Friday, 20 July 2012

Writers and social media - what the publishers won't tell you

A few weeks ago I attended an open session on authors and social media as part of the Paris Writers Workshop. Here’s a summary of what I learned, expanded upon below, with some 'guidance' at the end of this blog:

  1. Apply the ‘Delta’ approach
  2. Don’t force it – it won’t work – find the social media that work for you, that bring out your voice, and ignore the rest
  3. Social media isn’t the future, it’s the present, and offers fantastic opportunities (ironically) particularly for anti-social writers
  4. Social media can boost sales, but what works for some won’t work for others
  5. Social media can swallow ALL your time, often with very little return, so remember what a writer does, and what being a writer is about. Disconnect from the internet sometimes to write
  6. Generosity gets noticed

1. The Delta Approach
The Delta approach was mentioned by author Stephen Clarke (author of ‘A Year in the Merde’). Consider it like this: an author is like a river, who wants to flow into the sea, and make it big time. The ‘Delta’ represents all the social media avenues for doing this: Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Websites, Newsletters, Blog Tours, etc. He advised initially pushing hard down all these avenues, and then seeing which led to payback, and which led to nowhere except lost time. When one of them seems to flow, channel more energy down that pathway, maxing it out, stabilising it, making it work (e.g. getting a fan-base going). Others agreed, saying for example that they always responded to comments and queries to blogs or web-pages, particularly at the start. When the audience starts to respond, the author must be there to reciprocate.

Incidentally, this has been my own experience. I focus on one main blog a week linked to my website, then I tweet it just a few times, and that’s all. I have a full-on day job, and novels and stories to write. I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family, LinkedIn for professional (non-writing) links, Goodreads to keep up with Scifi rather than push my books, and don’t have time to do a Blog Tour. However, I am experimenting with a new Facebook page for my novel series (Eden Paradox), and will try the newsletter thing over the summer.

2. Don’t force it
Writing is a creative art, a form of expression. If you don’t want to do something, e.g. push your books on Facebook, or write a weekly blog, or tweet every fifteen minutes about what you ate for breakfast etc., then don’t do it! It will come across as forced, that your heart is not in it. It will be dull, flat, uninspiring writing, just adding to the noise and dross that already exists on social media. Find a social media approach that suits you, and tell your publisher, or others pushing you to do things you don’t want to do, to go to hell for the rest, or better still, to send you on a country-wide book promotion tour (that’s usually a conversation-killer with a publisher these days) like they should…

3. Social media is a fact of life
Social media is a fact of life, especially for the younger generation, but also for many older people too. It can seem bewildering, but actually once you start, it is pretty intuitive, and there are a lot of people out there who are generous. There are of course a lot of people trying to sell you something, too, especially selling to writers on ‘how to sell a million books, etc.’ Trouble is, such approaches are usually one or two-trick ponies – they work for a few people, then the world moves on and others who try to replicate their success fail.

Many recoil from social media, seeing all the bland or pure-hype tweets, some people tweeting every 15 minutes all day long, just adding to a (thankfully virtual) mountain of meaningless self-absorbed dross (noise). However, rather than complain about it and ignoring it, why not take responsibility, and add something good? Have something meaningful to say, and say it? The ‘blogosphere’ or ‘twittersphere’ defines us, so it is up to us to define it. The youth of today in particular is led by social media, so why not try and get your message across to reach them, because if you don’t, someone else will (and they do), and may influence them in a bad way.

It is ironic that social media can work for very anti-social people. You don’t have to go to cocktail parties or receptions to socialise and try and get people interested in your book. You can sit in bed in your pyjamas at 11am or 3am and write a blog, or tweet, or post messages on Facebook, from the comfort of your home or an internet cafe. Many writers are introverted – it is not a hugely social activity writing a book, with long hours alone, just you and a laptop. With social media you get to choose who and how and how long you communicate and about what.

You do not have to give any details about your personal life, either. This was a hot discussion topic at the workshop, some saying you needed to give a little away, so that readers could identify with you as a real person, others saying no, to hell with that, they can like or hate my writing, but I’m not going to tell people about my personal life, my kids, etc. The conclusion was that it is a personal choice, although with Facebook in particular you need to be careful, as once you divulge personal information it is difficult to take it back, even if you ‘leave’ Facebook (which seems to be effectively impossible unless you change your hotmail account). So, make a conscious decision and then stick with it. Personally, I  never, ever blog about my personal life outside writing (except maybe my insomnia, which is when I get to write).  

The real reason for doing social media is that it can help raise your visibility above the ‘noise’, and you can get people who like what you write to tell others about it. The real way to sell books has always been ‘word of mouth’, and these social media can amplify that process. Of course, if your writing is no good in the first place, you can also guess the outcome. Similarly, if it is evident that you are only using social media to sell your wares, then that will not attract a loyal following (unless you’re a great writer). Bottom line: explore social media, find those media you like, and embrace the present!

