By Katja Meier
Today’s #KWLWonderWoman is seriously inspiring. Katja Meier is a social worker at a refugee camp in Tuscany, working with women who are survivors of human trafficking. She wrote and self-published a memoir about her experiences which has now been optioned for a movie adaptation. Here Katja explains how she used her favourite social media platform, Instagram, to reach out to her audience and market her book.
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When elaborating a marketing strategy for Across the Big Blue Sea—my memoir about a refugee home in a Tuscan hilltop town—Instagram looked like one of my best tools. I already had more than 5000 followers on the platform and while I didn’t expect every single one to rush out and buy the book the moment it hit the shelves, I was convinced that many would.
Only most didn’t.
But first things first. I got on Instagram in 2012 and it quickly became the social media platform I enjoyed most. Over the years I joined a supportive community of bloggers, photographers and Instagrammers and accumulated a group of sworn-in followers who loved #theviewfromthegrovetoday, my four-season hashtag depicting the view from the table in our Tuscan olive grove.
It seemed only natural that many of those followers would be eager to know more about my life, once they heard of the book I was about to publish.
Here’s why they didn’t:
Instagrammers aren’t looking for realism
Most people followed me on Instagram for a daily infusion of la dolce vita from the supposedly stress-free, laid-back Tuscan countryside. They had no idea that the rolling hills provide shelter not just to newlyweds, but to migrants and refugees too. In fact, considering Tuscany’s track record in contemporary literature, most people don’t expect Italy’s crown jewel to be about anything else than cappuccino, wine and Renaissance villas. To protect the privacy of the migrants and refugees staying at our Tuscan shelter, I never posted photos from work. This was absolutely the right thing to do. However, from a marketing point of view, I should have found a way to let my followers know what was going on in my life before publishing the book. (I now post about migrant and refugee projects to support them, but never about people who I wrote about in the book).
Keeping up with the Evolution of Instagram
Social media platforms change and evolve, and Instagram did so shortly before Across the Big Blue Sea was published. Instagram released ‘Stories’, a fun new feature I enjoyed until I realized that it had an unwelcome effect on my Instagram strategy. People no longer posted photos of the book to their feed. They posted them to their stories, and after 24 hours these photos vanished into the ether never to be seen again. Only photos on users’ main feeds stay online forever (or until Instagram changes the rules again). This resulted in the #acrossthebigbluesea book hashtag looking more like a dried-up— riverbed than the momentum-gaining tsunami I had anticipated.
eBooks Are Less Visually Compelling
One of the great things on Instagram is the ever expanding community of Bookstagrammers. This literature-loving crowd spends a lot of time creating gorgeous feeds with fabulous book recommendations—a writer’s El Dorado!
However, this is true only if you or your publisher has the marketing budget to get a foot in the door. Most Instagrammers prefer print to e-books (partly because print books are much more photogenic and hence look better on their feed). But dispatching books all over the world will blow the budget of small publishers and self-published authors. In this sense, Instagram is—sadly—quite old school and influencers will often end up posting about the books that are mailed to them by the highest bidder.
Despite the many challenges, not all was lost. Instagram did what a social network is supposed to do. It connects. Not with people you already know from real life (Facebook’s domain), but with like-minded Instagrammers in faraway places and professionals who would have hardly had the time to answer the emails of an obscure writer praising her own book.
What worked (even though I didn’t plan on it):
Being Invited for Interviews
I had been listening to and following the Lit Up Show, a NYC based literature podcast, for a while when—to my surprise—I got an invitation for an interview from Angela Ledgerwood, the host of the show. Angela interviews the likes of Roxane Gay, Salman Rushdie and Trevor Noah, and there is just no way a little-known writer from Tuscany would have been featured on the show, if it hadn’t been for that first connection on Instagram.
One of Across the Big Blue Sea’s most helpful book endorsements was written by Lauren Collins, a writer and editor at the New Yorker. We had been following each other for a while when a letter of mine was published by her newspaper. After Lauren realized that she already knew the writer of the letter from Instagram, she read the book and sent me a wonderful and encouraging endorsement.
A Hollywood art director found out about my book on Instagram—via the trickling #acrossthebigbluesea tag mentioned above—and reached out to ask whether I had already sold the film rights. I had not (but have now). Her enquiry via Instagram confirmed my feeling that the book had the right qualities for the big screen and gave me the courage to go out there to look for a producer.
New Literary Friendships
Life on a Tuscan hill provides splendid views and plenty of wine, but not a lot of people to talk books with. When I needed a first opinion about my manuscript I contacted Pia Ghosh Roy a fellow writer I ‘met’ on Instagram. Pia knows her share about migration and has written some fabulous short stories on the topic. Two days after my direct message I sent a parcel to Cambridge—and even though we had never met in real life—back came the manuscript of #acrossthebigbluesea anointed with the most insightful and inspiring comments.
So, should every writer be on Instagram?
Like all social media platforms, Instagram is a time-devouring affair which won’t give anything back unless you put a lot of hours into it. Also, it’s most fun if you are a visual person who enjoys photography.
But if you do set up an account, as with all marketing and social media, define your niche. There are countless screenwriters from LA and romance novels set in Venice, so make sure you’ll find the thing that differentiates you and your work from everybody else. I’m definitely not the first writer to be infatuated with Tuscany, but I look at the Italian paradise from an angle nobody else does (and I seem to be the only one with a recycled outdoor bathtub I can post about).
There is great advice about Instagram out there (it’s truly a wonder woman community!). Two of my favorite Instagram pros are Sara Tasker from Me and Orla—who has oodles of advice about things to consider when setting up or redesigning your account—and Helen Redfern from A Bookish Baker, who has managed to create a common ground for books, birds and hashtags. Sara and Helen write regular newsletters with plenty of Instagram tips (Sara also has a great podcast).
Katja Meier is the author of Across the Big Blue Sea: Good Intentions and Hard Lessons in an Italian Refugee Home. Published in 2017, the memoir sheds light on the joys and challenges Katja encountered when trying to make a difference during Europe’s refugee crisis. A Swiss citizen who has spent most of her adult life abroad, Katja is a commentator on topics pertaining to migration in Italy and Europe. She writes about Tuscany and the bel paese for The Telegraph and her Map It Out blogs and currently works on a screenplay for the film adaptation of Across the Big Blue Sea.