In a scene from The Princess Bride, the six-fingered man takes Wesley into the pit of despair to suck away one year of Wesley’s life with “the machine.”
A nefarious “machine” could be sucking away years of your life, one hour at a time, and you may not be aware of it.
That machine is “social media.”
Data shows that social media does not help authors sell more books. But have you ever considered how much time you spend scrolling through Facebook feeds and watching TikTok videos?
You might be shocked to find out that social media is sucking away years of your life.
The average person in 2022 spends more than two hours per day on social media platforms. Imagine how many books you could write in a year if you got those hours back!
But you may be wondering, “How am I supposed to connect with my readers if I leave social media? Don’t publishers and agents expect me to have thousands of followers on all my platforms? What am I supposed to do instead?”
Sandy Cooper is an author and podcaster who understands what it’s like to have years of her life sucked away by social media. She has taken steps to break free from social media and has successfully grown and nurtured her audience without it. Sandy has been encouraging women since 2008 at TheScooponBalance.com and through her books and weekly podcast, The Balanced MomCast.
Why did you stop using social media?
Thomas: Why did you leave social media?
Sandy: Social media stopped working for me as a way to grow and nurture my audience. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for others, and I’m not even discounting how it worked for me for a time. But it definitely stopped working.
I joined social media in 2008, the same year I started my blog.
I began friending every person I had ever known since I was born and sharing my blog posts with them on social media. At the time, social media was an easy way to share blog content. It yielded a high return on a small time investment. I could share my links, and people would read my posts and share them. It worked well.
It worked so well that in 2014, one of my blog posts went viral on Facebook and Pinterest. Within a couple of hours, the viral traffic crashed my site. That was when I realized I was no longer just communicating with my long-lost friends and family. I was communicating with strangers, which has its advantages and disadvantages.
Thomas: It’s been so long since social media was effective that people don’t realize or remember what “going viral” meant. It used to be that if you shared a highly resonant blog post on social media, loads of people would see and share it. The organic reach was incredible. Authors could go from obscurity to notoriety, sometimes within hours.
People don’t realize social media doesn’t work like that anymore. Social networks don’t want to send people away to another website, so they deprioritize posts with links. They want to keep traffic on their own site so they can keep making money.
Sandy: The viral sensation was happening to bloggers, and publishers and agents noticed. So around that same time, many bloggers were also getting book contracts.
Since I was actively seeking publication, publishers and agents told me to start growing my social media following, which they called a platform.
By 2016, I had Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and all of it was taking up a tremendous part of my day.
I was spending four to six hours on social media every day, trying to keep up with everyone in order to grow my platform. I was also trying to keep up with my kids’ school because everybody had Facebook pages for the clubs, classes, and sports.
By that time, my two older kids were also on social media, so I was actively trying to monitor them. I paid for membership in several Facebook groups so I could engage with writers and entrepreneurs.
All of that contributed to what I now understand to be a social media addiction. Between all those things, I was on social media all the time.
What do Social Media and Liquor Have in Common?
Thomas: Your story reminds me of the history of the invention of liquor.
We’ve had alcohol from the dawn of time, and some historians think that humans used grain to make beer before they used it to make bread. Archeologists debate about which came first, but bread and beer emerged early.
However, distilling spirits into rum and whiskey didn’t happen until the Middle Ages. When distilled spirits came to Europe, they called it aqua vitae, “the water of life.”
Because germ theory hadn’t been discovered yet, liquor was thought to be a magical medicine. People could put it on a wound, and the wound would get better “magically.” If someone had a stomach ailment, they’d drink aqua vitae. It would kill stomach microbes, and people would suddenly feel better.
At first, people thought liquor was the best invention ever! But centuries later, generations of men were drunk out of their minds because they were addicted to whisky. Alcohol was destroying their livers, families, and society.
In response, the prohibition and temperance movements emerged, and that’s where we got our Clean Water Act. It was a bit of an aside, but the clean water movement came as an alternative so people could stop getting shatteringly drunk. They were accustomed to making dirty water clean by adding aqua vitae. They solved one problem but created another. The dirty water didn’t make them sick. Instead, it made them drunk.
Once society learned how to have clean water, we gained a better relationship with liquor.
I’m seeing the same phenomenon happening with social media.
In the beginning, social media was like aqua vitae. We were convinced it was perfectly good and useful.
Sandy: That’s such a great point. When I first joined social media in 2008, I had a newly adopted one-year-old who wouldn’t sleep without me and wouldn’t let me put her down. I was in a very isolating period of parenting. My two older kids were also little. Social media was a good way to connect with people. I could create something on my blog and share it with people. But over the next two years, it morphed into a beast I couldn’t keep feeding. It was requiring more of me, and it was yielding less benefit.
Thomas: That’s a classic characteristic of an addiction.
Going back to alcohol, you have to drink more to get that same good feeling until suddenly you’re drunk all the time, and then you have to drink more to make your bad feelings disappear.
Doing social media to connect with friends is a very different motivation than doing social media to keep from feeling isolated.
Sandy: The addiction is fed because you’re told you must be on social media. Publishers and agents say you have to be there. Social media is often the only way to find out what time your kid’s practice starts, and it was the only way I could participate in my writers group.
I felt trapped. I wanted to leave, but there was no way I could.
How did you escape social media?
Thomas: You’re trapped. You have professional, school, and social pressure to stay on social media. What did you do?
Sandy: Several things happened in quick succession that caused me to leave social media and take a one-year break.
First, I attended a writer’s conference in the summer of 2019. I took a book proposal and sat across from agents and publishers whose resounding message was that my platform was too small.
By then, I had been building a platform for a solid decade, and it was still too small. I thought, “My goodness! How big does it need to be?”
I left that conference very discouraged. The social media numbers they wanted were so much higher than the ones from the last conference I had attended a few years earlier. Publishers wanted hundreds of thousands of followers. Platform size felt like a moving target that I would never hit.
I was good at social media and knew how to create engaging content. Being on camera didn’t phase me, and writing witty captions was easy. I understood what to do, but it wasn’t working.
When I left that conference, I was discouraged. Since I’m a Christian, I pray about things, and my use of social media became a huge matter of prayer.
I remember standing in my kitchen listening to a Novel Marketing Podcast about How to Pick a Social Media Network as an author. I was so desperately seeking guidance that I was willing to consider that maybe I had simply picked the wrong platform.
Maybe it wasn’t working because I hadn’t found the platform that fit my strengths and schedule. In that episode, Thomas said, “If you are a writer seeking publication, the best use of your time is to get off social media and go work on your book.”
I’d been praying and wrestling with social media for so long that those words felt like an answer to prayer.
When the podcast was over, I walked to my computer, and wrote an exit post on Facebook and Instagram. I logged off social media on September 11, 2019, and I wrote my book.
A little over a year later, I returned to social media with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I missed the people I had communicated with over social media. During the pandemic, my family and I moved, and some friends didn’t know we had left. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t see people in person, and I had left social media, so if I didn’t have a friends’ contact information, they didn’t know we were gone.
On the other hand, when I returned and started promoting my book with all the tactics I knew I should do, I realized, in short order, that I hated social media.
A huge shift had happened on social media while I was gone. People who maintained their presence on social media throughout the pandemic didn’t see the shift as clearly as I did. People who were otherwise lovely outside of social media had lost their ever-loving minds on these platforms.
Social media was not good for me, and I didn’t want to be there. I prayed, “God, do I need to be here? I feel trapped.”
There was no audible voice or anything, but I felt God was inviting me to lay it down. It was as if he said, “You do not have to carry this burden. There are other ways to do what you want to do.”
On March 18, 2021, I wrote a final exit post. I manually unfriended everyone on my personal Facebook page and deactivated Instagram. I had long since abandoned Twitter because it got on my nerves. My Facebook author page, which had my biggest number of followers, disappeared.
Today, I have a friendless Facebook account that I maintain so I can stay connected with a writing group, a cooking group, and my daughter’s school.
Thomas: Many people will deactivate their Facebook accounts because Facebook knows people have a binge-purge relationship with Facebook. They make it easy to deactivate your account and easy to reactivate it. When it’s reactivated, all your stuff is still there.
But unfriending everyone is next level.
Even if you wanted to recreate your Facebook, finding and re-friending all your friends would be a lot of work.
When you left social media, did you lose contact with your readers?
Thomas: When you left social media, did that mean you lost contact with your readers? Are you now an obscure author in the wilderness?
