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So Many “Friends,” So Little Friendship: Authors Discuss Mingling Social Media, Self-Promotion and Real Life

• Today, authors are compelled to constantly self-promote, but the practice isn’t always pleasant or appropriate.

• What happens when the intimacy of the typically quiet writer’s life, and the nature of real friendship, blends with the public persona of our professional selves online?

By Rachel Aydt

“My original goal with Facebook was to use it as a marketing tool,” says Megan Kelley Hall, YA author of Sisters of Misery and The Lost Sister. “I wanted to get my name and my books out to as many readers, bookstore owners, buyers, librarians, and teachers as I possibly could. But along the way, I discovered that it offered great networking opportunities.” Indeed it did; throw her readers into the mix, and you could fill a medium-sized theater with her 3,500 “friends.” What happens when the intimacy of the typically quiet writer’s life, and the nature of real friendship, the kind that we used to hold dear in 3-D coffee dates, blends with the public persona of our professional selves online?

The other day I was updating my own Facebook status with a link to a post I’d written on my blog New York Lost and Found, because, well, I wanted more traffic than the loyal 25 “followers” I have who may or may not check into my online brain space. After all, I have over 400 “friends” on Facebook who might be inclined to check it out. However, I’ve begun feeling ickier about this self-promotion, and have started to ponder this seemingly benign link I consistently make to my professional life. Why shouldn’t anyone want to read my blog entry right at this very moment in time? Or, for that matter, the link to the essay on the New York Times blog that I posted; the link to the Babble.com service piece I’d written; or the link to my latest article on Publishing Perspectives. While I’m at it, why don’t I just post the blog link on my Twitter feed as well? Hey, dear reader, my handle, @Rachelrooo, has three o’s, okay?

When exactly did I begin to use my “personal” online space for the purpose of reaching out to people professionally between chats with girlfriends in Europe and Facebook Scrabble moves? If I’m being honest with myself, I know that the answer is simple. Always. I also know that I’m not alone.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Facebook and Twitter this week. This evening, two of my “friends” will have book signings, 10 blocks apart in midtown Manhattan. One, Stephanie Dolgoff, a former colleague of mine from old Young & Modern magazine days, is reading from her book My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young. Dean Haspiel, a comic book artist, will be signing his new graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution. Of other friends; Lauren Brown (LBAuthor on Twitter) will be taking a much needed vacation to Harry Potter land at Disney after completing her second installment of her new YA series Doggy Divas — which comes out in a week or so — and my colleague Susan Shapiro, author and writing professor at the New School, has a swell student, Lawrence Forbes, who has just published a great essay in “The Good Men Project Magazine.” [And what is this promoting? His essay, or her teaching?] Busy day for all of my pals! Suddenly, a handful of friends feel more like mini public relations departments than people I’ve stood next to water coolers gossiping with, or even the beer keg once upon a time ago. It’s annoying sometimes, but I do the same exact thing, so I can’t be hypocritical about it. The lines between business and friendship often get blurry, but to my mind they’ve never been, well, blurrier.

“My personal Facebook account is not as active as it used to be,” says author and editor Lauren Brown, who recently hired out of her own pocket a publicist to handle her own social media streams to prepare for her book releases. Brown’s PR specialist is helping her to merge all of her different online platforms into one cohesive brand, as well as develop a separate feed on Twitter that will actually be written from the point of view of a character from her young adult Doggy Divas series  (@MissDoggyDiva). Brown isn’t my only author-FB friend I spoke to who has an outside entity controlling her online space.

John Searles, author of Boy Still Missing and Strange But True, has also off sourced a bit of his online presence. “I use the company Likeable Media, which is great when it comes to Facebook. They made an author page for me where you can see TV clips, read interviews, and they even do giveaways.” But is he still Facebooking personally? “I do have a personal Facebook page that I’ll still sometimes put pictures up on, but to tell you the truth they’ve blended now, and I don’t mind. I also like Twitter; I’ve gotten to know other writers through these sites. In a way it’s been great to keep up with readers and know what they’re looking for and thinking about,” he says. Does it ever feel strange merging the personal with the public? “Well, there are two sides of my personality. There’s the Jack Nicholson from The Shining side, who’s hunched over his typewriter in isolation, and then there’s the more outgoing social person.”

