Recently I was interviewed by writer and journalist Wyl Menmuir on the subject of author branding and self-promotion. I found Wyl’s questions thought-provoking, and they prompted me to articulate some of my (conflicting, contradictory, kind of inconclusive) feelings towards social media and being an author online. I found the discussion interesting, so I asked Wyl if I could reproduce the interview here on my blog, and he very kindly said yes.
I hope others find it interesting as well.
1. How important is being visible online to you as an author? What do you aim to achieve by being visible online, and how successful would you say your online presence is?
I know that if I encounter writing that I like – in a magazine or at a live lit night or whatever – I google the writer to find out what else they’ve written, where I can buy it, what they’re working on now, what events they might be doing in future, etc. So I want people to be able to find that information about me. That’s the primary reason for me having a good website (courtesy of Pilcrow + Pixel). As for social media and blogging – I do that recreationally. I use it for communicating with friends and family, and doodling with words. Very occasionally I’ll blog an opinion piece. I have to say, I don’t think I am very visible online – I have very few Twitter followers these days (I closed my more successful account when I was looking for work, and only recently set up a new one), my Facebook account is private, and anybody googling me will have to scroll through pages and pages of websites about another more famous Tom Fletcher before they find mine! So my online presence is successful in that I generally enjoy it. But probably not very successful in terms of driving sales or attracting readers.
2. What are the main activities you undertake to promote yourself online? And what are the other main activities you undertake as part of promoting yourself as an author and your novels (in the real world as opposed to the online)?
Online – generally just maintaining my website and keeping it up to date with publications, trying to blog news (new editions, cover reveals, new deals, new short story publications, that kind of thing) in an interesting manner, sharing positive reviews, and conducting interviews (on request) for book bloggers, publishers, etc. Tweeting in a vaguely interesting (yet amiable) way. When I’ve got spare copies of a book I might run a simple giveaway competition – hopefully something that people might do for fun.
In the offline world, I used to do a lot of events. Monthly live lit nights in Manchester, book launches, readings, etc. They’ve taken a back seat over the past few years due to us having kids, but I’m trying to get back into the swing of it and am arranging some for this summer. Also, I try to go to sci-fi and fantasy conventions. Sometimes I’ll appear on panel discussions at these, but even if I don’t they’re great opportunities for meeting new people, making friends, and catching up with old ones. If I was more mercenary – some might say mercenary enough – then I’d describe conventions as networking opportunities. But I’m not, and I can’t in good faith do that.
A major and simple method of self-promotion, though, is work. i.e. getting a short story published in a different venue will widen your audience. Taking part in some project work will get you some contacts. These are secondary consequences of doing things we want to do anyway, which are writing, and trying to get on with people.
3. How important is it for you that the image you portray online is authentic? And by that I mean do you have an online persona that you want to put across to your readership and potential readership? And what sort of approach do your readers respond to best?
I struggle with this. I’m not sure how much I believe in online authenticity – that is, however authentic people are, nobody else knows that they are. The internet enables false authenticity and personal brand manufacture, and so I simultaneously trust that everybody is being authentic whilst remembering that they might not be. It’s doublethink, but the occasions on which you have to resolve the doublethink are so rare that it doesn’t matter. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat, but you never really have to open the box. And to a certain extent that applies to people offline, too. Unless you know them really well.
So when it comes to myself, I don’t really worry about authenticity. I do worry about being personable; I don’t want to be yet another angry man spouting off, making other people feel crappy about what they like or think or feel. So I do think about what I tweet; if it’s angry, or mocking, I reconsider. If it’s going to get me into an argument I don’t have time for, I reconsider. If it’s already been said a million times, or is going to be made redundant or embarrassing by a widely-shared piece of analysis that comes along five minutes later, then I reconsider. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people find that a bit weaselly, but Twitter is so full of people like me now that nobody is going to notice or care if I refrain from passing opinion. What I mean is, probably my thoughts and feelings will be represented whether I personally communicate them or not. And, crucially, I don’t pretend or believe that my online presence reflects my full or ‘real’ self. i.e. I don’t compromise my behaviour or beliefs to save myself online grief – it’s just that my online presence does not reflect my totality. E.g. I’m very angry about a lot of things, but I don’t necessarily tweet about it, because I don’t need people to know that I’m angry in order for it to be real. It doesn’t achieve anything.
This does loop back round to your original question about authenticity, of course. And I still don’t really have an answer. I don’t think it is inauthentic to keep stuff back from social media. I think the notion that we have to perform our emotions or reactions and have them witnessed in order to be authentic (to really feel them?) is deeply bizarre, but increasingly accepted. Others might disagree.
I like to tweet about day to day stuff – the weather, the garden, funny overheard bits and pieces. Personal stuff, but not private. Prose fiction, sometimes, if a tweet can be described as such. Fiction can be authentic, of course.
As for what readers respond to – I don’t know! Strident opinions always used to do well, when I disclosed them. But that’s easy – people like to share what they agree with. And, as I say, I don’t tend to do that any more.
4. How important is social media to the development of your brand and to developing trust and loyalty in your readership? And what is your approach to using social media?
