A book by Billie Eilish seemed like a great bet. One of the most famous pop stars in the world, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 over $1 million, but when it came out in 2018, Mr. 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.
Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, 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 over a million Instagram followers, was paid over $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.
The 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 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?”
Crucially, executives say, there is also an increasing awareness in the industry about the difference between the number of followers and how engaged they really are. Do they comment? Do they share?
“There are people who stop being famous who still have their millions of followers, or people who left office eight years ago,” said Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books. “The important thing is, why are people talking about this person? It’s about what’s driving engagement.”
A new dimension of this conversation is TikTok, which has become a powerful force in selling books. Successful “BookTok” titles are generally pushed by enthusiastic readers weeping into their camera phones about how much they loved the book, not authors shilling their own work. But book proposals by TikTok stars are now getting snapped up.
Mary Ann Naples, publisher of Hachette Books, said she recently came across a proposal by an author who had quickly built a huge TikTok following. Ms. Naples said she wanted the book, but its price shot up.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going to those heights,” she said.
There are, however, plenty of examples where a social-media following does help sell books, like “Accidentally Wes Anderson” by Wally Koval, a coffee-table book of photographs from around the world of things that look like the filmmaker’s set pieces, like a pink, yellow and blue bowling alley. Mr. Koval’s Instagram account, of the same name and concept, had over 1 million followers when the book was acquired and now has 1.6 million. The book has sold more than 100,000 copies of the hardcover since it was published in January, its publisher said.
Another book that performed well was “How to Do the Work” by Dr. Nicole LePera, a holistic psychologist with 4.4 million Instagram followers. Her Instagram bio says “I teach you to heal + consciously create a new version of yourself,” and her book has sold about 216,000 copies, according to BookScan.
Tanya McKinnon, a literary agent, said that it isn’t accurate to say that social media doesn’t matter for book sales. But the truth is that the industry doesn’t really know what it will do for any given book.
“If we knew, publishers would make no mistakes,” Ms. McKinnon said. “My whole position on this is that if you find someone who really does know, will you please share their information with me?”
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