At RWA Nationals in 2013, I attended a workshop on marketing. (Yes, I’m putting the unpublished cart before the publishing horse, but an author I once met and liked was on the panel, so I went to the workshop.) There was a lot of discussion on different venues popular with authors for promoting their brands and their work—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, street teams, in-person events. But the most valuable thing I took away from that workshop was this: if you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth your time. Stick with the marketing tasks that you love.
How does that apply to unpublished authors?
More and more, unpublished authors are feeling the pressure to build an online following. Maybe it’s because more of them are planning to self-publish and need an audience to sell to; maybe it’s because some agents are now saying they consider this when deciding whether to take on a new author. (I’ve read quotes from four such agents this year.) Whatever the reason, it’s easy to let that pressure get to you, easy to end up biting off more than you can chew. Deciding what to keep and what to cut depends on what you love. Here’s why.
First of all, let’s be realistic. Even if you develop follower numbers that you’re proud of, how many people are you reaching in the grand scheme of things—you, an unpublished author? Sorry to sound cynical. Obviously, I believe online activity has value, or I wouldn’t be here now. But blogging well, using Pinterest well—these are time-consuming. You need to get something out of it if you’re going to let it eat up your time. Accept the fact that your loyal followers will be few, and you’ll see that by using an online venue you don’t like, you’ll waste hours which could have been spent on writing and gotten nothing from it—not even enjoyment.
Second, using social media and such is hard. Let’s just accept this up front. Companies dedicate entire departments to these tasks, and it is those employees’ job to use the internet for effective promotion and marketing—just as it’s your job to write great books. Let me ask: how hard is your job? How long have you spent honing your craft? Using all the many forms of promotion well takes that same effort, and you do not have the time.
Published authors may be able to afford hired help in that department, but as an unpublished author who sees value in being online somehow, you need to spend time on what you’ll get the most out of, because you can’t be everywhere. (And as we’ve established, you’re unlikely to build a high number of loyal followers, so it’s not worth it to be on all these venues, anyway.) You’ll get a whole lot more out of a venue you enjoy than one you don’t—even if the one you hate is “what all the other authors are using, Mom!”
Finally, let’s talk about all those followers I said you wouldn’t get. I’m talking meaningful followers. It’s actually not difficult to rack up a thousand Twitter or Pinterest followers; you just have to follow everyone who follows you, and follow a bunch of people knowing that some will follow back. But people aren’t a commodity. People are people. The idea of writing fiction is to connect with people…so shouldn’t our online media do the same?
Not all the venues will appeal to you. You’ll get far less value from the ones you don’t connect with. Give less value, too. But in a media that speaks to you…You may not have thousands of followers, but if you love what you’re doing, you’ll connect to your handful of followers. Isn’t it better to connect to all 20 of your followers than to none of your 1000?
Besides, passion breeds interest. I, for example, am totally in love with Pinterest. I have over 200 followers there–not that this is a lot. But on Twitter, I have less than 10. I think the fact that I don’t like Twitter shines through.
My conclusion: Don’t try to develop a following just to build an audience for your books or impress an agent. Build an online presence that is a continuation of your passion for the written word, the things you write, and all the little things that make you who you are. When an agent says they want authors who already have a following, they may mean just that—in which case, that’s probably not the right agent for me—or they may mean they want an author who’s passionate about books, writing, and life, and they like to see that author sharing their passion online.
There’s a quote—can’t remember from who—that says, “Life is too short to read bad books.” There’s another—from Jane Austen—that says, “Let other pens dwell on grief and misery.” These are good principles to translate to our use of the internet for marketing and promotion—especially for unpublished authors. Let other pens dwell on the misery that is Twitter—pens which don’t consider it misery at all! Stick with what you love.