What it means to be a writer in the internet age

Twitter. Blogs (Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, etc). YouTube (or Vimeo). Website promotion. Triberr. Forums (they are legion). Facebook. GoodReads. Library Thing. Amazon. Barnes and Noble. Smashwords. And maybe Pinterest.

I’m sure there are far more other things that should go on that list, but we’ll leave it at that for now. How ever long the list, promoting your work is what it is all about today and if you don’t have an account at all the things I listed above, then you are probably not a successful author.

Ouch.

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts lately about how authors need to be more aggressive about their work, how they need to hone their platform, and how to leverage the free internet tools at our disposal. All of these posts assume one thing: you want to be as widely read as possible.

That’s a fair assumption.

I mean, why do we write if not to be read? Writing is a two-way street. Yes, I might conjure up a story for the sake of the story only, but once I put my thoughts on paper (or on the screen), I instinctively expect someone (okay, maybe only my mum) will read it some day. And, whether I admit it to myself or not, I hope that they’ll like it.

But do I really have to become an internet whore to be an author? Let me qualify that question: Do I really have to become an internet whore to be a successful author?

Let me ask a different question: How do you define a successful author? Once you have the definition in mind, ask yourself one more question: Is that who you want to be?

My answer is no. The base assumption that I want my work to be read as widely as possible (an adequate definition for a successful author as any seeing that it includes all that being widely read would entail; i.e., lots of sales and awards) is wrong. It’s wrong for me.

I understand the need for authors to self-promote, and I whole heartily agree that if you plan to make writing your career, you had better learn how to pimp yourself. If you don’t, you’re not really writing. Remember, writing is a two-way street. No readers, no writing.

But what about those of us who write as a hobby? I like to write, and I sure as hell like it when someone says they enjoyed something I wrote, but this is not my career. It might turn into one, someday, but it doesn’t pay the bills now nor will it in the foreseeable future. Why do I need to navigate the internet red-light district trying to woo (reader) John and Jane?

I wish I had the answer to that. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for us hobby-authors. You either get your act together and lay out your wares with all the sparkle and strut you can manage, or you flounder and fail, never to be read and left to die a junkie’s spasmodic death from a lack of the one drug we can’t do without: attention.

You tell me. What’s the answer. Should I lose a few pounds, doll myself up, and hit the catwalk? Or should I be content to swim in the shallow end of the pool, getting an occasional visit from someone taking a breather from the scary, deep end?

(Side question: how many more metaphors do you think I could have used in this post?)

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37 thoughts on “What it means to be a writer in the internet age

  1. I understand completely. Those who write as a hobby, should treat as so. I like to think my blog, A Knife And A Quill, is more for author’s who don’t write as hobby. They write to get noticed, to get published and to overall make money. I provide what little I know, to help all for free. It’s what I learn to sell books, which I may add isn’t a whole lot. But I try. And that’s all I want to do is encourage writers, to take an extra step to say “Hi.” I know for a fact my blog, wouldn’t be as successful as it would be without all the followers I have. Just yesterday alone, I had 216 views. And hopefully I helped some of them sell books. That’s my goal, to help others.

    That said, I first wrote as a “hobby” not realizing I wanted to write full-time, but couldn’t afford it. I make enough on writing to pay maybe my cellphone bill and a couple lunches every month, but I officially accept the fact that I’m a full time writer. Writing isn’t my hobby, it’s my life. 🙂

    Great article by the way. 🙂 Maybe you should come write for AKAQ? WE’re always looking for writers, especially with other views. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the link.

    It’s a tough question. I write for commercial publishing houses — and if your sales of the last book are lousy, you are denied — by these folks – – a shot at writing the next one. It’s that simple, in their eyes. Hence, whoredom. Believe me, many writers I know would rather have gum surgery than self-promote all day long….but 1) our competitors are doing it and gaining market share; 2) we’re seen as laggards by agents and editors if we do not.

    I only began blogging, in July 2009, because my agent literally ordered me to do so.

    1. I only began blogging, in July 2009, because my agent literally ordered me to do so.

      That’s what I’m talking about. Your agent made you do it. That’s whoring.

      I blog because I like it. I don’t tweet because I don’t like it. But if I want to be a successful author, there are those who think you must tweet and tweet often. If I had an agent/publisher would they insist I self-promote in a venue I didn’t like? Probably. Would I do it? Probably.

      1. I think the landscape has changed so drastically that readers have vastly different expectations for authors than they did even twenty years ago. Gone are the days where successful authors can be recluses. Readers want to know their favorite authors just like they want to know celebrities, and not being engaged and visible on social media is an unfortunate detriment to a career these days.

        I’m an introvert who poses as an extrovert most of the time, but there are times when I want to throw my computer against the wall and when news of the next big social media platform makes me want to curl up into a ball and hide in a corner for the rest of my life.

        But then I end up signing up anyway.

      2. I don’t want it to be a chore. That’s the biggest thing for me. I want to enjoy writing – all aspects of it – even the promoting. So I have to find a venue that I like promoting on. We’ll see.

  3. Ooh, you just set up a soapbox for me! *hops on*

    I have very serious Issues with writers being encouraged to be “aggressive”, as I’ve bitterly complained in my own posts. It leads to the sort of behavior that makes me despise the salesmen who randomly wander into my office trying to sell office supplies: I’m here trying to proceed with my day, I’m not looking for a new source of office supplies, and you just interrupted what I was doing. I finally said that to one of these cold-callers, and he said “Well, I’ve got to make a living” – and I replied that so do I, and he was making it harder. Another comparison is to the intensely annoying calls during dinner or your favorite TV show from hateful people trying to sell you siding. Don’t.

    I absolutely agree that social networks should be used – have to be used – to promote books; authors are given little choice considering the average promotion budget of most publishers for anyone but their stars ($0) and considering the growing prevalence of self-publishing. But it’s not enough for these guides to say “Go join Goodreads and LibraryThing!” It has to be done properly, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there saying “Go join – but for pity’s sake don’t be an ass about it!” From what I’ve seen there are few things more likely to earn negative reactions – from being ignored to being vilified – than relentlessly promoting your precious. I have seen many new threads popping up on GR groups that look like this: “eBook Giveaway, ‘(title here)’ by (author here)” with the statistics: “1 post — 3 views” Yeah. No one’s interested. Especially since the person who wrote the above post a) started four separate brand-y new threads with the same subject line over the course of a month, and b) those were the only four posts this woman ever made until a moderator gently suggested she actually read the posting guidelines for the group. She was very lucky – I’ve seen self-pubbed writers wander cluelessly into fantasy groups only to have their liver and lights handed to them on a plate. (Fantasy groups seem to be much more protective of their space, and can be vicious.)

    The upshot is – no, you don’t want to become an internet whore to be successful. If you really want to promote yourself widely online, you have to do more than copy and paste the same post all over Goodreads or Twitter or whathaveyou. There are writers like long-established Janny Wurts who use the internet well. She is a member of at least a couple of the bigger fantasy groups on Goodreads, makes herself available for anyone who wants to talk about her books, and – most importantly – draws in new readers by just participating in the group. I haven’t liked her books in the past – but I like *her*, and that might lead me to trying her again some day.

    Pimping oneself is, I suppose, necessary. No one’s going to read what they’ve never heard of. But the main thing is HOW you pimp yourself. Would you rather come off as a street-corner fishnet-stockinged-tottery-heeled-track-marked two-bit ho – or a geisha, classy and engaging? Unfortunately, it takes more investment of time and brainpower to take the classy approach – which is why there are so many cheap tarts on Goodreads, I guess.

    There’s no need to doll yourself up or go on Atkins; I think this is a situation where “be yourself” is paramount. Or maybe “be yourself, only moreso” – no taking out of aggression, passive or otherwise, no telling random idiots where to go and how to get there, that sort of thing. And no treating any given forum like billboards there only to have your advertisement plastered all over it. (There’s another metaphor for ya!)

      1. Don’t be sorry! I meant that, you could have written the blog post (better than I!). You said everything I felt. 🙂

  4. I’m finding this discussion rather discouraging. Why? Because it’s making assumptions about self-promotion, *and* repeating hoary old “truisms” that aren’t true. Self-promotion is no more pimping yourself out than book signings and author interviews were when publishing meant being accepted by a print publisher. Self-promotion doesn’t require pimping, and that simple fact has been repeated over and over on blogs and a wide variety of websites. Success doesn’t require that you pimp yourself out. Whether you’re a professional making a living from your words (or working toward that goal), a hobby writer, or somewhere in between, it’s possible to self-promote without offending anybody, spending more time on that than on writing, or feeling as if you’re whoring yourself. Extreme postions make for lively debate, but they don’t often shed much light on what’s actually going on in the real world.

    1. I hear you, but I disagree. From my end, it does feel like authors are “whoring” it. If you hang out on forums, you’ll quickly see it and begin to recognize the signs. They act as if they are interested in whatever the discussion at hand is, but then they always bring it back to their product (whatever that is: book, blog, themselves). Unintentionally, I do it myself too. Sometimes the discussion lends itself easily to self-promotion and before you know it, you’re telling folks all about your latest product, where they can find it, and how much better it is than anything else out there (okay, I’ve never quite done that, but I’ve seen it!). I think we see it more often on forums because that’s where people hang out to just converse, so non-savvy authors trying to promote themselves go there thinking it is like some of the other social networking sites and just plaster their wares. Those strategies don’t work on forums.

      But I do think you are right. It doesn’t have to be that way. And, like you mentioned, frequenting all those sites is akin to book signings and interviews for radio and newspapers. I guess some folks just don’t have the etiquette part down yet.

      My question is still valid: do I make my presence known at all those sites for the sole purpose of promoting? Or do I just stick to the ones I frequent because that’s where I have friends?

      1. If you’ll read my comment again, you’ll see that I didn’t say or imply that writers don’t pimp themselves out. The operative word is some, and yes, some do. Too many, until they learn better. What I said is that they don’t have to, that self-promotion doesn’t have to sink to that level.

        Do you have to be know at all those sites? No! There are successful indie authors who don’t have facebook accounts, don’t hange out on G+, and seldom tweet. All you have to do is pick the ones you can enjoy, so that the socializing isn’t a chore. Just as blogging is a bad idea if someone says you *have* to do it, using the various social media is self-defeating if you hate it.

        I’m not successful by most standards, but the one thing that I really enjoy and that does get me out to “meet” people is my blogging. I also participate, but not heavily on the social side, on GoodReads. I try out other venues from time to time, staying or leaving depending on whether I enjoy it and whether it’s bringing me into contact with people I can share and discuss with.

        You might be interested in reading an interview with Thomas DePrima here: http://www.rubyslipperedsisterhood.com/thomas-deprima-over-140000-indie-books-sold-at-a-price-that-might-surprise-you/

      2. I like your strategy. Do what you like and dabble in others to find out if it’s right for you or not. I think that’s the best I could do right now.

        Thanks for the link. I’ll read it tonight.

  5. I suck at marketing, but I do eventually want to be published. From what I understand, by getting a few shorter pieces published, and at some point getting an agent will still go a long way. The publisher, if you get lucky, will do most of the marketing for you. In the meantime, I definitely am a hobby writer.

    I barely stand to keep too many social networking accounts, it’s just too much to keep up with. I actually deleted my own facebook after a while.

    Not only that, but I’m currently trying to start market myself as an artist, and that’s a real challenge itself. I’m hoping to make a living doing something I love, but I don’t expect or want fame. I only want what’s practical.

    Great post. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lynn. I suppose for us newbies, the key is to create good content and then worry about the other stuff later. It’s just hard to ignore all the shouting that says you must do this or that to be successful. (sigh)

  6. I think the key thing is to use the social media right. If you just don’t get how to use one you may do more harm to your “brand” than good.

    Nathan Lowell has a lot of good thoughts on this topic, so does Evo Terra.

    1. I’ll look them up. I believe you are right. But I guess my initial question was not whether I was using them right or not, but whether I should use them at all. I like Catana’s approach, use the ones that you like participating in. For where I am at in my writing journey, that seems like the right strategy.

      1. I think that is a different way of saying what I mean. If you aren’t enjoying the tool you probably aren’t using it right. If you are doing it because you “have to” then chances are you won’t end up doing it right.

        The point is to engage your audience, not just have another ad space.

