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

In English Language by Rachel Aydt

• 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 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?

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.