Social Media for Authors: The Toughest Topic to Advise On

social media for authors

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of author websites and their role in an author’s online presence. However, I’m asked about social media far more often.

Of all the topics I teach, social media is the most vexed. Even in a small class of writers, I find varying skill levels and experience, and a mix of attitudes—and these two factors play a strong role in what people need to hear or learn. I believe a successful social media strategy is driven by one’s personality and strengths, as well as the qualities of the work produced—leading to a unique approach for each writer. And that approach will likely change over time because as one succeeds, one’s platform grows and the audience changes; and strategies often have to shift when your readership expands. (Not to mention the tools themselves change over time!)

So, social media can’t be treated as this static thing—you can’t just learn a formula and you’re done. It’s in flux and there’s always more to learn. For me, this is part of what makes it fun and prevents boredom. For others it’s what makes it intolerable. Because social media is widely considered essential to book marketing and promotion, yet it’s constantly changing, it’s become a burden and source of anxiety for beginners and advanced authors alike.

I’m hoping the following principles—regardless of your skill level or experience—will make it feel a little less anxiety inducing.

Your social media following grows mostly when you produce more work.

It’s a fundamental rule of author platform development: it grows out of your body of work. As you produce more books (or more stories or content of any kind), you are likely to grow your audience or reach more readers. And this in turn naturally leads to more followers on social media.

It is exceedingly difficult to create a social media following when you’re not publishing work and being discovered through that work. However, there is a workaround—the next point.

Use social media to micro-publish or to share your work.

This is a principle partly from Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work. You can use social media as a creative outlet and share bits and pieces of whatever you’re working on—or the entirety of what you’re working on. For example, Roxane Gay posted on Tumblr about her health and diet and soon found people wanted more, more, more—which led to her memoir, Hunger. Rupi Kaur shared her poetry on Instagram, then self-published her book Milk & Honey, and now it’s one of the top-selling books of 2017 from Andrews McMeel. A decade ago, Scott Sigler recorded himself reading chapters from his novel, and distributed a podcast through iTunes, leading to a print/ebook readership and a traditional book deal.

There are hundreds and thousands of examples of authors being playful, creative, and experimental online and on social media—of showing or sharing their work—which can lead to reader growth and payment for that work. Note that this principle follows straight from the first: you’ll see social media growth when you produce work for people to experience or read. But too often “serious” writers are trained to see social media as a distraction, as meaningless, as a low-class or even dumb way to publish, partly because it rarely involves payment.

As with so many things, social media is whatever you make of it. Treat it as dumb, and that’s what it’ll be for you.

People break social media “rules” all the time and succeed.

There are countless case studies and reports about how often you should post, what networks you ought to use, how to create effective images and titles, where and how to schedule for optimal reach, and even the ideal number of words or characters in your updates.

You don’t have to follow or learn any of it—unless you want to go work for a corporation and become a social media manager.

All you have to learn is what engages your people and is workable for you. And that takes time, patience, and curiosity.

I admit there are many ways to undercut yourself (such as posting too many hard sells that cause people to tune out), and there are a few best practices that help increase engagement.

But before all these best practices comes something much more fundamental: being a curious and interested human being, who can communicate in an engaging way. Writers are pretty good at that. But they forget they’re good at it when they’re filled with pressure or anxiety about results, or feel burdened with this thing they feel isn’t part of their “real” career as a writer.

And that I think is the driving force behind why it’s so hard to teach social media. It works best when you can see it as play, as a natural extension of your work. As soon as you carve it out as the “marketing and promotion” part of work/life, your results may be lackluster. People can tell when you’re only around because you’re trying to get something out of them. The more you try to make social media “pay,” often the less it does. Demands that it must be used or mandates for a certain type of use crushes the spirit and direction of creative and fulfilling activity.

So what can I possibly say to writers to help them become better at it? Well, first, don’t take it all so seriously. Look for what you enjoy. Have a spirit of questioning and discovery. Follow a daily routine that works for you. Sustainable and meaningful social media practice isn’t so different from getting your “real” writing done.

Posted in Social Media.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Daniel Beaudoin

Super article Jane. I very much like the “show your work process” Keon talks about. I will try this approach when I set up my site, starting with Google +. It would be fantastic if this would lead to discussion and knowledge growth.

