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Does Social Networking Kill the Author Mystique?

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Steven Spielberg does not record commentaries for the DVD editions of his movies. For film buffs like me, commentaries are an insightful play-by-play of just what went into the making of a film. I love listening as the director, cast, and crew provide entertaining and informative (ok, and sometimes boring) tidbits about what went into a particular scene, or sometimes simply amusing anecdotes from the set. Yet Spielberg, perhaps the most influential and popular director of the past fifty years, refuses to record commentaries. And it's not because Spielberg is an old fart, he has simply stated that he believes commentaries reduce some of the movie's magic. This got me thinking...

I have a Facebook account. Twitter page. MySpace page. Website. Blog. I even think I have an old Friendster account (come on, you know you used to have one too). All of these were started after my first book deal in the Spring of 2006, in the hopes of reaching readers and building an audience through the magic of online social networking. And I'm far from the only one who had that idea.

With just a few clicks, you can find hundreds if not thousands of authors divulging their innermost thoughts about their books, their writing process, and occasionally the intimate and mundane details of their life. Some of these comments are interesting and insightful, offering candid looks into the process of writing and the career of publishing. Some of them are pithy, funny, irreverent, about their lives and relationships. Some are pointless, nothing more than daily itineraries or dietary choices. Some turn you off from an author entirely due to lewdness, crudeness, or endless and shameless hawking of their own wares.

So in the end, with all of this detritus floating around, does online social networking actually help authors sell books?

John Scalzi, New York Times bestselling author of Zoe's Tale and proprietor of the popular blog "Whatever" says, "A lot of people who friend or follow me are already fans, so I expect they may already know what I'm doing in terms of sales. With new people my feeling is that over time, the feeling they "know" you may increase their likelihood to take a chance on a novel. In both cases, however, you probably shouldn't assume every Facebook friend or Twitter follower is going to buy your work."

I have no doubt that some people buy books based on their online connection or discovery of an author through those means. But I also believe that what helps can also hurt if not done in moderation. I have never seen a movie based on an interview with a star or director. As a matter of fact, the oversaturation of an artist might make me less apt to try out their work (unfair, perhaps, but it's the truth). If you are subjected to a person ad nauseum, you eventually lose the curiosity factor. It becomes redundant. Familiarity breeds contempt. So I wondered ... does knowing too much about authors take away some of the magic of their books?

Growing up, I was obsessed with Stephen King. As much as I loved his books, the man himself was something of an enigma. I learned about his life only through his entertaining "Authors Notes" included in the paperback editions of his books. Even his author photos looked creepy. You looked at them and thought to yourself, yeah, this guy totally looks like the kind of person who would write about child-murdering clowns.

Now, King has written a partial memoir, On Writing (a brilliant and inspiring book, by the way). He has a pop culture column in Entertainment Weekly. He contributes numerous reviews and stories to magazines on a monthly, if not weekly basis. Now, Stephen King is, shall I say, 'grandfathered in'. He is an American icon, and not just in the literary sense. He is perhaps the most recognizable authorial name alive today after J.K. Rowling. King has remained relevant, if not vital, to popular culture. But someone like King is also the recipient of hefty marketing campaigns for every one of his books. A poor seller for him will still net hundreds of thousands of copies. His name doesn't sit above the marquee -- it is the marquee. He doesn't need to put himself out there, doesn't need all those bylines -- I think he simply enjoys it.

Yet the vast majority of authors do not have anywhere near the following of a King, Rowling, Grisham, or Meyer. Most are forced to augment relatively meager marketing and publicity budgets by drumming up noise about their own work. Most authors, I believe, are introverts. I include myself in this statement. However, Social Media has made it easier than ever for authors to 'put themselves out there'. Even the most technologically inept writers can maintain Twitter pages, cross post to a Facebook page, or do a blog tour without leaving their couch. Many writers, myself included, post several updates a day and communicate regularly with readers. Not just about our work, but about our lives. Our likes and dislikes. Anything and everything that might (or often might not) interest readers. Anything that might help us rise about the cacophony of authors trying to do the exact same thing everyone else is ... only better.

But does all of this networking white noise drown out the books? Does knowing too much about an author kill the magic?

Not necessarily. Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Time of My Life, says, "Facebook has been truly helpful because I've reconnected with so many people from my past, people who have a vested interest in me and who have definitely gone out and bought my books because at some point in my life, they knew me. Twitter has been amazing, in terms of getting my name out there to an audience I'd otherwise never have reached ... But yes, a small percentage have (they tweet me to let me know), and given that I enjoy tweeting and the entire idea of Twitter, that small percentage is worth my time AND who knows who else will buy my books in the future."

Yet there is something mysterious about J.K Rowling. Cormac McCarthy. Even King, who years from now I suspect might shed his skin and morph into some sort of giant winged creature or bloodthirsty zombie (don't believe me? Check out his author photo for Cell). The $64,000 question always asked by authors and publicists is how much does all of it really help? The prevailing feeling tends to be that it can't hurt (provided you don't have an Alice Hoffman or Anne Rice-ian freakout). And as long as it doesn't hurt -- and doesn't get in the way of the actual writing -- you will be encouraged to Tweet like your life depends on it.

That said, Winn Scotch seems to nail what every author hopes for when networking: "On places like Twitter, I really try to toe the line between personal and professional. What I mean by that is that I don't think readers just want to hear about my writing life - what they enjoy is sort of like what the general public enjoys in those "Stars, They're Just Like Us!" features: they like hearing about the mundane, albeit, hilarious details of your life, they like glancing behind the scenes, hearing how your kids are driving you crazy or your dog is totally bananas. It opens up a dialogue that you wouldn't have been able to have a few years ago with readers and you develop a common ground, and yes, you also develop friendships."

The trick seems to be, as Winn Scotch says, toeing the line between being a professional writer and a human being. Promoting your work without coming off as a used car salesmen. Writing posts that readers can relate to, coming off as someone they might even want to spend time with. If an author's Tweets or blogs are funny, inspiring or meaningful, it is reasonable to think their books might be as well.

Yet as Scalzi succinctly states, "People aren't stupid; they know when Twitter is being used for enjoyment's sake and when it's being used as a calculated marketing channel. Guess which they respond to better."