photo by Flооd

Therese butting in for a second to (very) happily announce the return of one of our favorite contributors: Jane Friedman! Jane is returning as a quarterly contributor, so we can look forward to seeing her essays several times a year here at WU–and of course you can see even more of her on her own site. Please join me in welcoming her back, and enjoy her words of wisdom. 

Most new authors, upon securing a book contract or planning a book launch, are advised they need to establish a Twitter account, a Facebook page, or [list social media channel here]. Why? To market their book, of course.

This presents an immediate dilemma: If the author is not already active on these channels, of her own interest and volition, she now has the mindset of using these tools to “market”—and the new author may have no idea what that means beyond telling people to like their page or follow them.

No one I know enjoys being a marketer on social media, not any more than people want to be marketed to. It poisons the experience, for everyone.

You might respond: Yeah, tell us something we don’t know, right?

Yet authors continue to use social media—and their online networks—as blunt instruments, posting things that beg people to pay attention and become a buyer or follower. Unfortunately, asking for such attention on a social media network is likely to ensure you won’t be getting any, except for those who already adore you or feel obligated to support you.

Here’s the much better alternative to begging: When you develop a strategic marketing campaign for a new book, the first thing you should do is list all the people you know who will buy it without you asking, and would likely recommend it to everyone they know.

These are the people you send a round of personal and private appeals to. These are the people whose attention you already have. These are your most important relationships, relationships you probably treasure and nurture. Ask these people for specific types of help during your book marketing campaign, based on their own strengths or connections.

Do not make a habit of broadcasting general, blanket appeals for attention and help to strangers. Keep those broadcast messages focused on what strangers most want to know, and focus on how those messages serve them. (Example: “Don’t miss the e-book giveaway on Wednesday only.”) After you make your well-strategized broadcast, go back to your regularly scheduled programming of cat videos, gardening tips, or beer photos—that is, whatever you normally post about, why people enjoy seeing you in their newsfeed or stream.

None of what I’m saying precludes sending appeals to influencers who may have never heard of you. That’s part of the game, too. But again, you should send personalized and private pitches if you’re seeking their time or energy. Their attention is precious, and they value their audience’s attention, too. You have to prove why you’re worthy of attention in that personalized appeal. (What I’m describing is basically what you might hire a publicist to do on your behalf. You can do it yourself, too, if you have the time.)

So, I’ve just outlined two types of purposeful appeals:

  1. Personalized messages to your trusted first circle, people who will buy your books without being asked.
  2. Personalized messages to influencers, people who have an audience of their own that you’d like to reach.

Does this mean authors should never directly market their books or their brand through social media? No. But there should usually be specific strategy or reason for having what we call a “hard sell” message in your social media stream. It may involve breaking news (the book is now out!), a community conversation, or a special offer.

But social media is predominantly about “soft” marketing when it comes to authors and books. In my experience, the best marketing that can possibly happen centers on creating and strengthening those relationships (as in #1 and #2 above) that later come into play during a book launch. It’s much easier to approach warm connections, or people with whom you’ve interacted over a span of months and years, than cold ones. Especially for authors who live in a region that doesn’t allow for much in-person relationship building, social media is invaluable for building those connections. It’s also helpful for introverts who may find in-person networking more difficult.

So: Yes, you can use social media to help market your book, but try to forget about the typical way it’s used or touted. Instead, focus on what you can help someone else with. For example, I recently did a post on back-pain remedies for writers. A few people reached out to me privately with very useful suggestions. Will I remember those people? Of course. Were those people hoping to ask me for a favor later? Probably not, but if they do, we have a foundation established. I also remember people who regularly comment on posts, or people who write intelligently on topics that interest me. I remember people who engage with me on Twitter. And so on. Social media helps you make a series of impressions over the long term that builds trust and awareness.

This isn’t to say that either you or I have to “get something” from our online relationships to make social media worth our time. But it’s a good idea to remember that when you do expect to get something out of it, and go asking for attention or favors in a public venue—with a mix of strangers, friends, and true fans—are you respecting people’s time and attention?

We’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.

About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman is the co-founder of Scratch, a new quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. Her day job is at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she leads online and digital content strategy; she also teaches digital publishing at the University of Virginia. Prior to joining VQR, Jane was the publisher of Writer’s Digest and an assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. Find out more at Google+ or her website.