Recently I attended a writer's conference and participated in a panel on social media. A week or so later one of the audience members emailed me. "I don't understand," she wrote. "It seemed like you were telling me to promote my book but not to talk about my book."
I emailed back. "You're wrong. You understand perfectly."
Keeping the Social in Social Media
Raise your hand if you hate promotion. Raise your hand if you hate social media. You're not alone, and I feel for you. I hate revisions, but as an author, I realize revisions are an important aspect of my job. Promotion, quite often through social media, is part of it too. I'm willing to bet if I asked those of you with your hands raised why you dislike social media, most of you would mention something about the time suck. I'm certain there would be other complaints, but the time promotion takes away from writing is particularly frustrating.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blogs, Tumblr, Google Plus, newsletters—these are some of the ways authors and readers connect. They're time consuming because not only are there so many ways to connect, each of the relationships we form must be nurtured and developed. Virtual relationships, like real relationships, take time and effort.
Ever had a friend who only called you when she needed something? Ever had a friend who, every time you get together, only talks about herself? Ever had a friend who always has something negative to say?
Ever met an author like that?
Guess what? If you only post on social media to tell your friends or followers when you have a book out, to give pre-order links, to brag about great reviews, to publicize your blog tour, or to vent about how unfair it is that Julia Quinn won the Rita instead of you, you're that friend.
Readers have sought you out because they want to get to know you. They can surf to your website to see links to your blog tour or find pre-order information. They LIKE you on Facebook because they want to know the person behind the author. Readers don't buy a romantic suspense; they buy the new Sharon Sala novel. They don't buy contemporary romance; they look for a Jill Shalvis or Kristan Higgins book they haven't yet devoured. And most readers certainly don't log in to Amazon and decide to search historical romance. They think, I wonder if Karen Hawkins or Teresa Medeiros has a new book out.
Why do readers consistently seek out these authors' books? Because more and more, readers buy books from someone they have a personal connection with. All of the abovementioned authors not only write great books, just like most of you, they also know how to engage readers. They understand that social media is about being social.
If Only I Could Twitter
Promotion isn't about the form of social media you use. If you aren't on Twitter, it's not the end of the world. In fact, Kristan Higgins (The Perfect Match) says, "I think it's better to choose a couple forms of social media and do them well, rather than take the buckshot approach and try to hit everything a little bit." Sharon Sala (Curl Up and Dye) agrees. She sees no career value in either Twitter or LinkedIn. "I have a Goodreads account, but my only real experiences on there have been negative and don't bother with it either." It's not about the quantity of social media. It's about the quality.
How do you make certain your efforts on social media is time well spent? Teresa Medeiros (The Temptation of Your Touch), who has close to 30,000 LIKES on her Facebook page, says, "the most important thing is to be genuine and entertaining. It's all about building relationships." If you've ever read Medeiros's tweets or stopped by her Facebook page, you'll realize she is definitely entertaining. How does Medeiros keep readers coming back? Contests on Facebook and her website, sneak peeks/excerpts, notifying readers of e-books on sale, and cats...but more on that later.
Karen Hawkins (How to Entice an Enchantress) has a practical approach I appreciate and employ myself. Hawkins takes into consideration what she and her readers have in common and hits those interests. She makes sure "every other post is about books, either ones I've read or quotes about reading, or a meme that's making the rounds—so long as it's about reading." Since most of Hawkins's readers, yours too, are women, she often posts about "things women love or understand, anything historical, and anything romantic...[A]ll of these topics mesh with the interests of female historical readers."
As an historical author, I often touch upon the same sorts of topics. Another interest I tapped into, quite by mistake, was children. It makes sense that chatting about kids interests women. Most women are mothers, grandmothers, or aunts, and the fields of education and childcare are overwhelmingly populated by women. I often post about the antics of my preschooler, who I call Baby Galen. Readers not only get a glimpse into my life, but they can reminisce about when their child was in that stage or commiserate with me, since they went through the same thing just last week. I have to caution anyone thinking of posting about kids or pets, those cute little creatures can eclipse you. I'm pretty sure Baby Galen is way better known than I am.
It's important to consider brand when you post or tweet or pin. Hawkins makes sure all of her "social media reflects my sense of humor, since that's part of my branding strategy." Higgans and Shalvis (Always on My Mind) tend to use a lot of humor in their books and their posts as well. Shalvis says, "I use my social media platform to make fun of myself, share my adventures, and give away books, whether it's a release month or not." Similarly, Higgans admits, "the same elements that make my readers like my books are present in the other facets of my author self—humor, down-to-earth moments of family and personal awkwardness, appreciation of beauty (male beauty especially!)."
I must admit Shalvis and Higgans were the first two authors that came to mind when I proposed this article. I've long admired the reader response to their Man Wars posts. If you haven't seen these, they're a series of posts featuring pictures of attractive men, actors or models usually, with funny captions written by Shalvis or Higgans. The Wars often have themes, like Men in Kilts or Firemen. Readers love the wars and look forward to them because at their core the Man Wars are really about Higgans and Shalvis being themselves, poking fun at one another, and giving readers a peek into the real-life friendship of two of their favorite authors.
