Tuesday, 14 August 2012

"Social media only sells social media"? Really?

There's been a great deal of talk on t'interweb about the articles by Ewan Morrison, such as this recent one, on various aspects of modern writing and publishing. (I'll be meeting Ewan soon, as we are two of the 50 international authors picked to take part in the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference from Friday to Tuesday, as part of #edbookfest. I'm sure we'll be talking about ebooks and self-publishing...)

Oh, and there's an excellent article here - Social Media Scamsters, by Laura Miller - which picks out aspects of Morrison's argument which I very much do agree with. It's an excellent article, I think.

Anyway, apropos of this, I received a question for Dear Crabbit. (My bold.)
Dear Crabbit,
Do you feel that it's necessary for unpublished/newly published writers to have an online presence? 
People scold me for not having a twitter feed or blog dedicated to my work, and that I'm missing out on people who could potentially be interested in it. But then on the other hand I hear advice from writers such as Ewan Morrison [same link as above] telling me that 'all social media sells is social media'. 
So Crabbit, I am torn. In 2012, is having a twitter feed a prerequisite for having a healthy career in publishing? I don't have any problems personally with social media, but just feel that it probably should be a genuine endeavour (such as your own).
Ewan Morrison may be right about many things, and he's asking very good questions, but he is wrong when he says: 'all social media sells is social media'.

One other thing that social media sells is, self-evidently, Ewan Morrison. (And any other author, including, I have to hope, myself.) His articles have been discussed on social media; I only came across them because they were tweeted; discussion has taken place on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and, I suspect, Google+ and anywhere else where people congregate online. More people know about him, and therefore his books, because of social media and it's likely that, for example, next time the people who've heard about him see one of his books they are more likely to look at it more closely, taking them a significant step closer to buying it. Same applies, I'd argue, for any writer who is behaving well with social media.

I agree with his unpicking of how social media are less good at directly selling books than many believe - the figures he quotes tally with my own experience (not always a good measure, I know) and most are figures I've seen often before (also not a good measure, but still!) But social media also provide very good ways of revealing people - in this case, authors - and nowadays many readers like to read books by authors they feel they "know". If nothing else, the names of authors using social media are likely to be better known than their peers who aren't on social media. Brand recognition. (Let me say, as I've often said in the past, that this is not why I spend time on Twitter: I do that because I have fun there, learn things and make friends. It's my water-cooler. But I can't deny the benefits I've found there, in terms not just of enjoyment and learning but also of increasing readership.)

Remember that outliers - whether Amanda Hocking, EL James or JK Rowling - should always be seen for what they are: exceptions, and their success is usually unpredicted or unpredictable, and unrepeatable. Try to emulate them if you wish, but don't expect it to work out the same way even if you do exactly the same as they did. You need magic fairy dust, too.

But, leaving that aside, let me unpick the email I received, which is the point of this post:

1. Is it "necessary for unpublished/newly published writers to have an online presence"? Depends what you mean by "presence" and "necessary". It's very hard to seem as though you have something to offer before you have a book; but, being online also (and, in my view, more importantly) means learning, and making friends and contacts. So, I believe it's not essential to life as we know it, but it's pretty useful for life as we live it. If by a "presence", you mean an online place where people can find something about you, then yes, absolutely. But it does not have to be a complicated, extensive, or sophisticated presence: a simple web page would be sufficient as a start, with succinct information about you and, ideally, a way to contact you. Something dynamic, such as Twitter or Facebook, is useful but only if it is dynamic. A static, under-used Twitter or FB presence is worse than none at all.

2. "I'm missing out on people who could potentially be interested in it"?  No, you're missing out on people in whom you could potentially be interested. You can gain a lot, learn a lot.

3. "all social media sells is social media" - not only is this, as I said, patently untrue; it's also missing the point. Social media is not an end in itself, though I'm sure Facebook would love to think it is; it's about what you can do with it. It's a vehicle for connecting. Some of the companies behind it may be big and bad and selfish and may indeed be selling themselves (of course they are!) and there are unattractive aspects to that, but in terms of its use, it's very useful.

4. "having a twitter feed a prerequisite for having a healthy career in publishing"? Not before you're published, no, in the sense that it's not the case that you won't get a publishing deal without one. However, you know I'm a big fan of Twitter, because it's fun, and I learn things and I like to chat and listen, so, at some point in your career I believe you will find it very useful. But if you don't want to, you DO NOT HAVE TO DO IT. (I'm only shouting because I want publishers to hear.)

5. "a genuine endeavour (such as your own)"? I'm not quite sure what this means, though it sounds complimentary! But I think all good Twitter activity is "genuine". I don't think it works when people fake it or get others to do it for them. And if it does work like that, I don't like the idea.

