I Will Be Your Friend, But I Will Not Be Your Fan: A Rant About How Authors Use Social Media For Self-Promotion
A couple of months ago, I posted a blog entry in which I asked commenters to share their opinions of authors’ use of social media.
By social media I mean places on the Internet that would seem to exist for social purposes. Not places where you make business connections, like Linked-In, and not places where you sell your stuff, like Ebay or Craigslist. Specifically I mean Twitter and blogs. (I’m not counting Facebook because…you know, it’s Facebook. Ugh.)
We are, of course, still negotiating the boundaries of social media, figuring out how to create a public persona, learning to be friendly with people we’ve never met before, deciding what personal details to share and what is too private. We’re also trying to figure out what community is online and how best to build a sense of community with the friends, acquaintances, and random strangers that make up our social circles on the Internet.
Ideally, I think, social sites are for friendly conversation and debate, for sharing good news and bad news, for meeting new friends, for posting amusingly captioned cat pictures. The community we’re building is a community based on friendship. Now, we humans have verrrry sensitive antennae when it comes to our social interactions. We can tell when somebody is being friendly versus when they’re trying to sell us something. When authors intrude on social spaces with their self-marketing it can make our antennae twitch like crazy.
Granted, if you’re a writer and you’re blogging about your life and what you think about, of course some of your blogs or tweets are going to be about your book, or about your happy book news. That’s fine. That’s not what I’m talking about.
No, I’m talking about the blogs and twitter-feeds that may be partly social, but which pollute the social ether with self-promotion and book marketing. They exist, mostly, to sell books.
Unfortunately for them, author shilling does not sell books.
It just doesn’t.
You know what does? Sometimes it’s a top-down effort by the publisher. The big push. Just as often, it’s word of mouth. Almost like the book is speaking for itself! Or it’s a combination of the two (publishers, often enough, get excited about publishing good books that readers love!).
I know what you’re thinking. What about when a book isn’t getting a big push from the publisher? Shouldn’t the author pick up the slack and market herself? Won’t that be kind of like word-of-mouth?
No. Because…I’m sure I’ve heard this someplace before…author shilling does not sell books.
Still, it’s true that social media can sell books. My favorite example of this is Megan Whelan Turner. As far as I can see, the woman does almost no social media stuff herself, yet Conspiracy of Kings was a New York Times bestseller. It's the fourth book in a great series, and while MWT was not out herself urging people to buy it, the book had tons of enthusiastic readers spreading the word via twitter, their blogs, and a lively discussion group. Hey, I even blogged about it myself. MWT didn't have to push people to do this. They did it because the books are great and well loved. That is how social media should sell books. Not via authorial top-down selling, but via true fandoms.
It seems to me that authors who shill for their books online might be trying to replicate this phenomenon, like what we saw with MWT’s book. But I don’t think that kind of success is something within our control.
Okay, but what if the author’s editor encourages her to blog or join Twitter, or basically to create a more public, social persona online in order to market her books? Well, frankly, I think said editors should think more about what they’re asking their authors to do. There is this sort-of received wisdom in publishing that online marketing is the new big thing, the best way to get the word out about books. Also, publishers have this throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to marketing. They work hard, do a lot of stuff, and hope that it sticks.
And really, truly, this particular approach doesn’t stick. Here are some of those non-sticky things that authors do that might make the social antennae twitch, things that might not be building friend-community, but some kind of more perniciously commercial space.
Blog tours and contests. The commenters to my entry agreed, by the way. Blog tour interviews are boring. How often do you actually read more than one of them? And the contests. What about the ones with the complicated rules, like that you have to comment to enter and tweet about the contest and post it on your Facebook page, and get a tattoo of the book cover on your face? To be the author’s street team—to do the marketing for her! How lovely for you, reader, to not only have your social space co-opted for marketing, but to be co-opted yourself!
Or the contest where the winner gets a bookmark or a postcard or a crappy magnet with the book cover on it. Sheesh. A contest where the prize is a marketing tool! Genius!
Or the “fan” page on Facebook. I don’t know about you, but every time I get an invitation to be somebody’s “fan” it’s an automatic delete. As in, I delete the social connection. I will be your friend, but I will not be your fan.
Or the twitterers who re-tweet every single freaking mention or review of their book. Boring!
Oops. That got ranty. Sorry. See title, above. This is a rant.
Anyway, the sad thing is, anybody who is using their blog or twitter to market their book is wasting their time and energy. Who are their books’ readers? Do they read the author’s blog? Maybe a few of them do. Is selling to those very few people worth annoying the many more people who are reading the author’s blog for social reasons? LiveJournal and blogs are an echo-chamber, an insular community, and so is Twitter. Authors who self-market are not reaching new readers via social media. They are reaching the same very relatively small group of friend-people over and over and over again.
This is especially true for writers of middle-grade fiction. You might reach a few gateway readers—teachers and librarians. But your kid readers are, for the most part, not reading your blog or your twitter-feed. A few kids will find these places and want to interact socially with you. But most are not online all that much.
Now, there will be rare exceptions to this rule. People who manage to use their blogs or twitter-feeds to successfully self-market their books. Props to them. They are still annoying.
So how does an author know if she is getting marketing all over the social spaces? She must ask herself: “Why am I on Twitter? Why do I blog?” If the answer is, “because I like it and to make friends,” then the author is probably doing okay. If it’s “because I desperately need to help my book do better,” well…
There you go.
The best writing advice I ever heard was from an extremely successful writer of MG and YA books, and it was about self-promotion. The advice was, essentially, this:
Don’t bother. Just write the next book.
To sum up, there's more to lose, I think, than gain through authorial self-promotion. As the comments to my blog make evident, lots of people are annoyed by it. We’re authors, we’re not marketers; we seem amateurish and desperate when we do it. Maybe we just need to quit self-marketing and write the next book.
(Still, I get why authors self-market. If you’re annoyed by this rant, do tune in tomorrow, because I have further, less ranty things to say about that.)
Sarah Prineas is the author of the hugely popular Magic Thief books, the first of which was an E. B. White Read Aloud Honor Book as well as an NCTE Notable Children's Book and has appeared on numerous state lists and has been published in twenty-one different countries. She has a PhD in English literature and has taught seminars on science fiction and fantasy literature. Her next book with HarperCollins, WINTERLING, will be out in 2011.
Hopefully that will give everyone some food for thought as we begin our online persona workshop next week. One of our first tasks in that workshop will be to determine the reason we're online and what we want to achieve with our online interactions.
Also a big, whopping thank you to everyone who added a comment to last week’s post on offering encouragement to discouraged writers. I’ll be compiling them all in a page (as time allows) and will announce when that link goes up. However, I did want to announce our winner who, according to Random Number Generator is Number 10! Earthsdivide! If you will email me with your info, I will get your prize out to you this week!