This is our last post for ‘What to expect when you’re expecting a book’, and we thought we’d finish up with an ode to the thing that brought Annabel and me together: social media. Thanks for having us, and look out for a new series Annabel is going to run about how to make money as an author.
Does an author need to be on social media? I’m an author, and I’m all over social media, but my answer is emphatically ‘no’.
Let me rephrase that. Your publisher might have told you you need to be on social media because it’s your responsibility to use Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Pinterest to market your book. Do you need to be on social media to sell books? No. If you’re on social media will it help you sell books? Mostly, no. Like, 98% no.
I love social media. I particularly love twitter. I’m going to focus on twitter because it’s what I know most about (I don’t use my Facebook for writer stuff except to publicise events to people who are my friends anyway; I never use my Instagram for writer stuff; I’ve stopped using Goodreads, if that counts as social media).
Twitter has massive pros and massive cons for writers, and getting it to be more-good-than-bad is a constant struggle.
It is a phenomenal time suck. It is a huge distraction. It is built for procrastination. If you follow more than 1000 people that feed will keep giving new hits of info every few seconds for the rest of your life. It is incredibly hard to resist.
It is infuriating. If you let yourself, you will be outraged by one thing or another every single day. You’ll feel huge waves of righteous fury and you’ll likely do nothing about any of them that makes any difference at all.
It is also (this is not scientific) bad for the author brain. I should say this with a caveat – it’s bad for the kind of brain that writes the kind of books I do. When I write I need to go deep into my mind, I have to be brave, I have to be OK with being unlikeable. My twitter persona is the exact opposite of that – shallow and approval-seeking. Switching from one mode to the other is very hard (though I have found that a nap, a bout of meditation, or half an hour spent knitting can all help reset the twittering mind a little).
Without twitter, I think I would write longer, deeper books and I would write them sooner and more frequently.
Twitter is the best place for book chat and chat with book people. There are so many authors wasting time on twitter that you can always find someone to waste time with. You can talk about craft problems, about emotional problems, about whatever ridiculous celebrity you have a crush on, about whether literary fiction is a genre or the default novel. You can make the kinds of connections that, let’s face it, can help to inch your tiny little career forward just a little bit further. You can make friendships that last half an hour or years. If there are no other writers in your real-world life, writers on twitter can make all the difference for your happiness. These connections might be the thing that keep you writing.
I met Annabel on the internet. Annabel used social media platform Goodreads to give my first novel a one-star rating. Normally I don’t care much if people don’t like my books, but Annabel seemed like someone who _should_ like my books. So I made friends with her on twitter because I was curious. Turns out Annabel hates all kinds of books and that one-star rating was actually pretty generous. Annabel and I live on opposite sides of the country and we have met each other only once, but thanks to twitter I reckon she is one of my best writer friends. And she is one of many – some who I know in real life, most who I don’t – who’ve helped me through tricky times, given me a laugh, let me talk about Middlemarch or cricket or bitch about that Booker prize winning book I hated.
To that 2%. If you go onto twitter trying to sell a book, it makes sense you won’t sell that book. You don’t go up to people on the street and say ‘hello I am here to sell my book will you buy it’. But sometimes all those friends you make while wasting time over years and years add up to book sales. They like you – they think they might like your book too. Or they feel obliged to buy it. Or they tell their friends that oh they know you and maybe they should read your book! Or they don’t. They might not. They probably won’t. But it’s still pretty great you made all those friends, right?
Jane is on twitter at @frippet
If I read a book and love it, the very first thing I do is Google the author. If you do this too, it answers the question of why authors should be on social media – because being on social media gives you a modicum of control over what people see when they Google you. Having a website, in particular, enables you to direct an interested reader to what you want them to see next: something about your writing process, perhaps, that might add value to the experience of someone who has just read your book, or an introduction to other things you’ve written, or a really insightful interview someone did with you.
