Quick and Dirty Writer’s Guide to Instagram

Even five years ago I would have recommended authors use Facebook for their social media mojo over getting involved with Instagram.

A lot of things have changed since then.

For instance, the hashtag #bookstagram alone has seen more than 29 million posts since the platform’s inception. Instagram can be an extremely powerful platform for you to find new fans, engage with your existing readers, and take your next steps toward global publishing domination. 

So let’s talk about this once-emergent-now-powerhouse platform. If you’ve never used it, we’ll give you the basics. If you’re on but not doing much, you’ll see what your next step is. If you’re already rocking the ‘Gram, you’ll probably see one or two things to add to your repertoire. 

Ready? Good. Let’s get started. 

What Posts Stick

Posting the right or wrong content to Instagram can make the difference between rapid growth and stagnating with just your mom and your partner following you on the regular. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that, by now, we have enough information to tell exactly what kinds of books get the attention of readers, publicists, and literary influencers like agents, reviewers, bookstagrammers, and editors. Here are the top three:

1. Sneak Peeks and Previews

Teasers, trailers, leaked first pages, tips, samples, and all the rest are extremely effective social media tools. The thing is, on social media you're selling your books as a secondary thing. What you’re really trying to sell is connection, belonging, a sense of tribe. If you let people see your work as it’s in progress, they feel like privileged VIPs getting something the general public doesn’t. 

They feel that way because it’s exactly what they’re getting. A few paragraphs from your work in progress, a cover reveal, or you reading from something you just put on the page…these don’t just share your book. They share a piece of you, and that’s what the most loyal fans wanted to begin with.

2. Reposted Bookstagrams

Readers like to see pictures of books. Bookstagrammers like to see themselves get reposted. By reposting bookstagrams, especially those with large audiences, you get free content you don’t need to work on. Your readers get some cool recommendations. The bookstagrammer gets free publicity. Everybody wins. 

Keep in mind that you can’t exactly repost like you can with Twitter or Facebook. Instead, download the photo, then post it again. Be sure to tag and credit the bookstagrammer responsible, and the authors of the books. 

When choosing which bookstagrams to repost, you want to pay attention to two factors: relevance and bookstagrammer audience.

For relevance, only pick books your audience will want to know about. Stay within your genre, or close to it, along with books that are your personal faves regardless of how closely they match what you write. 

For the bookstagrammer audiences, you need to thread a needle. If you post photos from people with audiences much smaller than yours, you don’t get much publicity out of it. If you post photos from people with audiences much larger than yours, they’re unlikely to feel it as a compliment and bring you to their followers’ attention. As a rule of thumb, aim to repost the work of people with 5 to 10 times as many followers as you have. They’re big enough to boost you, but not so big they think you’re small potatoes. Once a week or so, post something by somebody with 90% to 110% your audience size. They’ll feel like you’re a colleague, and do more than those bigger players to partner with you toward mutual success. 

3. Glimpses Into Your Life

If you thought your fans would be excited to see glimpses into your work, wait til you see how much they like seeing glimpses into your life. 

Think about your favorite authors, the ones you really admire and respect. How much do you like finding out their favorite band? The name of their dog? Seeing posts of them at their desk or at going to a concert with friends? 

You have readers who feel that way, too. What you’re reading, doing, enjoying, visiting, thinking all can play big. And if you can do it with a book in your hand, so much the better. 

Remember: It’s a Photo Site

Okay, for many writers this is bad news. The kind of posts you put out there are important, but making the images look good is equally vital, if not more so. I know….I know…we got into writing because our photo mojo leaves something to be desired. 

But all is not lost. A few simple hints can help you make your individual photos, and your feed in general, more attractive and appealing:

  • Pick a color scheme and stick to it, with a few variations for splashes of color
  • Use contrasting colors: a consistent background with the main material popping out
  • Get to know the filters available free on Instagram. They make an enormous difference.
  • Use similar filters for a unified look
  • Consider shifting your color scheme over time. (Pro tip: make it complimentary with the covers of your books)
  • Plan ahead so you post series of complementary and connected photos
  • Find the posts that succeed with your audience and mimic their visual style
  • Don’t forget the power of whitespace, even if you have to edit some things out

Stand Out Photo Types

Beyond the aesthetics of a photo, some strategies and approaches work to make taking attractive photos easy. Here are a few to try out:

  1. One book with a blurred out background. It’s simple. It’s appealing. Start with this one, especially if it’s a book by somebody you can tag. 
  2. One book with a complementary background. For example, the red cover of a recent romance you read, on black satin, or the muted blue cover of a cozy mystery sitting on a white sweater. 
  3. Use natural light where you can, but pick up an inexpensive ring light from Amazon for when the sun isn’t cooperating. 
  4. Add simple props like reading glasses, a mug of tea, or a plate with a half-eaten apple, to complement the main subject of the photo.
  5. Try focusing on the background, with a hint at your life or your work there in the foreground as a little extra seasoning. 
  6. A stack of books with some simple props is amazing. It looks great, and gives you an excuse to tag a whole lot of people at once. Bonus points for making the titles spell out some kind of funny sentence.

