Authors are often pressured to connect online to develop a reader base and promote their work. This puts them in the dicey situation of relating to people socially while also marketing their books. I was curious about how writers manage that balance and what they find rewarding or frustrating about interacting with readers online.
I created a short unscientific survey for crime fiction authors and distributed the link through a number of social sites where crime fiction authors participate: Dorothy-L, the Sisters in Crime Yahoo group, Twitter, and the crime fiction communities on Goodreads and Wattpad. Of the 33 writers who chose to participate, two were under 25 and eleven were over 65, with the largest number of respondents (16) between ages 45 and 65. One respondent preferred not to specify demographic details. Most respondents were women (27), with only five men participating. All but two or three of the respondents live in North America. (Two live in Europe; one chose not to specify a location.) Fourteen of the respondents are traditionally published, 12 are both traditionally and self-published, four are self-published, and two chose “not yet published; I am evaluating options.”
Platforms of choice
I asked participants to tell me which social media they use from a list I provided. Of social media platforms, Facebook was the most commonly used, with 30 respondents saying they use it. This is not surprising. A recent Pew Internet report found that Facebook is far and away the most commonly used social media platform, though its membership growth is plateauing, while the less-popular sites Pinterest and Instagram have doubled their membership since 2012.
Blogs (including either writing posts or commenting on them) remain a major social tool for these writers, with 24 respondents involved in blogging, closely followed by Twitter (22). Email discussion lists focused on crime fiction were the next most popular medium, with 20 respondents participating in such groups. Slightly over half (17) used Goodreads, with far fewer using LibraryThing (3), not surprising given that Goodreads has a much larger membership and encourages authors to promote their work, whereas LibraryThing explicitly focuses on readers and their books. (There is an LT Author badge and regular author chats and book giveaways at LibraryThing, but the overall culture of Goodreads is more commercially oriented.) The four who used Wattpad were 45 or younger, including two respondents under 25. Only one respondent (over 65) reported using none of the social media options in the survey. There did not appear to be any particular patterns of use by age among these respondents except in the case of Wattpad.
When asked what makes particular platforms useful to respondents as writers, the most common response across the board was interaction or relationship-building. This was mentioned by eleven respondents as a plus for Facebook. Four praised email lists for this quality, and three felt blogs were useful for relationship-building. Some sites were valued as places where authors could express themselves, with Wattpad and blogs each having this quality mentioned by three respondents. Another reason respondents preferred various media was reach, where again Facebook (the largest of social platforms) was most frequently mentioned, with Twitter an also-ran. The sheer size of membership can be a factor. As one respondent put it, “I’ve found Facebook and Goodreads to be the most useful. They provide opportunity for a writer to get to know and interact with a large number of people from around the world, people who – once they get to know you – may purchase your books or at least recommend them to their own circles.” But several respondents mentioned that they found it hard to keep up with all the options and weren’t sure whether they were useful to their writing careers. As one respondent put it,
Despite the worldwide spread of the Internet, I feel I only reach a very few people through my social media efforts. Only a handful of people like or comments on my Facebook/blog posts. There’s so many blogs and so much “noise” on the Internet that it’s impossible to rise above the clutter.
Positives and negatives
I asked what authors liked most about interacting online with readers. When coding the results, the two most commonly-mentioned positives were socializing or meeting people (11) and getting affirmation (11). As one respondent put it, “this is a profession rife with rejection. I get validation from the interactions.” Two interrelated benefits were learning about writing and the publishing industry and finding out what readers like, both in one’s own writing and in crime fiction generally, with 12 respondents responding in one of these ways. Other qualities mentioned by at least two respondents were appreciating candor within a community, having fun, the immediacy of interacting online, low cost, and being able to belong to an affinity group.
