Selling books, not yourself: musing on writers and social media

As a writer, you have to sell yourself. We all know that. We have to market our books, our brand, our writerly personas. You can’t just sit around being JD Salinger these days. You have to have a Facebook account and a Twitter feed, a blog, a group. A bio, a picture, a persona. You have to sell yourself.

And you have to talk about stuff that isn’t your books, because nobody gives a damn for a Twitter feed that’s just “buy my book”. If you want “social media outreach” you have to give value. And that requires something interesting to talk about. Um… Other people’s books? What you saw on TV? Your commute? The weather?

Or, you can talk about your life. Because that’s always there, and it’s what you are, and we can all talk about ourselves endlessly. You can be funny, maybe, or political off the back of it, and once you have readers, they might even be interested in details about what your existence is like.

And also, it’s comforting. If you spend much of the day alone with the imaginary people in your head, a bit of human sympathy is lovely. My cat recently disappeared for five days. I tweeted and Facebooked about it, and the number of people who got in touch and sympathized and said kind things, and rejoiced with me when he turned up again, was wonderful and touching. It feels  natural to turn to the people out there to be happy with you in the good times and feel for you in the bad.

But…

When my cat came back, my first thought was to give him a hug and check for injuries. My second was to put a picture onto Facebook and Twitter. I don’t ever want that to be the other way around. I really don’t ever want that to be how I think about my relationships with people.

You may recall Julie Myerson, who wrote revealing personal things about her son, even after he begged her to stop, to the point where they are estranged. Or the columnist who wrote a column about how her husband had asked her to stop writing her column about him. The next column announced they were divorcing.

Everyone on social media needs to decide how much of their life to share and with whom. As a person, my FB profile is locked down. As an author it’s wide open, but I have a solid mental wall. I don’t name my kids or show their faces, and I don’t talk about non-trivial aspects of my marriage, to the extent that I’ve been known to delete my husband’s comments off this blog to stop him identifying himself. (I swear it’s that and not the damn fool things he says.) I’m not ashamed of any aspect of my life or particularly scared of being stalked. But this is my life, for me. I don’t want to spread my reality so thin it’s in danger of tearing.

That’s my choice, based on my (let’s face it, misanthropic) nature. Other people share a lot more, or a lot less. I follow many authors who blog movingly and generously on deeply personal issues of their identities, pasts, struggles with illness or disability in themselves or others, and much more. Some people simply share everything – partners, dating, domestic squabbles. Each to her own.

But what happens if the aspects of your life you’ve chosen to share as part of your professional persona become things that you don’t want to share any more?

Something I realised while I waited for my cat to come back: If I’d had the phone call telling me someone had put the moggy to bed with a shovel, I wouldn’t have wanted to go on Twitter to discuss it. I woudn’t have wanted anyone to ask about my cat, ever again. I’d have been curled up, wishing I’d never, ever said anything in the first place because it was my grief, not for others to see or poke at. I’m not a very extroverted person, granted, but that’s how I’d have been about a cat.

I really wonder how you cope when it’s a relationship, or a child.

I wonder if it can be good for anyone with their life falling about their ears to feel they have to blog or tweet about a terrible thing that happened. I wonder if it brings comfort, or if it’s adding another set of raw nerves to be scraped, another place to fear exposure and criticism and unkindness, another level of pain. I wonder if people feel obliged to update, or worry that readers will turn on them if they don’t approve of the author’s life decisions. I wonder how often, in our post-privacy world, people look back and wish they’d kept more behind the wall.

Writers have to promote ourselves. But we also have to keep ourselves whole, in our own lives, for our own sakes. And I don’t know how you pull back when you’ve put too much out there. Or how you can retreat from talking about intensely personal and distressing matters to tweeting a 99c special offer on your backlist.

This post started by talking about how you market yourself as a writer. We all want to sell books, God knows. But you’re not obliged to throw in yourself as a free gift.

_________

Think of England, a searingly honest expose of the sordid truth of my marriage*, is out now.ThinkOfEngland72web

*It’s actually a gay Edwardian adventure romance, but don’t let that put you off.

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20 thoughts on “Selling books, not yourself: musing on writers and social media

  1. Reblogged this on 38 Caliber Reviews and commented:
    Do you think that maybe there are two distinctly separate groups of people who write? The writers who want to write and sell books and be a writer and the people who write and sell books as a means of being popular. It seems that a lot of writers who give out TMI seem to fall into that second category.

    Reply
  2. Do you think that maybe there are two distinctly separate groups of people who write? The writers who want to write and sell books and be a writer and the people who write and sell books as a means of being popular. It seems that a lot of writers who give out TMI seem to fall into that second category.

    Reply
    • ‘I want to write books’ vs ‘I want to be A Writer’? Could be. Certainly some people seem to put more words into social media than into the books. Although, if you just want to write words for others to read, there’s nothing wrong with doing that on blogs and Twitter. God knows there’s enough books published.

      I suspect a lot of people just fall into the trap of talking easily about easy stuff, though. And then life gets hard but you’re already in a certain mode of communication, and you’ve shared X much already, and it’s probably very difficult to change track.

