Death by Social Media : A Primer for Part-Time Writers

September 4, 2011 10:39 pm by MRM in epublishing, Writing

So, you’re a new writer, publishing a few short stories and a few pieces on Kindle, and you want to get noticed? Join the club; there’s thousands of us out here, and everyone is struggling to get that breakthrough piece, the one that actually lets people know who they are. I’m there too; if you’re reading this blog, I’ve taken another step down that road (that apparently goes through the boat. Hooray for mixed metaphors). It actually takes quite a bit just to put yourself out there, even with the strides made by ePublishing companies, eReaders, and eBookstores. I’ve written about that before. This isn’t an article about how to publish, but much more crucially, what to do next. And by next, I mean before. Before and after; it’s all crucial, and there are a million little steps to take. The sad truth is that unless you’ve taken one heck of a plunge and gone all-in on writing, you don’t have time to do them all. Incidentally, I don’t recommend “going all-in” unless you know someone or are simply the best writer on the planet, and I still don’t recommend it if you only qualify as the second of those. Yes, the quality of your writing is the most important thing to worry about, but if you wrote the world’s greatest book and published it in Kindle and Smashwords and that was all you did, you’d be lucky to make 100 sales in a year. Unless, of course, one of your sales was the right sale.

I’m certainly not an expert in this field. I have yet to make my break, but I have taken a lot of steps and seen some very positive results. Feel free to comment if you have things to add; this is a discussion, not a lecture from up above.

Without further ado, here is my checklist of items to nail down, and my thoughts on the value and importance of each.

1. The first sounds easy, and it is – if you don’t mind doing it badly. Start a blog. It sounds simple, and yet making it an effective blog isn’t. You need a lot more than just your daily or weekly musings, and God help you if you can’t post to it weekly or biweekly at least. Write, even from the very beginning, as if hundreds of people are reading. I can assure you they aren’t, but one day they might be. Every sentence you post out on the interwebs is one that people can use to judge the most important question that will determine sales of your book: Is this an author? If you have something published in any form, the technical answer to that question is yes. But there is more to that question than the technicality. People are constantly asking themselves whether or not your work is worth floating to the top of the pseudo-infinite flotsam that exists in the online market. Is this an author, or is this some jackass who figured out how to push the “publish” button on Kindle direct publishing? The sad fact is that a lot of people fall into that latter camp, and readers are rightfully wary of buying eBooks by people they’ve never heard of. It’s much easier to pick up a physical book because a reader can have faith that at least someone at a publishing house thought this was worth printing. They have no such assurances when browsing Smashwords. If you’re lucky enough to get them to your blog, then you have a chance to convince them that you are worth buying from. Consider that with every sentence you post – a potential reader might check your archives and pick out a post that has an interesting title.

So you have your blog, but what else goes there?

Do you have something purchasable? Can you post a link to it? Do you have other pages, on Goodreads, Facebook, a Twitter feed, etc (also covered below)? You need more than just hyperlinks on the side; you need widgets that show you actually use your various feeds, that attractively encourage people to follow you or check you out in as many ways as possible

With regards to your publications – you need a “portfolio” page. There are millions of WordPress themes that include portfolios, but most of them are geared towards artists and photographers. If you click on the Books link on my nav bar, you’ll find mine.

Lastly, you should always have an About the Author page, as well as a way to get in contact with you. Some of the trickier bits about WordPress that I’ve found my way around.

