This year I’ve been running a 12-week course focused on social media; now that we’re reaching the end, I’ve begun to reflect on my personal approach to social media and how much of it might be applicable to others. Here’s what I came up with.
1. Social media represents your community, not a marketing bullhorn.
Community is something of a warm-fuzzy term these days, perhaps over-used and also vague.
In this particular case—for authors—I use the word community to mean your readers, other authors in your genre, the larger publishing community (at least to some extent), as well as the organizations and businesses involved in book publishing. (Think: booksellers.)
You don’t “own” or control a community, and you don’t necessarily build one either. You do participate in one, or engage with one. And to be an influential or recognized community member, it means operating so as to generate respect and trust.
If you try to use the community to fulfill only your own goals (like selling a book), and focus on your own marketing messages, the community will respond less and less enthusiastically over time.
Even though you may have seen others using the bullhorn approach, I can pretty much guarantee their success is limited.
2. Social media is creative work.
Unfortunately, the amount of angst generated by social media is all out of proportion to what skills or involvement it actually demands. While it’s often characterized as a sales and marketing communications tool, I believe it’s equally a creative medium. Meaningful updates or posts can involve artful research, writing, and design—which then get more engagement. When you post to your favorite network, it can be part of your daily practice rather than a distraction from it. See Debbie Ohi for an excellent example via Instagram; she posts daily doodles.
For more on this idea, read my post How to Avoid the “Extra” Work of Social Media.
3. Enjoy yourself first.
You know how the airline safety demonstration goes: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others.” You have to find what works for your own personality (and sometimes skill level) or what shows off your colors best to increase the chances you’ll enjoy what you’re doing and flourish while doing it. It makes little sense to participate on any social media channel, regardless of its strategic benefit, if you do it grudgingly. That sucks all the potential creative joy out of it. People will move a few steps away from you. But enthusiasm and energy are infectious. So is any effort that sets out to create meaning. And I find that writers, when they can focus on what’s meaningful to them, are among the most superlative users of social media anywhere. They offer substance and insight.
4. The more engaged readers you have, the more freedom you have.
Social media, combined with your website and email newsletter, help you reach readers directly. The more readers you reach, the less you have to depend on any third party to help you. That’s not to say that publishers, agents, and good marketing plans don’t matter if you have a large following. But you depend less on other people to spread the word on your behalf; you yourself are able to seed word of mouth, to get the ball rolling.
5. The rules are exactly what you make them.
Those who’ve been reading my blog for a long time know that it all started at Writer’s Digest—where I launched There Are No Rules. I still believe there aren’t rules—but good principles or best practices, yes. Ultimately social media use is as distinctive as a person’s fingerprints. It’s hard to copy someone else’s use exactly and see the same results. To some extent, everyone finds their own way—what fits their personality, their work, and the audience they hope to find or engage.
To find your own way, I recommend you loosen up (especially if you need to find your voice), not take it all too seriously, and experiment to find what works. If you need a place to start, then focus on talking about or posting about others you admire. Because social media when done well isn’t about focusing wholly on yourself; it’s about focusing outward.
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.