Writers and the Social Media Dance

Social media can be both a blessing and a curse for writers, especially those who feel ill at ease when it comes to tackling new technology. But even as it morphs and changes, with new platforms rising to prominence and others becoming less popular, as an overall concept, it is undoubtedly here to stay. And as more and more of the burden of self-promotion falls on a writer’s shoulders, social media remains one of the most important means of getting the word out about new releases, book giveaways, readings, and other bookish events.

The downsides of social media? It can take a lot of time, especially when you’re new to a platform and still trying to get the hang of how to use it. Even once you’re experienced, each form of social media has its own way of sucking you in and eating up hours that might be better spent in writing. Social media can also backfire spectacularly if you say or post the wrong thing; word spreads at monumental speeds online, and never faster than when you’ve put your foot in your mouth. Plus the internet is forever. Deleting a poorly phrased Tweet or taking down a blog post is very much like closing the barn door after the horse has headed for the hills, and in this case the horse loves to gossip.

But the upsides are equally obvious, and not the sort of things a writer can ignore. Social media lets you connect with readers, reviewers, and industry professionals. It lets you talk about your project and build excitement, show off great cover art, announce signings, and squeal publicly when your book hits a major milestone. But it also lets you engage in a community that knows where you’re coming from and what you’re up against, which means you can garner a great deal of knowledge by paying attention to other writers and their experiences through social media.

If social media intimidates you, or if you think you’re fine with just one corner of the internet — your blog, a simple Facebook page — there are still ways to interact that won’t leave you scratching your head in confusion or feeling completely overwhelmed. Here are a few simple tips for tackling new forms of social media and building your online presence:

Start small. Don’t try to master them all at once (though if you have a common name/pen name, you might consider signing up at the same time in order to make sure you can get a consistent handle on all the major platforms). Choose one and play around with it for a couple of months and see how it goes. Keep in mind where your ideal audience likes to hang out. Many YA authors have blogs through Tumblr, for instance. Do a little digging to see where you might want to begin.

Pay attention to how others use the platform, both the good and the bad. Follow a few writers you like on Twitter and see what percent of their Tweets are promotional and what proportion are chatty/sharing more general knowledge/helping out other writers, etc. See how often writers update their blogs or Facebook pages. What do writers share on their Goodreads page? Observe what works, and also what seems to annoy.

Remember your manners. Just because the other person is somewhere behind a far-away¬†computer, doesn’t give you the right to be mean. Try to respond to others in the same way you would in person; the internet doesn’t need any more trolls.

Don’t repeat yourself across platforms. Once you’re engaging in several forms of social media, try not to post the same thing on all of them. Determine what each platform is good for in terms of your own goals, and then stick with those. Twitter might be great for chatting and driving traffic to your blog when you have a post, whereas you might use Facebook for contests/giveaways, and Instagram to post cover art and photos of your work space, books you’ve bought, etc. Keep the medium in mind, and remember that you want your fans to follow you on more than one platform. If they constantly see the same thing everywhere you post, they’ll be less likely to engage with you in multiple places.

Take advantage of the ability to schedule things ahead. Depending on the software you use, you can schedule posts for your blog ahead of time. A number of Twitter platforms, such as TweetDeck and HootSuite, allow you to schedule Tweets days in advance. Tumblr lets you set up a queue for posts. This way you can remain present in social media, even if you’re traveling or under deadline and can’t take the time to post live.

Remember that the key word is social. Yes, you want to share your news and promote your work, but first and foremost, you want to be a member of the social media community, whatever platform you’re using. Engage with people. Ask and answer questions. Comment. Share your excitement about non-career things, like that great movie you just saw or the new recipe you tried. Be a person, not a sales drone.

No doubt social media will continue to grow and change, as will how writers use it. But the sooner you become accustomed to using social media platforms in general, the easier you will find it to adapt with the technology. Start now, start small, and take it one step at a time. And for those of you already adept at using social media, keep your eyes open for the next big thing.

Does a Writer Need a Blog?

The internet is a fabulous, crowded place filled with diverse sites to visit. Many, many of those sites have blogs attached to them. You’ve seen it happen. Blogs pop up in the most unlikely spots: Your favorite clothing store starts blogging fashion tip, the big chain kitchen supplier starts offering recipes in blog format, and, of course, everyone who lists themselves somewhere as a writer — whether it’s on their tax forms or just in their diary — has added a blog to their website. So, the question becomes, do you, as a writer or aspiring writer, need a blog?

