After a disastrous launch, Ben Hatch’s book Are We Nearly There Yet? went to number one in the Kindle non-fiction charts. He tells us how his book became a bestseller thanks to the support of his Twitter followers. His latest book, Road to Rouen, is out now.
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I’d be deal-less, agentless and doing who knows what now – flipping burgers, selling dish cloths door to door, working on my great invention for mechanically putting socks on without bending down – if Twitter and the friends I’ve made there hadn’t turned my fortunes around. In 2011 my writing career almost ended. My book Are We Nearly There Yet? A Family’s 8,000 Mile Car Journey Around Britain initially had everything going for it. There’d been wonderful advance quotes from, among others, Terry Wogan, Danny Wallace, Richard Briers, Lisa Jewell, Jenny Colgan, David Jason. Even John Cleese had said the book made him laugh. The cover looked great, everyone loved the title.
Are We Nearly There Yet? was released in August 2011. Publicity was embargoed for three weeks to allow the Daily Express to serialise it. It all looked good. The day it was due to appear the summer riots started. The story of how my wife, two kids and I had visited every town and city in the country, been attacked by bats, snakes and had had run-ins with ghosts, Nazis and thieving monkeys, had been due to run across a couple of centre pages. Understandably, after the events that night, The Express shelved it. It was due to appear the following day then the next. Eventually, as the riots spread, it was pulled altogether. The book, apart from anything else, now seemed irrelevant – who wanted to read about a family touring the UK when that country was on fire and looting its sports shops?
With the book out a month it had now missed its review window. Newspaper book pages were on to new releases. It was the same at my publisher. The PR department had new titles to work on. The book began to die. My publisher never quite put it like this but its Amazon ranking dropped into the hundreds of thousands. No-one was buying it. No-one knew it was out. That’s when I took to Twitter. I had no real hopes it would make any difference. But at least I could tell my 50 or so followers about it without it being subject to some greater and supposedly wiser authority deciding it was too late or they were too busy to do this for me.
I’d previously been very dismissive of the medium (had assumed it was a mixture of celebs showing off and others discussing what they had for lunch). I’d no idea what I was doing at first. I didn’t know what a DM was, had never shortened a link and I wasn’t even sure what @ meant before a username. But it turns out there are lots of very kind, tolerant people on twitter; some of the nicest people I’ve met in fact. I was taken under the wing of a few of them; given advice and encouragement. They suggested I contact book bloggers. I did and many generously began reading the book and providing quotes they tweeted, which I then retweeted. I was invited to be interviewed on blogs then began to be asked to appear on local radio stations by people who’d seen the book mentioned on twitter. My followers grew and, amazingly, the book began to sell especially on kindle where the simplicity and sophistication of buying with one click seemed perfectly designed for a twitter audience.
When Are We Nearly There Yet? was mentioned on the Terry Wogan show rather oddly I noticed the effect on sales (as monitored by me on Amazon) wasn’t as large as when I tweeted about the fact it had been mentioned on Terry Wogan’s show. It taught me a lesson. I’d written books before but had always had a lofty idea that it wasn’t up to me to tell anyone about it. That idea seemed counter to all being a writer was about. But now I could see if he wanted to stay a writer, which I did, it was up to me and nobody else to promote my book. When John Cleese tweeted about the book to his 2 million followers sales picked up again. People who’d read the book after reading earlier tweets were now tweeting about it too. Who needed newspaper reviews, I remember thinking. Eventually this buzz leaked out beyond Twitter. I was reviewed very favourably in the Daily Mail then in Marie Claire magazine and The Mirror. Mumsnet backed the book. Throughout November it was selling a kindle copy every 6 minutes. In December it sold more than 8000 and became the biggest downloaded non-fiction Kindle title on Amazon. The paperback meanwhile was in the top ten travel reads, ahead of all the Bill Brysons.
As people read the book they wanted to know more about episodes I’d written about. I’d talk to followers about our journey: my daughter’s “nature wee” in a field of live ordnance; my wife’s tortoise phobia; the bat attack in Kielder Forest. Part of the book was about my father’s death from cancer and I spoke to many on Twitter followers who’d had similar experiences; often quite emotional conversations. Much, much more than what was had for lunch.
By now I had an army of many thousands of followers. Although the word followers distorts the reality because they were more like friends I followed too, who also happened to be media savvy. They were friends who understood how it worked and were incredibly tolerant of an author trying to make his mark. They’d often kindly not only tweet about the book to their followers, but put reviews on Amazon. There are 293 there now, 234 of which are five stars.
At Christmas on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 drive-time book show the book was named the breakout title of the year. A few reprints ago I listed by name all of my Twitter followers in the book, the last pages of which, with all the underscores, ampersands, capital letters and nicknames in neat rows, now look like that batty shed in the film A Beautiful Mind. But it’s a permanent recognition of all the kind-hearted people who have helped make my book a success. Thanks to Twitter and the friends I have made there I now have a new deal to write the follow-up book about our family travels round France. It’s also given me the confidence to rewrite and relaunch my first novel, The P45 Diaries, as a Kindle book.
Ben Hatch’s Top Tips for Social Media Success
- Don’t be shy about tweeting good news. The days of the ivory tower are over. Be proud of your work, especially if you’re with a small publisher without the resources to promote you. Whilst it’s true – the really big names don’t self-promote that much on Twitter if they are even on it, or if they do it, they do it with hand-over-the mouth embarrassment (“Plug alert!”, they’ll cry beforehand) – don’t forget there’s usually a reason for this. They often have other platforms or larger publicity departments promoting them.
- Don’t tweet only about your books. It seems very obvious – but you wouldn’t tell a friend only how brilliant things were going for you in your job. That gets very boring and would strain even the patience of your oldest mates. Your Twitter followers are friends so treat them that way.
- Follow people back. There’s a theory that you need to follow a specific percentage less of those that follow you. I’ve heard this said many times of people who worry about their ‘ratio’. That’s nonsense. If someone follows you and they’re not a spammer or a company selling penis enlargements or someone claiming to be a social media guru with oddly only 25 followers or an obvious nutcase, then follow them back. It’s just polite.
- Don’t be upset by negative comments. Inevitably there will be the odd person you’ll offend by even the mildest self-promotional tweet. Often you won’t know why you’ve offended them. Chances are, especially if you’re sensitive by nature like most writers, you’ll feel disproportionately upset by a negative remark from a Twitter follower. Try not to be. This is your livelihood after all.
- Try and respond to questions posed. If a friend rang up and left a message on your answer-phone you’d call them back. So if someone on twitter reaches out to say something make sure you reply.
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Publishing Talk Magazine.
Ben Hatch’s latest book Road to Rouen is out now.