Last week, I blogged about how it's been five years since I started my career as an author. That post was largely about what I learned on an emotional and creative level. Today I'm going to blog about some other things I've learned over the past five years: How to curate an online presence while maintaining your sanity. I use the term curate rather than manage because I think it's a better way to think about it. A curator puts together exhibits in museums or collections in libraries, and what you're doing online is curating your own persona — a collection of posts, photos, tweets, etc. about who you are. It's ever-changing and it's selective. You wouldn't choose to put everything in an art exhibit; nor should you put all of yourself online.
While I largely agree with Maureen Johnson's manifesto — that she is not a brand and you shouldn't be constantly trying to shill your wares online — there is the incontrovertible fact that if you are an author, you probably want people to read your writing. The internet is a great place to spread the word about your writing. So what do you do? How can you interact with people in this giant network of social thingamabobs and let them know — gently and non-spammily — that they might be interested in reading your books?
Here are five things I've learned in the last five years of being a YA author. I hope they're useful to you!
1. Be the best version of yourself online.
Every once in a while, the YA community online explodes into discussions about whether authors should "be nice" and never say any negative things online, or whether it's OK for authors to mention politics. These discussions basically focus on the question of how you can avoid alienating readers. The problem is, it's impossible to avoid offending everyone, and I don't believe authors (or anyone) should feel like they need to muzzle themselves in order to attract readers. That's a little too mercenary — and too false — for my comfort.
I think you should simply be the best version of yourself you can be. That doesn't mean you should never say anything negative, or that you should only be posting pictures of hearts and kittens. It means that if you're a naturally friendly person, be friendly in the best way you know how. If you're an opinionated political junkie, be the best opinionated political junkie you know how. If you're a bit of a curmudgeon, be the best curmudgeon you can be. Of course, some folks will not enjoy being in the company (virtual or not) of a curmudgeon, but if that's who you are, then own it. There are plenty of curmudgeonly authors online.
Basically, you are a human being with many emotions and moods. The good thing about the internet is that you don't have to express those emotions and moods LIVE 24/7! You can take a few minutes (or hours, or days) to think about how you are presenting yourself. Sure, sometimes you'll screw up and offend some people, but that's not the end of the world. Be true to yourself — your best self. (Cue Oprah.)
2. Interact with your followers and fans.
Developing a following goes two ways. Unless you have millions of followers, there's no real reason for you to not interact with them online in some way. (And even then, plenty of celebrities with millions of followers respond to some of them, some of the time.) I'm not saying that you need to respond to every tweet or every email, but choose a way to respond to your readers in a way that you're comfortable with, and make time to do it.
This might mean responding to select tweets, maybe by briefly thanking folks who tell you they enjoyed your book. This might mean writing back to fan mail, even if it takes months to do so. This might mean liking things that your readers post on your Facebook page. Whatever method you choose, I think it's important to respond in some way, because readers are people, too. They're taking the time to communicate with you, and while you may not be able to respond every time, you should find opportunities to thank them for reaching out. It can take a lot of gumption to send a note to a total stranger.
3. Share your interests, because they make you human.
Readers are human, and so are you. You're not all about promoting your book(s) — and you shouldn't be. You have other interests, too, and that's what makes you interesting. I know I find it really interesting when authors share what they enjoy online, whether it's delicious food photos or Buffy screencaps or intriguing bits of research. I think this is because a person's interests really do inform the kinds of stories they tell. When I follow an author, I want to know more about what they like because I'm interested in the creative mind behind their books.
So much of social media is about sharing things you like, whether it's Pinterest or Tumblr or Twitter. These are great, fun ways to become more of a three-dimensional person online, rather than simply the author of a book. Of course, you should only share what you're comfortable sharing. You don't have to tell the world everything! (See rule number one in case you're wondering how to figure out what to tell.)
4. Do not over-promote.
We've all seen the authors who are a constant stream of promotional messages. This gets old really fast. How much promotion is too much? Unfortunately, there's no hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes, for instance during a book launch, you might want to promote more often than you normally do. If you've been presenting the best version of yourself online, and if you've been interacting with your fans and sharing your interests with them, your readers will likely be okay with you doing a promo blitz for the brief period of your book launch. But on a day to day basis, you should not be constantly haranguing people with your book.
While it's tempting to try to come up with a rule, like X% of posts/tweets should be promo-related, Y% should not, I'm not going to do that. I'll suggest this instead: Follow some of your favorite authors on their social media sites. Get a feel for how often they promote and how you feel about it. This is a highly personal thing. You'll need to tailor it to your own identity.
5. Try to not take perceived slights personally.
If you've been on the internet for longer than five minutes, you'll know that there are endless potential situations for being slighted. Whether someone unfollowed you on Twitter or de-friended you on Facebook or simply didn't re-blog your awesome gif on Tumblr, you could spend all day being annoyed or frustrated by people you hardly know. Here's my advice: Forget about it.
Do not measure your worth as an individual by how many fans/followers/likes/comments you're getting. That way lies madness. If someone unfollowed you, that's okay. You can unfollow them if you want to; all of this is purely voluntary. But I'd recommend paying no attention whatsoever to the specifics of who is following you. Sometimes these things truly are technical glitches, but even if Mysterious Disgruntled Fan purposely unfollowed you, what are you going to do about it? Answer: Nothing at all. It's their prerogative to follow whomever they wish, and any attempt to change that would be, well, embarrassing for you.
Your time is better spent putting the best version of yourself out there so that New Fan #1 and New Fan #2 will be able to find you.
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Ultimately, I think it all comes down to rule number one. Sometimes, you're not able to be the best version of yourself online. In those situations, you might want to take some time off from the internet and regroup. That's perfectly fine, too.
I've found the internet to be a wonderful, supportive network of friends as well as a fascinating pool of inspiration and information. But it can also be a cesspit of awfulness, and if you're feeling overwhelmed by pressure to be this way or that way, or if you just can't stomach the negative vibes you get from being online, then take a break. I think social media and the internet should be fun, because even though I believe it can be an effective marketing tool, there's no evidence that having X number of followers will translate directly to increasing book sales. So if it's not fun for you, it's not worth it. Good luck!