Or perhaps someone wants to get in touch with you to tell you how much they loved your book. Yes! This actually happens! (People also get in touch to tell you why they didn’t love your book, but haters gonna hate, and they would find a way to do this anyway, even if you weren’t on social media).
If a writer can’t be found anywhere on social media, I find it slightly frustrating. I WANT MORE. At the same time, I respect why people choose not to go on social media (especially Facebook for whom privacy is something to chew up and spit all over your face) because it takes time away from writing and living, and is, in the overall scheme of things, fairly meaningless.
However, as Jane said, it can be enormous fun. I’ve met the best people on Twitter, in particular, and some of those relationships have turned into real life relationships which have enriched both my life and my writing life. For example, I have exchanged novel drafts for feedback with Jane, and with Ryan O’Neill; Jane and I have collaborated on this series. Neither of those things would have happened if it weren’t for Twitter.
Social media is not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to be on all the platforms, all the time. It is better to be dynamite on one platform than to be mediocre on five. Start with one, and when you’ve got the hang of it, add another if you want to. No one platform is BEST for all writers – they all have pros and cons, so have a play and find the ones that work for you. If you like to waffle on, like me, blogging is fun; if you prefer to keep it short and sweet, Twitter is brilliant and has led, for me, to opportunities including being asked to speak on panels or deliver workshops, and being commissioned to write articles. If you’re a visual person, you might like Instagram. Goodreads is all about books and a great place to record what you read, but if you’re an idiot like me, you might make the mistake of a) taking their ratings system seriously, (where 1 = ‘I didn’t like it’ regardless of whether that means fine but not my bag, or worst trash on the planet), and b) thinking no one ever reads your reviews anyway so you can just go for it, and therefore potentially mortifying someone who might have turned out to be a fantastic pal and writing compadre (see above).
Does social media sell books? In a roundabout way, maybe.
It is nice to think the process goes like this: You post about your book = someone buys it.
But the reality is more like this: You post about someone else’s book + you get into a conversation with a 2nd person about that book + a 3rd person who follows the 2nd person joins the conversation + you & the 3rd person follow etc other & have many conversations over time + the 3rd person eventually sees your book at the library & reads it & likes it & writes a post about it + a 4th person who follows the 3rd person buys your book.
Social media: perhaps the least effective, but most enjoyable form of marketing ever invented.
Annabel is on twitter at @AnnabelSmithAUS
Tales from other authors
Neither Annabel nor I has the vaguest idea how to go about using Pinterest, but it turns out quite a few other authors use it with a great deal of success (I do know some who just use it to make ‘mood boards’ for the thing they’re working on, which seems like a pretty good idea to me). Natasha Lester is an ace Pinterester, so we asked her how she uses it and why.
I mainly use Pinterest to get more traffic to my blog posts. I was skeptical when someone told me Pinterest could drive eyeballs to a website but it actually works! The most important thing is to have good content in your blog post obviously, but then to design a quick and easy graphic to go with your posts in something like Canva. I have no graphic design skills whatsoever but Canva’s templates make it easy for even someone like me to make a reasonable enough graphic. This graphic is what I pin to Pinterest, and it goes up with a link to the blog post.
Because Pinterest is also a really big search engine, people are there looking for things to read as well as images. So anyone who is attracted by perhaps the headline in my graphic can then click through to read the blog pst and will hopefully spend some time on my website. It’s just another way to reach people who may not be on Facebook or Twitter and it actually drives more traffic to my website than Twitter does.
My blog is kind of the heart and soul of my website so anything I can do to get people to read it is a good thing! Each fortnight I send out a newsletter which will have links to my blog posts for the last 2 weeks. The newsletter also has info about courses I’m teaching, events, links to other interesting articles on the web, info about what I’m working on etc but it’s those blog posts that I work the hardest on and are what’s most important to me (and hopefully my readers!). I’m a writer, so I figure I might as well use those skills by writing things other than novels that people might be interested in reading and which can help keep them engaged with me on a more regular basis than a once a year book launch!
