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Tweeting for Dollars

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Ever since I learned (from a blog post by prominent author, and prolific Twitter user, Jennifer Weiner) that the popular #FridayReads movement on Twitter, run by @thebookmaven, is, now a business rather than a not-for-profit endeavor, I've been trying to decide how I feel about it.

Quick summary for those of you who missed this: Bethanne Patrick started a hashtag event several years ago (i.e. when a group of people on twitter all tweet about the same subject) where people identify the book they're reading. As part of this, Patrick does book giveaways for participants. It turns out that starting earlier this year, those giveaways -- and Patrick herself -- have been funded by publishers. Patrick was not identifying this fact in her #FridayReads giveaway tweets until this was revealed by Weiner. (She does now.)

I'll say up front that I kind of feel for Patrick. A year and a half ago I started a project on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter to promote books I love that hadn't gotten the readership I thought they deserved. No one paid me to do this (really). In fact, I've spent many of my own dollars, and a lot of my own time, promoting the project and the books involved. The only "subsidy" I've received is either from the authors themselves or their publishers agreeing to provide giveaway copies of their books, and receiving a few free books for me to consider. But this hasn't stopped people (a) from accusing me of working for Amazon, publishers or the authors themselves, or (b) thinking that all they have to do to get on the list is ask (and sometimes a bunch of times and rudely), which I assume means that they think that's how the others got on the list because it must be some kind of business.

That being said, I see Weiner's point that her essential issue is not that Patrick is trying to make money with #FridayReads (I have no idea if she actually is making "real" money with it), but that she basically hid that fact from the thousands of people on Twitter who participate in her event every week. When I asked for Patrick's take on this, she responded in part that "the fact that we were being paid to do promotions (...) was clear in our FAQ (...) and those that received the books received them direct from the publisher."

That being said, I believe that the majority of writers on Twitter -- myself included -- are, at least partially, on it for economic reasons (I apologize in advance to all those writers who are on Twitter purely for other reasons). Don't get me wrong. I love hearing from readers however they reach out to me, and am happy to engage with readers, writers, whoever, on the subject of books. And I've made some true and lasting friends along the way. But the truth is that I also highly doubt I'd be on Twitter at all if it wasn't important to my publisher (something I admitted a long time ago in an article I wrote for the Globe & Mail called "What Twitter Taught Me").

Some writers don't hide this; a quick glance at their feed history makes it perfectly clear that their tweeting intention is to bring attention to their books. But even those of us who don't constantly tweet "buy my book on Kindle, it's AMAZING! #DragonFire #Awesomeness #Books", or some variation of same, are at least partially motivated by economics.

Because the economic reality for most midlist authors (and maybe even non-midlist authors) is that they have to do a lot of self-marketing. And the common wisdom is that being on social networks like Twitter -- and tweeting about a mix of things in your life including, sometimes, your books -- generates book sales.

And selling books is a business, right? Even (hopefully) for the author?

So, by that logic, then, all tweets by authors should be identified as #promoted, because that's what were doing on there; promoting ourselves, and by extension, our books.

The devil's advocate in me says that, of course, this isn't necessary. Anyone who thinks about it knows very well why authors are all over social networking. (I'd actually be interested in the statistics on this. Maybe it's just the circles I tweet in, but it seems like the majority of people on twitter are somehow book related) In fact, the difficulty many authors face is finding people to tweet with who aren't there to promote themselves and their works.

On the other hand, perhaps Patrick's sin -- if she did sin -- isn't that she was using Twitter to promote a business, but that she used the hashtag model to do it. Because -- as far as I can tell -- the rest of the writer related hashtags on Twitter are purely altruistic. #WriterWednesday #Writechat #Scriptchat etc. seem to be "pure" movements where Twitter users take it on themselves to encourage others to follow a certain writer, or use the hashtag system to carry on conversations about a writer-related topic. This seems particularly true with endeavors like #FridayReads, that was completely altruistic until recently.

Personally, I believe/hope that the vast majority of #FridayReaders tweet about the books they're reading for no other reason than to tell others that they're reading a good book, and not because this might get them a chance to win a book. But that doesn't mean that those who are paying attention to that kind of thing don't have a right to know what they're getting themselves into.

So, was Patrick in the wrong? Is #FridayReads irrevocably tainted?

Out of interest, I checked out #FridayReads on Friday, and Patrick was still tweeting strong. And thousands were still talking about the books they were reading, even though that week's giveaway tweets contained the designation #promo. (Which is Twitter's way of saying: someone's trying to make $ off this!)

In the end, Twitter will decide. And like any democracy, their decision might not be fair, or reasoned, or just -- and they might get distracted if, say, it turns out that Justin Beiber has fathered a child -- but that's today's reality. You can't make anyone do anything. You can only put the information out there and hope that someone's listening.

And reading. Keep reading, people. Please.