You’ve often spoken on the importance of viewing social media as a fun extension of an author’s creative work instead of a marketing chore. How can authors explore the fun side of social media rather than feel the pressure of having to market and promote?
When you fall in love with a writer’s work—or at the very least you’re engaged by it—it’s often because of how they see the world. They have observations or interpretations that shed new light on the everyday, or jolt us into awareness.
In fact, I think each writer is looking, daily, to do just that in their work. They seek that genius insight, that fresh way of looking at something, that will help their name and their story be remembered later. This could be through a matter of stylistic expression—a way of using a metaphor or an unusual word to describe something—or by applying a striking lens.
What does any of this have to do with social media? Social media is fundamentally expressive. It should be a playground for writers. Sadly, it’s also become a playground for a lot of mundane communication, vile activities, and annoying marketing and promotional pushes. But that’s what happens when the masses gather and express themselves.
Rather than looking at this tool and focusing on its implied demands or deficiencies, writers can take control and use it for their own creative purposes. They can use it to practice their voice and expression on their own terms. Looking at social media and seeing the opportunity for creativity, especially in small bursts, is what makes it fun. As soon as it becomes obligation or something that must “pay off,” forget it.
You mentioned the idea of author collectives in a few different interviews—as marketing collaborations, business partnerships, even in your satirical book on the future of publishing. How do you see these collectives functioning? How do you think authors can support each other for the better success of all? Do you think the rise of social media and self-publishing will lead to more collaboration between authors?
Indeed, I think self-publishing has already increased collaboration tremendously, although most of it proceeds on an informal rather than formal basis. Self-publishing authors tend to be very sales-oriented in their collaborations, while traditionally published authors tend to be relationship-oriented (since the latter have greater restrictions on how they can share or sell their work).
Earlier this year, industry analyst Mike Shatzkin wrote a long post discussing how authors still need help with their digital presence and related marketing—help that traditional publishers are rarely providing. While he advocates for publishers to devote more resources to “author care” functions, he also discusses the potential for authors to collaborate among themselves to improve their situation, without the involvement of agents or publishers.
In the self-publishing community, authors have been helping and educating each other from the start (no one has the rule book, and the rules keep changing, so it’s something of an imperative), but in the traditional publishing community, that kind of activity is harder to find, with the best example probably being the secret Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers and all of its attendant subgroups.
But Shatzkin pointed to an excellent example—on the traditional publishing side—of an author marketing co-op that’s becoming visible: Tall Poppy Writers. Founder Ann Garvin started the group in 2013 by asking other women authors if they wanted to be part of a collaborative marketing effort. The group now has about 45 members and specializes in books by women and for women—especially women in book clubs. Everything they do is reader-centric: their group newsletter reaches about 20,000 readers, and their new book club has 3,500 members. As far as the organization and management of the collective, there are core leaders, but every member is listened to and expected to contribute. The group helps channel authors’ frustration at lack of marketing help into an organized system that works on several levels. When I ran a Q&A with Garvin, she said, “We see immediate changes in ranking on Amazon when our Poppy network gets behind a title, and that eases the mind of the author. … There is no anxiety related to wondering if we could or should do more. The Tall Poppy network helps us control a small part of the process, and this can be wonderful for the entire publishing experience.”
But I should point out, as a caveat, “author collective” can mean a lot of things. Most frequently, the goal of a collective is sales or marketing. But perhaps we’ll also start to see large-scale production collectives like the Magnum Photographers’ collective, which was created after World War II in Paris to meet the business needs of major magazine and war photographers. A group of professional authors may want to hire the various elements of a publishing house for themselves, to service their production needs from editing to design and right on out the door to publication and marketing. If you dig hard enough, you can find a few burgeoning examples of this type of collective, such as Triskele Books, based in the UK.
In an interview for One Roof Publishing Magazine, you described yourself as the perfect balance of realist and optimist. Are there common mistakes and misunderstandings you see that affect the attitudes of new writers?
