Lean in real close because I want to tell you a secret. Ready? It’s kind of a big one. Okay, *whispers* social media does not sell books.

Take a minute to let that sink it because it probably flies in the face of everything you have ever heard about how to market yourself as an indie author. I’m not saying people are lying to you, they just aren’t telling you the whole story. Think about this for a second – when was the last time you saw a link to a book you’ve never heard of on social media and immediately clicked to purchase it. I’ll wait.

What I’m saying is that social media is never going to sell your book directly, but it can, and often does, help you develop relationships with people who might eventually buy your book.

It’s the “social” in social media that can give you some traction, and that’s why it is critical to observe some basic best practices. Here are a few quick tips to get you started:

DO start early. It takes time to build relationships in real life and this is equally true of digital relationships. A robust social media platform can take months, even years, to build so you needed to start yesterday. What if your book isn’t done yet? EVEN BETTER. What people love most about connecting with authors via social is the sense that they get to look behind the curtain. Having trouble with a sticky plot point? Use the #amwriting hashtag to work out your issues. Not sure which cover concept you like best? Set up a poll on Facebook. The earlier you start, the better able you will be to give potential readers a sense of access and being included in your world.

DON’T spread yourself too thin. It’s exciting to think about marketing, and it can be tempting to want to be everywhere. Facebook! Twitter! LinkedIn! Pinterest! Instagram! More exposure equals more sales, right? Probably not. Unless you have a team of social media managers on hand to help you with all of those platforms, the reality is you will just have a lot of barren profiles. Again, building an audience takes time and there’s a reason people have full-time jobs handling social media accounts. Take a hard look at how much time and energy you can devote to your marketing and plan accordingly.

DO target your audience. This is related to the last point. Rather than thinking about limiting your scope as a bad thing, remember that a targeted approach is far more effective. Your non-fiction guide to HR Practices may not be a huge hit on Instagram, but the thought leaders of LinkedIn might be very interested. That steamy romance may not be well-suited for your Facebook feed, but could get a lot of traction amongst the romance readers of Tumblr. So take a little time to do market research, find out where your potential audience hangs out, and focus your energies there.

DO remember this is a conversation. The single biggest mistake I see new authors make is using social media to talk at people, rather than talk to people. So, how do you talk to people out in the world? Would you interrupt a conversation amongst strangers to tell them about your promo code? Would you spend the entire evening at a party talking about your book and nothing else? Would you approach a person in your industry and yell at them until they noticed you? For whatever reason, things we would never do to people on the street we are willing to do all the time on social media. Don’t be that guy. Nobody likes him and nobody buys his book.

DON’T send unsolicited or automated messages. Here is a sampling of the unsolicited direct messages I have personally received from authors on Twitter:

I’d gargle Drano to get you to read the free sample of my book.”

I’d drink detergent to get you to read the free sample of my book, or you could just read it.”

I’m so indie, no one’s heard of me. Want to be the first?”

I’m sure all of these authors are very well-meaning and probably think they’re cute. I unfollowed each one and did not buy their books. It’s the digital equivalent of junk mail and it’s just as popular.

DON’T be a jerk. Really, I could have shortened this post by a few hundred words and just used this one tip. It applies to every interaction you will have on social media. The point is to engage people with interesting, relevant content to cultivate a meaningful relationship. So don’t be a jerk and maybe, eventually, your social media presence will move some inventory.