Saturday, 31 May 2014

Social Networking is not your Friend.

In lieu of other writing news I thought I'd stick parts of an essay I did for my MMU MA degree on here, where I argue about how shit Twitter is. I'm taking the 'necessity' aspect of social networking as a given, and playing devil's advocate to some degree, but hopefully some food for thought lies herein....

'Follow'. ‘Link’. 'Share'. 'Tweet'. 'Like': prominent words in any web savvy writer's (already considerable, of course) vocabulary. With writing such a solitary act, and with hundreds of books released each week, having an online profile is seemingly essential for any writer as means of self-promotion, but can social-networking hinder a writer’s career as much as it may help it?
That social-networking is necessary is taken as a given (‘celebrity’ authors JK Rowling, for example, to use the most obvious example, has one and a half million Twitter followers, and Stephanie Meyer doesn't lag too far behind with her 99,991 fans at last count) but what benefit does twitter have for the emerging writer?

I’ve currently finished my first novel, and hopefully at some point in the future it’ll find publication –which will necessitate me trying to promote it- but I’ve previously attempted to use Twitter to draw attention to some of my short stories which have been published in online literary magazines (some stories decent enough, some not so good, admittedly). 
I blog about my writing because I feel I need to showcase my work. I provide links to my stories on Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to them. I have ‘friends’ who are writers on Facebook. I ‘follow’ writers on Twitter. I ‘like’ links to these writers’ own novels and stories mainly because netiquette dictates that I should, or I’m commending the effort, knowing how hard writing is, but not because I’ve necessarily read them, and nor do I own many books by the people I choose to follow, and I know that I’m not alone in this. Chuck Wendig, who has a great blog and has got it right in that he's been described as 'a firm favourite among fans for his characterful online presence'[1] sums up the issue thus: 'your online followers are not automagically your book readers-slash-buyers. HUMBLEBRAG TIME: I have almost 17,000 Twitter followers. NOTSOHUMBLEBRAG TIME: I do not have 17,000 readers.'[2] And if that’s from somebody who’s really good at using social sites, then what for those who are really shit at it? 
I’m bad at Twitter. I usually feel like I'm bellowing into the void and pestering people who couldn't care less. But I persist.  I've (very idly) googled 'how to use social media effectively', and countless blogs and advice columns appear, penned by gurus who'll turn your fortune around when you subscribe to whatever workshop it is that they themselves are promoting; the surfeit of information on this topic itself attesting to the fact that most people don't have a clue.