Writing and publishing success requires practice, study, and reading in one’s genre (preferably many genres), but this is rarely understood by writers who are coming to the business as a second career, or later in life, as something they’re “passionate” about—that they now have time to pursue. So, these new writers produce a book-length manuscript and somehow expect it’s going to be commercial-level and ready for the market. It rarely is, but they feel they’ve accomplished something special and important in writing a book. They have, on a personal level, but it’s only the first step in a very long road to commercial success. Some of my clients will nudge me for validation of their efforts; they’ll ask, “Should I continue?” and that’s an impossible question to answer. Do YOU want to continue? How important is this to you? I can’t make the decision for you. Nearly everyone who asks me this question should probably stop based on their demonstrated skills as a writer today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve and become a publishable writer in the future.
Writers can fail to see the importance of improving as a writer—to be able to look at what they’ve produced, see its weaknesses, and do better next time. There’s not much attention or respect for the process—the years of hard work—required to become a writer whose works can be successful in the market.
In the About Me section of your website, you wrote that you “prefer to serve as a bridge.” You also mentioned in the written version of your presentation at LitFlow 2012 that your work at Writer’s Digest was focused on “understanding the problems of writers and giving them information and instruction to help them make educated career choices.” What has given you such a passion for helping authors? What drew you to the world of publishing and what led you from there to a focus on author development?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a passion (that’s a term that can be overused and nebulous), but I have attained mastery in my field. That comes with some fulfillment as well as an ability to earn a living in a way that suits my personality, and makes a difference in people’s lives.
What motivates me or interests me in the field has shifted over time. When I first began my career, college friends at the time probably would’ve described me as a quiet bookworm who liked to surround myself with books. Fast forward fifteen years, and I gave away most of my print books (they were too much of a nuisance to move around), and started teaching myself HTML and web design, plus I was fascinated by social media expression and communication. Today, I’ve found myself stepping back from social media (for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone dealing with US politics in their feed) and focusing on long-term projects that are satisfying—the Great Courses series, the Authors Guild collaboration from last summer, a book with University of Chicago Press next year.
I continue helping authors because I think I still have a unique and important message to share about balancing the art and business, and developing one’s career with eyes wide open as to the challenges and opportunities.
In a few articles, you described the importance of writing output, that a huge part of successful marketing is having enough material to market. What do you consider realistic output goals for authors?
I most often give this message in self-publishing contexts. That is: it’s very hard to be a successful self-published author with only one book to your name. More content means more flexibility and options for sales and marketing—for example, so one book can serve as a loss leader that’s sold for very cheap or even given away for periods of time.
But all authors benefit generally from producing more work, practicing and showing their work in public, even if that work isn’t quite finished. This is basically what Austin Kleon promotes in his book Show Your Work. If you work privately and off in a garret and never show your work until the moment you’re ready to publish, you’re losing out on feedback, engagement with readers, and relationships that come with being part of a community of other creators. In other words: in today’s publishing world, creating in a vacuum or in isolation can slow your progress—yet this isolation remains a romantic ideal in literary writing circles. That’s fine for periods, but to hold it up as the ideal isn’t giving sufficient credit to the benefits of actively sharing and communicating within a community that includes your readership.
What does this have to do with writing output? Well, it brings us full circle to the first question you asked about social media. If social media is a form of expression, then you’ve got a micro-publishing opportunity right there—a regular time and place to show something of your voice, perspective, or work. And that counts as one’s material, at least in my holistic view of an author’s career and effect on the world. There is no ballpark output I could possibly suggest, as writers are too individual to offer quantifiable goals. But it certainly helps if writers aren’t overly precious about each and every word and how and where those words appear in the world. Expand your idea of what it means to publish.
The MCWC Publish Bootcamp with Jane Friedman is offered as an add-on or stand-alone class on the Sunday after the main conference. You can sign up here to be notified as soon as registration opens. And keep an eye on our blog for more introductions to the MCWC 2018 faculty!