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Before my first novel came out I virtually never used social media. The too-easy and sometimes fraudulent intimacy of Facebook made me uncomfortable. The notion of whittling human communication down to 140 characters on Twitter appalled me. When Esperanza Street was shortlisted for the Guardian ‘Not the Booker’ Prize, the final stage of which was down to readers’ votes, novelist Vestal MacIntyre, author of acclaimed bestseller Lake Overturn, sent me a cheerful five word email: ‘Time to get on Twitter?!’ But, you know, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it even though I knew he was right.
It goes without saying that curiosity is deeply human, as is the urge for connection to others. Not to mention the desire to understand a creative work within the context of its maker’s life. These are surely the reasons why an author biography appears in most books and why I inevitably feel a little disappointed if there isn’t one.
In a previous post I quoted the Swedish poet, Harry Martinson. Martinson wrote a poem called ‘To Be’ in which he described a journey on a steam train with his foster father one summer. The language of the poem is vivid, ecstatic, a startling change in tone from much of his other work. He describes riding in an engine ‘festooned with leaves’ while,
‘Cherry-blossoms rained over us
were sucked into the smoke
and blown up in whirls
like a cloud statue over the Sunday School.
They stuck like God’s postage stamps
on each lump of coal in the tender.’
And in the last stanza, ‘This memory is dotted by flowers like a bright blouse.’
For me, the fullest meaning of this poem was only grasped when I read Martinson’s biography. Abandoned by first one parent, then the other, he spent much of his turbulent childhood as a parish orphan fostered by different households. His happiest time was the three months he spent as the foster-son of a train driver. Knowing all that makes the poem unfold in a new way.
Of course we live and write in different times to Martinson. Information travels more quickly now. The volume of published literature has burgeoned and authors are expected to find ways to differentiate themselves. Even so, for me, the anxiety that social media and the net sit in opposition to the idea of privacy persists. But given that an author and their work can be written about by anyone, I can see that it makes sense to take control of one’s online presence rather than leave it to chance.
The internet can seem like an untamed wilderness (and in some ways it is given the sheer volume of information buried within an even greater frippery of white noise), but reduced to its essentials it’s really just another arena where information is exchanged.
There is of course a boundary that must be individually placed, each to their own: the biography of a deceased poet can afford to be a great deal more revelatory than that of a living author who still has to do the school run. No-one could reasonably expect a living author to be, as a matter of course, open about their unhappy childhood. The intimacy of the digital world is in any case somewhat sham. Even if it appears the Kardashians routinely put their private life up for public display, in reality they and their publicists carefully vet what is aired in the public domain and what is not. Which of course brings into question the authenticity of anyone’s online persona and the difference between the ‘brand’ and the actual human being.
For authors our words, not our faces or bodies or the shenanigans we get up to, are both our currency and our shield. Exposure beyond the professional is just not necessary. So for an author it’s perfectly fine to talk about books, our artistic influences, our opinions and interests, but one can easily stop short of divulging details of family life.
The real question though is how useful is social media when it comes to book sales?
Granted no amount of online exposure is going to make up for a terrible book. But good fiction travels by word of mouth which can be so very, very slow. On a purely pragmatic level, given that most people get their news and information online these days, eschewing hard copies of anything, the more online visibility an author or a book has, surely the faster the sales curve will rise? And if not, might there be other benefits to social media for an author? Can an author’s social media profile make a difference when applying for grant funding for example?
‘These are interesting questions with no clear answer,’ says literary agent, Euan Thorneycroft, of London agency A. M. Heath. ‘I suppose my overall feeling is that for most authors who use social media, it doesn’t impact on sales. I’m not saying that it isn’t useful. It enables authors to feel part of a community, to share thoughts, ask questions, etc. as well as shouting about their own and other authors’ books. And that’s all great. But I’m not convinced it actually significantly affects sales for most of them.
‘There are a minority who clearly have benefited from social media in terms of sales. But there doesn’t seem to be any template one can follow. Some people are naturally good on social media whilst others aren’t. It isn’t really something you can teach people. Those who are successful on social media and whose sales are good seem to be those authors who are willing to engage with the social media community rather than just shouting about their own books. And not just engaging, but engaging with other serious writers who themselves have good followings. As I said, I think these authors are in a minority.
