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A Writer's First Year: Where's My Web Butler?

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I first discovered that the Internet is a magical land when my DVR cut off a recording of American Idol before I found out who got kicked off. I raced to my computer, typed in, "Who lost on AI?" Within seconds, I had the answer.

That's what convinced me that maybe there really is something to this Internet marketing thing for books.

I didn't want to believe this. I'm a writer, which is the opposite of being a marketer. We writers like to sit around alone in our flannel pajamas and slippers, not answering our cell phones and blissfully swilling tea. Marketers dress up and go out into the world, or pull the world toward them by using just the right spin on the phone or online.

When I published my first book last year, I got my very own marketing person courtesy of my publisher. My marketer is beautiful in the intimidating way of a TV news anchor still young enough to be on prime time: ethereal, tall, slim, and naturally blonde. She wears the kind of shoes I always thought were especially manufactured for episodes of Sex and the City.

In fact, in my own mind, that's what I named my new marketing person: Sex and the City. I was, after all, no longer alone in my barn, but encapsulated with my marketer in a 13th floor office of Random House in New York City.

Sex and the City informed me that she would work closely with my publicist. Then she started speaking in a foreign tongue that almost sounded like English, except that it was peppered with scary indecipherable phrases like "create a buzz," "blog tour," "domain names" and "before your launch."

When Sex and the City discovered that I neither blogged nor commented on other people's blogs, she instructed me to start. Now. As in, yesterday.

I was paralyzed with fear. I still used my laptop like a glorified typewriter and encyclopedia: I liked to write on it, and when I needed to know something, I googled it.

Now I was expected to take action online. I didn't have a web site, I'd never bought a domain name, and I had no idea how to use Facebook, despite the fact that it's been around so long that most of my friends have moved on to tweeting. I didn't want to do this. I wanted a Web Butler who could open doors for me and introduce me to strangers. Preferably one like the butler Batman had in the first movie.

Little by little, though, I tiptoed deeper online and conquered my fear. Along the way, I made some key discoveries about marketing books online:

1. Domain names are easy to buy and cost a lot less than shoes. I went to GoDaddy and had no trouble navigating the site, at least while my husband held my hand and told me when to click the mouse. (I ran into a slight difficulty because that greedy actress, Holly Robinson Peete, bought up all of my domain names. Then I realized that, as long as I bought something with my name contained within it, it would still come up just fine on google.)

2. Web sites are like second homes. Once you own a domain name, you can put your web site on it. Within that, you can showcase anything you like: links to your articles and books, favorite web sites, pictures of your pets, your biography and blogs. I think of my web site as my other house. A house where it's very cheap and easy to add fresh linens, hang more pictures, or even add a hot tub.

3. Blogging is like writing in a journal. Blog posts don't have to be long, involved, sublimely crafted essays. They can just be short and informative. Blog posts can be a great way to meet other people who share similar interests; I now think of blogging as my virtual water cooler time.

4. Blogging is the opposite of writing in a journal. Writing in a journal is a very private act. Blogging is about as public as you can get, so be prepared for criticism. The first time I put up a blog post on The Huffington Post, for instance, I wrote about the American Idol showdown between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert last season. Who knew that so many people thought Mr. Vanilla Kris Allen shoulda won? Ouch.

5. Using other people's web sites and blogs is a great way to promote your book. If you have a book about motorcycles, or one that features a tattoo artist as the main protagonist, seek out web sites about those topics and see if they'll take a press release. Or search for blogs related to whatever you're writing about and comment on them. You can also do a blog tour.

6. The more time you spend online, the greater your visibility. This is a good thing if you're launching a book. Your goal is to get your name and your book title out there enough times so that the web crawlers will bring it up immediately for anyone who types in something related to you or your book topic.

7. The more time you spend online, the less time you have to actually write. Yes, I still wish that I had a Web Butler. The thing about putting time in online is that it can become, if not an addiction, a source of anxiety of the meltdown variety. If you blog, you get comments and feel compelled to respond. If you see a new book club web site, you can do a bio and a guest column for them! There's your Amazon author profile, your Goodreads fans, and those photos you meant to upload, oh my! Pretty soon you're lost in the forest and the Internet witch is threatening to throw apples at you and steal your little dog, too. Here's the thing: marketing online is a great way to publicize the book you've already written, but it's a lousy way to keep working on your new projects. After the first manic social sessions at this giant virtual water cooler, it's time for every good writer to return to doing what she does best: making sentences, one word at a time.

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