognitions (1955) and JR (1976), so it wasn’t exactly news to him!

      • I recall all those books on the shelf invited a consumer to open them to any page to read a sample. Maybe they still went unread, but not unpreviewed.

        • I recall that the last tradpub few pbooks I bought were shrink wrapped.
          Not sure how prevslent the practice was but at least some publishers didn’t want the books “pawed over”, presumably for after they were returned unsold.
          Ages ago, admittedly.

  3. I’m reminded of the immortal words of that modern day philosopher, Dave Chappelle from his recent work of art, “The Closer.”

    Spoiler: Cover your eyes if you’ve virgin ears. Or eyes.

    “Apparently, they dragged me on Twitter. I don’t give a fuck, because Twitter’s not a real place.”

    The same rule, of course, works on Instagram or any other social media. Maybe one of these days, publishers will realize it.

    PS. Apologies PG, if the language is over the top. But Chappelle delivers it with such a je ne sais quoi, no?

    • I didn’t know who Chappelle was until I heard all the uproar. So, I went to Netflix and watched. I thought he was great, but expected really hard attacks against people. It wasn’t there. It was smart, clever, and funny, but hardly malicious. I suspect most of the critics neglected to watch what they were criticizing.

      • The way those “scandals” work is one person gets triggered, rightly or not, they go twitter-rabid, and the lemmings follow blindly.
        Chappelle makes millions off his standup comedy; that means somebody…a lot of somebodies…find him entertaining.

        Me, I find Jeff Dunham’s ventriloquist routines entertaining. He’s all over Youtube.
        He too has his detractors for his “Achmed the dead terrorist” but if you do a web search for “Achmed” his act is the top answer.
        Youtube too.

        He’s been running the skits, and others like it, for over a decade.
        Good writing keeps him going the world over.
        Literally millions of followers, 5.8 million on the video I linked, but most are following because he’s free entertainment. Doesn’t mean they’ll pay to see him in person, though some true fans do, or buy his DVDs.
        Online is its own market with its own rules.

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