This is a post about social media, which is the most boring kind of post. But for writers in particular, it’s an essential one. And here is why: we are at a time when traditional media is a fucking shitshow. In general, sure, but also, specifically as it relates to book stuff. You’ll find far less book coverage than you used to in years past, in part because — at least, as I understand it — a lot of outlets have reduced the staff dedicated to book-related and publishing-related topics, sometimes cutting down to the bone. Unless you’re in the one percent of authors who sell a WHOLE LOTTA BOOKS or have a book that meets a particular threshold of that hard-to-define “buzz,” (or you’re “someone who knows someone”), you’re not really going to get out there with book announcements or cover reveals or excerpts. You might hit a few end-of-the-year or beginning-of-the-year lists but… most authors don’t, won’t, can’t.
As such, publishers are leaning harder into social media as an avenue to champion books. Thing is, they’ve already leaned pretty pretty hard into social media over the years, and it makes sense: for a long time, social media has seemed like this fertile ground of virality, right? Authors get on, authors make some noise, they get followers, the followers are readers, the readers buy the books, and holy shit, it’s free? Manna from Heaven, and it doesn’t cost the publisher a dime?
One problem: it doesn’t really work like that.
As I’ve noted in the past, social media doesn’t sell books. Okay, fine, it does, but not at the level we all want it to. It moves a copy here, a copy there, ten copies, hopefully more. And that’s good. Because in a sense, every book is a pebble thrown into the pond, and it makes ripples. Ripples (readers new and familiar) reach farther shores, meaning, those readers tell other readers, and that’s a good thing. It’s not some kind of HOLY SHIT YOUR BOOK HAS GONE VIRAL kinda thing, but it’s a slow and steady and reliable way to earn readership.
But… publishing doesn’t really crave the slow and steady. Some publishers are good with it! Some have a wiser eye and recognize the value of a long tail. But a lot of publishers are just stuffing a catapult full of spaghetti and hoping some of it sticks to some wall, somewhere, anywhere.
I’ve long noted that part of the real value of social media for writers is the community that comes from it — a community not just of readers, but a professional one, too. We’re lonely little weirdos, and it’s nice to have a virtual watercooler-slash-campfire around which to gather. We can hang with other writers, agents, editors, and from there, artists and film people and TV people and comics folk and — well, so on and so forth. A creative community forms from this, not one that’s ever a monoculture, but that’s a good thing. It’s good that it’s this unruly, shapeless thing, because that’s what leads to more interesting friendships. (And community is, ultimately, about these friendships. Fuck anyone who talks about this as if it’s about the “connections.” Said it before, we’ll say it again, but people are not just rungs in a ladder.)
So, does it work this way still?
Is social media serving the writer well? In… any direction?
If I had a button marked “sad farty trombone sound,” I would now press it.
I might even press it two, three times. Shit, I might lean an elbow on it for a few minutes, really let it rip.
It ain’t good out there.
Social media is a fucking turdfire for writers right now.
Why is this? Part of it is what Cory Doctorow brilliantly calls the “enshittification” factor — read about it here. The basic gist is, when a platform needs users, it serves the users. Then the users become the product, and are abused in favor or larger businesses who can use the users in proxy, and then inevitably, the platform fails the businesses along with the users and the whole thing violently diarrheas the bed. It is, one could argue, the core problem of unfettered and unchallenged capitalism: businesses grow like bacteria without competition, and soon they burst free of the petri dish, after which they infect everyone and everything, killing their hosts, and that’s the end of that. Our current mode of apocalyptic capitalism requires unrestrained growth to reward the wealthy at the top, which is ultimately impossible, and it fucks a whole lot of people over. Except the really wealthy at the top, who fuck off to their rocketships and moonbases after they ruin everything around them on Earth.
(That paragraph got a little out of hand, but you see what I’m saying, and more importantly, what the wise Mister Doctorow was saying.)
We are definitely at the part of social media where these platforms have all fully enshittified themselves almost in grand simultaneity.
Which is to say, they are bad for users, and in particular, bad for writers.
Let’s talk about how each platform is doing here.
