Your online presence is everything you say online: on your website if any, on your publisher’s website if any, on your blog if any, on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media site, and also – unfortunately – in your private emails, which can so easily be hacked and copied. It’s also everything anyone says about you: in newspaper or magazine reviews, if in digital form or accessible online; on blogs; on social media.
A word of warning: publishing online is publishing, and is subject to libel law. Book reviews are “fair comment,” but vicious attacks on other people’s personalities and behaviour are not.
But what about you, the writer? Publishers are always telling authors to get online, take up social media, run a blog, and so forth. Should you do it? Not if you don’t feel comfortable with it. Some writers feel that engaging online would be a distraction; others find it trivial and embarrassing, even demeaning. Yet others feel it’s another form of writing. Some genuinely want to hear from their readers. Each online platform is different. Twitter is truly social: it’s like a party. You meet strangers, some of whom will indeed be strange. You have short conversations about any subject at all. But if all you do is promote your own work, other people will think you’re vain and egotistical. They’ll be very happy to get recommendations from you about books by other writers, however. Twitter is a great way to pass along the news, including news about things you like and causes you support.
A blog is like a column in a newspaper: you can use it to write about things that interest you. Some of these may be your own work, but if that’s all you write about, your readers may lose interest. A website – which may host, for instance, a blog and a Twitter window – can be many things, but on a writer’s website visitors expect to find out about the books you’ve written, to read reviews, and even to be shown how they can buy your books online. Pictures of the covers are not out of place here, nor a biography.
A Goodreads author session allows readers to ask questions that writers then answer. It’s like a Q and A after a reading. Those attending it will be fans of your work. These sessions are generally pleasant.
Facebook is like a moving billboard on which items are posted, most of which concern the subject. Many authors have a Facebook page administered by the publisher. Some have Facebook “shrine” pages put up by fans.
Pinterest is for pictures; some of these can be covers of your books, should you so desire. Flickr and Instagram are also mainly visual. I suppose you could use Instagram to post pictures on your own website and Facebook. I haven’t tried it yet. Glossi allows you to create something that looks like a glossy magazine (you can turn the pages). It would be a good place for an illustrated excerpt, with perhaps a background piece about the book. Byliner fills the niche left by a dearth of magazine fiction and longform investigative journalism. It commissions paid-for pieces, shares royalties, allows authors to post “updates” to stories, and cross-promotes via (for instance) Twitter. It curates collections of authors work, and allows users to search by various categories. Your agent should be aware of it.
Wattpad is a site on which members generate the free content that other members can read and comment on. It exists in 25 languages; its members (both readers and writers) tend to be young, but increasingly publishers are looking at it both for potential writers and as a way to help launch a book. There are a great many book bloggers and library sites and book clubs, and some will advise you to leave “calling cards” on them. I have no opinion about this, not having tried it. Book Riot and Rumpus are two well-known book information sites, but there are many more.
And who knows what wonders may soon appear? Siren songs, all of them, you may feel, leading those who heed them to destruction: your real job is to finish your book. Or you may not feel that. It’s up to you. And there’s no rule that says you can’t try one of these out and then decide it’s not for you. On the Internet, one size does not fit all.
Margaret Atwood is an internationally recognised novelist, poet, literary critic, feminist and political activist. Her books have been published in more than thirty languages and include The Handmaid's Tale (McClelland & Stewart 1985), which was made into a film of the same name; The Blind Assassin (McClelland & Stewart 2000), which won the Booker Prize; and Oryx and Crake (Bloomsbury 2003), shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for fiction.
Image Copyright: GEORGE WHITESIDE