Facebook Status. Jennifer Weiner. July 22nd 2009 5.15 pm. "Just got the call from my editor: BEST FRIENDS FOREVER is a number one New York Times best seller! I am astonished, and thrilled, and crying, and SO GRATEFUL TO EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO BOUGHT A COPY. You all feel like my best friends right now!"
One of the first things author Jennifer Weiner did after discovering her new novel had hit the top spot on the New York Times bestsellers list this week: she Twittered and Facebooked about it. Her status update caused a flood of excited replies from Facebook fans and numerous "@Jenniferweiner Congratulations" responses on Twitter. Many of Weiner's online friends who gathered around (in cyberspace) to celebrate the success of Best Friend's Forever said they'd bought the book and thus helped her clinch the number one spot.
It's telling that Weiner is using social networking sites to connect with fans -- and ultimately to promote her new book. If an already bestselling author is using these tools then the days when authors tapped in the last word of their manuscript, sent it to their editors, and then sat back and waited for the royalties to roll in are well and truly over.
And it's not simply that promotional responsibilities are increasingly being shouldered by authors (even "big time" ones like Weiner), a new kind of promotional strategy is emerging, one where authors are getting online and personal. Fiction writers, memoirists, and non-fiction authors are all giving away tidbits about their lives and habits through social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. They're also entering into ongoing "friendships" with their readers and fans.
"PR budgets have been slashed, book sales are faltering, authors can't count on marketing campaigns, so we have to go out and bring readers to us by informing them not only about our product, but also about ourselves," says Allison Winn Scotch, the New York Times bestselling author of the novel Time of My Life. Scotch admits to enjoying networking through sites such as Facebook. She's also fully aware of their potential. "I think that digital media is an incredible and fast way to brand yourself, to reach new audiences and give them a taste of what they can expect from you and your writing."
Lauren Baratz-Logsted agrees wholeheartedly. Her new novel Crazy Beautiful has received "more pre-pub buzz" than any of her previous fourteen novels and "all the buzz can be traced back to Twitter." Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke admit that online networking has been vital for them and their debut novel, I'll Have Who She's Having. Fenton and Steinke are published by a small, independent press and believe that "unknowns" like themselves can usefully use Facebook, Twitter et al. to "build a fan base and get their name out there." They add that "if you take full advantage of these sites, you no longer have to be backed by a huge publisher to be successful."
Readers seem to corroborate this. Through Facebook and Twitter, I asked users whether being "friends" with an author online has made them buy books. The answer was a resounding yes. Paula Wood, a reader based in Calgary, gave an example: "I finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell last year and you know that moment after you close a book and just want to talk to other people who've read it, well it inspired me to go straight to Facebook and search for him. I ended up buying another of his books through the reader's recommendations on the site."
John Elder Robison, author of the hugely successful and New York Times bestselling memoir Look Me in the Eye, believes that maintaining "a presence on social networking sites" not only "introduces readers to our work," but may "also introduce us to ideas we subsequently write about." However, he does see how such a "presence" also "takes away from writing."
Most authors agree that keeping up on these sites eats into precious writing time. "Twitter and Facebook are the ultimate in procrastination," confessed Scotch. Jessica Brody, author of the bestselling novel The Fidelity Files, sometimes feels like her creative juices are spent coming up with "snappy, 140 characters or less Tweets" while her manuscript sits "untouched."
Brody acknowledges though that networking online does allow for very rewarding interactions with readers. "Getting fan mail or positive feedback about your latest novel is one of the best parts of being a writer today." However, as Brody goes on to point out, "not everyone has positive things to say about your book and when you open yourself up to fans, you also open yourself up to haters."
Such bad reviews and negative feedback can, in turn, cause hurt and knee jerk responses from authors. Alice Hoffman got into trouble recently by using Twitter to lambaste a reviewer who called her book "excessive and overdetermined." Hoffman went as far as posting the reviewers email address and phone number in hope that her fans would defend her. Baratz-Logsted cites this incident and observes how people "tend to forget when they post in haste or anger that the internet, at least for now, is forever." Fenton and Steinke echo this sentiment and referring to some "random and shortlived stalking episodes by strange men on Facebook," they advise authors to be smart about what they "put out there for the world to see."
Perhaps one of the biggest downsides to online social networking is longer term in its scope. With all this Twittering, Facebooking, and back and forth between readers and authors going on, will books end up being forgotten completely? In other words, is the preoccupation with new social media going to help bring about the demise of the book?
The authors interviewed clearly hoped this was not the case and believed that the advantages of reaching readers that might never have known about their books outweighed such a negative effect. Many agreed that the biggest danger to the book in this digital age is piracy.
"The increasing problem," according to Baratz-Logsted, "is that the internet is moving us toward a place where it's too easy for people to 'borrow' the entire contents of books and we'll reach a point where it doesn't matter if an author has hundreds and thousands of readers because she still won't be able to make a living."
Robison foresees this problem too, but he points out that there may be a silver lining. "Authors are headed the way of bands. Thirty years ago bands toured to sell records. Now, bands bring out records in order to fill concert halls." He sees the careers of authors moving in a similar direction. Authors will find it increasingly hard to make a living from their print books, thanks to piracy and the ongoing fact they only receive around "seventy five cents in net royalty on a paperback book sale." However, Robison believes a hardworking author can become active on the speaking circuit and make a decent living. "And of course the talks sell books, so the two things are mutually supportive. Speaking is playing a bigger role for many authors. And that role will increase."
If Robison is right about this, it seems networking online may well play its part in the phenomenon. Readers will befriend authors online and it's conceivable they will want to see and hear these "friends" in the real world -- and even buy their books. Speaking events, with some wise and well managed Twittering and Facebooking thrown in, may mean author's careers -- and books in general -- could last a few more years yet.
Joanne Rendell is the author of The Professors' Wives' Club and the forthcoming Crossing Washington Square (NAL/Penguin). Visit her website at www.joannerendell.com.