Online Presence: Pros, Perils and Possibilities
I often hear newer writers (of varying ages) say they want their writing to speak for itself. They’re filled with disdain for publishers who look for an online presence, and utterly scornful of writers who actively and efficiently use social media to their advantage. What I generally say to such writers (after I stop laughing) is that their highfalutin’ sentiments are delightful, however, if no one can find their writing/book/them then whatever it says is unlikely to be heard.
Your online presence can be a blessing or a curse, but it’s what you make it. Just as fire is an excellent servant, it’s a terrible master. You need to control your own social media persona. I understand the reluctance and the fear, I really do. The internet is a chaotic mess of noise, opinions, cat pictures and porn. So much porn. I didn’t have website until I met Jeff VanderMeer in 2009, and he yelled at me until I caved. Five minutes and one WordPress site later… What he said made sense: you’ve been publishing for three years, readers and editors and publishers are paying attention. They’re looking for you; be easier to find.
There are a lot of online options for the writer, so many that I’m only going to touch on websites, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Amazon’s Author Central. Also because I have a word limit and you have lives to get on with.
You might simply want a fairly static page containing your bio, bibliography, an author photo (make sure it’s recent and not a glamour shot from the Eighties as no one will recognise you at festivals or cons), and a contact page. That’s perfectly fine, just keep it current. Few things are more frustrating to a reader who’s just discovered your work than finding a site that’s not been updated since 2001. One of the most important decisions you’ll make is about your time commitment: how often are you going to be online in a professional capacity (i.e. not looking at cat pictures)?
Whatever time investment you decide on, stick to it. Be consistent; if a reader knows there will be new content every Wednesday, they’ll be there.
The appearance of your site is critical: keep it clean, sparse and tidy. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so your website is your interview suit, not your old jeans and t-shirt with last night’s curry on it. I love sequins and shiny, flashy things as much as the next person, but not on a website. Your pages should not offend the eye nor strobe in such a manner as to cause a fit. WordPress is an easy program to use yourself, but if you’ve got the budget (or a partner with excellent web skills) then have someone else build a site for you. Keep in mind it’s something you ultimately want to be able to update yourself; you don’t want to have to pay someone else over and over. Make sure you buy your domain name and keep it registered − unscrupulous companies have been known to buy unregistered domains, then try to sell it on.
Make things easy to find on your site, and don’t make people click too many links − the time- and attention-poor will quickly leave.
If you include a blog − essentially a diary − remember this: it is not your private journal. There’s a reason that old-fashioned diaries have locks on them: to keep your thoughts, opinions, biases, judgments, and crushes secret. Confidential. Ill-considered over-sharing can lead to places you do not wish to go (unless, of course, you’re Belle de Jour, in which case it can lead to a lot of money). Don’t whinge about the publisher you’ve submitted your novel to taking sooooo long to get back to you. If they’ve read the manuscript and liked it, they’ll look for your web presence; imagine their surprise. So, before you blog, have a really good think about what you want to put out there.
Work out a schedule of topics you want to talk about; take a day a week to draft them. They don’t need to be long, a few paragraphs will suffice. If you want to post excerpts from a work-in-progress, great, but remember: this counts as ‘published’. Don’t post your entire novel or short story. Blog about your passions because the fastest way to become bored and boring is to writing about something you have no interest or expertise in: a medievalist will probably be far more engaging on, say, monsters from the Middle Ages than String Theory.
Be very wary of reviewing books on your site − indeed, be wary of doing it anywhere − because later in your career a scathing review may come back to bite you in the proverbial. Even if you delete a post, it’s still out there somewhere in an archive or a screen shot, like a time bomb. Waiting.
What other content will interest a reader? If you write science fiction repost something from io9. Discuss your craft, your new project. Deploy the occasional lolcat. Interview other writers and promote their books. That’s an opportunity for cross-promotion and increasing both your audiences. This is networking, which isn’t about being a sucking blackhole of need, but about creating mutually beneficial relationships.
You might also add things like press kits, which are useful for anyone who wants to interview you. It gives them some basic information and, hopefully, means they’ll ask more interesting questions rather than the ones already answered in said kit!
Social Media Stuff
Facebook is the place where you connect with family and friends, and say anything, right? No, sorry. Readers will send friend requests. You may accept them because you think “It’s my fans! My readers! My peeps!” Here’s the rub: you don’t know them. ‘Tis a sad fact of modern life that they may well be nutbags and/or stalkers. My advice: make an Author Page on Facebook, which reflects the contents of your website. If you get friend requests from someone you don’t know, then direct them to that profile, saying you’re sure they’ll understand that you keep your personal page for family and friends. If they argue, do not engage. Block them. End of story.
To note: do not send another writer a friend request, then, if they accept it, ask them to Like your page. It’s rude and annoying, and besides, authors are not your market. Your online presence is for readers, the book-buying public.
Similarly, Twitter may seem innocuous − how could you offend anyone in 140 characters? Quite easily, recent history teaches. Use tweets to draw attention to competitions or giveaways, appearances, articles of interest, lolcats (I myself am partial to otter pics). Do not start a Twitter war as a challenge. In all things, be professional, even if someone else is being a douche.
A useful little app is Hootsuite, which connects to about thirty-five social networks and allows you to have any blog posts made on your site automatically reposted to Facebook, Twitter, etc. It saves time.
Both Goodreads and Amazon’s Author Central allow you to set up professional profiles. They’ll connect to your site, although only GR will display the posts. Both offer means to tap into existing communities of readers. GR also lets you do giveaways of your books, which can be very handy, and a great way of showing a potential reader what you do, and growing your audience.
A word on self-promotion
One thing which hurts my brain is new writers who spend all of their time self-promoting, devoting their online presence to talking themselves up. But when asked “What have you written/published?” invariably the reply is “Oh. It’s not finished yet.” Then get off the internet and write something. Writing is the key. Without the writing there is no product. Without the product, what is the point?
Keep it secret, keep it safe
Don’t give too many personal details on social media. Don’t give out addresses or phone numbers, don’t mention your kids’ school, or where you work. Don’t discuss deeply personal matters. Not to be alarmist, but you don’t know who is reading. Mwahahaha. Sorry.
Your online presence is a signal. You control the signal by controlling yourself. Don’t answer bad reviews. Don’t engage in flame wars. Don’t feed trolls. Don’t endlessly self-promote or whine. Keep controversial opinions to yourself unless you wish to paint a target on your chest. Be respectful. Be smart. Be funny. Be kind. Be humble. Think of yourself as an artist who is running a business, not as an artiste who would prefer to starve in a garret in Paris before they create an online presence. Tell people about what you’re doing, but do not crow and caper. Again: YOU control the signal.
For straightforward, no-nonsense, extremely useful advice on this topic, I’d recommend Jeff Vandermeer’s Book Life and Cat Rambo’s Creating an Online Presence. Both are very good.
Dr Angela Slatter is a 2013/14 Queensland Writers Fellow. She is the author of six short story collections and is a graduate of the Tin House and Clarion South workshops. Angela has won a British Fantasy Award as well as two Aurealis Awards, and was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. She has an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing and, when procrastinating, blogs at angelaslatter.com and tweets @AngelaSlatter.
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