I've been told, Tweet, Facebook, MySpace, blog, use all the free tools and use them all the time... I've been wondering how people write here and write there and still write books. I've been working on a balance but I feel like I'm not putting enough of my time in my books when I'm here and not enough time saying, "Look at me" when I'm writing. I love meeting people on these sites but my real love is books. -Sarah Winters
Here's an idea: Spend two or three hours a day at least five days a week in front of a bookstore wearing a sandwich board with your bookcover on it while you chase and chat with anyone you can corral and who is willing to talk to you.
Would that be a valuable way to spend a chunk of time? What size chunk of time? How would you decide?
If four people stopped to chat with you?
If, on the way out, two stopped to tell you they bought your book?
And how can you be sure the people you are talking to are even enjoying what you are saying? Are you reaching them? Or annoying them? How many of them might have bought your book if they saw it on the table but the sandwich board turned them off?
It's a fairly ridiculous scenario -- right?
And yet that's what many authors are doing every day by investing incredibly valuable writing time on what might turn out to just be tomorrow's MySpace -- Facebook and Twitter.
We're doing it because we're anxious and desperate to sell our books and to keep our sales high enough to keep our careers viable.
We're doing it because so many of our fellow writers are doing it.
And (in many cases) we're doing it only because our publishers are encouraging us to.
In fact many publishers are sending us cheat sheets on how to do it better. Some are even suggesting it's the only marketing worth doing. They are telling us this is the new way to get people to hear about our books.
And it does work at some level. But what is that level? What will it actually get us? And what happens to our creativity when it gets sucked up by Facebook and Twitter?
And does taking on this much more of the of the marketing burden really help publishers in the long run? Wouldn't they be best served proving their power -- not empowering us?
Even if Facebook and Twitter are wonder tools in the right hands -- how many of us can be Neil Gaiman or Jennifer Weiner? How many of us are really clever in 140 characters including spaces? How many of us are great at posting enchanting, provocative posts at Facebook? Just because we can tell a story doesn't mean we can chat.
Maybe even more important is that all those people who like us or friend us or follow us are not people whose email addresses we own -- not people we can be certain we can contact in the future.
For one thing the way feeds work -- how many people read backwards at social media sites? How easy is it to miss a post? But even more important, Facebook and Twitter own their sites and the information on them.
They can wipe any one of us out in a second and we lose all those fans and friends. (MySpace used to do this repeatedly.)
This is not a post about whether or not to have fun on Facebook and Twitter. Nor is it about the value of networking with your peers or people in your industry.
This is about the questions I hear over and over from writers and that I ask myself over and over:
How worthwhile is it for a writer to invest time in social media for marketing purposes, and how much time?
Should we torture ourselves to do it if it isn't in our DNA?
Does it really work?
Do the authors held up as examples rely on social networking as much as we think? Don't most of those big names also have big support from their publishers too as well as dedicated publicists and serious marketing campaigns?
Are our publishers right in pushing us to get out there and get strangers to like our Facebook pages and follow us on Twitter?
Is it a marketing solution?
Or is this a temporary fix to the problem our industry really needs to solve -- the real and vital and urgent problem of discovery -- of coming up with new and meaningful ways for readers to find new books?
Is the Social Net Working?
There is no debate that social media is a great tool for networking with others in our industry. It can lead to friendships, support, and serendipitous connections with reviewers, agents, reporters, or editors.
There's no debate that social media gives fans access to us. Of course it does. When it works there's nothing like it. One Tweet can be heard 'round the world if the right people retweet it and the right people notice it on their feeds.
And there's no debate that some readers will discover us via Twitter and Facebook or whatever tomorrow's next new great social network turns out to be.
The issue each of us has to address is, what is the return on the effort we are making? Or as author James Scott Bell calls it -- the ROE.
Is the time we are investing in social networking worth the effort? Is the pressure we're feeling to do it reasonable? How much of a toll is it taking on our work? After all, it is writing, and many writers have told me that after tweeting and posting on FB for two hours a day -- they don't have as much to say on the page. (I know I don't.)
So are we actually doing ourselves and our work a service? (There are inevitably going to be readers who get turned off when they find out what we're really like. Sometimes mystery works in a writer's favor.)
Would we be better off spending most of our time writing another book and hiring people to do PR and marketing and blog tours for us?
Well if you look at the stats we might be.
How Do People Discover Books?
Codex, one of the leaders in book audience research, has done over a quarter million book reader studies -- the most recent, which was based on 8,224 surveys and completed in February, was recently presented to hundreds of industry professionals and is very much worth noting.
When it comes to discovering books -- the majority (81%) of book buyers said they first learned about the book they bought last from more traditional means -- like browsing in bookstores, personal recommendations from people who had read the book, email announcements, reading groups, prior book information, news, interviews and reviews, advertisements and other related sources.
The remaining 19% learned about the book they bought last from online sources like e-book stores, blogs, reader reviews, author websites, advertisements and other book related websites.
Of that group, only 1.2% learned about their last book bought from social networks like Facebook or Twitter, or online video like book trailers.
The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data
Whenever this to-be-a-social-animal-or-not issue comes up with writers, someone always mentions an instance of a writer who got a huge boost via another writer posting about her at Facebook.
Or someone recalls the five fans who wrote to say they bought a book because of an excerpt posted to Facebook.
But an anecdote is not data.
Of course there are people who will find us and read us and buy us because of our online efforts. And if you ask ten writers about the value of these efforts you will get ten anecdotes.
One writer told me "I was just about to get off of Twitter when I got a DM that said, 'I discovered your books on Twitter and I love them.' Sigh."
The question isn't -- does it work? Instead it's -- does it work well enough for the time it takes? Are we seeing a worthwhile ROE for the time we spend on Twitter or Facebook?
Is it worth it to spend two hours a day to reach two new readers? How about four? How about 10?
Or is it a better ROE to take those two hours and write your next book? Or pen a few short stories you can give away or give to your publisher to use in marketing efforts -- or hell -- even sell online for a buck a piece?
Many people believe the very best way to grow your career is to write your career. And to keep writing it until you write into the tipping point where you have a shelf of great books and critical mass.
No one buys a book they never heard of -- but at the same time no one buys a book without picking it up and reading a few pages -- on- or off-line -- and falling in love.
Even if you have 10,000 people like your Facebook page -- they still aren't going to buy the book you're shouting about unless they love that excerpt you posted, or that the online bookstore offers, or that they read standing in the aisles.
What would Charles Dickens do? Or Hemingway? Or Agatha Christie? Or any author you admire? No one knows. That was then. This is now. And the question is: what should you do now?
You can do most of the things on your own that the studies show work best or hire someone to help you: blog tours, newsletter promotion, getting excerpts up at blogs and websites, online media, online ads (online ads even at Facebook are cost effective.)
If you do hire someone, long term they will free up your time and you can write that next book or short story and make the money back tenfold. Or you can continue to spend time meeting readers and growing your fan base at social media sites. But without the painful live or die pressure.
I'm not saying suggesting there is nothing to be gained from Facebook and Twitter and other venues like them. There is.
If you want to Facebook and Tweet, have at it and have fun.
But do it because you want to.
Do it because you believe in the ROE.
But don't feel panicked or guilty if you decide you've been hurting your career and wasting time without getting enough in return.
No matter what you do, don't let anyone -- not your agent or publisher or best friend -- make you feel that to grow your career engaging in social media is the end-all-be-all key to success. If it was, we wouldn't need anecdotes... we'd all have data.
Follow M.J. Rose on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjrose