How and Why to Build a Twitter Following While Unpublished

Image: illustration of birds following the leader

Today’s guest post is by author Emma Lombard (@LombardEmma).


As a new author, there is so much conflicting information about whether you should or shouldn’t have an author platform before you’re published. I decided to err on the side of caution, and forge ahead with building one, starting with resurrecting my dormant Twitter account. I pretty much started from scratch with only 36 followers and very little knowledge about how Twitter worked.

Through a crazy baptism of fire, I soon learned the ins and outs of Twitter. I jotted down my discoveries in a blog series called Twitter Tips for Newbies, which, to my utter surprise, has proven popular in Twitter’s #WritingCommunity.

So far, I’ve amassed 20,000 followers on Twitter in my first year. Before I dig into how that happened, a couple quick ground rules if you’re new to the Twitter community:

  • Don’t follow without screening who you are following first—or you’ll end up with some eye-popping content on your feed).
  • Keep your follower-following numbers even while you’re below the 5,000 mark. Don’t race ahead and follow a bazillion accounts. Essentially, this is what bots do and Twitter will put you in Twitter jail and prevent you from following accounts.

Here are my top three call-to-action strategies that work.

1. Retweeting = Exposure

Once a week, I post a tweet offering to retweet my follower’s pinned posts. When you offer this first, it makes it easier to then ask them to retweet yours too (as opposed to just yelling out into the Twitter void that you want your pinned post retweeted). But I always go one step further and ask them to also support and retweet 5 other pinned posts from folks on that thread.

The upside to this:

  • Folks online love this rallying of the troops. Yes, it may mean I end up retweeting hundreds of pinned tweets over a few days, but the payoff is having hundreds of folks retweet my pinned post. It’s a win-win for everyone.
  • Twitter’s algorithms perk up and pay attention to a post that is getting a lot of activity and will push your pinned post out for more people to see—so make sure your pinned post is worthy of sharing far and wide.

The downside to this:

  • I’ve read so many people (including those who comment on my retweet feeds) that they won’t even retweet all 5 pinned posts in one day because they don’t want to fill their Twitter feed with retweets and scare off their followers. But Twitter’s algorithms do not push every single retweet onto people’s feeds, so you won’t be flooding their feeds with dozens of retweets (plus, Twitter has an option to turn off follower’s retweets if you find them annoying).
  • If you don’t support your followers, later on, no one is going to step up and help you. You’ll be surprised who remembers.

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • This is how my Twitter Tips for Newbies blog series exploded onto the #WritingCommunity scene.
  • It’s also how, in less than two months, I gathered over 100 subscribers to my brand-new newsletter, By the Book.

2. Promote Newbies

I regularly post a tweet dedicated to writers and readers with fewer than 1,000 followers. I give newbies a larger platform on which to meet other newbies. Some folks are terribly intimidated by large accounts, but they quite happily engage with smaller accounts. This is why I rally my other followers with more than 1,000 followers to retweet the post.

The upside to this:

  • Until newbies have at least 1,000 followers, they aren’t even a blip on Twitter’s algorithm radar. Even if they have a couple hundred followers, the algorithms don’t push them onto their followers’ feed. So, helping newbies get over this 1,000-follower mark is doing them a great service.
  • When you’ve helped someone in their often terrifying first few days or weeks on Twitter, they don’t forget you! It’s one sure-fire way to build up champions in your corner.

The downside to this:

  • Sometimes you might follow a new account that doesn’t have any history, so you don’t know if they’re a good fit for you. If you take a punt on a newbie and suddenly discover a few days later that they are pushing out content that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to unfollow them (though don’t just unfollow for the sake of building up your numbers—many folks have a nose for this and will call you out on it).

