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.

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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.