An accomplished, published author told me yesterday that she had to “learn how to do this Twitter thing, because they say publishers won’t look at you any more unless you have a presence on social media”. There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start . . . but here goes.
False PromiseFirst, it’s true that the big commercial presses take social media presence into account as one of the four or five factors deciding whether to publish an author. An author that comes to them with a million followers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram is someone who already has an audience and is therefore someone they want in their stable. But that’s like saying that they are more likely to take a movie star than a guy off the street, so you’re going to start acting lessons; or they’re more likely to take a sports celebrity, so your plan for getting published is to begin working out more so you can qualify for the Olympics. Saying you’re going to 'start on Twitter' is no less ludicrous than planning to become a published author by first becoming an Olympian.
To demonstrate why “starting on Twitter” is a waste of your time and effort, let’s examine an author who is currently active across social media: on Twitter, for example, a self-published author I much admire has been active since 2009, has made 186 thousand tweets, and accumulated 59 thousand likes (proving that what she is tweeting is well received) . . . and has accumulated a grand total of 2,561 followers. This author has a ten-year, 200,000 tweet head start on you, and still only has a couple of thousand followers—which none of the big publishers would consider as constituting a ‘social media presence’. And frankly, your life is not as interesting as her’s—she is, shall we say, damn feisty. Furthermore, I suspect the causation ran the other way: she got 2,500 loyal followers because they’re fanatical fans of her books; she didn’t get the book sales by being active on social media.
To be fair and balanced, let’s consider the case of someone who consciously and successfully cultivated a social media following. YA author Danika Stone has gathered 21,000 followers on Twitter based on a mere 40,000 tweets. She had 10K followers on Twitter when she signed with Macmillan: half were garnered pre-2016 and publication of All the Feels, the rest since. But Danika Stone is drop dead gorgeous and does at least one selfie a day projecting a glamourous lifestyle, to which the rest of us cannot aspire. My question to you is: what possible angle you are going to develop in your projected 40,000 tweets to attract a significant following? Most writers I know are pretty ordinary folk . . . until your book is out there, nobody beyond family and friends is likely to care what you post. How realistic is committing yourself to come up with 40,000 brilliant tweets or selfies?
And . . . what is the demographic for your book? Are any of them even on Social Media? The friend asking me about starting Twitter writes books for people who, like her, spend their time reading books, not on Twitter.
Just because some expert on some panel at a writer's conference—likely someone promoting their book How to Use Social Media—told you that you have to have a social media presence to get published these days, doesn't mean that advice is relevant to you.
Social media diva requires a different set of skills than writing. If you had that skill, you wouldn’t be “starting on Twitter”.
If you’re not already on social media and enjoying it, don’t bother. That ship has sailed. You’ll have to compete for your publishing slot on the other four criteria, like: “write a better book”.
Bottomless Black Hole
If you’re not careful, Facebook and the rest will suck you in and take over your whole day.
All social media platforms are designed to suck you into participating. Their advertising revenue entirely depends on eyes on their page, so it will do anything to keep you on their platform&msash;and to the extent they’re successful—not writing your book. For example, Facebook defaults to showing the most popular posts first—no matter how many times you change the setting to see the current posts first—because Facebook calculates that the posts with the most likes and comments are the posts most likely to suck you back in. If you allow it, Facebook will email you multiple times a day to tell you that this or that person has just commented on your post&emdash;or commented on your comment on someone else's post—would you like to see that they said about you? And if you haven't commented or posted for a few days, Facebook will nag you that it has been several days since your X number of followers last heard from you&emdash; the implication being that they won't wait forever and you'd better get back before they lose interest and wander off.
It’s okay to go on Facebook when you’re standing in line at the DMV or otherwise killing time, but any time you’re on social media that isn’t already dead time is time robbed from writing. If you’re not spending time writing, you’re no longer a writer . . . you’re just a commodity Facebook is selling to advertisers.
