Jane Friedman

Facebook for Authors: Getting Started Guide

Facebook has more than 1 billion users worldwide, and it ranks as the No. 1 site (or No. 2, depending on whom you ask) in the United States. For this reason alone, it’s often one of the first topics of conversation when discussing an online marketing plan or author platform. Should it be?

For many authors, yes. Can you get along without it? Yes. The following guide will help you decide:

  1. If you want to make it an area of focus or forget about it entirely.
  2. Whether you want to use your personal page or start an official fan/business page.
  3. What kind of strategy might be appropriate for you.

If You’ve Found Facebook Ineffective in the Past

Before we get started, I want to address why Facebook—and social media in general—can have weak or no results.

  1. You tried to make something happen without a strategy (and possibly without a supporting author website).
  2. You weren’t patient enough. I find that most writers abandon their efforts too quickly, and assume failure.

Many writers have to be in this for the long game, since your major works might be released years (or at least months) apart. If people are entertained, informed, or fascinated by your long-term activity online—and let’s assume they enjoy your writing work—they’ll stick with you. If friends or fans feel like you’re only there to market to them, rather than be a community member, they’ll ignore you.

If You’re Unpublished

Some people advise writers to get on social media before publication in order to grow their audience, and this can make sense for nonfiction authors who need to build visibility and authority in their field. For fiction authors, it can make little sense. How can you build readership around work that hasn’t yet been made public? You can build relationships, and be part of a community, but you’re not necessarily cultivating a readership. A potential readership, maybe. But there’s a big difference here that’s not frequently enough acknowledged, and also leads to a lot of frustration and claims that social media doesn’t work.

If Your Publisher Has Told You to Get on Facebook

Let’s be honest: many authors have been told to get on social media in preparation for a book launch, and have no interest in using it beyond the marketing and promotion utility. That people feel this obligation or burden is one of the greatest failures of the publishing community, but I’m going to set that aside and instead speak to how to manage this stage authentically without rubbing everyone the wrong way.

Facebook (and most social media) is excellent at building awareness and comprehension in the community of who you are and what you stand for. Over time, you become more visible and identifiable, because you show up consistently.

Important: Facebook is not a replacement for an author website, even if your publisher says it is. That would be a very short-sighted move because (1) Facebook isn’t meant to function in the same way as an author website, (2) you don’t control what happens on Facebook, and (3) Facebook may (or will) eventually fall out of favor. Read more about this here.

Personal Profiles vs. Official Fan Pages

One of the biggest questions I get is: Should I start a fan page separate from my personal profile?

Fan pages take work to be meaningful, so I like to respond by asking: Are you prepared to develop a content strategy for it? Are you prepared to spend time on it, and possibly double the time you spend on Facebook (assuming you have a personal profile as well)? If you’re not crazy about the idea of the additional work, then I recommend you allow people to follow your personal profile instead. You can make any of your personal profile posts public, and your followers will see those posts in their news feed without being your friend.

Here are scenarios where a fan page is helpful and merited:

Here’s a good litmus test on this issue: If your first step in developing your fan page is to blast your Facebook friends with “Go LIKE my page!”, that tells me there’s no real divide—yet—between your personal friends and target audience. (That’s not a bad thing; your friends are often your first circle of supporters who love to know what you’re doing and want to be supportive.)

However, if you do need to have both a personal page and a fan page, still don’t solicit one group to join the other group. You don’t need to reach them in both places.

Here are scenarios where I’d consider using your personal profile (with the “follow” function turned on).

A couple more reasons to potentially favor the personal profile over the fan page:

Do personal profile posts get more visibility? It’s hard to say—much depends on how much you interact with your friends and followers, and how they interact in return.

For those using pen names: To abide by Facebook’s official guidelines, your personal profile should use your real name. However, this policy is controversial and been disputed by users (just do a search for “Facebook real-name policy”); in practice, Facebook doesn’t remove profiles for breaking this rule unless they are flagged or reported by users for inappropriate behavior.

In conclusion: I find the choice between profile and fan page to be a personal decision, so do what you’re comfortable with and makes sense for your audience. It’s hard to offer general advice because everyone’s situation differs. Just remember that maintaining two pages on Facebook increases your workload.

How Do You Get Likes or Followers?

This will happen naturally over time, as you produce more work that people see and read, whether online or in print. But mainly, people will end up liking your Facebook page for one of the following reasons:

Some authors run specific campaigns to get Facebook likes; I think this is largely a waste of your time. I also don’t recommend advertising or paying for likes or follows. Let your following grow organically, and it will be more valuable and loyal in the long run.