  1. Buy a nicely customizable theme. The free ones are out there and good, but nothing eases your mind like having the support of the theme writers, and hardly anybody who gives one away for free gives out tech support. Note: this is not just a suggestion for the tech-illiterate. I am a software engineer. That doesn’t mean I want to spend the time to write all the wicked cool PHP plugins myself; it just means I’m not scared of getting my hands dirty to edit the code. I have used the crap out of the tech support for my theme; they even answer generalized WordPress questions. It’s the best $40 I’ve ever spent. Don’t tell them, but for the support they really ought to charge more. (Incidentally, this theme is called Spicy, and I love it. None of the samples look anything like this, but I’ve modified it quite a bit and it works beautifully).
  2. Pick a portfolio theme that minimizes the emphasis on visuals. This is actually kind of hard to find, and it was one of the key reasons I picked Spicy. I want you to look at my covers, but really anything I do is going to be text-heavy.
  3. Load up on widgets, but be sure to pick compatible ones. You’ll want to allow comments, but the first time you add a hyperlink, you’re going to have dozens of spammers hit you. Add an authentication scheme. Widgets are your friend.
  4. Remember that readability is paramount. You want your text to be inviting and simple to look at. Avoid high-contrast color schemes and keep the width of your text under control; this site is actually a little wider than is advised. Long columns of text are easier to read than the same amount of text stretched across an HD screen. Also, light text on a dark background is easier on the eyes than the other way around, despite it being the opposite of how you’re used to reading physical texts. Sans serif fonts tend to work better on the web.
  5. On the topic of fonts – I don’t care how cool Estrangelo Edessa looks to you; for your actual web content, pick something that is loaded in all browsers and is easy to read. You have a choice between TNR (serif), Arial (sans), Lucida (sans), and Georgia (sans). Don’t get fancy with your fonts unless you’re a typographer and know what you’re doing (and most of them would adhere to the no-fancy-fonts rule themselves).
  6. Remember that more people access the web with phones these days than do using computers. Make sure your site is navigable via a suitably equipped smartphone.
  7. Test your site in at least four browsers, and one of those had better be mobile. There is no excuse for not doing this – browsers are free and it takes ten seconds to navigate to your site and verify that the links work. Longer if you have a slow 3G connection, but I wouldn’t bother buying extra phones just to check it out in Android, iPhone, and WP7.
  8. Minimize the graphics on your page. They’re cool to play around with, but they cause longer page load times and nobody is coming to see your wicked cool graphics anyway (unless you are writing books about graphic design).
  9. Have a blogroll. More about this later.
  10. Above all, do what you can to make it look professional. This site is your main billboard to convince a potential reader that you are for real. Using the blink tag and comic sans is not the way to do that.


2. The second big item is to reach out to the communities you already have in writing online. And if you aren’t an active member of an online writing community, what are you doing on here? Go find one that you like and get going. These people are valuable resources of crit swaps, honest advice, and learning experiences. They are also people with whom you can build relationships based on your love of writing and reach out when you reach that point where you start publishing. They are very much comprised of people who are now or used to be in your shoes. There’s no way for me to tell you which ones are the best; just start looking. I’m on Hatrack quite a bit, the Orson Scott Card-sponsored site, and I used to be active on the Kelly Armstrong forums. I can’t promise that either of those will work for you, but they’re both great (Kelly Armstrong’s forum software is a bit more technically savvy, but then again she was a web developer). If you have an author that you’re a big fan of, go to that author’s site and look around. He or she will probably have a link to a writing forum; by and large big-time writers are pretty cool people and are big on encouraging others. If your favorite writer doesn’t have a forum, pick your second favorite, and just go down the list. If all else fails, use the powers of Google. It’s not that hard.

When you do get on forums, don’t crit-bomb them, asking for people to read your stuff. It’s rude. Do crits of at least five people before asking for one back. Prove that you’re ready to contribute before you start asking for contributions. You’ll get pieces from people that are better than you, worse than you, and some people you don’t realize are secretly more talented than you ever knew and you just didn’t know how to see it because they don’t write the stories like you would have… if you see all of this, don’t be afraid. That’s how crit groups work. And if you read three stories in a row that you think have no potential, be kind, give advice, and keep going. If you read three stories in a row that sound massively better than anything you think you’ll ever be able to write, don’t be afraid. Give what advice you can, and keep going. Writers’ forums are the best way to start out in the online world, and I’d honestly be surprised if you found your way here without going through at least one of them first.

Most forums have a place to announce publications. Whether you do it the traditional way or go online and publish yourself, go ahead and announce it there. Don’t overdo it. Post your piece, thank the people that congratulate you, and don’t forget to check that board and congratulate others. People who have been critting your work as you were writing it might be excited to finally see it in print. It can be an important first source of sales.

3. The third big item is to engage in social media. To some, this feels like pulling teeth, but unless your name regularly graces newspapers and headlines across the country (whatever country), you need to do this. The easiest way to start is Twitter. Don’t pretend you haven’t heard of it; if you aren’t on Twitter, you might have been avoiding it for a very good reason. You might think of it as a place where celebrities tweet what they had for lunch and overly internet-addicted people tweet their “philosophies” in 140-character bursts. Twitter is absolutely both of those, but there is a side of it that doesn’t suck.