My next question had to do with the downside: what is most frustrating about interacting with readers online? The two most-commonly mentioned problems were the time it took away from writing (7 mentions) and dealing with hostility or argumentative people (9). As one respondent put it, “The Internet can be a mean forum.” Most of the problems arose from disagreements over personal beliefs or political issues, but some irritation was caused by people criticizing a writer’s work or disparaging it because it included elements such as “bad” language or sexuality that they disapproved of. Five were bothered by the shallowness of many interactions. Five were troubled by lack of response to their comments or posts. Three mentioned that they were frustrated by not having any way to connect the time spent on social media with sales. As one put it,
there’s no measurable way of assessing impact/results . . . The lack of metrics dismays me because my time is not unlimited and my main job is writing.”
While social media platforms often include metrics (and even promote them), traditional publishers don’t provide up-to-date sales information, and even if self-published authors have current information, it’s difficult to correlate with time-consuming social interactions online. Another respondent wrote “I don’t blog anymore. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. 3000 words per month to a blog – 3000 words not directed to my next book.”
I closed the short survey with an open question: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences participating in social media? The conflict between the time spent on social media and writing the next book was felt by many respondents. As one put it,
Too much new technology to learn. Writing blogs can be time consuming for little results. Social media was leaving me too tired and with too little time left to actually WRITE! I put my energy now on my stories instead of social media.
Another said, “I spend far too much time on it. If you’re not careful, you can waste a good part of your day.”
The focus on getting attention promoted in many social media platforms was also a concern. As one respondent put it, “I’d rather be writing books than participating in online fashion shows.” But another respondent had mixed feelings.
Sometimes I feel like I’m simply adding to the social noise when I post anything, and maybe it would be better if we all unplugged. OTOH, I live in a rural area with few opportunities for reader contact, and I do think the contact makes me a better writer.
For some, it was important to maintain a careful balance between being authentic and coming across as a heavy-handed marketer. (My previous reader survey bears this out – readers enjoy genuine interactions with writers, but are quickly turned off when they feel that the interaction is geared primarily toward sales). One offered advice about how to pull this balancing act off.
Don’t force it. Be cool. Don’t be a jerk screaming “buy my book,” every eight seconds. Give content, answer questions, be funny (not forced), pleasant and available.
Though one respondent reported seeing a spike in sales whenever she had a blog tour, another wrote, “It’s actually pretty hard to find readers on social media. Most of the folks I’m finding are authors trying to find readers.”
While a majority of respondents in these open comments reflected on how much writing time could be wasted on social media, some respondents said that once they overcame a learning curve and established a routine, they could fold communicating with readers online into their workflow. Learning best practices from one another also helped. As one respondent explained it,
I started early and have kept up. I’m glad I did. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but because I got in early I found a few really great people from whom to watch and learn. And it cost me nothing but time.
Of course, the lack of time was a major issue among respondents.
While authors are frequently pushed to engage with readers online to promote their books, these writers were thoughtful about the nature and value of their use of social media. Like readers, they value authentic interactions (and sometimes the affirmation readers provided), and seemed largely realistic about the limitations such interactions have for boosting their careers. Some have deliberately reduced the time they spend online to focus on writing the next book. Others enjoy social media interactions but still question whether they have the value that publishers often put on them.
A quick search online will turn up thousands of articles explaining how authors should (or shouldn’t) use social media, often in the form of listicles: five essential sites, ten rules for engagement, 100 tips . . . Just reading through search results can be exhausting. The lack of metrics that tie sales to interactions online, the amount of time it can take away from writing in a genre where a book a year is a minimum expectation, and the sheer volume of writers seeking attention can be daunting. This is particularly true given that building a presence in an online community takes time and overt marketing is met with (often fierce) resistance. But there are benefits apart from the sales aspect, particularly in learning readers’ perspectives on books and gaining a sense of connection and affirmation.
Thanks to the authors who took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. For writers who feel they’ve been pressed to do too much connecting, there’s a satirical piece by Heather Havrilesky in the New Yorker, “How to Contact the Author,” that illustrates the fraught aspects of being expected to develop close relationships with readers when carried too far.