4. “How I sold 1 million copies but you won’t…”
No, before you ask, I haven’t sold more than 4 figures of my books. You will come across ‘wonder-guides’ or ebooks on how to maximise your opportunities and sell vast quantities of books, or SEO (Search Optimisation Engine) optimisation for only $250 a month, or how to make Twitter really work for you as it did help someone sell half a million books, etc.  Some people have made it big time, and can tell you how they did it. But as soon as these things happen, the industry tries to replicate it, and everything changes, including the very conditions that led to such successes. The reality is that for every such success story there are nearly a million much more dismal stories, of people who never even sold a hundred copies despite all the advertising and promotion they personally paid for. Even publishers make wrong calls and end up pulping unsold books returned from bookstores, because the big ‘splash’ they hoped for and tried to engineer simply never happened. 

The return on investment (your time) using social media will probably in most cases mean you are earning less than minimum wage, and putting more and more time in doesn’t necessarily increase your sales. One speaker commented at the workshop that there was no point having a well-defined strategy, because things keep changing so fast. The best approach is to set up the ‘normal’ channels, like a blog and/or website, twitter, a Facebook page for your book(s), and then keep writing and publishing. One effect I’ve noticed with myself and others, is that it is hard to get your first book noticed, but once there are two or more, there is significantly more chance of one of them taking off, and then the others do too. This appears to hold for current legends like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and the current sensation that is ’50 shades of grey’ and other ‘grey’ books. The lesson appears to be to spend some time setting up your social media landscape, and then keep on writing. Readers are more interested in a writer who is not just a tourist or a flash in the pan, and want to know if you are worth investing in long term.

5. Social media is there to make money out of you, not for you
Let’s get real for a moment. All these social media are about profit, they are there to get paid by advertisers to be in front of you. Advertising on these sites is big business, as witnessed by the recent multi-billion dollar sale of Facebook, and the current downward slide of Yahoo as it is losing out on advertising revenues. They ALL have an angle to make money, that is why they exist, not to be nice to you. The fact that they can be a nice experience is a bonus, and a good one of course. The point is that they want you to be online all the time, and it is sometimes easier to be doing these social media things than editing a difficult chapter. But if you are a writer, you must write. A publisher might tell you to spend 80% of your time doing social media, once you have your first novel out. My advice is to flip that figure around: spend 20% maximum, and ideally 10% on social media, and spend the rest writing. At the beginning, to set things up, you might spend 80% for a few weeks. Also, if (back to the Delta approach) things suddenly take off, then you can be flexible and divert energy to social media, e.g. if you decide to do a virtual blog tour, or a real one, and want to maximise the splash and see if you can make it go viral. But generally, when things are ticking over, 80-90% of your available time is writing time.

Once your ‘base’ is built, which can take an initial set-up time and then several months before you have a fan-base, then you shift gear and ‘manage the traffic’.

In practical terms, writer Sion Dayson who was on the panel for social media said she would be online arounf four times a day for 20-30 minutes each time, as her work sells in different time zones around the world. She also said she had a ‘dumb phone’, so that if she was out with friends, she was not online, and could pay attention to them. Bravo! I wish I could say the same… She advocated doing only what you enjoy / love with respect to social media, as that way you get energy back from it and can carry on writing, rather than getting burned out.

6. Generosity gets noticed
As mentioned above, people notice if all you do is relentless self-promotion, most often seen on Twitter. However, if you give away information, or are just honest about things, that gets noticed too. The word ‘social’ media is not an abstract adjective, many people use social media to socialise, to have good connections with other people, so generosity of spirit and genuineness get noticed, and are liked. Of course, you can’t fake this, because people will see through it. So write and tweet about things you care about, and don’t simply say, gosh, it’s been four hours since I tweeted anything, what shall I say? Because that’s sad. Twitter will never tell you that silence is golden.

At the workshop, performance artist and writer Aja Monet recalled George Orwell’s 1984, and the ‘Feed’, a constant stream of propaganda fed to every household. Her point was that we now have this ‘feed’, but rather than being run by a nasty government agency, it is run by ourselves, a kind of liberalised virtual social democracy. Young people are being shaped by this feed, and live in this realm. We should engage in it; maybe think of it as the right to ‘vote’, the right to reply, the right to have our voice heard, and to listen to others. If this seems over the top, consider some other countries where such rights do not truly exist.

At the end of this particular PWW session, the speakers were asked for their top tips, and this is what they said:

  • It’s the quality of your writing that will be the deciding factor
  • It’s your online ‘voice’ that matters, find this first
  • Be really interested in what you are writing about on social media – people can tell if you really care, or have simply been told to do it

In summary, there are no steadfast rules, but here are some ideas:

  • Explore social media, there are some fantastic tools out there
  • Decide which you want to invest time and energy in – you can’t do everything!
  • Determine your boundaries between personal and professional use of social media
  • See which ones work for you and adapt appropriately; don’t get bogged down
  • Find your online voice, and if you are writing a series, develop a ‘brand’
  • Let your writing speak for itself, put samples out there
  • Build up a ‘base’ of readers or followers or ‘traffic’ to your blog/website etc.
  • Manage the traffic, always respond courteously, remember this is social media
  • Be genuine throughout, do what you enjoy, don’t force anything, be generous
  • Keep on writing

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