Sandy: No, I am not an obscure author in the wilderness. It turns out that people have lives outside of social media, and my reader lives much of her life in the real world.
My audience is primarily overwhelmed, Christian moms. They work, attend church, listen to podcasts, join clubs, host meetings, and attend conferences. They’re taking their kids to soccer and dance. They’re googling their problems in their web browser. I can find my readers in all those places. I’m connecting with them in many ways.
Thomas: If they’re overwhelmed, social media probably adds to that overwhelm. Hosting your community on social media would be like having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a bar. Neither a bar nor social media is the best place to help people live happier, more fulfilled, and less stressful lives because both are places make people unhappy, stressed, and unfulfilled.
Sandy: Yes. I was serving overwhelmed moms, helping them find time to live out their priorities and find peace in life, but at the same time, I was asking them to follow me on Instagram.
It felt like a lack of integrity as I tried to lure my reader onto an addictive platform that would suck away hours of her time.
The platform is known to make her depressed, anxious, unfocused, and lonely. Why would I want to lure her there? She shouldn’t be there, and neither should I. I’m not saying not everyone needs to be off, but social media is the last place my reader needs to spend time.
Thomas: Leaving social media kept your message and its delivery consistent.
If you’re using bad language to tell people to stop using bad language, you undermine your own message, even though your message may be helpful.
What was it like to be off social media for a year?
Thomas: How did your life look different during that year off of social media? What was it like psychologically, and how did it affect your calendar?
Sandy: I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life. When I joined Facebook, I was in active treatment for a major depressive episode that began right after we adopted our daughter. I was on meds and in therapy, and then I joined Facebook.
I was a perfect case study for how social media would affect someone mentally.
At first, social media was good and helpful because it kept me connected, but it wasn’t long before I realized that even taking breaks from social media wasn’t enough.
Whenever I was on social media, I felt glitchy and angry. There was too much information.
Even in my writer’s group, where everyone was working on writing, everyone had ideas about how you should be doing it. Everybody was at a different stage in the journey, and several thousand people were in the group. When I would try to engage, it felt like getting sprayed with a fire hose.
I never left feeling refreshed.
I left social media because my phone’s screen-time tracker consistently showed I was spending two hours a day on my phone. And that was after I’d whittled it down! I was doing the absolute minimum on social media to keep all those things going.
Once I eliminated that whole thing from my life, I got an automatic two hours per day that I could spend writing my book. And that’s what I did.
I went all in on the book. Mentally, I gained clarity, lacked anxiety, and had peace.
There wasn’t really a downside to being off social media that year, except for the disconnection, but that was partly due to the pandemic. When I came back and could connect with everyone, I realized that social media wasn’t a great way to connect anyway.
I had found other ways to connect with the people I wanted to stay connected with.
How did it affect your publishing goals?
Thomas: You talked about how publishers keep increasing the number of social followers they want to see. It used to be that a following of 5,000 was impressive, but then it increased to 50,000, and today you need hundreds of thousands of social media followers to impress a publisher.
The target moves because publishers are starting to realize that social media isn’t as effective as they once thought . In addition, more people are leaving social media because the cat is out of the bag. Social media is unhealthy.
You can’t drink as much aqua vitae as you want and get healthier. Only a certain amount of liquor is healthy. For many people, the healthy amount is zero liquor.
You said your online writer’s group left you feeling overwhelmed and dry. Imagine if that writer’s group had been with four or five other authors in person. You’d have left your in-person meeting charged up, excited, and encouraged.
Think about how many in-person activities you did 20 years ago, and then ask yourself whether you are happier now. Most people are more miserable, anxious, and depressed than ever before.
If you are staying on social media and using writing as an excuse to stay, you don’t have to. You can communicate with people through your email list or in real life.
I rarely recommend using social media, but I’m not 100% against it. Some authors can get hundreds of thousands of followers, which makes a difference. But when we focus on the successful authors, we don’t see the tens of thousands who’ve tried and failed to get that many followers.
Screaming in a Stadium
Sandy: I’ve heard you say that social media is like speaking to an empty auditorium. To me, social media felt more like a packed stadium where everyone was screaming, and only a couple of people had microphones or a stage.
You’re left wondering how to get a microphone.