If you're writing non-fiction, you definitely do need a platform (eg and blog plus Twitter) but for fiction, far less so. [Edited to add: I'm talking specifically about the need for a platform when attracting an agent or publisher.]

Don't do anything you don't want to do. Write first, think about the rest secondarily. But you might have a lot of fun and learn a lot if you engage in whichever bits you feel might work for you.

It's also worth noting that Ewan uses Twitter very actively, so I don't think he's meaning to suggest you shouldn't do it...  I'll ask him on Friday.

He's also written a fascinating Guardian piece today about fanfic. How did I hear about it? Twitter. I'm another step closer to buying one of his books.



Kittie Howard said...

I'm delighted with Ewan's ideas. I tried FB a while back and quickly decided it just wasn't for me. Twitter seemed like fun in the beginning, but its glow dimmed into a shadow. These social media outlets haven't convinced me why I could devote so much time and energy to what I view as their number's game. One way or the other, they're selling stuff, and I fail to understand why this should spin me into a happy top. But I love blogging so there's something for everyone -- and free time to experience life.

Laura Mary said...

In terms of books sales, I have bought a handful of books this year purely on the basis of chatting to the authors on twitter. And not necessarily book chat either! They were nice friendly interesting people and I was interested in their writing.
On the other hand I have un-followed a few people after getting fed up of seeing the same daily auto-tweet flogging their book – or worse still after receiving a direct message telling me how much I’d enjoy their book!
No no no.

With regards to twitter in general, I wouldn’t even know where to begin in saying what it’s done for me! I have discovered a wealth of information, through blogs, articles, book recommendations and good old fashioned chit-chat.
Writing can be a lonely business and it’s been great to have like minded people to chat to.

catdownunder said...

I am meeting some very interesting people through Twitter. I have also been surprised and honoured by having some unexpected people follow me. It's a social place. You can join in the party when you want to and prowl off if you do not want to join in. As I am in a different time zone from many of the people who interest me I can handle the amount of time I spend on Twitter - especially as I need to do it in front of a computer!
I do think it is good to be involved though. You get to know a little bit about people and learn to say things in small bites. It's good discipline and it can be very supportive.
I am less interested in Facebook. It lacks the immediacy of Twitter - although I have had "conversations" with friends occasionally.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve had a Facebook account for about five years but I’ve only put any effort into it in about the last year having been encouraged by a writer friend. I never knew what the point to it was because most of the people I followed on Facebook had blogs I read anyway so why bother? Two things: 1) it allows you to go off topic which I know is not a problem for most people but as I stick quite rigidly to writing topics on my blog it’s nice to post a link to some art or a bit of music, things I would never devote an entire article to anyway, and, 2) it reminds people you’re alive. That second one is the more important one. What I should have said was that it keeps your public profile up but it amounts to the same thing. Comments on people’s blogs have the same effect but they take longer. But if people see your avatar whizzing past as they scroll down they might think: Oh, better see if Jim’s got a new blog I haven’t read. Facebook doesn’t sell books. It has bagged me a few reviews—I belong to a couple of groups which can be helpful once you’ve waded through all the daft questions the newbies are asking which if they only thought about it they could just as easily google—but that really is about it.

I do not get Twitter. I even needed to get my daughter to ‘explain’ it to me (which delighted her—the old man looking for her help rather than the other way around) but I still don’t get it. I’m a loquacious bugger at the best of times and so you can just imagine the panic I get into when faced with cramming a thought into 140 characters. Hell, I sometimes struggle to write a comment on Blogger when I’ve got 4096 characters to play with. Again I have the same problem with Twitter as I have with Facebook, you end up following people who you follow on Facebook and whose blogs you read. I keep wondering who exactly I’m talking to. People send these messages into the void and how the hell do you find someone interesting?

I expect it’s an age thing. The best results I’ve had in meeting people has been through commenting on blogs where I can take time and express myself properly and show real interest in what they have to say. Now that has got me a few readers and even a few sales but only a few. I see no magic formula or technique to get people rushing to buy my books. I don’t write populist fiction. My target audience is not the young. So I see little point burning myself out (which I was working my way towards a while back) marketing myself silly to all the wrong people.

Kate said...

I know that I've sold books through Twitter because followers have told me that they bought it after I posted a link. But the best things about Twitter I've found are the interesting people I've 'met' and the mad conversations I've had with complete strangers. I've learned a lot, too, through the myriad links.

The same goes for Facebook. I have a personal page where I meet a lot of great people and an author page where I get to chat to people who have read my books.

I figure that if I'm tempted to buy a book simply because I've got to know and like a person through these places, then maybe others do the same with me.

Demion Maia said...

"social media only sells social media," said the guy using social media to sell himself. I'm not sure, though, if an ultra-active web presence is really nessecary for unpublished authors. After selling a book, when people are looking for more information, but beforehand it seems like energy that could be better directed into polishing one's craft. I think one of the real problems with the publishing industry is that it encourages aspiring writers to make themselves public figures and sellsellsell without actually learning to write first.

