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.
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.