It happened again this morning: I followed back an author who'd followed me on Twitter, and got a direct message asking me to "support indie authors" by buying this author's book. I immediately unfollowed and blocked this person.
Over the past couple of years, social media has become an important marketing tool for authors and publishers, and self-published authors in particular prize the various networks as free platforms for advertising and self-promotion. I help manage social media for more than one author, and I see how valuable it can be to build connections between author and reader, fuel word-of-mouth before and after new books come out, and create a public persona — a brand, even.
Social media is not, however, an electronic billboard, and using it that way is not only a waste of a great resource, it's actively counterproductive. Because human beings learn social skills by modeling the behavior of others, however, one author misusing social media leads to many authors misusing social media — and some seriously bad advice is out there for new authors, especially new self-published authors.
I'm giving away work I sell here, but this is important enough to me that I consider it a public service.
10 Tips for Authors on Social Media
1. Social media is social. Each social media platform creates communities of people who visit it for different reasons and use it in different ways. Choose your platforms first and foremost according to the ones you feel most comfortable with, then according to the ones that are most likely to be hospitable to your target audience. Twitter is an online cocktail party; Facebook is an online break room. Instagram is more like a flea market, and Pinterest is more like a crafts fair. Vine is the A/V club on spring break.
2. Social media is a long game. Sign up for an account and spend some meaningful time on it before you start posting things. Get a sense for what people talk about and how. No social media platform is the equivalent of a billboard or a TV ad; if you treat it that way, you'll be ignored and you deserve to be. In the beginning, at least, follow, like and friend accounts you find interesting, and don't pay any attention to whether or not they follow you back. Engage with them on what they're talking about or posting. If you treat it as a zero-sum game, you will always be losing.
3. Social media is about building a brand, not about selling a product. This is an offshoot of Tip #2. The most effective social media accounts are about the person, not about the product. They give followers a sense of who the person is: his or her interests, likes and dislikes. The goal is not to make followers say, "I want to buy this book," but to make followers say, "That person is so interesting, I want to know more, and I want him/her to do well."
4. Engage people on subjects of common interest — not your book. Replying to Tweets or leaving comments on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Vine is just like entering any other kind of conversation. If someone interrupted your conversation to say, "Hey, buy my book," you would consider that person a clueless boor, and wonder who invited them to the party. Don't do it on social media.
6. Follow, like and friend people you admire, and people whose careers you aspire to. Watch how they use social media. Neil Gaiman, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Patton Oswalt, Rosanne Cash — these are just a few of the arts figures I follow who do Twitter really, really well. Go to your bookshelves, your iTunes playlist, your Netflix queue and find your favorites on your preferred social media platforms. Watch how they engage. Not everybody you admire will do it well, but enough will to give you some meaningful role models.
7. Don't schedule posts. Yeah, I know your online publishing forum has told you how great TweetDeck and all those other automated services are, and I've seen the blog advice on how to schedule automated daily and weekly Tweets. Don't do it, especially not on Twitter, where news breaks and where people go to get updates on the latest breaking tragedy. If the world is watching an earthquake on Twitter and your autotweets are promoting your latest erotic novel, you will become a laughingstock and you deserve to be.
8. Keep hashtags to a minimum, and keep them relevant. Overuse of hashtags marks you as an amateur, and on Twitter, at least, it's a waste of limited characters. And be real: reviewers and serious readers don't go on Twitter and search the hashtag #books.
9. Be who you are. You cannot create a false version of yourself on social media. I'm not talking about pen names or fictional characters, which can be quite useful to authors on social media. I'm talking about trying to disguise your essential self on a social media platform. It didn't work in middle school, and it won't work on Twitter. Let's say you write military thrillers, but you yourself are a research librarian; you cannot pretend to be an ex-Special Forces guy on social media. It's exhausting, it's unsustainable, and it will inevitably backfire on you. If you're just someone who really likes that world, be that person. Social media is a world of fans. Wear your fandom proudly, and don't pretend to be things you aren't.
10. Don't do it if you don't enjoy it. This is the single most important piece of advice I give my clients when they ask me about social media. If you're doing it because your publicist told you to do it, or because that self-publishing blog told you to do it, you're wasting your time and everyone else's. The most successful social media accounts are the ones run by people who are obviously having fun online, who engage wholeheartedly and like making those connections the Internet makes possible.
It is possible to make friends with strangers on social media, and you do that by discovering the interests and passions that connect you. One of these days, that interest or passion might be your own book — but you have to earn that. There are no shortcuts.