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • I fell in love with literary agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, where she critiques query letters online. So, imagine how hard I fan-girled the day Janet followed me on Twitter and then sent me a message thanking me for helping one of her authors build their Twitter platform! I nearly fell off my chair. It just goes to show, you never know who’s watching.
  • While I was still numb with shock, I made one of the most audacious moves of my career at that stage and I emailed Janet asking her if she’d grant me an interview with her. She said YES because by that stage I’d helped another two of her authors with their Twitter platforms. I was oblivious to these connections. This time, the chair could not hold me and I happy danced around my kitchen much to the disdain of my two cats.
  • This then opened the door for me to use Janet’s query letter critique service for my own query letter, which has so far helped me hook two agents into reading my manuscript.

3. Engage, Engage, Engage

Lift other writers up and celebrate their achievements—they aren’t your competition, they are your peers and team mates. Share what you’ve discovered on your authoring journey, including your blunders (readers love seeing your vulnerabilities; it helps build real connections with people).

More ideas for engagement: Welcome newbies. If someone’s having a bad day, send them a gif hug. Enter competitions and giveaways. Respond to the comments on your tweets. Post and comment on interesting articles.

And have fun.

The upside to this:

  • You never know who just might pop out of the woodwork and end up following you.
  • Even if folks in the publishing industry are not following you, you can be sure that they’ll be noticing your online behavior and activity. If you’re playing the long game of becoming a professional writer, this kind of attention is invaluable.

The downside to this:

  • If you choose to be more liberal with your voice online, this may be a deterrent to some followers.
  • On the other hand, it may also attract you to others who are more your tribe, though this may shrink your networking opportunities.

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • By using the #HistoricalFiction hashtag, I was followed by historical fiction specialist editor, Andrew Noakes from The History Quill at the exact moment in my career when I needed an editor! Not only have Andrew and his team proven to be consummate professionals in helping me edit my manuscript, but I was also drawn into his writing workshop and critique group. I now have several published historical fiction authors as critique partners, who provide exceptional feedback on my latest work.
  • Twitter is where I found my amazingly talented illustrator, Tara Phillips. And where I won a competition to have one of my characters illustrated by author and illustrator Eleonora Mignoli.
  • I’m now invited to write guest blogs on other websites, and I have successfully secured interviews with other publishing industry professionals and writers. (Don’t be shy to ask—you’ll be surprised how many people are amenable to doing an interview or being a guest blogger. The worst that can happen is they say no.)
  • I’ve been invited to write for and compile two separate anthologies (that I’ve unfortunately had to turn down due to not wanting to overburden myself).

Still Not Published

All this has happened in a year and I still don’t have my novel published—it’s currently in the querying trenches.

I don’t want this to sound like a brag fest—I want to show other new writers out there that there is great value in using Twitter as part of your author platform. Overall, the key to a successful Twitter account is engagement. Engage with and lift up other writers and readers so that when your day comes to share news about your book launch, you will have champions in your corner.

Posted in Guest Post, Social Media.

Before becoming a historical fiction author, Emma Lombard was an editor in the corporate world across various industries—aviation, aquatic ecology, education and the world of academia. Her blog series Twitter Tips for Newbies is popular in Twitter's #WritingCommunity for helping writers (new to Twitter) navigate the platform and find their voices on social media. She is the author of the upcoming historical adventure, Discerning Grace. To connect with Emma or enquire about being a guest blogger, head to her author website.

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Natalie Aguirre

Thanks for sharing all your tips, Emma. I know I need to learn how to engage more on Twitter but haven’t been sure how to do it. I’m going to check out your posts for newbies.

Nancy
Nancy

This was a very helpful post. Thank you. I had a Twitter account while working that was linked to my position. When I retired, all my followers went with it. Now I have to build a following from scratch in regard to my efforts as an aspiring writer. This information gives me hope I can do it.

Deena

Thanks for the informative post I’m a newbie and have no idea how to navigate twitter so I’ll be checking out your suggestions. I’ve been focusing more on my website/blog, Facebook and Instagram because I’m so intimidated by Twitter.

