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.)
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.
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.)
Write the book.
Slay the dragon.
Be the best version of yourself.
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