NegativityAgain, almost too obvious to have to state, but social media is more likely to bring you down than build you up. Social media is crowded with trolls whose only apparent purpose in life is to rain on your parade and make you miserable. Even well-meaning people who disagree with, or take offense at, something you wrote can be emotionally damaging. Even the microaggressions of self-righteous grammar Nazis can undermine your belief in your abilities, or worse, pressure you into taking more time composing and proofing social media than the fast-scrolling medium is worth. You don’t have writing time to devote to posting, let alone being meticulous about your wording so it cannot be misinterpreted or criticized.
Even more insidious than the overall negativity is the false positivity one so often sees on social media for writers. There are thousands of memes which are some variation on “Keep going, you’re awesome, you can do it.” These motivational sayings seem inspiring at first, and may even help beginners keep going through the angst of writer’s block and the drudgery of endless revision. But sooner or later, when success still eludes one, the endless positivity starts to eat away at one’s soul. If the message is that everyone can do it, and you haven’t yet, it must be because you’re either not trying hard enough (i.e., you are a loser) or you are the exception to the rule and really are not awesome (i.e., you are a loser). The addiction to cute inspirational sayings, like all addictions, inevitably ends badly.
Controlled ParticipationEarlier this year I joined various writer associations’ Facebook pages and encountered their perky social media coordinator whose task it was to build the association’s media presence/activity on their page. And initially, it was great because this person posted something every day to get the conversation going and I was glad to contribute in a forum of positivity and light. The coordinator had something positive to comment on every person’s contribution. It was refreshing.
Over time it became apparent that these were not meaningful posts or part of an actual conversation. Every Wednesday was Welcome Wednesday and every Thursday was Self-Promotion Day and every Friday was Funday and so on, which was fine for about five iterations and then . . . well, that’s not an actual discussion. Posting about my writing project on Self-Promotion Thursday isn't actually promoting it because the other people there are not remotely interested in reading my post, because they're too busy posting about their book. Since I have no interest whatsoever in their book about cats, why would I think for a moment they would have any interest in mine? We're all just talking past each other because the forum was for writers, not readers of any one particular genre.
Worse, the social media director was the director for another group I had joined about the same time, so it was the same posts on both of them—manufactured, generic posts, not genuine conversation at all. Sure it was positive, but shallow memes about nothing are not professional development or even genuine social interaction. I wasn't building connections and community, I was just feeding the statistics for the (very nice) social media facilitator. Thanks, but I need to put those hours into my own projects.
Robert Sawyer, the most commercially successful of any Canadian SF writer, says: if you want to be a writer, then you have to write and be careful not to spend time doing writerly things instead of writing. It’s easy to trick ourselves that we are being professional writers when we present at writers’ conferences or post to our author's blog or—and this is relevant here—spend time in writer groups/pages on Facebook or etc. I can’t count the number of writers I know who waste hours writing posts for social media or get sucked into arguing with people in Facebook writer groups and think they’re promoting their careers but, um . . . are to that extent not actually writing.
ConclusionAs Barb Geiger once pointed out to me, the only people who actually make money at craft fairs are the people selling supplies to the crafters. Nobody wants to buy your wobbly candles, or crappy beaded bracelets or whatever, but the guys selling wax and beads are doing very well, thanks.
Same with the writing game. The only people who are making money out of writing are the people selling you their "How to Sell a Million Copies on Ebay" or "How to Use Twitter to Sell Your Book" books. Even if they actually sold a million copies through social media, the book that sold that many copies was "How to Sell Books on Social Media"—i.e., the one you just bought—not an actual book-book, like the one you're trying to flog.
Sure, one or two authors in the early days figured out how to market via Twitter, and made it big, probably bigger even than their book deserved. But consumers are smart, and while whatever strategy these original pioneers used (and are now pitching to you) worked for them, it is by definition far too late for you. The online universe moves, evolves, changes so quickly that yesterday's gimmick is today's sadly obvious ploy, which the consumer merely steps around.
Bottom line: How many books did you buy this month? Of those, how many were titles/authors you discovered on Twitter? Did any of the tricks these social media marketers are handing you, tricks that have worked on you?
If you're already at home on social media, then sure, use social media to market your book(s). But if you're only there because someone told you, you have be, put your time to better use.