Well, the short answer is no, you don’t, but that’s a very simple answer to what has become a very complicated situation. What you definitely need as either a professional writer or a writer at the submissions stage is a web presence. Because as you’ve probably been told a million times already, writers are expected to help market themselves and their books. It’s just part of the job in the 21st century. Not every reader will learn about you online, but many of them will, and those who don’t are pretty likely to look you up online anyway, once they’ve heard you mentioned elsewhere.

So, what every writer definitely needs is a website, preferably one that includes your name in the URL. That’s the name you’ll be writing under, whether it’s your own or a pseudonym. If your name is taken, add something that allows you to expand logically on your name, so: JoeSmithWriter.com or JoeSmithWrites.com. You get the idea.

But if you don’t need a blog, what goes on your website? If you haven’t published, that question is obviously a little trickier. You can treat a new website as a place holder for what you will eventually create to go with your published works. It can be as simple as an image and some introductory information about yourself. A short bio. A brief explanation about what you’re working on at the moment, and if you have finished work available to agents or editors, and a contact e-mail. Later you’ll add pages with cover art and book blurbs, but at the start, simple is fine. It shows that you understand the importance of being there.

You can supplement your simple site with other social media that’s less reliant on writing long, blog posts: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. Make the most of other internet technology by sending out short tidbits, creating scrapbooks of writing inspiration, or posting book recommendations. There are many ways to get your name and ambitions out into the world besides maintaining a blog, and it’s your choice how to utilize them.

What if you do want a blog? By all means, include one on your website. Plenty of good blogging software is available that will allow you to incorporate your blog into that all-important URL. But before you start to blog, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

~ Can I keep up a steady posting schedule? This is important. Readers want to know when they can turn up and find new content. Are you going to post once a week? Twice? Daily? Be careful before you decide. Yes, you can always change it up later, but it’s better to aim for once a week and find it easy to add a second day than to start out daily and run out of things to say in three weeks and disappear for an extended period. So set your schedule and stick to it.

~ Do I have anything to talk about? This is not a judgment again anyone. There are people who are excellent writers, who dream up fantastic worlds and characters and adventures, but who freeze up when it comes to small talk or to discussing the business end of their careers. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to chat in a friendly manner several times a week to the ether. You probably have a good idea already as to whether blogging will be easy or difficult for you. And keep in mind, your schedule will become fuller once you start selling books, between copy edits and online interviews and even tours if you’re at that level. No one will begrudge you a blog hiatus if you’re touring Europe with your bestseller, but you want to maintain some sort of schedule through the more deadline-oriented periods of the publishing cycle. That’s harder if you also have to scramble for ideas of what to discuss.

~ Am I open to comments? Comments are a double-edged sword. They can be great; friendly, encouraging, supportive. Comments let you build a connection with readers of your blog, who might end up readers of your books as well. There will always be people with negative comments, so decide now if you can keep your cool and just delete comments of that nature without engaging in an online war. No matter how polite you are, the situation will get beyond your control, so there’s no point in starting an argument. If you can cope with that, and also with the need to delete spam (a good filter helps here), then comments can be great. But it’s also your call. You don’t have to take comments on all or even any of your blog posts. If you go this route, however, make sure there’s an e-mail address available to people who wish to contact you. These interactions will be “off screen” and still give you the chance to connect with readers.

~ Can I keep a secret? There are going to be things you shouldn’t discuss or announce at all stages of your career. If you’re the type of person who has a difficult time keeping their mouth shut, a blog is a bad idea. You don’t want to leak the names of the editors to whom your agent is sending your manuscript. You don’t want to discuss how many agents have turned you down. You don’t want to post that gorgeous cover art before your editor says it’s allowed to go public. People in publishing use Google. We look up our authors and people we’re considering for representation. We find out when you’ve let the cat out of the bag, and it’s not pretty. So if you can’t filter your information appropriately, eliminate the temptation of using it for instant blog content.

To blog or not to blog, the decision is yours. Determine if it’s a practical approach for your talents, your time, and your goals. If it is, build the best blog you can; if it’s not, be sure to embrace the other forms of social media at your disposal.