31 Jul 2017
Remember the Far Side “Cow Tools” cartoon? It showed a cow, standing up before her display table that showed a bunch of sticks and lumps. In his book, Gary Larson wrote that the panel caused a lot of confusion among his readers. They thought the tools had a purpose, and they couldn’t figure it out. To Larson, they were just shapes; the joke was in the caption, not in the drawing.“Cow Tools” reminds me of the problems we face setting up an author social network. We’re given these web sites and told to use them to reach readers. We’re told we have to have a “platform.” But what does that mean? And how are we supposed to use these social media tools to reach readers.
This book will not go into the nuts and bolts of each service. There are plenty of books, blogs, and courses that go into them into detail, down to where to find the commands to set up your account. We’ll discuss here whether you should set up an author network, what you need to do it effectively, and which ones, if any, you want to use.
There’s one more important point: If you can’t make the time to post regularly or to check these services to see if readers are finding you, you’re better off not using social media. There’s nothing that tells readers you’re not interested in engaging with them like seeing a barely used Tumblr or that your latest tweet was six months ago, and that an apology for not tweeting more often. Not only are you sending the wrong message, you’re risking having people see them before they find your web site. If someone is searching for your books on Google, do you want them to find your web site, or your defunct Facebook page?
A final note: This discussion will center on the posting side of social media. We’ll discuss if, when, and how to advertise on those sites in the advertising section below.
1. The Value of Social Media
Social media connects people, especially those with whom we have little or no direct contact. In my many years spent online, there are people who I know a lot about who I have never met in person. In fact, I know them better than I know my siblings! I know how they think, their sense of humor (or lack thereof), their beliefs, and their attitudes on everything from current events or whether they prefer Kirk or Picard.
This is what social media does best: It gives you the illusion of intimacy. Through your words, your fans will “read” you in the same way they’re reading a book. They’ll base their image of who they think you are on what they read, a prospect some writers find unnerving.
If you’re one of those writers and don’t want to jump into the social media pool, that’s all right! There is no value in making yourself do something that you won’t enjoy. Every time you write a post, you’ll have to nerve yourself to press “publish.” Moreover, your fans will recognize that you don’t want to be there, too.
But being on social media doesn’t mean having to share everything about your life. Think about the celebrities and other public figures you follow. Do they share everything? Some seem to, but even they have their limits.
If you want an idea of how different authors share their lives, check these out:
* Thriller author Lisa Scottoline publishes a weekly personal column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has talked about her hatred of air conditioning, her Italian family, aging, her relationship with her daughter and her adventures in New York City, and her relationship with her fans. The only area that she has not covered, and is suitable for a newspaper, is anything about marriages. These columns have been collected into books, eight of them so far, exposing her thrillers to fans of her columns.
* Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman uses his blog and Twitter account irregularly to communicate with his fans (as a longtime author with a huge fan base, he can afford to go away at times). He usually focuses on his writing life, the people he has met, and lately, on sharing the stage with his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer.
* Lev Raphael is a former academic who has written books about the Holocaust (which his parents survived), Edith Wharton (who he specialized in at the University of Michigan), and his life as a Jewish gay man. He uses this material to write books in several genres, including mystery, memoir, and history. Raphael’s blog posts at the Huffington Post, however, are varied: from books and plays he’s experienced to family stories.
* S.J. Pajonas writes cozy mysteries set in Japan. Pajonas also blogs regularly about her writing life and what she has done during the week. She sets monthly goals, then returns to them at the beginning of a new month to show whether she has met them.
* Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith, use different strategies. Rusch publishes weekly her “Business Musings” column that discusses aspects of publishing. Smith blogs a daily diary telling us when he gets up, who he meets with, the progress of his pop culture store, the times of his writing sessions, and the number of words he types in. As you can imagine, this gets repetitious, but it’s an excellent example of the daily life of a productive writer.
* James Lileks is a newspaper columnist in Minneapolis. For the last two decades, he has published a five-days-a-week column called The Bleat, where he mixes scenes from his life as a newspaperman and homeowner with some takedowns of particularly stupid articles, and snippets of pop culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. He keeps strict limits on appearances by his wife (who works for the state government as an attorney), but has talked about his relationship with his daughter.
So it is possible to do social media in a way that is both effective and that your fans will accept. You control the conversation, and you can say no to intrusive questions. The majority of your fans will understand, and those who don’t, well, you don’t want them as fans anyway, right?
WARNING: Keep your Facebook feed private and limited to family and friends. They need to know that you’re publishing books, and that they could support you and how (buying books, or recommending them to friends) but they don’t need to be exposed to your marketing full-time. Create a Facebook Business page that will act as the face of your business.
2. Consider Your Content
Before you decide on what kind of social media strategy to pursue, consider what you plan to do when you get there.
What do you want to talk about? What do you want to share? Don’t worry yet about the form it will take. You know it will consist of words and images. The service you choose will dictate how many words and what kind of images.
Instead, think about what you want to share. Here are some possibilities:
* Stories about your family
* Stories about your present day
* Your writing projects
* Writing in general
* Information about a hobby or an area you’re an expert in
* Stories, videos, and ephemera you found online
Whatever it is, it should either be personal enough to create the illusion of intimacy, or relate to your books. Writing about politics, music, and movies may be personally satisfying, but if your books aren’t about them, realize that you’re not going to make much progress in building an audience. You’re satisfying a different itch (which is fine so long as you realize that).