Since I’m relatively active on social media, I thought it might be interesting to address the question of a writer’s “online presence.” How active does a writer need to be online in order to promote her own work?
If you’re a writer or an aspiring writer, you may have heard different things about this. You have heard that in today’s world writers need to do far more self-promotion than ever before and that it’s essential to have a “platform” and make yourself and your work visible online. On the other hand, you’ve also read articles claiming that blogging or being on Twitter drain your writing time and energy and don’t contribute all that much to book sales (especially for fiction writers — “platform” is generally agreed to be much more important in nonfiction).
What’s a writer to do?
Here are my thoughts, after 25+ years as a published writer and 10+ years of engagement with the online world.
First: you have to do something. I say this less as a writer than as a reader. When I’ve read a book I like, I almost always Google the author’s name and I expect to find a website. What I’ll find there varies widely, but in this day and age it would be very odd to find nothing at all. At the very least, a simple site that lists your books and tells where to buy them, quotes a few positive reviews, lists any readings and signings you have coming up, and perhaps gives a hint about your upcoming projects, seems to me the bare minimum any writer can do. Some people advise writers to start a newsletter to convey this kind of information: my personal view is that I have never wanted to receive a newsletter even from the writers whose work I admire; I’d rather go search for information I want than have it clogging up my inbox. But again, be guided by your own preferences. If the e-newsletter is a format that appeals to you, by all means do it.
If you don’t enjoy the online environment; if you dislike the Internet and your ideal writing life would be in an off-the-grid cabin with no contact from the outside world, a simple informative website is probably all you should do. If you’re published with a fairly large publisher, somebody in your publisher’s public-relationship department will most likely set this website up for you (and make it look far more professional than you ever could yourself). If you’re unpublished, self-published, or published by a smaller press that doesn’t have the resources to create a website for you (I’m in the latter category), then you can do it yourself. If you have no clue, you can hire someone to create a simple website (it’s not as expensive as you might think), or you can get a techy friend or relative to do it for free. This usually won’t look as professional as a website you’ve paid for, but if you’re in either of the three categories I just mentioned, cost is probably a big concern.
Beyond that basic level — making sure you have a functioning website that’s updated once in awhile whenever you have actual book-related news — I honestly believe you should only do what you want to do. What you love. What you enjoy. If you force yourself to write a blog when you really hate doing it, you’re creating a writing chore for yourself that you’ll hate and yes, you’re taking time away from your “real” writing. If you find Facebook and/or Twitter annoying wastes of time, don’t use them. (There may be some value in having a Facebook “Author” page that is updated with the same news at the same frequency as your regular author website, but to be honest, most people who “Like” a writer’s page on Facebook are expecting more interaction than that, and it may not do much to boost your profile if it’s rarely updated). If the thought of appearing on video horrifies you, don’t open a YouTube account.
If, on the other hand, you really enjoy any of these things and feel they add richness to your life as a person and as a writer, do them! If you cherish the opportunity to connect with other writers on Twitter, or the sense of community with readers that you create in the comments section of your blog, or if you find writing blog posts or Facebook updates a fun and creative pursuit for its own sake, then do it.
Readers love to feel that a writer is interacting with them, so most people who like your work will lap up anything you choose to put out in the social media universe. In fact, I’d argue that social media works more effectively to retain the loyalty of readers who’ve already read your book than to win you new readers — though it may do some of that as well.
I’ll give some examples by talking about the online presence of some writers whose work I really admire.
Joshilyn Jackson is one of only two writers I can think of whose books I read after I had encountered her online. My friend Katrina mentioned Joshilyn’s blog and books on her blog. I immediately checked out Joshilyn’s very funny (and sometimes very touching) blog, Faster than Kudzu. I was completely hooked by the way she wrote about her own life and immediately wanted to read her novels. Even though her online writing style is very different from the way she writes her books, I was not disappointed. I’ve read all five of her books and continue to follow her blog. I would read the books anyway without the blog, of course, but it’s enjoyable reading in and of itself and gives me more writing from a writer I enjoy. Very few of us can craft a blog as entertaining as Joshilyn’s but it doesn’t hurt to try.
John Green is the other writer whose work I knew about online before I read one of his books. My son was a follower of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel that John maintains with his brother, Hank. Here again, it was the wit, intelligence and thoughtfulness of his online material that made me interested in reading his young-adult novels. John is all over the internet — on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr and of course on YouTube — and I follow him everywhere because I’m interest in almost everything he has to say in addition to what he writes in his novels.
Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite fantasy author, has a very nice website hosted by his publisher with lots of information about his books. There isn’t much interactive material there, but he is fortunate enough to have a large and wildly supportive fan base, and there is an authorized fan page to which he also contributes. Fans do the work of maintaining this large and informative website (a nice deal if you can get it!), and GGK posts journal entries from time to time, particular when he’s on tour promoting a new book. He’s also on Twitter. Unlike Joshilyn Jackson’s blog or John Green’s vlog, this is probably not a site that would draw you into the author’s work if you’re not already familiar with it, but if you have read and loved his books, there is everything there for the obsessive fan.
Anne Lamott, my favourite nonfiction writer, used to be famously difficult to find online. She has no website (the usual trick, typing the author’s name + dotcom, gets you to a domain hosting site in Anne’s case), no blog, not even a publisher-maintained page that I’ve ever been able to find. Other than her semi-regular pieces in Salon.com, it used to be almost impossible to find her online, and that was frustrating, but also OK. I always felt like she was a writer who just enjoyed writing books, and didn’t want to waste her time or energy online. But a short while back Anne Lamott got a Facebook author page and a Twitter account and everything changed. Now she posts occasional long, rambling, inspirational updates on her Facebook page, and they’re wonderful — like miniature, less-polished versions of her published essays, but with a much more immediate and in-the-moment feeling as she’ll tell readers about what’s going on in her life and how she feels about it today. I really enjoy the added updates, even though I was just fine being a fan of hers without them.
Rachel Joyce wrote one of my favourite books of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Her website is simple and attractive, clearly hosted by her publisher, giving a little background information about the book and some reviews. The contact page gives contact info for her publishers and agency, not for the author herself, and there is a Facebook page, not for Rachel Joyce the author but for the book, with updates about readings and events, which also has the look of being maintained by a publicist in her publisher’s office. Other than a single article on the website about how she came to write the book, there’s no direct communication from the author, and I can only presume she likes it that way. And that’s fine. Sure, it would be interesting to read other things she’d written, like blogs, but it’s certainly not necessary to my enjoyment of her work. I bought her first book because I picked it up in a bookstore and liked the blurb (note: that’s only ever going to happen with an author who has a big publisher, which may be one reason why indie writers need to do more self-promotion: you’ll never get that prime bookstore real estate that will allow people to just stumble upon your book). I’ll read the second book because I liked the first, regardless of whether the author has any online “presence” or not.
Those are my general thoughts on writers and social media. Beyond maintaining a very basic informative website, you should only do online the things that you genuinely enjoy doing. If you’re blogging or tweeting or whatever because you feel you have to and really don’t enjoy it, that will come through … and you’ll be bitter and resentful because it’s stealing your precious writing time.
Tomorrow I’m going to finish this up by talking about my own experience with social media and how it fits into my life as a writer.