Discussions with agents/editors during my MA, especially those from small/indie presses have made it clear that writers need to be actively involved in promotional work/selling, and that they want clients who will work assiduously to build up a readership, to take the time to make the effort. 
It’s a necessary evil, then, and publishing is an industry after all, but such persistent self-promotion to establish an unknown author can conversely work against them. People don't like to be bothered. You can’t rush online friendships or be too over-familiar with strangers, and while the pay-off may mean links shared/writing promoted, do the sales figure make all this time spent away from writing worth it? The whole romantic ideal of the writer comes into play too, and while the myth of the starving artist is one that should be eradicated, there is a certain tension between artistic integrity and financial gain, plus the instant online access into a writer's private life can -if not successfully handled- raise issues regarding authenticity and even likeability.
Facebook, to me, even though I rarely even use it now, is like going for a drink in a friendly boozer full of worn leather seats and stained wooden floorboards and old Guinness posters on the walls. Your ‘friends’ have seen you tagged in pictures where you’re drunk, there’s more likelihood that you’ve actually met some of these people, or have at least met some of their mutual friends, and while it feels a bit like a weird wake with distant family members you can barely place at times, it isn’t as intimidating as Twitter can be. Twitter feels like trying to impress strangers in a posh bar, where the patrons will guffaw into their cocktails if you’re seen drinking your cider-and-black through a straw. The language too, is important. ‘Unfollow’ and ‘Follow’ makes the whole Twitter thing seem like a jolly conga or game of follow-the-leader, where you can join the train or hop off at will when something shinier catches your eye. ‘Friend’ and ‘Unfriend’ (although pretty meaningless) still has echoes of playground bullying about it; of hurt feelings and eating worms and sitting on the swings by yourself.
Facebook, too, is generally more 'private’, more concerned with establishing bonds between friends and sharing details than it is about promotion. The 140-character limit of Twitter makes it essentially a micro blogging platform, or a podium, with can seem like everybody evangelising at once, like street preachers calling out to the disinterested passing crowd. There is a huge emphasis on 'followers' (and there is some suspicion that certain writers 'follow' people solely to get re-followed, to prove to potential publishers that they have an audience/fans), and brevity is key so getting to the point as quick as possible is paramount, which often sends out the message: 'Hello, stranger. Read this.' or 'Morning. Now buy this.'
The term ‘self-promotion’ is often preceded with the less than complementary ‘shameless’, and with Kickstarter campaigns becoming more and more popular it seems that some writers have embraced what Amanda Palmer has coined 'the art of asking'  for financial support, and there has been set up an online exchange of art for cash. The amount of scathing comments about Miss Palmer's mercenary ways, however, again shows that many do find it distasteful when the perceived begging-bowl is so blatant. 
 This ties in with the mythical ideal of the writer, and while contemporary authors have bills to pay and they probably won't die in a freezing garret from tuberculosis before their manuscript hits the shelves there is the lingering belief that writers should be above such material concerns. A recent guardian article entitled 'Twitter and the (not so) subtle art of literary self-promotion' [3]criticised author Moshim Hamid for his 'relentless onslaught' and the 'unbroken litany of self-aggrandisement' found on his Twitter page, defended by the writer himself with the explanation, 'Cringeworthy I know! But I am on a book tour.'  Salman Rushdie and Paulo Coehlo also come under attack, and underpinning it all is this observation:
Most of us expect writers, especially novelists of a certain stature, to be, ascetic, lofty creatures, occupied with the intricacies of the human condition – which explains our surprise when they turn out to be hardnosed publicists seeking to maximise book sales by promoting their product as aggressively as one would push a new shampoo.
The arrogance of the ‘lofty’ artist is then incorporated into the myth, but snippets of explicit narcissism (‘a personality trait reflecting a grandiose and inflated self-concept’[4] shorn from other context or other pleasantries still makes for uncomfortable reading.
The article goes on to praise the more-reclusive author Nadeem Aslam (who I’ve never heard of, is this telling?) who is apparently oblivious to Twitter, and while this piece is perpetuating unfair stereotypes for the most part it makes a good point in surmising that writers should 'refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it –[as] a book is too inextricably linked to its author to be promoted flat-footedly and without nuance.'
There can be too much exposure, then.  Writers straddle a fine line between being part of culture and aside from it, harkening back to Romantic notions of the heightened sensibility of the artist and their 'celebrity' status in being able to tap into it. The Enlightenment has been said to ‘represent the emergence of the public persona of the writer’[5] with Jean-Claude Bonnet stating that ‘Eighteenth-century men of letters are the first to witness both this proliferation of commentary on their persons and the increase in their public image’[6] so while this authorial visibility isn’t new, and while a new writer may have a long way to go to reach 'celebrity' status there are benefits to maintaining some mystique. During a MA seminar at MMU, visiting speaker and (Ex- Janklow and Nesbit) agent Tim Glister noted - 'It's a fine line between being mysterious and being ignored'[7]- but while established authors can afford to be reclusive (Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy, as examples) new authors do need to make themselves known. This itself, however, can lead to issues of authenticity and likeability and can cheapen their brand.
It has been said that 'on Twitter, 'celebrity' is practiced through the appearance and performance of ‘backstage’ access[8] which creates an intimacy between author and reader which can be beneficial, but what if the 'real' person isn't as appealing at such close range? I've personally unfollowed several writers on Twitter, who I won’t name, for being whiny, or for promoting themselves too much, or for just being boring. Most of these writers are well established, so I know that I’ll find out about their new releases/what they’re up to from other avenues, but for a writer who is more solely reliant on Twitter, they need to both show their personality as well as their work, and try to make themselves stand out from the millions of users on there. 
Writers rub shoulders on Twitter with an array of reality TV stars, so a profound tome about the workings of the human heart is then jostling for attention with a big pair of fake tits, and on a smaller scale, with 'normal' people tweeting, or ‘bad’ writers tweeting away just as frequently, it's hard to sort quality from quantity.
I interviewed author Craig Wallwork (who I ‘met’ after he published one of my stories, and who I ironically questioned about the subject via Facebook) about what he thought about the phenomenon and he observed,
The problem is, social networking is over-saturated with lots of other writers screaming that their novels or stories must be bought and read. There is no way to differentiate from who is telling the truth, and who is not.[9]
This also leads to other issues of authenticity.  If a ‘feminist’ writer, for example, tweets something that may seem to contradict their principles, will that cast a shadow upon their work? Or will the creator of a tale of excess and Motley Crue-type revelry be mocked for tweeting about the Quinoa and fig porridge that they had for breakfast? Authenticity in an age of superficiality is more necessary than ever, so any off-kilter tweet can undo a public persona as quickly as it can endear a person to a fan or potential reader.
And then there’s the effort involved.  Self-promotion is hard work.  Amazon's first self-publishing millionaire Amanda Hocking has stated that she‘spent 85% of her waking day promoting’ and states of the process ‘it drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn't. It's exhausting, and hard to do.’[10] Amanda’s efforts saw great financial remuneration, but a lot of the time the hours spent tweeting and pushing don’t provide such solid ‘proof’ with regards to sales statistics. I also spoke to author Nik Perring (another writer I ‘met’ online, so it feels like I’m undoing my own argument, here!) who began an online promotion for people on Twitter to share his book, Freaks! on their blogs (and who then got an e-version of the book, myself included) says that while he did believe that it was successful, and that it helped sales, he admitted,
I think they have but the strange thing with social media seems to be that no-one really knows exactly how much they affect sales. So, while I can see that if I mention, for example, that Ive put something new up on the blog people will click on the link and see what Ive said, what I cant see is whether they do the same when I mention a promotion on Amazon or Waterstones or wherever.[11]
The mention of Waterstones is interesting as with many book stores closing down 'word-of-mouth' now is even more important, and that seems to be the key to successful social networking. Peer recommendation is paramount, then. So while your cleverly crafted bon mots and acute observations go so far into padding out the spaces in-between promotion, it’s more what other people say about you that counts, than what you say about yourself.
So what should writers do? Bluemoose Books publisher, Kevin Duffy, also dropped by for a seminar at MMU, and in his words ‘the best place to increase sales is BBC Radio 4. The paper reviews. The Guardian and The Sunday Times, followed by the Independent and Telegraph’ [12] so while Twitter can help spread the word, the word still needs to be established by more ‘traditional’ avenues and by respected, established institutions, and unfortunately for a writer, not always by themselves.