Twitter can be a rapid-fire customized news feed. Do you have blog authors that you follow? Most of them will tweet-announce new posts. I do. And I like knowing when artists and writers I enjoy, like Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Scott Lynch, Kelley Armstrong, or Brandon Sanderson post something new. I follow newscasters I respect and get timely updates on other things I care about as well. I’m as embarrassed about it as the next guy, but some people I follow just because their tweets are funny.

As for how you ought to use Twitter – that’s the subject of much debate. Announcing blog posts is obvious, but you need to do a little bit more than that. You’re essentially replicating the work of a good RSS feeder if that’s all you do. Tweet about what you’re working on. Tweet about what you like. If an author or artist puts out something that interests you, Retweet it (there’s a button for that) or put out a personalized tweet referencing it. It’s as easy as it sounds. I’ve been guilty of ignoring Twitter for too long at times, and I always regret it. You even have a little counter of how well you’re doing, and it’s in your number of followers.

Now, this isn’t like Facebook “friends” where the competition is to have the most. You don’t really win anything by having a lot of Twitter followers, and that’s certainly not the goal, but I do look at it as something going right if I start gaining a lot of Twitter followers. The fact is that every person who clicks to follow you is someone else that, however fleetingly, knows you exist. That person might, might, buy your book. And you can’t ignore that.

4. Facebook. Oh hell, Facebook is here. I have mixed feelings about “The Facebook,” and the utility of pages. You absolutely need to have one, and I went ahead and created it: my page exists. I’ve gotten a few “likes,” but I’m not sure how much I care about this one. A lot of people use Facebook as their only portal to the internet, and that’s not something that a smart writer ignores. I love to use Facebook in my personal life. I love being able to see pictures of my niece, my friends’ kids, places they’ve been, and generally to keep up with what’s going on with people that I don’t necessarily get to see every day. To me, that’s the point of Facebook. It absolutely, positively, is NOT a place where I browse businesses, despite the tendency of every damn store I go into these days asking me to “like” them on Facebook. Why does my local Kerr Drugs want me to like them on Facebook?!! I’ve always partitioned my zones of the internet. CNN, Slate, and NYT for news, Facebook for social stuff, Cracked, XKCD, and Fark for humor, and Wired, Engadget, and Gizmodo for tech stuff. It has never bothered me to look in different places for all of these things, and I mostly scoffed from the sidelines as I saw Google and Facebook trying to become the center of something that clearly needed no center – the internet.

I, however, am not my target audience. There is a whole world of people out there, and I want all of them to read my books. I can’t ignore this audience, and I will work with the Facebook-is-life crowd, even if I don’t quite understand them (and I consider myself well-versed in the ways of the series of tubes). The saving grace here is that you can hook up your blog to automatically post to your Facebook page. I can’t emphasize this enough – it’s a free secondary page! Your blog shows up on your Facebook page. Add your cover art, add a few “action shots,” and call it a day if you feel as I do about the Facebook. This is such simple publicity that you can’t ignore it.

5. Goodreads is a fantastic place to find out about new fiction. I used Goodreads as a reader before I ever messed around with setting up my author page. It’s a fun place to talk about books that you like, find out books that your friends like, and just enjoy thinking about what you want to read next. I was very social networking fatigued when I first set up my Goodreads page, but I did this one as a labor of love, rather than a labor of obligation (see: Facebook). And Goodreads was even kind about it. They have a tutorial about how to set up your page, and they even allow you to link your Kindle-published works directly to your page as a way for people checking out your page to purchase them. You can sell directly on there! It’s actually a fantastic service, and to top it all off they also let you automatically feed your blog there!  It’s like they went out of their way to make it as easy as possible to use a service that you already love. The only catch is that this is one that you can’t do until after your book is purchasable from at least one of the major online stores, and Kindle is the simplest. Most of the rest of these you really ought to be doing and have in place well before you put something out there, and Goodreads you can’t. I don’t really fault them for that; it’s just a fact of how they work. Author pages are for authors. You want to join the club, right? So get going.

6. The last item is to engage your community of fellow writers. It coincides with #2 above, but in this item I mean to specifically talk about interacting outside of the boards. Right now I’m involved in the Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign. I’m meeting new people, getting involved and reading more blogs and interacting with fellow artists. It’s a fantastic opportunity and a lot of fun. It’s also a lot of work, and it’s the exact sort of thing that you’ve got to do. Find events like this – they’re not as rare as you might think, and the only way you find out about this sort of thing is by engaging in all of the above steps. Meet fellow writers, engage with them on Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, and forums. Participate actively, and do your best to be a virtual social butterfly. It absolutely is exhausting, but if you really want to get your work seen, it’s a necessary labor, and you might even find it fun once you get started.

