Lately there’s been a lot of talk on a professional writer’s email forum I’m on about the pros and cons of Facebook and other online venues for marketing your books. Authors are justifiably concerned about protecting their personal lives and private information.
But this is the age of the Internet. People shop online. People buy eBooks. People look for information about just about everything on the Web, and that includes which books to read.
The explosion in book blogs is just one example of how the world of book marketing has changed. Most publishers have the primary bloggers on their regular list of contacts who should receive ARCs. I know mine is constantly working to figure out which are the most influential YA book blogs, and cultivating them as venues for reviews, author interviews and giveaways.
And there’s another factor that makes the Internet more and more important for getting the word out about books. Authors are just not being sent on book tours the way they once were. Book tours are expensive, time-consuming, and often don’t reach many readers. As a means of getting face-time with bricks and mortar booksellers, they’re still the only way to go. But with few exceptions in some vibrant, urban centers, book events simply don’t attract the crowds they once did. Of course, if you’re a Stephen King or some other author-superstar people will come out to see you and get your autograph on a book. But the vast majority of hard-working, serious authors will never achieve that kind of celebrity.
An author Web site is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential. One author on the list said her lack of Web presence back in 2008 was seen as a deterrent to receiving a book contract. That has only become more true since then. We don’t need fancy bells and whistles, but we need up-to-date information about our books, added value for the reader in the form of backstory about our process and ways to contact us etc. But the Web site is only the beginning.
For years, I toyed with blogging. I generally started out enthusiastic then gave it up, in part because I had a full-time day job on top of trying to write novels, and I had to decide how best to use my limited time. But the more books I have published, the more authors I know, the more important I feel it is to have a forum where I can express my opinions about the book world and share my struggles with readers and aspiring authors. I also want to welcome guests, like having a fabulous dinner party where everyone shares an interest but has a different point of view about it.
Although I only started this particular blog since leaving my job in mid-May, I feel as if I’ve come to it with a completely different agenda from my previous attempts. Before, I’d think, “What should I write about? Who will care?” Now, almost every day there’s something on my mind that I want to share. In part, I appreciate how much more sophisticated the blogging software has become. I can track how many people visited and which pages they read, enabling me to see what topics are popular. I’m not in the least offended, for instance, that usually a guest blog gets more hits than one of my own posts. It’s all about networking. Fans or friends of the guest blogger will see mine, maybe return, maybe link to it. Generally, I’m now an enthusiastic blogger.
And then, and possibly most controversially of all, there is Facebook. In the many posts back and forth about the benefits and hazards of Facebook, I think a sort of consensus has been reached.
1. Facebook is an immensely powerful engine for networking and connecting to people with interests that relate to your “product”.
2. With that power comes a few hazards. The algorithms built into Facebook enable advertisers to target very effectively based on age, gender, interests, geographic location etc. It’s hard to do that in almost any other advertising medium, except possibly Google, and it’s much less expensive on Facebook. I know. I’ve used the ads. I can count the hits and see the results in additions to my numbers of fans.
3. Keeping your personal life separate from your professional life on Facebook is difficult. Readers, don’t be offended if an author you try to “friend” asks you nicely to go and “like” her fan page instead. There’s still personal contact on a fan page, but it’s more directed toward the books, less toward personal details.
4. Finally, anything on the Web is essentially publicly accessible. I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want to see in the New York Times (I wish!). Does that sometimes include pictures of my beautiful granddaughter? Yes. Do I have my little rants about the weather and about how busy I am? Yes. Do I moan about the lack of time in my life, or crow about an accomplishment. Yes. Those may be personal details, but they’re not private. Private is for conversations between friends. And I have a personal page and a fan page, with little crossover between the two (except for the wonderful friends and fellow authors who “like” me everywhere!)
So, essentially, I have embraced the digital world. The other advantage to it is that instead of feeling totally isolated here in my Brooklyn apartment as I try to write, there’s always “someone” I can turn to and say, “This isn’t working! I’m hot! I want chocolate!”
Sometimes I fantasize about the literary good old days. I dream I’m part of the Algonquin Round Table, that Dorothy Parker is sitting next to me letting witty quips drop right and left. How wonderful, I think, would it be to have that cafe society kind of life as a writer, a romanticized version of the artistic process. Then, writers wrote. Books were published. Bookstores sold books. Responsibilities were clear.
This is a different world. I picture myself as a sort of amoeba. My core sits here on my chaise in my Brooklyn living room, laptop open, fingers typing, but bits of me are reaching out through cyberspace toward readers, other authors, reviewers, bookstores…If I think of it this way, there’s something almost zen about it. I have friends and acquaintances all over the world whom I may never see in person, but whose lives I have somehow touched.
Ultimately, that is the real benefit of the Internet and this brave new world of book selling.
OK, this has gone on too long. But one more story: The other evening I watched 84 Charing Cross Road (via my Roku box, streaming Netflix, another advantage to the Internet). If you’ve never seen it, it’s a charming movie about a writer in postwar New York (Anne Bancroft) who cannot get the obscure books she wants to read at any of the bookstores in the city, and establishes a correspondence with a bookstore owner in London (Antony Hopkins). Over a couple of decades, they become friends. The writer sends care packages to the strictly rationed bookstore staff, and they all end up writing to her and becoming friends without ever meeting.
This, to me, is a strange precursor to the world of books on the Internet. I won’t give away the ending in case you haven’t seen it, but somehow it all fits. In essence, it reminds me that although the means have changed, the ends haven’t. It’s all about getting the books to the readers, whatever that entails.