Mind the Difference Between Your Profile and the Newsfeed

You should fill in the gaps of your profile (whether personal or official) and make sure to include:

Keep in mind that no matter how Facebook changes profile page structure, most people are interacting with your posts in their own newsfeed. Very few people visit your profile unless they have a reason to research you or be extra curious based on something you’ve posted. (That’s why Facebook’s limitations on post visibility, as mentioned above, can make it feel like you’re invisible to your audience.) So don’t sweat your profile (and its formal “timeline”) too much, except as it pleases you.

6 Key Principles for Using Facebook

1. Like attracts like. If you post helpful, interesting, or valuable stuff on Facebook, targeted to a particular sensibility, you will attract an audience who matches what you post—and will reward you for it through likes/shares. If you like to talk politics, or be argumentative, or complain, you’ll attract the same.

This is a critical principle for just about all online activity, but particularly important on Facebook because people tend to treat the site like their living room. They’re comfortable saying or doing anything.

If you don’t like the activity or conversation surrounding you—or you’re not getting the results you think you should—look at what you’re putting out. Don’t assume you need to increase your fan/friend count.

2. Target your posts appropriately and reduce the noise. For Facebook personal profiles, I’ve always advocated the use of lists, back when it was a hidden feature, and long before Facebook created automated lists.

It’s still a good idea to create unique lists, going beyond the automated list feature. While it takes time, having people tagged by how you know them, where you met them, or what your connection is becomes invaluable when you decide who should see each Facebook post.

Why should you care? Studies show that one of the biggest annoyances for Facebook users is people or companies that post too often. However, instead of unfriending or unliking someone or something who posts too often, we mute them instead.

I’m a strong advocate of the “less is more” philosophy when it comes to content and social sharing. We all have too much to read anyway, so why bother sharing anything except the absolute best and most essential stuff?

That said:

3. Avoid automated posting. Automated posting is when you use a third-party service to automatically post to Facebook for you. This is almost never a good idea and typically has very poor results. People don’t like to engage with bots. Plus, you’re missing an opportunity to say something geared toward the audience you have on Facebook—e.g., asking a compelling question to spark a discussion, or to offer your perspective and personality. Usually a more intimate approach is successful on Facebook (that living room phenomenon).

4. Interact. This goes hand-in-hand with #3, particularly when using a personal profile as your base of operations. If you want to show up more often in newsfeeds, that generally means interacting with other people’s posts, which will lead them to interact more with you. It’s a virtuous circle. If you’d like to helpfully make sure someone sees a particular post or conversation, tag them. (Don’t do this en masse; do it selectively, and make it clear you’re talking to them specifically.)

5. Don’t just post links—offer context. A little hand-holding goes a long way when you share links or content—whether it’s your own content or someone else’s. Explain why you’re posting it, share an interesting quote from it, or otherwise introduce the content so people understand why it deserves their time. Be a thoughtful curator, not a blaster.

6. Copywriting skills matter. It takes practice and skill to get people to read and possibly click or respond to whatever you’re posting. When you write the post, think about how you can answer the question (from your reader’s perspective): What’s in it for me? If you can’t answer that question, then hopefully your writing is witty, humorous, or otherwise compelling.

5 Facebook Behaviors to Avoid

You can break all of these rules and still do fine; you just may be pushing the boundaries of what most people tolerate.

1. The Overactive Poster. Are you posting to Facebook every hour? Are you constantly asking people to do something for you? It might be time to shut up. Instead, think about: creating new and valuable content, sharing interesting articles, asking people questions, listening to what the community is saying.

2. The Boring Beggar. You send Facebook messages or updates that plead: “Like my page!” or yell some version of “Buy my book”—repeatedly and with very little personality. While you should undoubtedly post about your book, request reviews, etc., you need to be more creative than writing what amounts to a boring ad.

3. The Event Planner. Do not send a blanket invite to “events” that aren’t really events. We’ve all been invited to participate in some “event” that didn’t even have a physical location, and was a thinly veiled blast. Don’t do that. You should also avoid sending invites to people who wouldn’t in a million years attend your event because of location/geography/investment. In short, do not misuse the event functionality as a pure marketing play.

4. The Uninvited Guest. Unless asked, do not post a promotion for yourself on other people’s personal profile walls. I hate this and so does everyone else. You’ll get shunned for this type of behavior over time. Also, do not “tag” someone merely to get their attention for something that’s not related to them. That’s the same behavior as posting a promotion of yourself on their wall.