There are dozens of other communities, Goodreads-like sites, and social services out there. I’m on Google plus, and I dig it thus far. I don’t consider it an essential step yet, though if you want to be tech-savvy, you should be there. I’d be an embarrassment as a software-engineer if I didn’t have a presence there. The key to all of these different sites is this: if you’re in, you’re in. Do not dip your toe into a service. Every place that you have a web presence is a place where people might see you and might be basing their decision on whether or not you’re a promising young amateur or a hack that likes to put his stuff in ePrint. The decision is that close; do I click the button and wave goodbye to a few of my dollars or navigate away and forget I ever heard of this guy? Nothing screams “hack” as loudly as a half-finished page.

This isn’t even half of what goes into launching yourself, and by no means am I the definitive expert. I know just enough not to trip over my own two feet. I approach every foray into the social media as a chance to get myself noticed, and that’s all I can do. Every person who hovers over a link for half a second is another person that might hover over the purchase button. Every sale boosts my rank on Amazon. And every increase in rank makes it that much easier for me to get my name out there. If you’ve read this far, and find my musings on writing interesting, then check out Those Who Die Young Issue 1 – Shelter From the Storm on Kindle or Smashwords. After all, this is my blog, and I brought you here to check out my writing.    


About the Author

Written by MRM

I'm a speculative fiction writer that spent lots of time trying out new places to live before finally settling in NC. I love code, craft beer, football, and fiction - in no particular order. My currently running works of serial fiction can be found on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. If you're comfortable moving files around to your ereader of choice, always pick Smashwords as your e-bookstore of choice - they give authors a much bigger slice of the pie!

7 Responses to Death by Social Media : A Primer for Part-Time Writers

  1. Richard September 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    This is a great article on getting out there. I really like your mention in number 2 about doing some critiques first. I am sure you notice as much as I do the people the join, put up a story for crits, and then we never hear from them again.

    Facebook is really good too. I didn’t know you had a page. I think a lot of people confuse their Facebook Profile and a Page. I even see businesses that have profiles rather then pages. I currently manage four Facebook pages including my Author page. I find they are great for spreading the word, but the first step is building the “likes” up. That takes time and some strategic marketing all its own. But once the number are up there, you can’t beat the way it gets the word out.

    I am just getting the hang of Twitter, but I believe I have more Followers on Twitter then I do on my Facebook page. I think you are right, Twitter is faster and more designed for the types of publicity writers need.

    This has a lot of good advice, and when I am ready to get something self/e published I will have to read it over again.

    • Stephany Simmons September 5, 2011 at 12:04 am

      Richard – I’d love to hear more about the strategic Facebook marketing! I’ve had an author page on Facebook for a few months and I’m setting at just over 40 likes. I find it incredibly frustrating because I do realize that it could be an incredible tool, I suppose I’m just not savvy enough to really make it work for me.

  2. Stephany Simmons September 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Hi Michael – Loved your portfolio page idea. I’ve been doing essentially what you detail here, and what I’m learning is that places like GoodReads and author’s groups may get you some sales, but it’s a pretty narrow world, made up of mostly other writers and those lovely voracious readers. I think that something we as authors overlook is that there is a whole world out there beyond the confines of the writer/frequent reader community that so many of us stay safely ensconced in. I think the real trick is going to be getting our message out to the less frequent readers and making fans of them.

    • MRM September 5, 2011 at 12:31 am

      Indeed there is a whole world out there outside the new writer community – I’m just looking at a place to start. And those eager new writers are people that are more likely than the average bear to post a review of your book, to like your facebook page, to vote you up on Kindle and on Goodreads… these little things matter. Of course, that’s not how you explode into having thousands upon thousands of friends. That step is beyond the scope of this article, and also sadly beyond the scope of my experience. I firmly believe that making the rounds in the world of writers is a good first step, though, because forty likes is more than none. It’s forty possible sales – and a book that has sold forty copies is more likely to make that breakthrough step. I don’t have the magic answer as to what makes you catch fire, but what I hope I’ve outlined is how you become at least flammable.

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