Slaying The Dragon: Social Media For Writers, And What That Means For The Success Of Your Book

 

the fuzziest, happiest dragon you ever did see SHUT UP SHE IS TOO A DRAGON

I said a thing last year about social media being a misunderstood opportunity for writers and blah blah blah social media is about connecting and not selling.

You should go read that.

Because I’d like to expand on it a little bit.

Writer Christa Desir tweeted from a conference that Random House gives its authors a social media grade, which is to suggest that social media is important to a writer’s existence. (I for one would like to know my social media grade. Also my liquor consumption grade, my self-doubt score, and the percentages that show just exactly how much of an impostor I actually am. GET ON THAT, PUBLISHERS.) I have no idea if this idea is in any way malevolent or misguided on the part of the publisher — I’ll go ahead and be optimistic and assume that the grade is not to judge or diminish an author but simply to show authors who might could use a little coaching on social media. Because on social media you can do some good or you can do some ill-ass evil, and hey, maybe it’s a good thing to help people understand what it means to be a writer-person in the online world. (Thanks go to Christa for putting this stuff out there, by the way, because this one of the ways that author social media is best: writers sharing information with other writers.)

Anyway.

I’d like to say some things regarding writers hoping to use social media to sell books and expand their audiences — well, first, I’d say that please do realize that every friend or follower is also not a 1:1 reader. Meaning, they read your tweets, not your books. They may eventually come over to reading your books, or they may have started as a reader of books and then segued into being a reader of tweets, but it’s not an automagic process. People don’t follow you on Twitter or Instagram and suddenly become MINDSLAVES TO YOUR WRITING. Your words are not a meme-based parasite that drives them to seek your words in other quantity. (I’m working on that, but so far the science has failed me.) Often enough, though, we pretend this is the case. That social media success is the same as book success, or that one follows the other, or that they’re intimately connected — two forces cosmically joined in word-squishing fornication.

The success of your book does not rely upon social media.

And the success of your social media does not rely upon your book.

The two flirt with each other. But they are not perfectly bound.

I’d like you to consider the success of your book in RPG (role-playing game) terms.

As someone who has played many an RPG (in paper and on screens) and who has written them, too, I actually think that RPGs inadvertently model life’s many progressions fairly well — not in a literal way, but in a metaphorical way, which is why I say “model.” RPGs provide a kind of framework for thinking about how we interact with the world and how we move through it, gaining cool new kung-fu moves as we go along the way. (I’ve long thought that writing a non-fiction book about Life Lessons Gained From D&D would be a cool project.) Part of this is that much of life is down to luck. Life is down to random chance, to a confluence of atoms, to lots of coincidences big and small elbowing into one another. But luck isn’t dumb. Luck is smart. You can actively pursue luck. It’s not roulette, where your choice is literally up to the whims of the universe. It’s poker — where you take the cards you’ve been dealt and then you make decisions and take actions based on those cards in order to maximize your chances. In some RPGs, luck is literally a stat. You can use it in a variety of ways to help achieve your goals.

So.

Let’s say that over there is a dragon. This dragon represents the success of your book.

You want to slay that dragon. That is the task before you. Slay the dragon and then slit his belly and gold comes pouring out because, I dunno, this dragon eats gold, shut up. The gold is a royalty from your book sales. Dragon dead. Book a bestseller. Huzzah and hooray, let’s go to the tavern and get fucking sloppyshite on Kobold Piss Whiskey and Dwarven-Forged Ale.

In game terms, the way you mechanically slay a dragon is you have an attack roll — you roll one or several dice and the dice determine if you hit. Your dice are likely modified by your skills, and they are likely modified by the weapon you hold in hand. You make one or several attack rolls to murder that dragon, because apparently the greatest desire of a fantasy traveler is to fuck up a poor, gold-eating dragon, you monster.

Generally, in games, you have various ways to modify that roll. You cast a spell on you or your weapon. You train your skills. You sharpen the blade. You spend some kind of expendable resource (Willpower, Luck, Confidence, whatever) to add dice or numbers to the roll — all in order to increase your advantage in order to slay the dragon. Your success is ultimately still random, right? You try and you win or fail based on the whims of the dice. Ah! But, you do these things in order to increase the chance of your success and reduce the chance of your failure.

Now, you pretty much need some kind of weapon to slay the dragon. You might be able to use your bare hands and punch the dragon to death, but if that’s your strategy, I’m gonna go ahead and assume you have an incredibly low chance to hit and an incredibly high chance of the dragon burning you to a glob of charred fat before promptly shoving you between two horses and gobbling you right up (for this is the dragon’s favorite kind of sandwich). Your chance of success via DRAGON-PUNCHING is so low it is approaching zero. Sure, you probably heard tell of some guy who did it, but that guy is not your model, he is a MYTHIC OUTLIER.

So, assume you need a sword.

In book-writin’ terms, that sword is your book.

