Today’s post is by author Catherine Baab-Muguira (@CatBaabMuguira).
Years ago, I had a freelance article go viral, or at least modestly viral, racking up over 50,000 Facebook shares. I received my first-ever invitations to appear as a guest on podcasts and even NPR. I also received dozens of friendly and often deeply personal messages from readers, plus a handful of job offers, right out of the blue.
The funniest thing? That piece was published by mistake. It was 2016, and I’d only just begun to freelance for national publications. I emailed a pitch to a certain online publication’s general inbox, AKA its slush pile. Within a few days, an editor got in touch accepting the idea, but then he hated the draft I turned in. It was too essayistic, he said, and I would need to rewrite the piece as a reported story. I turned in a new version a few weeks later, and a long period of radio silence began. I didn’t hear from the editor again until one random, rainy night when I was standing in line at Kroger, waiting for the clerk to drag my Lean Cuisines across the scanner, and my phone pinged with an urgent email.
The piece would be running tomorrow, the editor announced. Could I please review the draft immediately, sign off, and send in a bio?
Still in line at Kroger, I thumbed open the draft, and a thin trickle of terror ran down my back.
The draft he’d attached was the old one—the one he’d hated. I didn’t know whether to mention this or not. By this point, I’d all but given up on any version getting published, period. In the parking lot, I called a friend on the phone, with no preamble, and he advised me to let it ride. Let the piece come out, get the byline, move on.
The next day, I went to check the site for the piece, except I never made it there because my Twitter notifications had blown up, and I had Facebook DMs from radio stations asking if I would come on their shows.
This felt amazing. Exhilarating. Bewildering. In any case, I was so green that I didn’t realize the piece was unusually successful. I thought this level of attention must be what happened every time you write for a larger publication, which is enough to make me laugh now. I’ve never had a piece gain so much traction since. And today, several iterations of the internet later, I honestly wonder if essays even can go viral anymore. Short-form video is so far and away the dominant currency.
The point is: I wasted that viral opportunity in 2016—fully, completely, in the most comprehensive and self-esteem-annihilating sense.
At the time, I did not have an author website. I didn’t have a blog or an email list. All my socials were set to private, and my personal email address took some serious digging to track down. When NPR got in touch, for instance, they had to do it by Facebook DM, and the message went to my junk inbox, which means I almost missed the chance to do an hour of national media. Oof.
Why didn’t I have a basic online presence in place?
I expect the answer is obvious: I was worried what people might think. It was such early days. I’d barely published. What if my old college friends saw me taking myself seriously, how cringe would that be? What if my coworkers or neighbors saw I’d made a website for myself, wouldn’t I seem deluded? Bless her heart, I imagined them saying. How important does she think she is? Look at her spending actual time on LinkedIn!
And so when the chance came to start building a real, meaningful following, I missed it. In my effort to appear nonchalant—which probably wasn’t convincing anyone, anyway—I guaranteed that I would derive as little benefit as possible from publishing articles, from all the work involved, and from all the time and angst it cost me.
Fast forward to 2018, when I was attempting to sell a nonfiction book proposal, and all I could do was tell publishers the piece had hit. I couldn’t speak of an email list, or a Twitter following, or an Instagram account, full stop, much less Instagram followers.
Not coincidentally, my proposal kept getting rejected. One rejection from a major publisher specifically cited my Twitter follower count, still a mere three digits. When I complained to a bestselling friend, he gave it to me straight: “If you’d gotten serious about building a following years ago, you wouldn’t be in this position now,” he said. And he was right.
Are you making the same mistake I did?
You may be just starting to publish. Or maybe you’re even earlier in the process, and only beginning to think about dipping your toe in that icy pond. I hope you won’t let self-consciousness prevent you from putting some basics in place. What if your early efforts catch fire, and you don’t have a system for capturing that momentum? I’m mixing metaphors here, but far more importantly, you could be positioning yourself to miss out on any support or interest that comes your way, whether huge or modest.
If your goal is to have a writing career one day, then you should probably have a basic website today. You should probably have your email address listed prominently somewhere, in your social bios, your Linktree, what have you. Unless you’re Sleeping with the Enemy, you want to be easy to find, easy to contact. Set up a mailing list whether you have immediate plans to put out a newsletter or not. Seriously, I’m begging you. Learn from my mistake, friends! Save yourselves! I was an idiot, focusing on the wrong things! You don’t have to be!
Even a mailing list of 84 people—and all of them your sorority sisters or second cousins—is better than no mailing list at all. A modest following plus a clearly identifiable audience for your book can get you a deal. In fact, that’s how it eventually happened for me. Besides, who cares if your earliest self-promotional efforts are cringe? This year is the official Year of Cringe, even of meta-cringe. Chances are real good, anyway, that your frenemies are too preoccupied by their own neuroses to notice what you’re doing, and if they’re not? So be it. Everybody is somebody’s hate-read. You’re nobody till somebody hate-reads you.
Building an author platform is a long, hard road, or one of those epic train journeys in Agatha Christie during which someone’s definitely going to get murdered, maybe you. Best get it over with. Best start now, right away, no matter how rough your memoir draft is, no matter if your novel is only 163 words long as of 5 a.m. this morning. You don’t want to miss out on any popularity (or notoriety) you may happen to generate on purpose or by accident. Also, you’re going to need those PR, marketing, presence-building skills to sell your eventual book to readers, so it’s best to start gaining them ASAP.
Is all this a drag and a pain? Oh yes, absolutely. I hate it. I am thinking but not typing the curse words I would use to describe it if we were talking face to face. Sadly, no writer is allowed to remain anonymous like Pynchon, or gets to live the rural-recluse life like J.D. Salinger, not anymore. Which is a shame because I hear New Hampshire is beautiful this time of year. I bet it’s lovely there right now. I’ll never know.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.