Do authors have to be social? No, but it helps

Just as the entire concept of what we call a book is being disrupted by digital publishing, with new formats like the Kindle Single (s amzn) and the Byliner magazine-article-book, so the role of the author is also being shaken up and reinvented. While some authors prefer to emulate notorious recluse J.D. Salinger and remain as unknown as possible, others are reaching out through social tools like Twitter to reach their readers in different ways — and even allow them to influence how a book takes shape. And they’re not just doing it because their publisher is forcing them to, but because they see the benefits of doing so.
The New York Times asked a number of prominent authors for their thoughts about Twitter for a feature in the paper’s Sunday books section, and virtually all of them said that they enjoyed the process of interacting with readers (perhaps in part because doing so through 140 character messages is somewhat easier than having to meet fans in real life, where it’s more difficult to escape). Salman Rushdie, for example, told the Times that he enjoys Twitter because: “it allows one to be playful, to get a sense of what is on a lot of people’s minds at any given moment.”

Twitter lets authors “hijack the promotion plane”

Jennifer Gilmore, meanwhile, said she likes to hear from readers about the influence or effect that her novels have on them, and that Twitter is an efficient way of doing that. “On Twitter, I have a sense that people — those you know and those you don’t — read your work in a way I have not always felt in the world,” she told NYT writer Anne Trubek. Mat Johnson described the people he follows on Twitter as his “dream party guests — interesting strangers whose wit keeps me coming back.” But Johnson also put his finger on another reason that some authors like him have taken to social media like Twitter: the ability to connect directly with potential readers. As he put it:

I’ve never had a single ad for any of my novels, had a movie made or been given a big budget push by a publisher. Usually, they just throw my book out to reviewers and hope it floats. Twitter lets me hijack the promotion plane, sidestep the literary establishment and connect directly to my current and potential audience… It’s a meritocracy; if you’re interesting, you get followed.

Some authors are realizing that this social aspect of their work can be a powerful engine: Earlier this year, author John Green — who writes fiction for young adults — showed that it is possible to hit number one on the bestseller list with a book that hasn’t even been published yet. He was able to do this in part because he had already spent the past couple of years building up a following on Twitter (where he has over a million followers) and on YouTube, where he posts clips of himself reading from his books. The simple mention of a sequel to a book was enough to push it to the top of the bestseller list.

Social media isn’t just for young authors

Other authors continue to resist the temptation of social networks: the NYT piece describes how Jeffrey Eugenides — Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Virgin Suicides — wrote a note for the Facebook page that his publisher made him put up, in which he said that he likely wouldn’t be writing there in the future:

It’s better, I think, for readers not to communicate too directly with an author because the author is, strangely enough, beside the point.

But for every Eugenides there are writers like Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Orchid Thief, who is a passionate (and funny) user of Twitter. And while authors like John Green may have more success with the social-media approach because they are writing popular novels for the youth market, that hasn’t stopped veteran writers like Margaret Atwood from giving it a go as well: Atwood is witty and engaging on Twitter, and has even taken part in some interesting experiments such as Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe’s 1book140 social-reading project.
Does every author have to be social and connect with their readers via Twitter or Facebook? No. And some may find they write better if they don’t allow the opinions of their audience to impinge on their creative process. But it seems clear that many others find that connection rewarding — not just in a financial sense, but in other ways as well. And in a world where traditional publishers are becoming less and less relevant every day, being comfortable with those kinds of tools seems like a wise strategy.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Mike Licht