When you go to a good concert, you usually can’t hear the person next to you speaking, even if they’re screaming at the top of their lungs. Maybe the people in my immediate circle could hear me, but it felt like the lottery. There’s no reproducible way to get the microphone and the stage.
You might follow all the social media advice and do what everyone is advising, but it still doesn’t work. It felt like I’d have to win the lottery to be heard.
Thomas: That’s a great metaphor. People get to be on stage in a stadium because they are famous for doing something off-stage outside of the stadium.
For example, the most famous people on social media are famous because they’re actors, musicians, or politicians. None of them became famous because they did social media well. They worked in the real world and became famous for their work. Then people wanted to connect with them on social media.
Occasionally, one lucky person gets invited on stage at a concert, but then they get kicked off when the show continues.
In a football stadium, you might get a chance to kick a field goal, but when everyone sees you’re not as good as the team’s kicker, they send you back to the stands. Even if you make one field goal and win a prize, you aren’t on the team. You don’t get invited to be on the team by sitting in the stands. You’re more likely to be invited to play on the team if you work out in the weight room.
How do you tell readers about your new book if you’re not on social media?
Thomas: How do you connect with readers today in 2022? You’ve left social media, but you have a new book. How do you spread the word?
Sandy: Before I left social media, I had started a podcast. Since I left social media, I have written and self-published two books, published over a hundred podcast episodes, and moved my family across the country. I’ve accomplished a ton on a personal and professional level.
Before I left social media, I made sure that everyone knew how to reach me. I gave people my website, email address, and podcast. Those are probably the biggest avenues of connecting with my audience right now.
I was the women’s ministry leader at my church, and many of the people who bought my books were the women I served in real life. I found that if I continue to reach people organically, I’ll continue to serve people.
If social media felt like walking into a stadium, now I feel like I’m walking into a dinner party or a small conference.
I don’t have big, giant follower numbers. When you leave a social media following of tens of thousands of people, you won’t necessarily get tens of thousands of real-life followers to replace them. It’s not a one-to-one trade.
But the people I’m connecting with today truly want what I offer. My social media following was a mixed bag of people, like my neighbor when I was three, a coworker, a neighbor from five houses ago, and my husband’s aunt.
Now the people who follow me are overwhelmed Christian moms, and all my efforts to serve them are more effective. When people email me, I respond. I’ve met several people in person at conferences and speaking engagements. Podcast tours like this are a great way to find readers and grow an email list.
By the way, Thomas, I’m taking your advice. I created a special freebie for your audience for this podcast called 27 Ways to Grow Your Audience Outside of Social Media. Not all 27 ways will work for everyone. My top three list-growth tools are quizzes on my website, podcast tours, and freebies I offer on my podcast.
Thomas: I looked up the stats for your podcast, and your podcast is in the top 1.5% of all podcasts in the world, according to Listen Notes. That’s proof that these 27 methods work. Now you’re growing a real platform with a real audience.
You sacrificed the feeling of connection with an audience that wasn’t even the right audience. Your old Sunday school teacher or your kindergarten friend probably won’t buy your book. If they do buy your first book as a favor, they might not read it, and they certainly won’t buy the second one.
What do traditional publishers think about authors who aren’t on social media?
I also want to point out that this shift involved you publishing independently. Traditional publishing houses are still addicted to the drugs of social media. They’re still looking at the numbers, but you can convince them to publish you if you email list or podcast numbers are big enough. We interviewed a literary agent who still looks at social media numbers.
Interestingly, almost all the growth in the publishing industry is happening amongst indie authors.
NPD BookScan’s numbers show traditional publishing and ebook publishing as flat or down, whereas many indies are seeing double-digit growth year over year. Much of that growth is because indies are moving away from social media.
Even traditional marketing avenues like TV are dropping hashtags from their ads in favor of QR codes so customers can reach them directly rather than going through the social media middle-man. It’s a much savvier method because people with bots control the hashtags, and bots don’t buy products.
Connection with an actual human on your website is much more valuable than pulling them through the chaotic morass of social media, hoping they’ll make a purchase at the end.
Social media is a distracting environment for customers. They see ads on the sidebar, in their feeds, and in posts from friends and organizations. A thousand voices are shouting at the customer on social media. The likelihood of them buying that product, even from a large and well-known company, is very low.