Getting Those Followers

Your Instagram can be beautiful, but if it’s not gaining followers and engaging with them, it’s not doing its job. 

Remember: the job of every author’s social media platform is to turn strangers into readers, readers into fans, and fans into lifelong lovers of your work. It’s all right to do other things with your Instagram feed if it makes you happy, but don’t mistake those things for building your brand as an author. 

With that in mind, here are the top five things you can do to bring more followers to your Instagram feed. 

Learn to Love Your Crosslinks

You’ve seen them: the little icons on blogs, the subscript on emails, the buttons on other social media pages. Not a lot of people will see them, think “Gee whiz, I wonder what they’re up to on Insta”…but enough of them will that it’s worth the five minutes per platform it takes to get it all set up.

And remember: that’s five minutes one time. After that it just sits there, gradually bringing you followers, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And it never asks for a vacation, a promotion, or a raise. 

Post Consistently

Posting consistently is the most important thing you can do to consistently build your following. When I say “consistently”, I mean two things:

  • Post frequently
  • Post in a consistent manner

Posting frequently ideally means posting every day. Folks with time to hire some help (or authors without a day job) might even post more than daily. Most of us lack that time…and for folks who lack time to post daily, two or three times a week is enough…as long as you post in a consistent manner. 

Posting in a consistent manner means that dedicated followers can find a pattern in your posts. If you post daily, they know they can count on a message from you every day. If you post twice a week, they should know which days to expect your material. You can also theme some of your posts, so people know your morning message will be funny, your Thursday post will be a book recommendation, and on Fridays you’ll post what you got done that week. 

Consistent posting is often the first time authors see a major increase in their follower growth. Try it for 30 days. You’ll be glad you did. 

Engagement Is Key

Social media is not a broadcast platform. It’s real power is in having back-and-forth communication and a meeting of the minds. This is crucial to growing your following. 

Find accounts you like, especially accounts with larger platforms than your own. Leave personal, specific, relevant comments on their posts. Ask questions. When people answer, reply. Sometimes that person will be the the owner of the account. Sometimes it will be one of their fans. Either way, some folks will come check out your profile, and some of them will start following you.

Make Your Captions Count

Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but no writer worth their salt thinks they’re done writing after reaching 1,000. 

Put your writerly skills to work and make those captions memorable. Be funny. Be touching. Be honest. Be you. Make people feel like you’re speaking directly to them. Some people find it helps to imagine a specific individual as they write their captions. It helps to personalize it.

Use Hashtags

Hashtags give you exposure among the most active Instagram users: the ones who search for posts using hashtags. The best sources of relevant hashtags are high-performing accounts connected with what you write. Find out which hashtags they’re using often, then piggyback on their research and experience. 

Instagram allows you to put up to 30 hashtags in your caption. The best results come with putting it “beneath the fold”, so it does its magic without cluttering the view of the people there for your pictures and words.

Partner Up With Bookstagrammers

If you’ve gone after professional reviewers, a lot of this will feel familiar. Bookstagrammers fill their feeds with photos, reviews, previews, and other information about books. If you get one to feature yours, some of those followers will come to see what you have to offer. 

Be advised: many bookstagrammers won’t accept just anybody. They work with publicists, or even charge money. They’re for after you’ve got some regular money coming in. Meanwhile, aim (again), for the ones with followings between 10x and 50x your own. They’ll most likely be willing to work with you, especially if they focus on a genre you work in. 

Offer a free book in exchange for a fair and honest review. Most get these offers regularly, and will answer you with whatever routine they use. 

One Last Little Thing

Instagram updates its offerings about as often as Google and Amazon, so once you finish reading that, do some google-fu to find out what’s changed since I wrote this. Once you get the hang of it, 10 to 20 minutes a day is all you need to build an Instagram following that’s loyal, active, and hungry for your next book!