Arts | Books | Entertainment

First Novels: For One Who's Been Through It, 'Books Are Social Media'

NPR | Aug. 5, 2014 7:53 a.m.

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Martha Woodroof

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Martha Woodroof, author of the upcoming Small Blessings, continues her series about the experience of publishing a first novel. Past posts can be found here.

Perhaps no part of the First Novel Experience is as confusing and overwhelming as figuring out how to balance the demands of social media with the demands of writing more fiction.

As I mentioned in my last post, I share an editor at St. Martin’s (the fabulously discerning Hilary Teeman) with Lydia Netzer. Lydia’s second novel, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, is just out, but her prize-winning first novel, Shine Shine Shine, came out in July of 2012, about the time mine was bought. Although she didn’t know this until recently, Lydia is my social media role model. As you look over the answers she provided me by e-mail, I think you will quickly understand why.

Me: How were you involved with social media before you sold your first novel?

Lydia Netzer: I had a blog, and I was on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. I used these outlets for documenting our homeschooling escapades, engaging in heated arguments about politics and elections with my Facebook friends, seeking out laughs on Twitter. My glorious social media success was posting a video of my sister’s Chihuahua angrily guarding a stolen plate of chicken. It has over five million views.

Me: Did you add more platforms during the run-up to publication? If so, did you do it on your own, or because you were advised to?

LN: The only site I was advised to add was Goodreads, and I did. At first I tried to be very active, and reviewed a lot of books, and joined some groups. During what we shall refer to as The Unpleasantness of 2013, I deleted most of my reviews and emptied my bookshelves, and now I respond to messages and friend requests but don’t participate much more than that. I’ve learned by keeping my eyes open that you never, ever, ever want to argue with a reader or reviewer. Goodreads seems like a minefield in that respect, so I just abstain, apart from responding to friendly messages.

Me: Did your social media self-image change during the pre-pub run-up?

LN: I was gently encouraged to put a stiff sock in it with regard to anything political, controversial, or provocative. For a while I kept a secret Facebook group where I still ranted and raged about politics and current events with some friends who privately obliged me by ranting and raging back. However, after about a year, I came to the point where I didn’t even want that. Keeping my mouth shut has become more fun than foaming and frothing. It’s like the opposite of E.M. Forster’s “Only connect.” When it comes to anything contentious, I try to observe another motto: “Delete, ignore.” There are plenty of things to say that won’t make anyone hate you, and there’s nothing that really needs to be said that will.

Me: Did you have an actual social media plan for publicizing your novel? Did you make a conscious attempt to change the image you projected through social media?

LN: I was overwhelmed by gratitude during the months surrounding the release of Shine Shine Shine. My social media plan must have been to loudly gush and squeak over everything that happened. I spent a lot of time loading exclamation points onto thank-yous and got so hysterical with it all that I put myself on an exclamation point elimination diet for a month. So that was my conscious attempt to change my image from an overwrought noob to a person with at least a scrap of self-control.

If you’re going to participate a lot, in social media, especially if you’re sharing the events of your life on Facebook and Twitter, you have to expect and accept that people are going to see your ups and downs. The delicate boundary we all navigate is how to represent yourself honestly and without artifice, while still maintaining a little distance and dignity.

Me: How did you engage with people who might buy your book as opposed to just random people?

LN: In my opinion, you can’t use social media for the purpose of selling books and be successful. You have to enjoy making connections, staying up on book news, rubbernecking controversies, snagging links to interesting things to read, and making yourself laugh. And that happens with random people. I’ve never had someone say to me, “Oh my god, because of your carefully-worded pitch on Twitter, I just bought your book and I love it.” This is not to say I don’t post about my books or events to friends and followers. But I don’t have a strategy or a program for putting my face in front of new potential readers and then making that face say things about my books. I don’t make a special effort to find readers and connect with them, because I think that feels intrusive. I’m there, if readers want to find me.

Me: How did you grow your platform?

LN: I don’t think I’ve grown it very much. I have

Me: How integral do you think social media was to Shine Shine Shine’s remarkable commercial success?