You can go into dragonbattle with a shitty wooden sword — a fucking crap-ass book, in other words — or you can go into battle with the best goddamn sword you can muster, which is to say, the best goddamn book you can write. But you need a sword. You need a book.

Having a great sword is no guarantor of beating the dragon. But it ups your chances. And having a great book offers no guarantee of that book being a slam-bang success — oh, if only it were. Many books are published that are great… and they suck the pipe before taking a big ol’ dirt-nap. Many books are published that are terrible and those books end up as New York Times bestsellers. (This is where someone chimes in: LIKE YOUR BOOKS, SUCK WENDIG, and then we all have a merry chuckle before I command the dragon to eat your ass like it’s a goat salad.)

You can, as a wannabe dragonslayer, do things to up your chances of doing more damage — like I said, cast a spell, sharpen the blade, whatever. And you can, as a wordslinger, up your chances of making your book a success. One of the things that provides a positive modifier to your book-publishing dice roll is engaging with social media in a positive way. And that can mean whatever it means. It may mean engaging with fans in a cool, not shitty way. It may mean sharing things you love. It might mean just being funny and sincere and the best version of yourself. It means, most likely, occasionally promoting yourself and your book without then hitting people in the mouth and crotch with the news of your book. (Note too that social media can also end up as a negative modifier — if you are a super-shitty-dick-person on Twitter and you shellac the social media frequencies with your smug spunk and a sheen of fermented crappiness, there is a very good bet that you have just harmed your chances at your book succeeding.)

There exist a few important takeaways here –

First, social media modifies the blade — but it is not itself the blade. I’ve heard tales where people have gotten book deals based purely off their social media followings and have maybe even found success that way. Like the knight who wanted to punch the dragon to death, assume once again that what you’re looking at is a MYTHIC OUTLIER. (Our writing careers will be filled with tales of mythic outliers — authors who credit random tasks as the progenitor of success, as if the results of those actions were JUST GOOD OLD-FASHION WISDOM rather than the product of divinely-inspired luck. We saw this to a degree with the tide of self-publishing: those who found success there were suddenly building churches to the cause rather than accepting that what they did was just one way up the mountain.)

Second, modifiers are non-essential components. All you need are YOU and the SWORD. Yes, it’s not a bad idea to add modifiers — but what’s essential is the book, not the social media around the book. If you’re frantic about social media and how it effects you and your book sales, calm thy nipples. Also, not everyone is great at social media, so remember again it can become a negative modifier instead of a positive one.

Third, social media is not the only modifier available to you. Assume that a wide variety of things contribute: marketing, advertising, book cover, book description, shelf placement, and so forth. Plus, you’re also playing to unseen targets: cultural zeitgeist, for instance. Sometimes a book is a hole-in-one simply by dint of it speaking to some unrealized human frequency. Sometimes a book fails because it is out-of-sync with that frequency. But there exist other ways to modify, is my point. You needn’t rely on social media. And if a publisher wants you to rely on social media, you should cast that publisher a wary eye.

Fourth, and building off that last point…

One final and vital modifier to the DRAGONSLAYING BOOKSELLING dice roll is the huge modifier your publisher brings. Actually, it may be better not to view the publisher’s efforts as a modifier but rather as them bringing a whole dragonslaying party to the battle. With a good publisher and a strong effort, you are no longer alone in this fight. You’ve got an elf archer, a demon cleric, a dwarven accountant, a berserker baboon whose ass shoots lightning — whatever. Hell, a really epic publisher effort might mean you’re bringing an entire ARMY to bear against the dragon. Sure, the dragon might still eat every last one of you for lunch, but I’d rather go to dragonwar with a hundred knights than just me, a chainmail codpiece, and a steel blade. It’s your name on the book, so you get to look like the lone hero, but it doesn’t need to be that way in reality. (How this applies to self-publishers: you aren’t just the writer. You’re author-publisher. You bring to bear a team of people to the task, just as a larger publisher would.)

Go forth.

Write the book.

Slay the dragon.

Be the best version of yourself.

The end.

* * *

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28 comments

  • Things like this are good to hear. As a both a blogger that never posts and social media lurker too uneasy and anxious to usually say anything, I worry my lack of online presence will be a definite cause of not getting published, what with how everything is so ‘social’ these days. I’m a hermit, I don’t like social. I’m just not good at it.

  • I can absolutely say that I have read books in the past year or so that I wouldn’t have known about if not for social media. I have been away from newer SF/F books for a long time so my group of authors had been stuck with names like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlen, Tolkein and Bradley. Now, like stepping stones through twitter, I’ve gone from one author to another as I’ve seen the interactions and common perspectives of those I’ve followed. So I’ve read for the first time books from names like, Scalzi, Wendig, McClellan (dude was born when I graduated high school WTH), Rothfuss, Cole, and next Sykes and Dawson/Bowen. Twitter has been a gateway drug to getting back into something I used to enjoy a lot of so for me at least it has worked

  • You asked. Your Klout score, measures your social media effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 100 with 40 being the median score. Yours as of today is 74 which is “hot damn, you’re hot.” Or to put in other words, you are one of the popular kids. Not as hot as Pres Obama but still…

    IMO, while at this moment social media effectiveness is not the be and end all of bookselling, but I predict a few years down the road it will be much more important. Which reminds me to get on my social media homework.