  7. This is a tough one really. If we spend too much time blogging or promoting our writing that takes away from the writing itself. I’m trying not to spread myself out too much but it is always tempting to sign up for another community or social network to promote my work. I’ve closed a couple of pages that I feel were more of a distraction then a help (tumblr for example)

    1. Tumblr? Another one? Do they ever end?

      I guess that’s what got me so exasperated in the first place. There are just so many venues out there and so many folks saying do this, do that. It has frayed my nerves. I’ll just have to ignore the distractions and focus on the few places I like.

      1. I used Tumblr to post media such as images and video clips, it was just better than using WordPress at the time but after a couple of months I gave it up as nothing more than a distraction.

      2. Here’s a little more detail on how I go about “promoting.” First, I’m more interested in getting my name known than in pushing books. GoodReads is the perfect example of the way I do this. Luckily, I’m a heavy reader and I’m willing to wite reviews for books that I think deserve it. So, at the moment, I have 321 books on my shelves, have rated 263, and I’ve written 75 reviews. Members can comment on reviews, and I’ve gotten into several friendly conversations that way. I also comment now and then on other people’s reviews. I blog there once in a while (you have to be a GR Author), and should do it more often, but it’s the least of my participation. I’ve joined a few groups, but quit after lurking for a while. I think I’ve finally found a group where I can have interesting conversations about books and writers in a particular genre.

        I like to try out new social sites, but only do one at a time. I try to give each one a month or two to find out if we’re simpatico. More often than not, we aren’t. On to the next one, then. Right now, I’m trying out Wattpad, on the recommendation of a couple of successful writers. You post your work there, complete or in progress, whole or excerpts. The idea is to read and comment. You can list your achievements in your profile, gain fans, etc. The site is very popular, but has a lot of drawbacks. If I decide not to stick with it, I’ll delete my work and start over at another, similar site which looks more useful.

        The thing is, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see lots of less popular suggestions for places to get known. None of them require pimping. In fact, that’s usually a specific no-no.

        If you want to think of promotion as a game, then the name of the game is Name Recognition. If people already know your name, they’re more likely to respond positively to book titles.

      3. Name Recognition! I think you are on to something. We all know Stephen King, right? And we (or I) know his name so well because? Because I’ve read his work and liked it. His name is easy to remember. It also helps that his books on accessible (at the library, in book stores, every where you’d expect them).

        Now, I just have to figure out a way to plaster N. E. White all over the world…

        Joke!

      4. I use Good Reads to promote my book reviews and get traffic that way but I never really thought too much about using it as a social network and so have never really made time for it.

      5. I’m starting to do that too (post reviews on GoodReads). We’ll see how it works out. Not many folks stop by my review site (The Atheist Quill), but I wonder if that has to do with the title or the content? (sigh) Another thing to fret over…

  8. Woa big discussion here.
    I completely agree with you. I’ve just put up my book on smashwords (oh god, see I’m already whoring…) and I really, really, REALLY don’t want to undertake the whole self-promotion scheme that so many people are advocating. Perhaps if I were proud of the actual product, it might be a different story (but you might remember how complex that this…). The problem for me is that it feels very fake and it’s kinda embarassing. Then on other days, when I have a mood swing, I ask myself: but maybe marketing yourself aggressively and not caring what other people think (being a whore), is really the only way to sucess and the people who don’t do it are just the pussy-ish losers who hide behind excuses and think they are better than the whores? Hmmm….

    And yes, once you’ve read about how authors are supposed to market themselves aggressively and tweet (about WHAT? Do I care you’re going to the cinema? Do I care you’re jogging to the gym? Do I care you’re eating a pizza or you have a stiff neck?) and facebook and goodreads and blog and hang out on discussion forums … you learn to see that there are thousands of authors out there doing exactly that, all following each other, all not very much interested in each other, all trying to slyly promote their own product. It’s a really uncomfortable atmosphere to be in. I’m not against self-publishing or self-promotion, but I think only if it’s done in a genuine and not whorish manner (I don’t even know if that’s possible, but I’m imagining self-promotion that really focuses on readers and readership and shows real love and passion for the promoted product). I mean, on blogs you start to see one-line comments saying: “Great post, I recently talked about this on my own blog…” Or: “Totally agree, check out my novel where I discuss similar subjects…” while it’s doubtful if the person even read the post; and on discussion forums you’re forced to wonder if some people post and discuss because they are genuinely interested in the subject or if it’s merely to throw in that casual link to their book (I could name names, but you probably know what I mean…).
    Something that really helped me know what I want to do and where I want to go, was to study some contemporary writers such as Eugenides, Wallace, Franzen, Foer. I think they’re trying (tried) to create art. Mostly, they have goals that somehow relate to literary traditions, techniques, possible new directions and movements. I don’t think it’s about writing the new best seller and forcing yourself to write in a particular manner that has proven to work. It’s about doing something that fits into the whole history of literature and that honours all the great writers who wrote before you. And about writing how you feel you want to write. Because writing is a highly personal form of expression that can really let readers into your mind and soul.

    Anyway, great post, check out my new book and buy hundreds of copies.
    … 😉 (Please don’t – it would embarass me…)

    1. You could have written this blog post, too.

      I hear you. (And, you know you can strut your stuff here all you want, right?)

      The reason the subject came up for me is that I hope to put The Denouncer out in December. And I started thinking about what all that meant, and my heart quailed at the thought of self-promoting. Does that mean we’re not ready for publication?

      (Squeeeee! You did it! I’m so proud! 😀 )

  9. Holy smokes look at the comments! It appears you’ve struck a nerve. I’m gonna have to block off a couple hours on my calendar just to read the comments, as I’m sure they will be thought provoking and interesting. I’m writing from the shallow end of the pool where I’m catching my breath for a while and just getting back to having fun. All that dancing my ass off on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and the various forums I have been participating in actually keeps me from writing, (and from going outside in nature) which is why I came to the party in the first place. I know I’ll be back out there soon enough trying to play water polo with the real swimmers, but it’s all about balance and for the time being, I’m having fun playing Marco Polo in the shallow end. Good post!

    1. Hello Michael, thanks for stopping by!

      Yeah, I think I did strike a nerve with my readers (I don’t have many, but they’re an active bunch!). I might re-visit the conundrum again in the near future and explore this topic a bit more.

      That’s another thing I fear, it won’t be fun anymore. It is interesting to note that that is exactly what you experienced. Yikes!

      1. “Fun” is relative and as Kris Kristofferson wrote: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…” I’ve made visual art and music and written for love and for money. Something changes when you do something you love for money. That is not to say it’s necessarily a negative thing or that it automatically takes all the fun out of it ~ but something does change, because now you are doing “that thing” for money and if something is successful in bringing that about, we tend to forumulize it and repeat it and by doing so, some of the freshness, authenticity and life goes out of it. When you are doing “it” for money, there is inevitably an element of “keeping the customer satisfied” which doesn’t automatically lead to the extreme of pimping and whoring, but can, if done badly and insensitively. Balance is key. By the way hats off to all of you who have taken the time to make such interesting, valid and passionate points here. As the saying goes: “it’s all good!”

      2. Valid points. It does change when you demand money for your work, whatever it may be. I think that balance and keeping the creativity and fun part of whatever you do in the forefront of our efforts are my take home messages from you. Thanks!

  10. I think the most important thing is to write and write well. If you do your writing well, everything else falls into place. And the web can be very demanding sometimes…

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, you are right. Quality work will attract its own attention, but it is hard to ignore all the articles saying we need to promote promote promote. But you are right, I must just write and learn to write well. I’m working on that.

  11. I think self-promotion can be done without being a total arse about it — but also I can’t stand when my Twitter feed is ONLY automated tweets by people promoting their own work. I never click any of the links, because it strikes me as false.

    Writing well is the best promotion you can have, and word of mouth will always be the most powerful promotion tool on the planet. And you can’t make word of mouth happen yourself. Things go viral organically when the right person hits the right button and it goes from there, not from people tooting their own horn until they’re blue in the face. (Like my double cliche there? Bua ha.)

    I like Kristen Lamb’s WANA method, where writers work together, form community, and share one another’s work without expecting reciprocation (most of the time). Regardless, I do find it sad that writers are expected to rule social media in order to be successful now. It can get overwhelming very fast. However, it’s the world we live in now, so I’m trying my best to work within its parameters to create a career.

    1. Maybe we all just need to jump off Twitter?

      I don’t know, but I hear ya. Let me know if you ever find a happy level of promoting.

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