5. The Private Badgerer. Do not send a private message to your friends, groups, or fans asking them to market or promote your stuff, unless it’s something very easy they can do (like take 2 seconds to vote for you in a contest). If you need to bring someone’s attention to something important, consider a personalized email (unless you know they use and prefer Facebook messages).

What Should You Post on Facebook?

I believe the really meaningful (platform-building) social media activity draws on the same creativity and imagination that’s part of your “serious” work. That means that whatever you post ideally connects back to the motivations and themes that drive your writing work. For that reason, what you post will be as individual and unique as you and your work. But here are a few considerations.

1. Be interesting. Post updates or links that reflect your perspective on the world, or that play on themes that fascinate you. Have fun in what you share. See what happens. Experiment. Respond to other people’s stories/updates with your own take (but don’t be an ass or a proselytizer).

2. Be helpful. If someone asks a question or otherwise is looking for assistance, and you’re in a position to be helpful, earn some good karma.

3. Be open and curious. If you have a question on your mind, ask Facebook for their thoughts. If you’d like to gather ideas and feedback, ask your community.

4. Be a little personal. We all know there’s a line, so don’t cross it. But if you share things that don’t have any impact on you, or don’t touch your life, or that you don’t feel anything about, then you might be a bore.

5. Be a little vulnerable and unpolished. It’s much easier to like someone when they have flaws. While you don’t want to run to Facebook to reveal all your insecurities, always presenting a perfect, polished front can get stale or not offer much authenticity.

6. Post links to your new writing, blog posts, etc. Some people skip this because they think it’s too heavy-handed or marketing focused. But most fans/friends will never visit your website or blog on a daily basis (or ever), and may not have any other way of knowing about your new work. So the link that you post on Facebook is their cue that you have new writing available. On a personal note: I can tell from my own website traffic that thousands of people every month rely on seeing my Facebook link as a reminder to read my latest blog post. In fact, the No. 1 referral to my site is Facebook.

7. Don’t forget about photos. Photos tend to get far more attention on Facebook than text-only posts. While there’s no “right” content or updates, try experimenting with different types of media to see what gets the best engagement. Many authors I follow focus on posting photos of themselves at literary events, with other authors, with students, etc—and for good reason. It works!

8. Ask questions. Inviting a conversation is a time-honored Facebook strategy. However, if the discussion ever breaks the “living room rule” (if a comment would cause you to kick someone out of your living room), you should step in and moderate. Your comment thread doesn’t have to be treated like a free-speech zone; I recommend cultivating a respectful and thoughtful tone.

Bottom line: The most important thing you can do is share things that you care about—to express something meaningful rather than dutiful. Never throw up a link or a photo without giving the story behind it, or why it matters to you. People crave meaning. Facebook is an excellent tool for delivering that.

The Whole Point: Stay in Touch With Readers

For published writers (regardless of how you publish), Facebook can be a key way to stay engaged with your readers. It’s a place to be informal, fun, and casual with people who have already expressed some level of interest or affinity for what you’re doing. If people friend you or “like” you, they’ve given you permission to be in touch and offer updates. Such people may not have any other alerts or notices about you except for what appears in their Facebook newsfeed. You’re creating an impression, and sometimes a bit of a relationship, each time you post—what do those impressions add up to after a week, month, year? Are you conveying a personality, voice, or image you’re comfortable with?

Inspirational Models

Here are some authors I follow on Facebook who I admire for their long-term use of the platform as a means to communicate with friends and readers and bring attention to their newest work.

Michael Ellsberg. Michael is the author of several nonfiction books and is a full-time writer. His personal Facebook profile has more than 26,000 followers. He’s known for the longform Facebook post, which just goes to show it’s possible to do things your own way—break all the rules—and be very successful at it. He also demonstrates the qualities of openness and vulnerability. Read about his philosophy here.

Margaret McMullan. Margaret, one of my creative writing professors when I was an undergrad, is an established YA author. Her personal Facebook profile is open to followers, and she has a significant number of friends—but no official fan page. She’s a great example of someone using photos to their best effect, as a way to keep people updated on what she’s doing and also bring attention to other authors.

Claire Cook. Cook is a bestselling novelist (Must Love Dogs) who has both a fan page (16,000 likes) and a personal profile. If you’re unsure what should go on an official fan page, looking at Claire’s page will help you get an understanding of the use of photos (both fun and promotional) and how to successfully mix together personal messages with more community- and marketing-driven posts. She kindly gave me permission to share a few of her posts below.