Speaking of Twitter, my own feed has become progressively clogged with novelists and journalists I admire, though roughly 100% of those personalities are not following me. I know which political issues Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) is caring about; and which television shows Judy Blume (@JudyBlume) is watching, apparently from somewhere down in Key West. Both of the food writers Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) and Ruth Reichl (@RuthReichl) tweeted on the same afternoon about how all you need this time of year is a good fresh tomato, course salt, olive oil, and decent bread. Cindi Leive (@Cindi_Leive), editor in chief of Glamour magazine, loved the “flatform” shoes in Michael Kors’ Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week runway show this a.m.

For a couple of years I’ve been haphazardly joking about how in order to survive in today’s economy, we have to become little corporations of ourselves. As a freelancer, sometimes the Corporate Decisions I make regarding how I spend my time feel ridiculous. I ponder things like, “What’s more cost-effective: spending three hours and tons of energy doing my laundry, or dropping it off and having it done?” If I turn this same “I am a corporate entity” logic toward the topic of Facebook and Twitter, I ask myself similar questions. Who am I now? Regular friend, or worker-bee? “To proceed or not to proceed with my brand expansion in this moment, that is the question.” Which is more effective from a business point of view: updating my Facebook status to reflect the awesome chile I just made, or throwing up a link to my latest article? I drift towards the latter, but haven’t checked to see who’s defriended me lately.

What will ultimately be the toll, if any, on the solitary “writer’s life” that has fed into the creation of solitary work through the ages? Searles describes his alter-ego living hunched over his typewriter; but does he stop, intermittently, to tweet about the hummingbird out the window? Are most writers busy dividing themselves into two spaces, the public, attention-challenged self-promoting virtual water cooler space, only to have self-imposed “Offline Check Out” times when we’re doing what we should be doing best? Growing up, my mother’s library (she wrote YA books for Scholastic all through my childhood) was filled with volumes and volumes of literary letters, correspondences so thoughtful and complete that they were published. Might our 140 character Tweets and status updates find their way into volumes sufficient enough to garner ISBN numbers in the Library of Congress, or have we begun to amputate that one critical arm of our crafts’ history?

Some authors, like Hall, have undoubtedly found their voices among the virtual chorus. “My favorite part of Facebook is the ability to connect with people that I would never be able to meet otherwise.  This is how I came to get my book optioned for a feature film by the amazing Hollywood Indie director Allison Anders. When I saw her on Facebook, I instantly thought, ‘This can’t be the same Allison Anders who directed Gas, Food, Lodging; Ma Vida Loca; and Four Rooms.’  So I emailed her telling her how much I loved her work, and was wondering what she was up to lately.  When she wrote back and asked about my book, I was completely floored!”

Anders and Hall kept in touch, going back and forth for the next few months. Then their agents got to talking. “At that point, I started to think something exciting was in the works. But, all the while, I got to know more about her and her kids, her dogs, her boyfriend.  When she finally optioned the book, it went beyond a ‘deal’ and had become more of a friendship and collaboration. If it weren’t for Facebook, I never would have had the opportunity to meet her or get to know such an amazing woman.” For Hall, the self-promotion paid off. Before too much longer, she’ll get to see the name of her book light up a marquis. And when it does? She can invite all of her 3,500 friends.

DISCUSS: What are your best tips appropriate social networking self-promotion?

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  1. Kristin
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Social media is a splendid way to make your own stuff stand out in all the advertisement noise we are bombarded with. But for your stuff to stand out, it needs to be promoted in a personal way. People have a soft spot for the human touch.