Do you have to be funny to engage readers? No. Sharon Sala is often amusing, but she just as often posts touching stories about her 93-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia. Readers come back daily to read what trouble Sala's mother has gotten into this time. Sala mentioned that many of her readers "are caught up caring for elderly parents or a spouse with a similar issue. So it's a shared connection in that we're all in the same boat."
If you're thinking that many of these posts are quite personal, you're right. Remember the title of this article is "The Virtual Living Room," which, by the way, I stole from comments made by Hawkins and Medeiros. To Medeiros, "Facebook should be like inviting your readers into your cyber-living room, letting them prop their feet up in a comfy chair and fixing them a nice hot cup of tea." Medeiros's number one tip is "be yourself and be genuine." She qualifies that statement by pointing out you don't have to be your private self with readers, but "you can be true to your 'public' persona."
As a public figure, you should have a public persona, which hopefully engages readers in the same way your books do. But because you are a public figure, you also have the right, and the obligation, to keep certain details about yourself and your family private. In this age of reality TV and sexting, it seems nothing is private anymore, but the authors I spoke to had several suggestions.
Higgans says, "Growing up here in New England, we had a rule at family gatherings: don't talk about money, politics or religion." Shalvis is careful not to use family names. "My husband is Alpha Man (and this is unfortunately an apt description of him). My daughters are known as Oldest, Middle, Youngest, and Special Edition. Even the dog gets a moniker—Frat Boy, so named because he's always looking for a good time."
Hawkins is also careful never to post her real time location, and Medeiros might post pictures of the inside of her house but never the outside. Finally, all of these authors keep their social media positive and upbeat. Remember that the author whose book you couldn't finish might very well be on one of your reader's auto-buy list. The point of social media is to build relationships, and that is best done by searching for common connections, not areas of divisiveness. I learned this the hard way one day when I posted a picture of Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian side by side. My post was pro-Middleton's baby style and anti-Kardashian. I have never backpedaled so quickly. Kardashian has her defenders, and they were right to jump in. After all, to paraphrase one reader, we're all women. Why are we bashing each other?
I still occasionally stick my foot in my mouth, but I also strive to do as Higgans suggests, "I always always, ask myself if that's the kind of thing my readers want to hear, and if that's the kind of thing I want everyone to know."
But surely—surely—some of you are saying, during release month I can talk about my book. I've been engaging readers for three or five or nine months, and now the book is here. Can I post about my blog tour and my five-star reviews? As Higgans says, "there's a fine line between promoting one's work and shoving it down people's throats." Promote. Do not shove.
Medeiros cautions "the key is to mix it up." She points out that "people who Like/Follow you do so because they're interested in your work. But don't make it a steady stream of BUY MY NEW BOOK."
Sala mixes it up by posting "one notice about a month before release. Then I begin getting questions about it, which furthers the promotion just from my answers." It also creates a conversation between Sala and her readers. Again, she is connecting with them, not promoting to them. Medeiros advises authors not to "rattle on about yourself all the time. Show an interest in THEIR opinions, which will also generate COMMENTS and LIKES."
Hawkins tries to entice readers about the book "but not in a 'buy the book' way, but in a 'wait until you see what's coming' way...I'll put up a picture of a pug and say things like, 'Wait until you see what Randolph does in How to Entice and Enchantress." And if, after a long day of writing, you just don't have the energy to think of creative promotional posts or you're really not the sort who likes to push your books, do not lose hope. Shalvis says, "I don't change what I'm doing for releases. Much. Maybe I'll drop a few excerpts, links, mentions, but I try to do that anyway. I don't like to shove myself down people's throats. I'd make a horrific sales person."
So what's the secret to engaging readers? Kate Middleton pictures? Funny names for family members? Hawkins says it's as simple as listening to readers. She answers "as many tweets, FB comments, and emails as I can." Higgans says, "I'm not sure there is a secret...sincerity maybe?" Shalvis admits her secret is "probably that I overshare. I'm not out there talking about my books or my writing all that much. Just every day stuff people relate to."
It might help to think of readers as virtual lunch pals, as Sala does. On Facebook her readers are her "daily friends. I 'go to lunch' with them. I 'share jokes' with them. They boost me up on sad days and I know when they have health issues, lose loved ones, etc...we 'know' each other in that respect, and I very much appreciate it and them."
Medeiros suggests posting about "topics that genuinely interest YOU, whether that be the latest "Star Trek" movie, or Gerard Butler." And if all else fails, "post pics of your cats. Readers love cats. If you don't have one, borrow one and take its picture."
Cats and other small, furry animals aside, Higgans says, "the attitude is gratitude...and I hope it shows."
© Shana Galen