Even before Elon Musk took over, Twitter was a less-than-ideal place to try to hang your creative shingle. From uncharitable misreads to harassment campaigns, the waters were already chummed with blood. Still, Twitter made sense to writers. It was made of words! And we’re very lonely people! So a platform where we were able to microburst our random communiques into the world using words (and occasionally animated GIFs) worked well for us. It was fun, despite descending slowly into horror over the years.
Now, though, woof. Where to start?
First, the site defaults to the FYP (For You Page), which is an algorithmic regurgitate slurry where you can scroll and see page after page of tweets from literally no one you actually follow. It’s all weird promoted accounts, tweets “liked” by someone you do follow, or followed by someone you follow, or weird shit like “because you follow Tom Hanks, here is a tweet by an alt-right hair product influencer because the algorithm probably saw some tenuous digital connection between those two things, so congrats, here’s a stupid tweet.” I follow a lot of writers, but does the FYP give me a lot of tweets about books and writing? It fucking does not. It’s just a river of weird garbage and angry news stuff and not nearly enough WRITER STUFF.
(And of course, this only juices the algorithm further. It serves you a robo-selected slice of this garbage, which you must ingest because it’s all there is, and then the algorithm sees you slurping the twitter-gruel and thinks, AH GOOD, THEY MUST BE ENJOYING WHAT I’VE SLUICED INTO THEIR OPEN BEAKS, and it turns up the Sluice Knob to 11 because surely you want more, more, more.)
(It also seems that posts with links seem to be downgraded in terms of visibility. Which sucks when you want people to click a link to your book. Or, ahem ahem, to your really cool blog because blogs are still totally a thing, shut up.)
Second, Musk’s new “stick-on scratch-and-sniff verification check” reportedly is how you juggle your tweets back into the algorithm’s good graces. Regular blue-checks (aka, the ones that are not a reward but were supposed to tell people you were really who you said you were) have also been reportedly downgraded in the eyes of the Almighty Algorithm. So, if you’re a real person, fuck you. If you’re some jabroni with eight bucks a month (or eleven bucks or whatever it costs now) to spare, congrats, here’s your megaphone. (Also, do not pay for that service. Love yourself more than that.)
Third, you’re of course trying to get traction next to some of the worst people in the world, who have all been invited back to the platform by Musk. Y’know, Musk, who also gladly replies to alt-right weirdos named “Catturd,” taking their complaints and eagerly noting he’ll “look into it.”
Fourth, the platform is starting to break. It’s functionality is erratic as hell — this week has been stable when I’ve been there for the most part, but last several weeks, my mention tabs have been broken to the point where it was only showing me stuff from weeks ago, and wouldn’t update at all. Sometimes I get spinning icons or error messages. I suppose it’s not surprising, given how many people That Dude has fired. I think the janitor runs everything now. *receives note* Sorry, I regret to inform you they fired the janitor.
Just from a personal POV, while I’m not tweeting very much, when I do venture and Tweet Some Bullshit, it’s barely making a dent.
Given that the writer’s greatest challenge is Achieving Visibility, and the writer’s greatest enemy is Obscurity, that makes Twitter pretty shit for creative types right now. And it only seems to be getting worse.
Instagram is not entirely terrible.
Obviously I don’t like the parent company, but as a social media site it still brings me a modicum of joy to be there and scroll through photos of books, pets, and food. I can easily turn off unwanted FYP reels (and honestly, I think they made a huge mistake in their “pivot to video,” just jfc, just let TikTok be TikTok). Engagement there is still pretty good — a recent cover reveal for BLACK RIVER ORCHARD had (though it’s hard to measure precisely) roughly four times the engagement at IG than the post rec’d at Twitter, and that’s with a fraction of the followers. (~180k at Twitter, ~14k at Instagram.)
Thing is, though, IG is a visual medium, and we’re word jerks, so it doesn’t feel as natural, and is nowhere near as talky — plus, it’s hard to have actual conversations on IG. You can thread a couple replies but it’s not as easy to read or as encouraging for longer-term engagement. It’s a “drop a post and walk away as the building explodes” kind of place, not somewhere you go to to chat.
And links are hard to post there, and there’s no virality via a “reboost” function — which is probably good in that it cuts down on the total noise, but it’s harder for users to repost something they like without using a separate app for it.
(Reminder: I’m there as @chuck_wendig)
Facebook: the OG of toxic social media platforms!
Great for keeping in touch with weird family members, maybe, and also not bad for maintaining some communities, but for a long time it was pretty shitty for writers. You’d make a public page and then they’d want you to pay to boost any of it, so you could only really reach a fraction of your actual followers. (In a sense, the Twitter Blue checkmark bullshit is similar — if you want to reach all your followers, you gotta pay up. “Sure would be a shame if something happened to your engagement,” the digital goon says, slapping a blackjack into his open palm.) I’ve heard that FB has maybe loosened its grip on this a bit? I cannot confirm, but I know some writers who have reported increased engagement with their public page followers again.
Still, FB sucks, and Zuck sucks, so, I dunno.
I’m not on there, so I don’t have a good watermark. It certainly seems like it’s good for the book community, what with the existence of BookTok going strong there and helping create displays in bookstores big and small. And some writers have really done well over there. For my mileage it, like Goodreads, is better off serving readers rather than writers — nobody really wants us over there gallumphing about awkwardly to music while trying to shill our books. That feels like a fundamental misread of what makes BookTok cool? I dunno. YMMV!
But I know there are also privacy concerns too, so, shrug. You do you.
Tumblr certainly seems to be a bit resurgent? Also very word-based, blog-based, has an easy signal boosting function. Feels useful for writers but I haven’t been over there and am wary of committing excess text to a space I don’t really own. But maybe a good place for reposted content? Dunno!
Newsletters are great for writers, but only for them to speak to existing readership-slash-fanbases. A good way to let the people who like you know where you’ll be, what you’re doing, what books of yours are coming out, what you’re eating, what cryptid you just summoned to eat your stupid neighbors, whatever. Not ideal for earning new readership and creating public visibility.
(I don’t have a newsletter but this site serves as one.)
Unfortunately some newsletter services cost you money, and it’s hard to know what the return is on that. You’ll also likely find that the “open and read” rate can dip fast and stay low, because newsletters arrive via email, and if your email is like my email, it’s a BIG OL’ SHIT RIVER. It’s a lot of noise, and newsletters tend to get lost there. As such I can only subscribe to a few before it gets overwhelming, but maybe that’s just my completely broken brain.
I think it has a shot, and I know some writers seem to be doing okay there in terms of engagement — it’s a little quieter but fairly easy to use. Less easy to understand, maybe, given that the diffuse nature of the servers is confusing. Further, moderation varies wildly from server to server. Some places seem to have a lock on it, whereas others have users experiencing some pretty heinous shit, often out of nowhere. Hard to judge the entire experience because it isn’t an entire experience — it’s a series of fragmented shards, and you don’t carry your following/followed with you.
Find me there at mastodon-dot-social — @chuckwendig.
(Engagement on that cover reveal was… fine? ~56 likes, ~16 signal boosts, at ~11k followers. Could be better. Pretty quiet, but doable.)
I liked Hive at the start. Even despite the security concerns it had some stuff I really liked, and the community was peppy, and the engagement high. But then they shut down to fix some stuff, and came back weeks later with lowered engagement — engagement that I think was further hampered by the fact that some of the things that did work and were cool no longer work at all. And they’re things that actually foster engagement, so it feels like salted earth. I hope it comes back and does well, honestly, because it’s a neat platform that has (or at least had) the “stickiness” of Twitter, but right now, it’s kind of a mess, and also has become a ghost town. They also really need a desktop app.
I find I’m checking it less and less. Which is sad! I wanna keep the party going.
I’m there as @chuckwendig.
(The cover reveal over there, posted a week ago, was somewhat peppy, actually — even with quieter vibes, it had ~150 likes with ~6k followers, vs ~370 likes at ~180k followers. So that’s really not bad. Better than on Mastodon, I think. As a sidenote, reason I’m estimating these numbers a bit is because they seem to fluctuate, particularly on Twitter.)
If you take Hive and Post, it’s like Twitter bifurcated its psyche into two spaces: the first, the fun fanbasey wacky goodtimes half, and the second, the SRS BZNS news half. Post is droll and dry and all the global misery of Twitter without any of the fun. It’s not a bad place to get caught up on the news, honestly, but for writers I don’t see it doing much. At least not for writers who aren’t writing the SRS BZNS. For us silly story jugglers, I’m not seeing it really catch fire. It’s hard to see engagement and measure it, which is really a death knell for these platforms — we really want to see who’s liking things, who’s reboosting them, and so forth. It should be as easy as possible and not in any way difficult.
