By Andy Hunter, Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature
Earlier this month, twenty co-publishers joined Electric Literature in using Twitter to publish Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters,” a short story written for the medium in 153 bursts of 140 characters or less. Our goal was to create a conversation, agitate for literature, and expand the readership for Moody’s story. It was an inclusive effort that brought publishers, literary magazines, bookstores, writers, and readers together. With the participation of twenty co-publishers, we transmitted the story to over 38,000 followers—a robust audience for a contemporary short story.
To accomplish this, we used a service called Hootsuite, which allowed us to schedule the tweets and broadcast them to all participants, with each tweet published to their feed as their own content—as opposed to retweeting (Twitter’s tool which allows users to share material with their followers), which would add a tag to every line, like a storyteller with a persistent hiccup. Worse, it would make every co-publisher look like a shill for Electric Literature, branding every tweet with our name.
By issuing a new tweet every ten minutes over three days, we were able to catch people while they were logged in. Moody’s lines would happen across their screens, serving as a reminder of the event. Once reminded, they could visit a publisher’s feed to view the story in progress.
We dubbed this an “experiment in participatory ePublishing” and, like any good experiment, we didn’t know exactly how it would turn out.
It wasn’t without problems. People who subscribe to several co-publishers’ feeds found their Twitter cluttered by repeats of each line. Those affected were mostly publishing professionals, bloggers, booksellers, and journalists who use Twitter to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry. These people define the media narrative, and their complaints were widely reported. We regret that less attention was paid to the content of Rick’s story than its mode of delivery—although that may have been inevitable.
For Electric Literature, the experiment was very valuable. After tallying hundreds of reader responses, we found that positive comments and retweets outnumbered complaints by 10:1—meaning 90% of our followers engaged with the story in a positive way. Over the course of those three days, our web traffic spiked 300%, subscriptions jumped 500%, hundreds joined our email list, and we gained 10,000 new followers on Twitter. We accomplished this without any direct self-promotion during the broadcast. We simply published a superb story that was crafted for the medium. Content is meaningful to our followers; marketing is not.
Other publishers were similarly pleased with the results. “We’ve added followers,” noted Timothy Schaffert of Prairie Schooner. “I think what you guys did is the most important step forward I’ve seen anyone in the publishing community take,” said Michelle Simmering of Black Clock. Todd Zuniga of Opium Magazine wrote in an email, “I just want to say that what you guys did was awesome… You should feel elated.”
We invited bookstores to participate because we believe it’s crucial for publishers, readers, and bookstores to communicate and collaborate. Unfortunately, the bookstores received the lion’s share of complaints, due mostly to industry people following multiple stores. “Our bookseller followers were (very vociferously) in revolt,” wrote Breathe Book’s Susan Weis, “but not one non-bookseller commented on the feed.” In a blog post titled “Is Twitter an echo chamber?” bookseller Vroman’s asked, when booksellers tweet, who is listening?
The lesson is clear in retrospect: know your followers. Bookstores’ audiences are diverse: buyers of children’s books, the Twilight saga, and programming manuals may all subscribe to their local store’s feed, looking for information on discounts, events, and new titles. They have different expectations than publisher’s followers. Publishers have an identity which can give them confidence in their ability to select content that suits their readers.
Ultimately, due to this experiment, a wide community engaged in a discussion about the ways that fiction can use new media to expand its audience and continue to be a vital force in popular culture—which is exactly why we started Electric Literature.
We didn’t invent Twitter fiction. Writers have used Twitter as a creative medium almost since its inception. Sites like nanoism spin self-contained narratives of 140 characters. Writer John Wray tweets in-character as “Citizen,” and Colson Whitehead uses Twitter beautifully. The opportunities for the publishing industry are just barely being tapped. For example, bookstores and publishers can use the service to augment author appearances, reaching well beyond their physical audience and allowing fans who can’t make the trek to witness and participate in these events. Or authors could guest Twitter for a day. Followers can retweet to share favorite quotes and moments in a way that’s just not possible in chats or live feeds.
Using Twitter well is a skill. Publishers won’t get far by tweeting, “our book is great, buy it here!” From our experience, a direct plea results in a click-through rate of about 0.1%. Furthermore, such messages are not retweeted. A smarter strategy is to share a compelling quote or fact from a book, one that your followers might share with their friends, who might share it in turn. A particularly poignant passage will have a much greater reach than a simple pitch for the title. The cascading effect of retweets can expose an exponentially larger audience to a book. It also follows the golden rule of fiction workshops: show, don’t tell. If your book is great, prove it with material.
Social networking is not a marketing tool—if it were, who would join?—but it can be a direct line from publisher to reader. The success of a “tweet” is a meritocracy: those that please your audience will be passed on. When a follower retweets, they are implicitly identifying with your message. Twitter turns every individual into a broadcaster, and everything they broadcast shapes their identity. Every individual’s presence on social media is an agglomeration of media, references, and content that amounts to: “this is who I am.”
Publishers have a unique advantage over other businesses using Twitter: a nearly inexhaustible supply of content. Twitter is, after all, text-based. While it’s important not to clutter your feed with too much self promotion, your content is valuable if it’s clever or useful.
The thousands of messages that fly through Twitter every second amount to a wide-ranging conversation. Publishers are best served by contributing to that conversation in a meaningful way. Imagine yourself as sitting next to your twitter feed at a dinner party. Is every word out of your mouth about you, or do you listen, engage, fascinate, provoke, and inspire? Good company attracts good company, on Twitter as in life.
VISIT: The Electric Literature Twitter feed.
READ: Electric Literature’s Christmas Card, written by Israeli author Etgar Keret
DISCUSS: Is Twitter a Viable Format for Storytelling?