One author who has sold a bunch of books and won more than a few prizes is Charlotte Wood. Charlotte has also been addicted to social media, entirely sworn off social media, and an occasional user of social media. We asked her which way of living is best.
I used to be absolutely in love with social media. For a time it was really essential to me. In about 2009 (I think) I joined Twitter and fell head over heels in love with it. I loved the wit, the companionship, the clever, nice people I met there, and the fact that whenever I felt lonely or bored, there was always someone to play with. Twitter seemed to me to be the perfect thing for introverted word-nerds. Wordplay, cleverness with language, a sense of community with like-minded people – I loved it all.
The first time I ‘left’ Twitter in 2014 was because I felt I needed my quiet, private writing brain back. And the growing tide of a) hostility and b) salesmanship just started depressing me. I never got much direct aggression but I saw a huge amount of it, especially toward women who were in any way politically active, and I found it extremely upsetting. But almost as draining was the endless spruiking. I was absolutely as guilty as anyone else in this, but it began just feeling fake and depressing.
As soon as I left, a feeling of great peace and privacy came swooping in. Then when my book was done, I was ready to play again, and if I’m honest, I also was afraid nobody would hear about my new book if I wasn’t back on social media – but the love had pretty much gone out of it. I now just found it incredibly boring. I also realised I had begun to despise my ‘public’ social media self – my need to please or to impress or be witty or likeable, my impulse to say something at every turn about every horrible world event or Q&A insult. I slowly understood I was taking part in a disturbing kind of clubbiness on Twitter, where I found myself vocalizing support or criticism of whoever the current outrage target was, as a way of signalling (and maintaining) my membership of the club.
I realised that almost nobody I hung out with and respected in my professional life had ever been on Twitter. The contemporary writers and independent thinkers I most admired and wished to emulate were almost completely absent from any social media at all. For writers, who like to see ourselves as such independent thinkers, there is a hell of a lot of groupthink going on in social media.
For me now, it all comes back to the writing, and the privacy and energy I need to do it. Once I realised how much my social media use was sucking my time and writing energy, and even worse, beginning to infect how I thought about my work as I was making it – second-guessing whether this or that idea/character/plotline might offend the arbiters of what was acceptable, I just knew I had to get out altogether. My life is just far more serene and I am a much saner person without the obsessive level of social media use I once had, as well as having a lot more time on my hands.
I think it’s pretty clear that the idea that being on social media is necessary to sell books as a literary novelist is absolute bullshit. Even if a publisher tells you it’s true, I don’t believe it is. It’s really, really easy for a publisher or marketing director to suggest you must be on social media – there’s absolutely no cost to them, so why would they care how much of your time and energy and emotional well-being it takes? There is simply no way of really telling what sells books other than one reader urging another to read it.
For me, after writing seven books and editing two anthologies, I honestly feel that my next book will either sell itself or it won’t. I would really, really love to think that my last novel sold well because it was a better book than the others. Because that is the only damn thing any of us has control over: how well we write. To me this is an incredibly liberating thought: that all my energy should go into writing the best book I can, and the gods (not social media) will decide whether or not anyone wants to read it.
Previously in ‘What To Expect’…
Jane: Recently my fourth book – a novel – was published. I’m with a small independent publisher, and they’ve previously published another novel of mine, and a non-fiction book about climate change that I co-authored with an environment journalist. My other book, a novella, was published by a different, even smaller independent publisher. None of my books has been published outside Australia, and I’m not represented by an agent.
Annabel: I published my first two novels with small independent publishers. My second novel was sold by my West Australian publisher to a small(ish) independent publisher in the US, where it has gone on to sell more than 60,000 copies. My third book, an interactive digital novel/app was self-published. I am currently in talks with a North American agent in relation to my fourth novel, the first in a trilogy.