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Social Media for Authors: Forever in Search of Buzz

A writer I know recently asked me what I’d been working on lately. “Publicity, as always,” I replied, “although more consulting than campaigns these days.”

“Oh right, authors and our ‘personas,’” he scoffed.

Having spoken to students in graduate creative writing and journalism programs at two different universities that week, I took it in stride. I always do. I have to. Rarely does a writer come along who is thrilled by the prospect of marketing himself. But after we chatted for a while my friend conceded that, yes, there is only so much room in each issue of the New York Times Book Review, which I admitted I seldom read, and that, ideally, his would be among the books chosen for review.

I always ask authors who request my services to begin by considering how it is that their readers know what they know. Did they discover your latest title in a review? Wander into a reading or other event? Or, as is usually the case now, see a mention on some form of social media? When I work on a publicity campaign, I view my objective as twofold: to persuade someone to buy the author’s book—as opposed to all the other books competing for attention—and, more essentially, to speed up that sale and persuade her to do it now. In order to achieve this, an author needs that ever-elusive buzz. But what exactly is buzz, where does it come from, and how do you get it?

When I began my career in public relations a decade ago, doing media outreach for campaigns and hot-button social issues, my mornings were devoted to reading the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, as well as a few other newspapers. I’d clip out relevant articles, paste them onto single sheets, and distribute copies to executives. What is striking to me now is not how much paper was involved—and it was a lot—but how finite the world of information seemed. The work was systematic and technical: Faxed press releases were followed up with calls to reporters and editors in the hope that they might attend the scheduled press conference, and press kits were assembled to distribute there. The thing I remember most is that each project had a clearly identifiable endpoint, which was arrived at when a feature article was published or a segment aired on a national news program.

Five years later I switched my focus to cultural projects, primarily literary publicity, and assiduously and methodically read four hundred blogs via an RSS reader, which collected new and updated items and displayed them continuously. Partly, it was personal interest that led me to focus my attention on online media. It was also a matter of necessity. Publishing is a relatively small industry, and working outside traditional houses, I lacked the carefully cultivated relationships that in-house publicists maintained. I also saw no need to duplicate their efforts.

I speak regularly to audiences—from academic groups to editorial and publicity staffers at publishing houses—but I don’t spend much time sketching out the particulars of any one type of social media. They change too quickly, and I eschew the idea that anyone should be everywhere all the time. I encourage writers to consider what they are already doing, and to focus their efforts there. Is YouTube useful for writers? Sure, if you like making videos. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to spend money on a book trailer unless they have a concept that already sounds viral in the telling. Facebook and Twitter are useful because that’s where so many of the bits of information that color our lives can be found, and that’s where everyone is looking at the moment. Twitter is where I find what editors and booksellers are talking about when they talk about books. I log in to Facebook to keep in touch with authors and see who’s hot right now. A few years ago it was MySpace, a few years hence it will be something else. The specific platforms are always evolving, but the overall trends are fairly consistent.

There’s a video of me speaking at Penguin Books in London a few years ago, and it always makes me wistful to get a note about it from someone who’s just come across it, because there’s a perfectly outdated MySpace anecdote in the clip that makes no sense now. It lacks context, and is thus wholly irrelevant. At the time, the anecdote was highly instructive, and the author I was talking about has gone on to be something of a social-media sensation in other realms. This experience reminds me of the fluidity of change, and the necessity of not getting too caught up in the imagined structures of permanence. The microblogging platform Tumblr is gaining in popularity among my friends and colleagues (I have a well-tended personal blog on another platform and have not opened a Tumblr account, having reached my limit; a sort of fascination fatigue sets in due to long-term exposure to new ways of learning everyone’s opinions on, well, everything) and the location-based social-networking site Foursquare gets a lot of traffic (but I don’t use it, because I find the idea of self-reported surveillance a little too Orwellian for my taste). Technology is a set of habits, and they can be good or bad for you.

The world of social media deeply resembles the world it mirrors—and in some ways has supplanted: Fear, fame, anxiety, connectivity, conversation, blossoming friendships, connections being made, they all unfold with the clamor of a good party. The task of finding readers and an audience is made much easier by joining the conversation that you feel you belong to, whether it’s via media that you maintain (your blog, your Facebook page, your Twitter handle), community sites you check daily, or blogs that you read and comment on when you have something important to add.