Julie

Great tips! I’m sold on trying out twitter. Thanks for encouraging reluctant newbies

Frances Caballo

Congratulations to you, Emma. Attracting 20,000 followers in one year is a difficult task. As long as they are people truly interested in historical fiction, I applaud you. I would not offer to retweet my followers’ pinned posts without the option to review them first. You need to create a consistency in your branding and every tweet you send should support your brand. I always encourage people to regard other writers in their genre as colleagues. We are in this together. For example, romance readers are voracious readers and one author can’t possibly write quickly enough to satisfy a fan’s… Read more »

Lissa Johnston

Great article, but I’m probably biased bc regardless of the lackluster reviews of Twitter as a marketing tool, I just love using it! Recently I’ve gotten back on board with the #FollowFriday as a means of uplifting others. I will take a look at your suggestion about RT pinned posts to possibly add another method. One comment I feel compelled to make: is it possible one reason these strategies have been so beneficial to you is that your non-fiction projects are specifically about how to use Twitter? It’s a perfect match, but wonder if fiction writers can expect the same… Read more »

Craig Ballantyne

I started using twitter when I started blogging and twitter offered an easy way to connect with my audience and keep them updated with latest blogs, videos and podcasts. When I was ready to publish my first book, my twitter audience was a rich source of beta readers and book reviewers. I also got some reviews from readers at https://usabookreviewers.com and now have dozens of reviews and am also seeing good sales. The ebook integrates well with my YouTube channel and website. Looking forward to a busy Christmas season..

Patricia Tiffany Morris

This is fantastic. I have bemoaned twitter land for months, and am slowly “understanding” a little about what makes it squeak. Thanks for helping those of us new to this platform. Blessings from an artist, writer, poet, and tech collaborator. Thanks.

Jessica Brodie

Yes, 100% I love what you said about, “Lift other writers up and celebrate their achievements—they aren’t your competition, they are your peers and team mates.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Neil Spark

Thank you for sharing helpful and inspiring information Emma. I am going to review my Twitter strategy. I think I might have quantity but not necessarily quality.

DeuxBleu
DeuxBleu

Thank you. This is good information and for that reason I retweeted. Two thumbs up.
DeuxBleu
#amwriting
#NaNoWriMo2019

DeBonis Karen

Oh, I wish I had found you 5,000 followers ago, Emma. So I’m not exactly a newbie, but I still have much to learn and will put your suggestions into practice!

Venia

“…they aren’t your competition, they are your peers and team mates.” Love, love, love this. And you’ve persuaded me to finally bite the bullet and start a Twitter account!

Greg Brick

Thanks Emma. In your first year, it would be interesting to hear how many actual hours you devoted to expanding your Twitter audience as you’ve described? I’ve published a series of NF cave books with university and other presses and the last one I was only able to write by devoting a few hours each morning before breakfast before leaving for a 40 hr/wk job, over the course of one year. It was a stringent routine. I wouldn’t have gotten anything published if I’d spent a huge amount of time on social media. I’ve found Twitter to be the deadest… Read more »

Emilya Naymark

Emma, this was amazing. I felt very discouraged about twitter and managed to barely scrape together 280 followers in one year. I gave your pinned tweet advice a shot this past Sunday and GAINED 120 FOLLOWERS IN 24 HOURS. I was gobsmacked. Plus, without me asking them to, people re-tweeted my pinned tweet. I’m still getting followers from that one post two days ago. I will do this again next Sunday and see what happens. Being social is brutally difficult for me, but I understand the point of exposure and casting a wide net. You never know who you will… Read more »

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Vivienne Sang

I have a lot of trouble using Twitter. I must make more effort. I’m not a new writer, but I suppose it’s never too late to learn. Trouble is, finding the time!
But thank you for an interesting and informative post.

Linda Piazza

Thank you for the tips. I’d decided this weekend was my weekend to research Twitter, and here was your post to help and encourage me and others. Also, congratulations on being in the querying trenches! You’ve taken big steps forward in both publishing your work and deciding on Twitter tactics that work for you. When my books were published in the mid-90’s, our publisher took care of marketing. As I work on final edits for my novel, I’m learning new tools, too.

Elaine Carnegie

Wonderful article Emma!