[1][1]Damien Walter ‘The Best Young Novelists-from SF’s Universe’ in The Guardian Online <> [accessed 16/04/13]

[2][2]Chuck Wendig ’25 Hard Truths about Writing and Publishing’ in Terrible Minds  22/01/13 <> [accessed 16/04/13]

[3][3]Nesrine Malik ‘Twitter and the (not so)subtle art of literary self-promotion’ in The Guardian Online 12/03/13 <> [accessed 16/04/13]

[4][4] Laura E Buffard, and W. Keith Campbell ‘Narcissism and Social Networking Websites’ in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin vol 34. No.10 (2008) pp 1303-1304  (p.1304) <> [Accessed 16/04/13]

[5][5] Ourida Moustefi ‘The Author as Celebrity and Outcast: Authorship and Autobiography in Roussea’ p.68 [accessed 16/04/13]

[6][6] Moustefi, p.68

[7][7] Tim Glister, discussing his work online as part of MMU’s Creative Writing ‘Text’ module, 29/01/13

[8][8] Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd ‘To see and be seen: celebrity practice on Twitter’, Convergence vol. 17 no. 2  (2011) pp 139-158 (p.143) <> [accessed 16/04/13]

[9][9]Private online interview conducted with Craig Wallwork 14/05/13

[10][10] Ed Pilkington interviewing Amanda Hocking The Guardian Online 12/01/12 <> [accessed 16/04/13]

[11][11] Private online interview conducted with Nik Perring 14/05/13
[12][12] Duffy, MMU

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