Brand! It’s disingenuous to claim that one doesn’t have a brand. If everybody else has a brand, then not having a brand is also a brand. Even if only a few people are actively manufacturing their own personal brand, the idea is pervasive and entrenched enough to have tainted everybody. It’s like online authenticity; you can’t really opt in or out.
I’ve heard it said that social media is not a way of attracting new readers, but it is a way of retaining existing readers. And there might be something in that. If people read THE LEAPING and liked the kind of rural gothic setting, then they might also like my tweets about where I live. Does that count as trust and loyalty? I’m not sure. I suppose something else is not being unpleasant. I try not to be – I think most people try not to be – but it’s easy to come across as curt or thoughtless in a tweet.
5. How aware are you of online conversations going on about you and your fiction, and how important do you think it is for authors to be part of those conversations.
I’m usually aware of positive conversations – when a reviewer shares a good review, for example – because they copy me in. And then I think it’s important for me to say thank you. Not for reviewing the book positively, but for reading it and taking the time to review it at all. And then I should back out, really. (After sharing any respective links around, of course). It would be nice to think that there are loads of conversations about me and my fiction going on, and I’m just not aware of them, but I doubt it.
But generally – I don’t think authors should be involved. And that’s part of why I have mixed feelings about my being on Twitter. Because I know I don’t talk about books if the author is on Twitter – even if I want to say something nice, which is usually the case – because of all the other authors on Twitter whose work I haven’t read, or I’ve promised to read, or they’re a friend and I didn’t mention their book when I enjoyed it, etc. So perhaps my being there inhibits conversation about my work. But then again, that’s ego; there’s no reason to believe that other Twitter users or readers think like I do. Or that they’d be talking about my work if I wasn’t there.
6. Do you think online self-promotion can be self defeating in some respect? Is there perhaps a value in being enigmatic, in staying away from social media and ensuring your voice is always out there? Or is it more straightforward than that?
Yes, I do think it can be self-defeating. In terms of sales, anyway. Obviously there are other measures of success. But I can’t imagine online self-promotion makes much of a difference in terms of sales, if only because authors promoting themselves and their work is basically background noise online. Everybody’s doing it, so there’s no point in anybody doing it. But there’s this fear that if you don’t do it, then you’ll go unnoticed, and forgotten, because, well…because everybody else is. You don’t do it to actually get noticed; you do it just to keep up. It’s a self-promo arms race, and it’s horrible. That’s the way I feel anyway, and it’s not entirely rational, but there we are. Even for those of us who try not to engage too much, it’s a tangible pressure. ‘Oh, I should tweet. I should blog.’ Even if I decide against it, the sense of obligation is there, nagging away. It would be lovely not to feel this – to transcend it all, as an enigma – but at the moment I feel as if that’s a luxury afforded only to writers who are already quite successful.
In terms of relationship with readers – well, it’s nice, but it’s also a bit weird. I like my writers remote and mysterious. Social media can demystify them and render them a bit, well, annoying. Neil Gaiman is the obvious example. I love his work, but I’ve blocked him on Twitter, because his online presence detracts from his work (imho). Now some artists’ presences match their work perfectly – M John Harrison, or Grimes, for example. That’s the ideal, for me. That’s the kind of online presence that I’d like to maintain. Maybe that’s authenticity; maybe that indicates a deep honesty in the creative work of the individual. Of course, on the other hand, it might just indicate canny brand management. Either way, I don’t really care – as long as it accentuates, and doesn’t ruin, the way I imagine that particular writer or artist, I’m happy.
7. And finally, do you find there’s a tension between being an author and the pressures of self-promoting?
Yes! And there are many people who’d disagree, who’d say that self-promotion is just part and parcel of being a writer in the 21st century. But I think that’s nonsense. Yeah, it is probably beneficial to be good at it, if you want to sell books, though I’m not entirely sure about that (see above) but no way is it part of being a writer. There’s no way a writer should be expected to be good at it. Especially if they’re writing around a busy life – a day job, a family, dependants, etc. Then just finding the time to write is an achievement. Promoting yourself isn’t something you can just do ad-hoc, tweeting here and there when you get five minutes. To do it effectively you’ve got to devote time and energy. Ebooks and self-publishing were going to democratise the market, according to some – make it possible for people without connections in publishing or vast marketing budgets to do well. But it’s patently obvious that people with connections or large publisher buy-in or lots of money are going to be more successful in their attempts at self-promotion, or at least have more time and energy to do it, than those without.
The primary tension, though, is that I think writers are less able to be honest if they’re anticipating the online reaction to their work, or worrying about how to explain it online. The internet brings reader reaction right up into the writer’s face. And if the writer is active on twitter, then chances are that they’re using twitter while they’re writing their book. So they’re witnessing the non-stop rapid-fire rise and fall of trends, of outrages, of meltdowns, fads, rants, successes, failures – it can be paralysing. Better to just ignore it all. But then, as discussed, there’s that pressure to engage. And there’s pleasure in engaging – with real-life friends, with potential new friends, etc. It’s all about getting the balance right, but I find that a very difficult thing to do.