LN: I don’t know that it was, at all.

Here’s an interesting fact. A few months before my launch I had a viral blog post. My post, 15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years, was written as a casual, smartassed salute to my husband on our anniversary, and surprisingly it got a few thousand hits in the first day and went on to get hundreds of thousands. It was republished on the Huffington Post where it rose to the top of the site in traffic, and it’s been reprinted many places. Later that summer I wrote another one, “10 Best Wedding Vows You Don’t Hear at Weddings that blew up on Pinterest and still gets thousands of hits a week, two years later. Because of those two posts, I got 17,000 hits on my blog last week, and that’s not counting all the times the posts have been read on other sites around the web. That kind of traffic is pretty crazy, for a personal blog. My counter went over 1,000,000. Definitely my most successful venture into social media.

Last week, approximately 50 people bought my 2012 novel, Shine Shine Shine. Even if you assume that every single one of those people bought the book because they read one of those blog posts, which would be wildly inaccurate, that would still be a terrible conversion rate. The commercial success of Shine Shine Shine had everything to do with my publicist and the marketing people at St. Martin’s Press, along with the support of indie booksellers during the hardback launch. Having the book selected for the Target Book Club made its career as a paperback.

Me: You were working on your second novel How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (which came out July 1) while you were doing all this social networking promotional stuff. What was the biggest challenge? How (one writer to another) did you keep your head from exploding?

LN: The best advice I can give a debut novelist is to band together with other debut novelists to go through the experience in communion. Facebook, blogs, Google Communities, and Twitter are wonderful ways to do this. A year before my book was due to hit the shelves, I tribed up with other authors across multiple genres, and we’re still together, many now weathering “second novel syndrome” or even third. Find others with release dates close to you, construct a “cone of silence” over your group, and create a safe place to vent, freak out, celebrate, scream, and get advice.

Me: Please rank the platforms you use as to book promotion effectiveness, with a word or two about whom they seem to reach.

LN: Wow, I really couldn’t say, although I would love to give this kind of ranking and analysis with numbers to back it up.

It’s important to look at the difference in how publishers use social media and how authors use social media, and I’m guessing the effectiveness and reach for those different applications would vary a lot. Publishers use Goodreads to build buzz, get reviews, place ads, attract readers. Authors can’t really do that. Publishers use Twitters more for announcements and news, less for engaging in conversations, like authors do. You see this divergence in some ways between authors’ personal profiles on Facebook, which might contain more gardening and cocktail posts, and their author pages, which might be more focused on writing and promotion. But it’s hard for one person to separate corporate from personal, the way the publishers can. Nobody knows how effective or ineffective different strategies will turn out to be. All of us early adopters are finding our way, in the dark, with no maps. The best we can do is engage with enthusiasm, go easy on each other when we misstep, and support each other.

Me: How have you changed your social media approach from novel one to novel two?

LN: I have drawn in a bit, in some ways, and reached out more in others.

In terms of my kids and animals, my husband, and mundane details of my life, I’ve drawn in. I created a list, on Facebook, of people who I think won’t mind looking at lots of kid and dog and horse pictures, or would be amused by my daily silliness. Close friends, family members, some others.

To these people, I post whatever I want about my kids and pets and stuff we do. To my whole “Friends” list, I try to post only things I think would have wider appeal. So that’s me drawing in a little bit. If you’re thinking “She still overshares!” then you’re probably on that smaller list.

On the other hand, I share much more of the stuff that goes into writing, the darker stuff, the personal stuff. Having my first book come out in print was like dragging a gruesome, dripping, naked part of my brain out of my head and putting it on an examination table for people to look at. I realized that in deciding to write novels that are personal and honest, I had already surrendered any kind of real privacy I had. So I feel weirdly free to talk about personal struggles, because my novels won’t let me pretend I’m hiding much.

A book is a conversation between an author and a reader. Books are social media, and the most intense connection I can get with another person is having that person read my novels. So everything else — Twitter, Facebook, and the rest — is fun. A little facile, a little commercial, and artificial, perhaps. The book is where the real communication is, and I think all writers and readers know that.

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