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  3. I know what you mean. I can hardly share grief with my closest friends, not to mention on twitter or Facebook. To me it would feel like demeaning something deeply personal and private–especially considering the callous nature of the internet. I always feel uncomfortable when people share things about their lives I wouldn’t. But of course, I’m an introvert.

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  4. I use a rule of thumb – share personal details only if they are benignly funny or about cats because the internet is big on cats. Even that feels like a bit much. I wonder sometimes if it’s an age thing or a country thing? British reserve and all that? I know that I make a heck of a lot of posts and tweets that I never actually post because a little voice in the back of my mind whispers ‘nobody wants to know that about YOU’.

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  5. Your post made me wonder if the prevalence of social media has led to writers presenting themselves as celebrities? I certainly notice more published authors are posing professional pictures of themselves. Is it now necessary for an author to look physically attractive? Hmm.

    PS: when is your next Magpie book due?^_^

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    • Headshots are cargo cult I think. Bestselling authors have them, ergo you need one to be a bestselling author. I’ve seen plenty of advice to new authors that calls it compulsory. You need a consistent social media image for recognition, and if it’s a photo it should be a good quality one, but the day authors have to be beautiful, we’re in trouble. I have served two decades in publishing and met a lot of authors and generally speaking there’s no trouble telling a writing conference apart from a Milan catwalk. (One of them is interesting.)

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    • Oh, Flight of Magpies is out late Oct, and its companion book Jackdaw is Feb. There’s also two free Magpie shorts coming, one Sept and one Jan. 🙂

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  6. I’m in the camp who just doesn’t want to promote myself, period. I suspect we’re a metropolis. What really works best is having fans who build a whole social media thing around your books (for instance, I belong to a very active email list devoted to the books of Lois McMaster Bujold). But that’s a “them who has already, gets more” thing.

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    • And very hard to make happen, except by writing amazing books, which we’d all have more time to do if we weren’t buggering about on Twitter…

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      • I’m pretty sure it takes much more than writing amazing books — or there wouldn’t be so many talented writers languishing in the doldrums. But maybe I’m just biased.

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        • No, there is of course the shedload of luck that it takes to reach a tipping point. Nothing much to be done about that, it just happens, and as we know is not always linked to book quality. My company has had a couple of Global Book Sensations and spends much of its time trying to replicate that, without success.

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  7. I think the vast majority of readers just don’t care what an author looks like, what age or gender they are, or what is going on in their personal lives. It doesn’t matter. I know it never mattered to me, as a reader, before I started writing seriously. A few readers will care. But most of the people that share that stuff with each other people in “the community” – authors, reviewers, and serious fans. What I mean is – you can enhance your online presence with personal stories, but the only people who care about that are probably other authors. I don’t think it improves sales at all.
    Once I started writing, I put some of myself out there via my blog. But not in a “oh, no! my cat ran away!” kind of way. I’d post more reflective things. For instance, one time my car was broken into and my purse stolen. I blogged about how that made me feel lucky that at this stage in my life I can absorb that kind of minor loss. So it’s not fiction, but still has some writing-value I think. Also, I don’t tell intimate stories, or personal things like my kids names or anything. I write about things in a memoir style, if I think they are interesting and I can say something worthwhile. I don’t share ongoing family drama, and I don’t talk about my kids or husband.
    The photo thing is nice when you are in conversations with authors on facebook or blogs, just because it enriches the experience. At least I think it does. But an avatar serves just fine, and I don’t think anyone should put a photo online if they aren’t comfortable with it.

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    • No, I think the personal stuff (daily life personal, I mean) is very much curating relationships with established fans. Which is obviously important (although not compulsory to do it like that), but a different thing to increasing sales.

      I think really you have to look at your platform. I assume that anyone who *just* cares about my books will come to my website or FB author page; that anyone who friends me as a person on FB is going to tolerate me chatting about what book I read/hot rugby players/funny stuff my kids said; that people on Twitter are happy with ephemeral rants, babble and snark. I don’t do personal reflections on this blog because I set it up to be about writing and authorship. Really, you have to look at where you are online/publically and put appropriate stuff there, and not do things with which you’re not comfortable.

      Reply
  8. This is only barely germane to this discussion, but there was a direct line between me reading this post and buying your book. (The snarky tag help.) I just wanted to let you know that I wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise and found it quite enjoyable. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Dear KJ Charles

    Sorry, I’m not following the thread of the discussion above, I just wanted to enter a plea: please…PLEASE write another book that follows on from ‘Think of England’! I am dying (not literally, of course) to know more about Daniel and Archie and the further scrapes they will get into!
    No pressure! 😉 Just to add, you are a fantastic author, and your writing is simply wonderful. I have all your books on my kindle and you are one of the few authors that I reread.
    I await with bated breath for the new Magpie Lord books that are scheduled to come out too.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! What a lovely thing to read, that’s very encouraging. Flight of Magpies is in about a week now, and watch this space for book news…

      Reply

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