Dan Holloway said...

I don't quite know what to make of Ewan. He's a very shrewd guy, and what he says about the prevailing ideology of most contemporary self-publishers making them more the children of Thatcher than of the revolution is spot on - his generalisations from that are questionable and his notion that there is an identifiable strand of literature that can and should be protected is positively extraordinary. As for social media, I have the feeling he is conducting somewhat of a Dadaist stunt, as you sort of suggest - he gets everywhere by 1. saying it's impossible to get everywhere and 2. saying that writers shouldn't have to get everywhere, and the whole of not only the social but the literary mainstream media has played the game for him and , the latter of which is frustrating when he has a lot fewer interesting things to say than many but says what he does rather gnomically and provcatively and rarely if ever engages, preferring to reiterate rather than debate.

On the other hand, Tales From the Mall is a work of genius and you should absolutely buy it.

claudia myatt said...

Social media is like any tool - only as good as the people using it. I think it's parallel to life in that you seek out the people you want to mix with. If all a writer did was try and promote their book at every real social event they went to, everyone would soon get cheesed off.

I mix with the people who share my world because I enjoy the company. Cheers - here's raising a virtual glass of wine to the virtual party!

Jessica Nichole Prado said...

I believe in the principle of moderation. A little social media can be fun and useful, but too much is annoying. When I update my blog-novel, Sins, Hims, and Whims of a Single Mother, I send only one Tweet and add one, maybe two posts to My Facebook fan page. I track the traffic from these sources and find that 90% comes from them. Also, from these sources, I recruit readers who help me fine-tune my work, whether it be my blog-novel or my recently completed manuscript. Through Facebook I am able to handpick my Secret Readers Club, which is a Facebook group I started that is devoted to the task of providing secret feedback to me for whatever I'm working on. So, I definitely see the benefits to utilizing these sources. To illustrate my point, even now as I write this comment I am able to direct people to the forums where I share my work, express who I am, and what I'm all about. It really can be very cool. However, that said, I must admit that, I too, have "Unfollowed" or "Unliked" many of the auto-tweeting floggers out there. As with most things in life, I think it's all about balance. You can over do it and you can under do it, but if you do it right it's awesome.

Lee said...

I'm only a social butterfly when I'm drunk so I think I should drink more to interact more. *Good plan*

I do think I have shot myself in the foot sometimes by avoiding most social media because I'm prideful and want the work to stand on its own and have nothing to do with me as a person. I've submitted to markets under a fake name if I knew them because I didn't want to get an acceptance based on being friends with an editor. I probably shouldn't have a problem with that but I do.

Besides pride, I guess my biggest problem personally with social media is that it takes so much time. Since I work a physically strenuous job the only thing I have the energy for after work is to read for relaxation and write for fulfillment and crit a friend's MS because I have some wonderful friends.

I'm content just following the blogs I like and interacting a bit on Twitter or Google +.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lee - re submitting under a fake name, there's absolutely no need to do this and no point in doing so (unless that's requested, of course, eg for a competition). Editors will a) select on merit because their duty is to the magazine but b) will and should favour a writer they've had a good response to before, because readers like to know whose story they are reading. You are a writer and your name is a part of building that.

Jessica and Caludia - yes, that's what I've always recommended.

Dan - highly perceptive as always!

Demon Maia - yes. And, again, this is what I've been saying for a long time. I'm also trying to tell publishers this...

Jim - I agree about FB. I've only just got the hang of how the author page can really work, and it now really does for me. But Twitter - well, what can i say other than that I write Tweet Right - The SENSIBLE Person's Guide to Twitter and it explains why and how it works. You don't have to do it, but if you do, do read TR, as I am confident it will be a revelation and a help. (Though you may still choose not to use Twitter - no one says you have to.)

Kitty and Laura - interesting to see your very different experiences juxtaposed! Just shows that everyone's different, thankfully :)

Stroppy Author said...

"If you're writing non-fiction, you definitely do need a platform (eg and blog plus Twitter)."

Could you explain a little please, Nicola? Obviously I have these, but I don't often mention my non-fiction. Am I doing it all wrong? I don't think most of my non-fiction readers are bothered whether I have either of them. Of course, a lot of my n-f is for children and they are not reading my blog or following me on twitter. But I do about one grown-up n-f book a year.

Or do you mean people need twitter/blog to attract n-f publishers?

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - sorry I wasn't clear. No, I am specifically talking about attracting a publisher or agent (both of which you already have!). The question was about having a platform as an aspiring author. I'll go and add something to make that clear.

HOWEVER, readers of adult non-fiction will also appreciate an author having a platform so that they can find out more or be sure of the authority. But in your case, that's not what i meant at all.