Michelle Yandre

Great read, Jane. I especially like the bit about using social to micro-publish your work. I’m in the learning industry, helping to promote business book publishers and their authors, and sometimes micro-learning/reading is all a professional audience has time for. Producing and combining bite-sized pieces of content and sharing it via social media platforms really delivers what this niche audience is looking for.

Damon Dean

This is a must-read for so many writers battling the anxiety of social-media relevance to their work. Great perspective, healthy perspective. Thank you.

jeff lyons

Smartest basic advice I’ve seen on this … thanks.

Dominique Blessing

Thank you, Jane for this post! As someone hoping to be published, I’ve been wondering how to promote myself on social media. This confirms something I was thinking of doing

Robin E. Mason

Thank you, Jane!! “Use social media to micro-publish or to share your work.” inspired me to do just that – already I share short snippets on Facebook, but i also have a feature on my blog (Wreading Wednesdays) that I will dedicate to longer excerpts from my stories! always appreciate your posts, thanks so much for sharing all the good info!

Julie Watson

Thank you, Jane, for your wisdom. I am finding the more I engage, the more people engage with me and the more following I attract. As you say ‘enjoy it.’

Barbara Stark-Nemon

A refreshingly sensible post- as usual!

Virginia Rinkel

I love the ‘show your work’ – get it out there. Then go right back to it and growth it out somemore. You will probably take a creative rest somewhere in there, but this advice about ‘show your work’ hits me there and square. Thank you Jane for your deep insights.

Laura Droege

I appreciate this article, Jane, but social media leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I understand that for many people, they can play and share their work and dialogue with friends and potential readers. On the other, I’ve had a lot of problems with it. I’m bipolar, and each time I’ve tried to use social media (specifically Facebook and Twitter), it’s negatively impacted my mental health. It’s hard to describe how without coming across as a “crazy” person; normally, I’m stable when I take my medication (and I always do). But it makes my mind feel scattered and it’s… Read more »

Laura Droege

Thanks for replying, Jane. Pinterest has been better for me from a mental health point of view; it doesn’t have quite the same effect. But I’ve never been able to figure out how to effectively use it as a novelist-in-training or how to connect with others. I’ll look into Instagram, as I don’t know much about it.

CA Rothermund-Franklin

This is wonderful advice Jane. Thank you for sharing this with all of us out there trying to find that balance between how to use social media to our advantage but still lost in what it really is. Just today, I read a mini-ghost story on Twitter. It made me think about micro-publishing as you mentioned in your article. I also wondered if we could use social media with help in branding.

[…] Jane Friedman’s post on social media for authors was a soothing balm to me. Particularly these sentences: “It works best when you can see it as play, as a natural extension of your work. As soon as you carve it out as the ‘marketing and promotion’ part of work/life, your results may be lackluster.” Sometimes, I worry about my online presence, as the bulk of my writing time is spent in offline projects and SEO stuff. Then when I do post on social media, I feel like it has to really be something special. So I end up not… Read more »

Lynne Spreen

Drop mic.

[…] I’m one who enjoys blogging, bringing links to others to help them and to shine a light for other author’s books. […]

Elena Niko

Very useful! It is all about what engages your audience… And it takes time to find it… I am a new blogger and I know that words are not enough… Even if they are as real as your own blood 🙂

[…] by conflicting advice on using social media? Jane Friedman explains why social media is so hard to advise authors on. Want to make your time on social media more productive? Alfred Lua gives 14 ways to increase your […]

Ken Cowan

Hi, Jane; I am an appreciative reader of your writings… just taking a minute to point out the result when clicking on BEST BOOKS / for writers / Browse the list recommended by Jane; That page can’t be found. It looks like nothing was found at this location. Maybe try one of the links below or a search? My wife Meg is just getting started as an audiobook Narrator with me as the audio guy and only about ten performances available on Audible, iTunes and Amazon so far. When you decide to put audiobooks into your big picture of circles… Read more »

Dorit Sasson

Here’s what deeply spoke to me in the form of a takeaway: “Have Courage, Be Curious.” So so glad you bring up the subject of curiosity – it’s highly undervalued because it’s not a “hard-core” quality – but it’s necessary. It takes courage to be creative AND curious at the same time, you know? Such a refreshing post on such a topic where it’s been picked apart quantitatively that the intention and focus of it has been completely misused. Can one be “social” at Starbucks without being natural?

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