I had a vision of sorts this week, a minor epiphany in which I perceived our hyperconnected community as a vast cloud of flocking birds, wheeling and carving through the sky in near-unison, a collective entity in which each individual’s motion and vector is both a contributor to and a function of the whole. Amusingly, this understanding came while using Twitter.
As individual writer-bloggers, we influence and learn the most from our immediate friends and neighbors on social media and in the blogosphere. And through our collective writings and readings an emerging wisdom on various subjects of common interest seems to be cohering. I see both benefits and dangers in this.
The advantages are clear: information is quickly shared, giving us the tools to adapt to a rapidly-changing craft environment. This information includes everything from writing tips and techniques to new markets, emerging subgenres, publishing scams, and the latest marketing techniques. Being up-to-date or even ahead of the curve in any of these areas is a desirable thing.
The downside to this group dynamic is of course that the individual is subsumed. In writing, reinforcement of the same few ‘rules’ can and does lead to dogma and rigidity, the result of which is a flattening-out of individual style and technique and an increasingly formulaic quality to the resulting manuscripts. I’ve been seeing this for a while, and I believe it’s getting worse: you will be assimilated. The same of course applies to markets, creating boom-and-bust cycles (I predict Zombie Romance will not be red-hot in five years, and that even YA and MG will lose their pre-eminence).
Marketing and self-promotion are an area of primary interest to writer-bloggers, and one where we would do well to question and scrutinize the emerging wisdom. One of the reasons—the primary one for many people—that we blog and strive for a high profile in social media is that we’re told that by enhancing our visibility this will help us promote our work. This is the received wisdom, the flock’s collective judgment, so it must be right, mustn’t it?
Well, no. Ask yourself who reads your blogs and your tweets, who interacts with you on Facebook. Beyond friends and family, I’d bet money that it’s mostly other writers.
Now this does have a value. We writers all need the support of and interaction with other similarly afflicted individuals to keep up our spirits and retain our sometimes tenuous grip on sanity. But how many of these people are going to buy our books, or talk about them? I think there is some effect, but far, far less than we think. Are the four or six or more hours we spend each week blogging about technique and talking about our work on social media going to pay off in sales? Is the three-part, forty-five hundred-word series I recently did on Trad v Self Publishing (and thanks to all of you who wrote to me about it!) going to sell my next book?
Not according to the research. The smart money seems increasingly to point at reader word-of-mouth as the single factor of real significance in promoting a writer’s work and increasing their sales. Not blogs, not Facebook, not Twitter, not sponsored ads, not marketing campaigns, not book giveaways and signings, not even reviews: word of mouth, it seems, trumps all of these. And word of mouth will be directly proportionate, I believe, to the quality of our work.
I’m not for a moment suggesting we should all stop blogging right away or close our Facebook and Twitter accounts. For one thing, these all have a social purpose; for another, everything we write—with the possible exclusion of shopping lists—serves to improve our craft; blogging, I’d argue, serves a very valuable purpose in helping us learn to frame and set out our ideas and arguments.
Should we writers then try to steer our blog and social media focus towards items of interest to our readers, actual and potential, so that we can attract more of them and that way extend our marketing reach? Well, good luck on that one. We’re not Kim Kardashian or Keanu Reeves, and fiction readers don’t typically idolize authors to the extent of following their utterances on social media and reading their daily ruminations.
In conclusion, then, I’ll keep blogging and maintain my social media presence, but with the awareness that I do so not for self-promotion but to maintain social contacts, exchange ideas, and give something back to a community of writers which has often been generous towards me; and of course for the sheer fun and banter. But if I find myself with just one spare hour in my day… well, that hour is probably better spent working on the next book.