Companies are realizing that if customers scan a QR code to get a coupon, they can connect with their customers in the less distracting environment of their own websites. It’s a smarter way to advertise, and big companies have figured it out.
Life in the Real-Life World
Thomas: We need to realize that real life is real life. It’s encouraging to hear Sandy say that her year of leaving social media was her most productive year.
What if my publisher and agent are forcing me to be on social media?
Thomas: I can hear many people saying, “But my publisher and agent tell me I have to be on social media. What would you say to somebody in that situation?
Sandy: First, if you enjoy social media and it’s working for you, then congratulations! You found the right publisher, and you should go for it.
But if you hate social media and it’s taking its toll on you, your family, and your time, then I would suggest that your publisher is not the right fit for you.
Second, if you want to be traditionally published, find other viable ways to connect with your reader. Learn to grow your audience in organic ways, like with a podcast, an email list, or in-person events. All of those are super attractive to publishers.
Finally, I would say, if it’s taking its toll on you and your mental health, that’s reason enough to step away. Your mental health is too precious to sacrifice on the altar of publishing goals.
Self-publishing is a very viable alternative with many advantages:
- Higher royalty percentage
- Control over content
- Rights retention
- Choose the editors and designers who understand you and your message.
If you define success as being traditionally published, then find another way to build your audience outside of social media.
But if you’re open to other ways to publish, you can redefine success. Maybe your new definition of success could be to love what you’re doing and find other ways to connect with your audience.
Thomas: If you’re already published, and your agent or publisher is putting pressure on you to do social media, remember that they are not your boss. They are not paying you to do social media.
I recently heard a TV personality talking about why she doesn’t like being on Twitter. She said, “I’m not paid to do Twitter. I’m paid to do my TV job, but I can get fired for doing Twitter.”
Her network had fired people for saying the wrong thing on Twitter, but they weren’t actually paying anyone to be there.
In reality, if you’re published and the sales of your last book were bad, no amount of social media will get you another contract. Publishers will judge you by your actual sales number. If your sales are good, you will get another contract, even if you’ve left social media.
If your book is good and you have the audience, then you can tell your publisher “no.” A good agent will back you. If you feel like your agent is on the publisher’s team instead of yours, you need a different agent. An agent works for you.
Many big publishing companies aren’t making money from their new books. Most of their revenue comes from their backlists.
Publishers are floundering partly because they’re relying too much on social media numbers and not enough on good market research with actual human beings.
They can’t filter out the bots because bots can like and comment on posts. Bots can imitate human engagement. Publishers don’t know how to screen that out. They’re just looking for lots of likes and retweets, which isn’t enough.
Never let anyone convince you that you have no other option.
We always have that choice. A thousand people can comply with a bully, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
Sandy: When my writer’s group insisted that I stay on social media, a little part of me wanted to prove them wrong. I figured that if I didn’t see anyone leading the way, then I would figure it out and pave the way for other authors who wanted to leave.
Those authors were so tired of playing the game. None of us wanted to be forced to be a dancing monkey in front of a screen.
Thomas: Returning to the alcohol metaphor, if you’re an alcoholic who stops drinking, your alcoholic friends will fight you. When people leave that lifestyle, they have to leave their friends and make new sober friends in other locations. They have to rebuild their lives.
As more people leave social media, this will to get easier. The real-life, sober parties are going to get better.
Connect with Sandy at TheScooponBalance.com and The Balanced MomCast, or download 27 Ways to Grow Your Audience Outside of Social Media.
Authors must help each other “get sober” because they’ve justified social media addictions for so long because they thought they were being forced. They thought their agent or publisher was forcing them to participate in addictive behaviors.
As we sober up, we need support groups. We need to rebuild real-life writers groups and conferences. Rebuild your real life if you want your real life to be better.
Obscure No More is a complete guide to building a platform that does not rely on social media. My course covers all the other methods of platform building, like blogging, podcasting, search engine optimization, and much more.
Do you want my help building your platform and connecting with readers? If so, check out Obscure No More. This course comes with live office hours calls and short, focused training videos that cover every aspect of building your platform. Learn more about Obscure No More at AuthorMedia.com.
Get the special beta pricing until December 31, 2022. The course will be available by subscription only in 2023.
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