  2. Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I often ask myself what the point of social networking is when I find people I don’t know wanting to “friend” me. More often I have to look at it as “mutual promotion”, and I screen everyone who follows me on Twitter, FB and so on. I don’t just accept them because they request; they have to have some pertinent relation to my projects, or I have met them before. I used to belong to a social club with which I had no real contact for several years. Lo and behold, many of the members I used to know were on FB, so I could connect without having to attend meetings. That is an advantage, and does not curtail my writing time. But self-promotion does and I wish I could keep the noise down to a low roar. The problem is, unless I do self-promote them my books could be rolls of toilet paper and no one would know about them.

  3. Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    In a world increasingly pulled in many directions from work, real life, and a “social” online presence, it’s key to understand the importance of each. Truly, it seems that a typical life is now so much more than the face to face existence it once was.
    Although I do not need the world and my 1000 “friends” on facebook to know how many cheerios I ate this morning, I am always happy to share interesting events that shape my real world.

    Great Article

  4. Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I have an article on the results of a survey of what affects book-buyer decisions in the current Southern Review of Books at http://anvilpub.net/southern_review_of_books.htm. Social media are at the bottom of the list. Buyers report that liking previous books by the author and recommendations of family and friends are the most important influencers. That’s not to say that social media have no influence on book-buying decisions – just that a sample of buyers say social media are not important in their decisions.

  5. Posted October 19, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    I agree with all these sentiments – I feel sometimes like a 24/7 streetwalker, the amount of parading about and touting myself that I do. And I’ve gone one step further from FB/Twitter/blog thing – I also have my own online social community network. This was set up to cope with all the fan mail that was just too time-consuming to deal with. Readers wanted to correspond, and rather than a simple “I loved your books” – “Why, thank you so much”, it would go on and on. People were so kind and many so interesting, but I couldn’t keep up with it. So my husband set me up an online community and it really works. Over 700 members now, many of them active daily. Readers meet up all over the UK, real-life friendships (and a couple of romances) have been formed, and people in USA, Australia etc are trying to organise get-togethers in their countries too, though given the larger continents, this is a little tricky.

    But lovely though my online community is, it’s also one more thing to keep up with and do every day. I’m currently writing my fourth book and have a Christmas deadline. I switched on the laptop this morning, but rather than writing, I’m spending the first two hours of my day checking my book news feeds (hence finding this article), Facebook, Twitter and of course my community.

    If we’re not careful, our writing will come a poor fifth or sixth to all this networking stuff. And then the whole thing will implode because all our readers will desert us as we haven’t written a new book in years!

  6. D. Foy
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    But the thing about Hall’s little anecdote is this: I feel pretty sure that if he is honest, he would say his real motive for pinging Anders had little to do with any concern about her “life” and much more to do with how his relationship with her could further his “career.” Or in other words, at the heart of this whole “self-promotion” deal — the position we must assume to engage it, and etc., etc. — lies a very major, very creepy concern, which Holden Caulfield would well understand: that of the phony, and phoniness, and being phony.

    Think about it.

  7. Posted October 24, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    D. Foy: You know whereof you speak. I hate the whole self-promotion thing, but I love talking to other writers and readers. Time is a shrinking asset as my books get more popular, and I need time to write. Social media keeps me from being an ostrich about the world outside my own, but it eats up time. What can you do? Everything is being reduced to sound bites, even my friendships. Yikes. I’m melting, I’m melting. (Too late, have done too much today, time to quit.) Thanks for your honesty.

  8. Posted October 26, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey D. Foy, this is why I like Facebook. In keeping with your Holden/Catcher in the Rye reference, this is my main focus when it comes to “connecting” with people online (all kinds of like-minded people: artists, readers, teachers, writers, creative spirits, etc.)

    “What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
    –Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

    To me, Facebook serves exactly that purpose. Not really being creepy. More like staying current. And connected. (And I’m a girl not a guy, FYI.) :)

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