‘I think another interesting question is how social media is enabling authors to get representation in the first place and how some authors have cleverly used things like Twitter to alert agents to their work.’
For smaller imprints like award-winning indie press, And Other Stories, publishers of Yuri Herrera’s award-winning novel, ‘Signs Preceding the End of The World, marketing books via billboards on the Underground is simply not an option. So is social media of particular value in this sector of the industry? And Other Stories founder Stefan Tobler says, ‘If you know an author already through social media, you might be more curious about the book and so pick it up in the first place. But I certainly don’t think every author needs to do social media. Though if authors are intelligent, generous about others and engaging online, it doesn’t do them any harm.’
As yet there doesn’t seem to be consensus on the benefits of social media for writers and whether we engage with social media or not is often down to personal preference.
When Esperanza Street first came out, publicist Nicci Praca advised me that all authors should consider being on at least one social media platform. Award-winning novelist and poet, Vanessa Gebbie agreed: ‘You have to give readers a way to connect with you.’
And Other Stories publicist, Nichola Smalley, agrees with this but expands on the limitations as well as the benefits of some of the popular platforms:
‘Writers can pique readers’ curiosity about their books, and build a name for themselves if they have interesting things to say on social media, but it’s not a simple matter.
‘Twitter can be a great place for people who like to play with words and share ideas, but it’s something people should only engage with if they really want to engage with other people. It’s not much good as a marketing tool unless you actually build up a relationship with people and get to know them to some extent.
‘Facebook is challenging unless you want to pay for marketing, as the algorithms they use restrict what people can see, but people wanting to tell friends or fans about good news in greater detail can do it well there.
‘Instagram is great if you want to capture the attention of visual thinkers and younger readers, but make sure you have a visual eye!! People won’t follow you unless you provide them with interesting or attractive images. No one wants to look at boring stuff!
‘Snapchat is not really something that we’ve experimented with, but I am looking into it. Vines and Youtube are great if you have video content you want to share, but you need to advertise the presence of things on other channels to build a following, and it can be hard work. Vines are very short – best for visual jokes really!’
As well as the overwhelming diversity of social media, to complicate matters even further, platforms also wax and wane in popularity with time. Many authors have used online scrapbooking site Pinterest as a promotional tool for their books and one can easily see why. Pinterest’s demographic is significantly more female with the greatest proportion of users in the 25-45 age range which nicely dovetails with the book-buying demographic. More recently though, Pinterest’s popularity has been eclipsed somewhat by Instagram. Bestselling author Suzanne Joinson, whose second novel The Photographer’s Wife has just been released by Bloomsbury, has Pinterest boards for each novel but now primarily uses the site as a personal digital dream-board: “I have it on a private setting for pinboards collecting ideas and images if useful to whatever I’m working on.’
Building an online presence is a time consuming business and one that requires a degree of commitment. Vestal MacIntyre, while acknowledging the benefits of Twitter later went on to add: ‘As far as social media goes, to be honest I haven’t found it really useful. I wasn’t on Twitter when my books came out and since then have struggled to muster the energy to raise much of a following. I tend to hibernate when I don’t have anything to promote.’
On a personal level, since Esperanza street came out and I started doing public readings, I’ve realised it’s a genuine pleasure to make contact with fellow readers and writers that I wouldn’t have had the chance to encounter otherwise. Social media and the internet are just another means of doing this, albeit in a somewhat detached way, which actually works quite well for relative introverts like me.
In conclusion, if the digital world is your thing, then using it to build a profile is a good idea, but no author should feel they have to. If you are going to embrace the digital world, my final thought is this: make sure you have a good author headshot. No holiday snaps and definitely no selfies. If at all possible, get it done professionally. It will be worth the investment. A good photographer will know what works across different platforms. Make sure a photograph of you is up where it’s needed. In line with the theory that all our behaviours are driven by the urge to connect simply because all human beings are fundamentally alone, the evidence suggests that people are much more likely to click on articles that have images and even more so if that image is a portrait.