  • Dude, that gonzo bundle is great, and I want it in my lap now, but I absolutely hate ebooks! I’ve tried, but really not taken to them, and I really wanted to love them as much as I love the hundreds of books on our shelves.

    As to social media, what you say is absolutely true, and I suspect you know it better than certain publishers do. Hear hear! It does help an author to read this and get clear-headed about how to sensibly weight their efforts. Thanks.

  • August 1, 2016 at 3:39 PM // Reply

    Poets are almost always alone, bards trying to coax a quartet of rabid dragons to sleep. And, instead of gold, they find mostly fetid air inside the cavernous guts. Their piercing weapon is a staple gun of elementary-school strength.

    Without an MFA to act as a shield… ouch.
    (I’m uncertain how many modern poets find success without an MFA, or famous mentor.)

    Excellent post, Mr. Wendig.

    Everyone: May your blades be sharp and shiny, your luck stat buffed, and an army of allies be at your back.

  • Someone already wrote that book (about lessons learned from RPGs)… or at least about the lessons you *can* learn, if you let yourself. It’s called “Level Up Your Life”, by a guy called Steve Kamb. It’s not got as much swearypants as a standard Chuck Wending oeuvre, but otherwise in terms of the fact that it says “The only person responsible for your success is you” it’s pretty damned similar.

  • The nice thing about RPGs (especially on screens) is there is always a nice clear way to advance. If you kill 10,000 boars you get 10,000 points and you get a level. I can do the math and know exactly what I need to do to advance!

    Life is not like that. I want to know exactly what to do, point me to the boars. Give me the math. I will be able to slay the social media dragon. But it is like, go be charming. What? No. I’m not charming. Charming is right down at the bottom of the words that describe me, next to short. Just not a thing.

    Go write a good book. But how and what and the magic unknown of the giant shaman nerf makes it like ihavenocluewhatimdoing….

    Life is so messy and complex and strange.

    (That said I have always thought of RPGs as a great place to try out things before you try them in the rest of your life. RPGs are like sandboxes for life.)

  • August 2, 2016 at 8:51 AM // Reply

    I 100% agree that social media is important to a writer’s existence and it is as true whether you write a blog or a book. Social media is a great opportunity to both connect and sell your ideas, Twitter is a great place to gain a following easily and it is true on the site many people are not listening to what you have to say, but plenty of others are, my following here exceeds 10,000. Other Social sites are less open and it is not so easy to get followers, yet it is possible to develop a great feeling of community and people share each others work freely (one of the greatest ways to attract readers).

  • Unfortunately, if you’re new to dragon slaying, publishers now tend to give you a sword and a constipated monkey that is afraid of loud noises and wish you luck. Slay some dragons and if you live we’ll give you some parry members next time. I do completely agree about the metaphor though. Social media doesn’t sell, it just connects.

  • Chuck, that was one of the several posts you wrote around that time that led to a lot of hard thinking and a direct response, and indirectly to a reboot of my own blog and Facebook page, and a renewed commitment to showing up and participating grounded in an understanding of why it’s important to participate. So thank you for that.

    The funny thing is – I thought the blogging would be a chore (and sometimes it is) and would take away precious time from the project-based writing (and sometimes it does), but more often, it’s a positive catalyzing effect. I write book reviews because I’m reading books I love, and because I’m talking about what I’m reading, I’m processing it more deeply, drawing connections, enriching my own perspective and my own writing. I’m picking apart craft and process. Because I post my photography on (something resembling) a schedule, I am paying attention to the world around me, which affects the way I mentally map both my own worlds and my storyworlds. When I’m stuck on the WIP I have something else to write, so I’m still writing, and keeping my head in the game. I’m slowly building a community of people who are really genuinely interested in what I have to say, which keeps me excited about moving forward with these projects and seeing them in print, and the “platform” in the commercial sense follows on from that organically, is not the foundation of it, cannot be the foundation of it if the community’s to mean anything at all.

    I was saying to my daughter last night that I have always been a dance-with-the-one-who-brung-you girl, I embrace what I’m stuck with and forge forward with that. Social networking is a reality in creative work in 2016, and making a conscious choice to suck it up and embrace social networking has, to my surprise and delight, made me a better writer.

    • These were really positive observations! Your book reviews and photography are a nice way to develop craft. Students are regularly put through their paces with such tasks, but you’ve developed a great habit of self-tasking without such supports. Awesome!

  • Hi Chuck!

    If I sold as many books as I had social media followers, I’d be in the Bahamas doing body shots off the belly of a cabana boy. For the record I’m in rural Oregon drinking coffee so…yanno. But a girl can dream!

    Great post!

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