As with so many things in my public life, I fell into Twitter by accident. Having lunch with a friend who was a bit of a social media guru long before we all thought of ourselves as social media gurus, I was told to get onto Twitter and grab up my name before somebody else did. Good advice, as it turned out. Within a couple of weeks of the registering my account as @JohnBirmingham, a fake John Birmingham had also registered. I was kinda chuffed, identity theft being the sincerest form of flattery. But unfortunately fake John Birmingham's tweets petered out, buried by an avalanche of my own. I quickly became entranced with Twitter, partly as a time waster and partly because of its potential to amplify the buzz we’re all desperate to create in the two or three weeks after a book first appears on the shelves. Twitter, it seemed to me, was word-of-mouth raised to the power of lots and lots.
It was also very obviously a trap for the naïve and the coldly calculating. The conversational nature of Twitter –indeed of all social media – seems almost perfectly fashioned to lead people into saying things they really shouldn't in public. Like Facebook, the micro-blogging service combines both intimacy and immediacy in a way that can lead the unwary to forget that they're actually talking to the whole world. At the other end of the scale there are those spivs and pimps who are only too aware of the potential for monetizing our online conversations but who are, unfortunately for them, clueless and incapable of restraining their slobbering desire to cash in on this potential. Why anybody selling marginal real estate in Florida would imagine I’d want my screen filled up with their screeching advertorial is beyond me. But they do, and every day more and more of these gimps follow me in the hope that I will follow them back and respond to their latest offer to get suckered into a really shitty deal on Gulf Coast waterfront.
It is possible, however, to use social media without coming on as an amphetamine crazed greed head in a hallucinogenically loud plaid jacket or a fallen Nigerian cabinet minister with access to unexplained funds that could be remitted into your bank account this very afternoon, were you to trust him with your wallet and PIN number.
It's not for everyone though. If you're going to do social media, you have to be genuine about it. That doesn't mean you can't go online to hawk your wares, but the defining characteristic of social media is that it is social, not commercial. If you want people to take an interest in you, unless you are a mega-celebrity, you will need to take an interest in them, which means actually following the conversations, occasionally contributing to them, and not drowning them out with a wall of sound composed of nothing but sales announcements.
Some authors, such as Tara Moss and Nick Earls, have sussed this out long ago. Some booksellers like Avid Reader too. It’s easier for the individuals, rather than the companies, to attract attentive followers of course, but Avid also benefits from connected staff members such as Krissy Kneen who will tweet 'around' and 'about' the bookstore in an even more personal fashion.
For me, the benefits of investing some time and attention to building up a reasonable following on both Twitter and Facebook (I update the latter via the former) came well before my last book was published. For six months while on deadline I posted daily updates of progress, sometimes challenging all comers to a race to see who could reach, say, two thousand words for the day first. It was surprisingly motivating and bracing to kick the arses of would be writers and English students every day. Indeed some days, it was all I had to keep me at the keyboard.
I also threw research queries out to my followers. This allowed them to invest in the project long before they could lay hands on the book itself. It also meant I spent much less time trawling the net for arcana such as descriptions of locations I needed for scenes. For example, unable to find a reliable image or description of the third floor of New York’s Plaza Hotel before it was renovated, I turned my dilemma over to Twitter. Within an hour I had photographs of the hotel from the time period I requested. One reader even scanned a news story about the reno, including before and after shots, and posted it on Twitpic for me.
Boylan: I really like the idea of displaced Americans trying to hold onto a little bit of "America" because it requires a definition of what it means to be "American" and that isn't as easy as it is to find commonalities that define other cultures. I am hoping that John can fill the role, at least in part, that de Tocqueville did. We are not well suited to analyze ourselves. That requires someone from the outside looking in able to describe what they see.
In the week of my After America tour when I started to announce dates and venues and invite my tweetenvolk along. I was curious to see what if any effect this had on numbers. The turn outs were much larger, the number of sales greater, and the events themselves much more fun than previous tours. Over the course of the week I estimated that a couple of hundred extra people attended and bought books, than would have otherwise been the case.
Now, in terms of mass market numbers, a couple of hundred extra attendees, while good for the individual bookstores, won’t make a big difference to me or PanMacmillan at the end of financial year. But the amplifying effect of social media isn’t restricted to simply getting people out of their living rooms. A good number of those who come push word of the event and the book out through their own online networks, either as tweets, blogs, Facebook posts or whatever. This is word of mouth broadcast at a much greater volume than was previously possible. It won't replace traditional media and marketing strategies, but it does have the potential to greatly improve them.
Finally, lest this should all sounds horribly cynical and calculating, I should reiterate that it’s also a helluva lot of fun, especially when the virtual 'meet ups' in the real. Rather than a room full of strangers, awkwardly circling each other, most people who turned up on my last tour 'knew' at least some of the other punters, even if they had never met in the real world. It made for a celebratory atmosphere which, again, can only add to the buzz. On the downside, it did mean more hangovers and an increased Berocca bill.
Blogging was my first foray into managing my relationship with my readers independent of my publishing company. But I didn't do it, not originally anyway, simply as a marketing exercise. I started blogging because having become a full-time, professional writer, I needed an outlet for storytelling that wasn't related to paying my mortgage or my taxes.
It was a reader called Steve Murphy who got me into it. He had written a review of my first thriller, Weapons of Choice, on his blog. He liked the book, liked it a lot in fact, but had picked up a couple of errors I made when using military terminology. If you are the sort of writer who bristles at being corrected by 'amateurs' like this, you need to get over yourself. I thanked Murph for reading the book so closely, and offering his critique, and I had my publishers correct the errors in the next edition. It was a win for everybody.
Having benefited from that brief foray into the blogosphere, I decided to linger. Setting up my own blog I used it at first as something of a diary, simply recording my days work routine, and occasionally discussing the business of writing. I think I attracted a hard-core following of maybe, oh I don't know, a dozen or so regular readers in the first few months. This was despite having books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was the early days of blogging.
Very quickly, I realised that being online was a way to stay in contact with readers between books and across the vast distances which often separated us. So I kept at it, even though in the early days it really was for a very small audience. I believe it was years of tapping away at my blog, of building real friendships with the people who turned up there, that prepared me well when I later moved on to Twitter and Facebook.
Having been online for many years, it was easy to make the transition to those formats, but you need to be aware that people will see right through you if you enter those forums intending to use them as nothing but a marketing tool. It's just painfully, awfully obvious.
So how do you do it?
As sincerely as possible.
Let's look at Twitter, because for me Twitter has become something of an engine room. I use it for both my publishing and mass media work. In doing that I follow a lot of other writers and journalists. Some of them really understand the nature of Twitter. Some don't.
It is first and foremost a conversation. Not a public address system. For myself, I believe that if someone is kind enough to follow you on Twitter good manners demands you follow them back. Unless they are a crazy stalker, or selling underwater real estate in Florida. I have plenty of both among my 12,000 'followers'.
If you expect people to follow you, to attend to your every witless twit, and they will, you have to give something back. And that something is not an opportunity for them to simply by your staff, or turn up at your next gig. When you have decided to engage directly with an audience you owe them your attention.
Of course there is a trap in this. And it's not just the obvious one of making yourself a target for crazy people. As you build up your following it can become entirely distracting, so bad in fact that you never write another book again because you spend all of your time reading and writing fucking tweets.
If I had one piece of advice to offer it would be to rigorously control the amount of time you spend on social media. It can be an incredibly powerful tool, but it can also be a bottomless time sink. You might want to think about allotting 15 or 20 minutes at the start and end of the day to invest in your online presence.