I’m there as @chuckwendig.
(The cover reveal over there had little engagement.)
It’s new! It’s basically Twitter! Its tweets are called, uhh, spouts? Which, as a writer, I hate a whole lot because it just sounds weird. But I also get it, okay, fine, spouting off. Whatever, I’ll cope.
It’s very new, so I have nothing to really note here — I’m there @chuckwendig. It’s buggy and sluggish right now. (Or, if you prefer, buggish and sluggy. Which is now the name of my new series of kids’ picture books, look for them in 2030.) Christopher Bouzy is, I believe, fairly trustworthy in that he’s the figure behind BotSentinel, a service known for figuring out who’s real, who’s not, and identifying/tracking harassment on social media.
YMMV, and I know it’s not fully open yet.
The Internet In General
Certainly there are other social media places out there — forums and the like. But the thing that strikes me is, it feels a little like the Internet is breaking. The wheels, coming off. Email sucks. Google results are increasingly awful, full of gibberish, half of which seems generated by some gabbling AI ChatGPT clone. And of course that’s the other thing — the “release the dogs” aspect of AI suddenly intruding all aspects of our digital lives feels like the whole thing is doubling down on Doctorow’s enshittification theory, that it’s all just getting worse and breaking faster. Links going to nowhere, services failing users, hacks exposing massive swaths of user information. It’s not great, Bob.
First conclusion is, this post is way too fucking long.
Second conclusion is, it’s unclear how much of this even matters. I mean, it matters in the sense that our communities are in massive disarray. We don’t have them as writers anymore, not entirely. They’ve been chipped away at, fractured, left in cookie crumbles. There are writers I’m friends with who I haven’t seen online in months. Sometimes it’s because they left, other times because The Fucking Algorithm hasn’t shown them to me, sequestering them to some dark and distant corner of the social media manse. So, it sucks.
Thing is, in terms of actually selling books and earning readership, it’s bad to lose that, but there was always the question of how truly necessary any of this was. It seems to me — and no, this is not universal, but it’s pretty solid — that the books that do well are the books that publishers got behind. Yes, some writers did so well on social media they earned followings and readerships — I’m among them, I think, though it’s certainly not 1:1 where every follower becomes a reader. But you look at some of the biggest books of the year and track the authorial social media presence… it can be low, even non-existent. Books don’t require social media to exist. They require publishers who believe the books and then choose to manifest that belief with effort and money.
Which really, is the tricky part, because a lot of this feels like, “Hey, if you wanna solve climate change, you better do your part, citizen.” Which isn’t wrong. Of course you need to do your part to not fuck up the planet. BUT, it’s also not us individually doing Most Of The Up-Fucking Of Said Planet. It’s giant systems and corporations in place that are very hard to dismantle individually — and with publishing, it’s also very hard for us individually to magically make a book a huge or even moderate success. We can do our parts. We should do our parts. But our part isn’t the make-or-break component. That lies with publishers, and not even publishers on social media, but publishers working the well-trod paths with bookstores and distributors and relying on old-school advertisements and such. Social media in this sense has been a bit of a stalking horse for publishers — something to hide behind without investing in any make or break aspect of it. If it works, yay, we did it. If it doesn’t, well, that’s just social media, man.
So, really, no meaningful conclusions or actions to be had here except — well, shit, it’s hard to be a writer at any time in history and in my opinion it’s only getting harder, because the internet is increasingly noisy and increasingly shitty. Which is also maybe me just getting older and more resistant to new things, but I also don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way? Sound off if you have further thoughts to add to this conversation.
I’m gonna stop typing now because this really has gone on too long. I mean, WTF, Wendig, shut up.
ANYWAY HEY HI buy my books. And leave reviews. Because otherwise I die in the howling pit of obscurity, and that would be sad. For me, at least.
BLACK RIVER ORCHARD, coming 9/26.
And earlier than that, GENTLE WRITING ADVICE, arriving in June.