I had a conversation this afternoon with an author who is, in the best sense of the word, emerging. His third novel will be published in the fall, and he’s gotten the coveted reviews. Still, his frustration was evident as he asked me, quite frankly, how he’s supposed to know what’s working if he doesn’t see the results in his sales. I explained my theory of positive momentum. It’s no longer the case that one thing will necessarily make your career. If anything, that exposure could be a breakthrough that heralds success because it leads to the next shot at the limelight. Rather than angling for a specific kind of coverage in a specific kind of outlet, I encourage authors to see things from the perspective of sustained momentum, and to do things that will continually advance their interests, and, ultimately, their careers. For this particular writer, that means focusing on the niche audiences that fall outside his publisher’s view. I suggested he pose a particular question—concerning reading series that take place in art galleries—on Facebook. This is how buzz starts. It is a matter of starting to speak, igniting that desire for interaction, commentary, and conveyance of ideas that powers social media.

“The task of finding readers and an audience is made much easier by joining the conversation that you feel you belong to, whether it’s via media that you maintain, community sites you check daily, or blogs that you read and comment on when you have something important to add.”

Reader Comments

  • abrandolph says...

    I definitely admire the useful bits of advice in this reading. It is very helpful to have the importance of social media reiterated as well as given as a precaution because it's a possibility for both good and bad habits. Overpromotion? No, it's more like inaccurate promotion. "Consistency is key." And don't forget, "Weekday mornings have the most eyes." I wonder how leisurely people are on Fridays...

    I personally think the website Fictionaut (which I've honestly never heard of until reading this article) would be something very benificial as I am one who likes to post my own writing, leave it up for critiques, comment on other's posts to voice my opinion and add to the discussion and become identified by my choices of engagement, and I would like to discover writers AND readers who's tastes I share. Fictionaut.com requires an invitation to join, so before finishing this comment I have requested an invitation. Please join me!

    Again. This article has proven very useful. Thank you Lauren Cerand.

  • marcus_speh says...

    Thank you for this overview and opinion—I have recently deactivated my facebook friend page because I found it too restrictive: fb still resembles a club. Instead I started a more open environment—kaffe in katmandu, using the very viral tumblr— because, as a writer, you don't necessarily just want to reach out to "friends". In this respect, I think the new google plus with its "circle" concept and its link to the omnipresent search engine and plenty of other services, will soon outflank facebook...more important for writers is, I think, blogging. i've written about this recently at the view from here. Cheers from Berlin!

  • Lee Lowe says...

    If I wanted a buzz, I'd invest in a good loud kitchen timer.

  • LaurenCerand says...

    Thank you for the kind words. Kristie Leigh, as it currently stands, the limit for Facebook friends on a personal page is 5,000. After that, you cannot add new friends. A fanpage is theoretically unlimited. My advice is, as always, to consolidate information and energy in as few, well-focused places as possible. Better to have one dynamic page than two or more that potentially languish from lack of attention, fragmenting audiences and floating around as "orphans" once the campaign for that book has wound down -- truly, the very last signal that you would want to send potential readers about the level of attention you accord your work.

  • KristieLeighMaguire says...

    Great article. I am confused about something though. Why not start a Fan Page at FB unless you have 5001 followers? This doesn't make sense to me.

  • leekearneyma@yahoo.com says...

    Thanks for the concise article on social media. As a senior and a writer all the tech stuff seems overwhelming. I was able to gather some names that I plan to check out. Again thanks for keeping it simple. Lee Kearney

  • VDouglas says...

    With the publishing industry so much in a state of flux these days and according to reports somewhat reluctant to take the chance on an unknown author, it is increasingly necessary for writers to start generating buzz themselves. As a writer published with an e-pub but seeking that elusive bigger contract, I've been intrigued to see some name authors promoting their books online. I'm also constantly in search of new ways to promote my own books, in the hopes that the next query letter will have someone peeking at my FB profile to see my author page and book pages. It's a changing world, and we're all trying to change to meet it.

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Social Media for Authors: Forever in Search of Buzz (May/June 2011)
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