How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?

Paul Doiron here—

This post gets its title from the immortal words of singer-songwriter Dan Hicks. That question has been on my mind lately as I’ve come to realize that too many novelists (myself included) seem to be spending a lot more time writing about themselves online than they are writing books.

Part of this might be the generalized narcissism of our age, in which no good deed goes untweeted, but I think it has more to do with fear. William Goldman once reduced the collective mindset of Hollywood to a single sentence: “No one knows anything.” That contagion has now spread to publishing. Having already consumed Borders as an amuse-bouche, Amazon now seems prepared to devour literature itself. Because everyone is scared shitless of what eBooks will ultimately mean for the industry and no one has a clue how to launch a new writer onto the bestseller list now that Oprah has padlocked her book club, publishers, booksellers, agents, and writers are all scrambling for quick fixes. Aspiring authors are advised to create “platforms” to promote their “personal brands” on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Goodreads, LibraryThing, not to mention personalized websites and group blogs like this one.

A friend of mine who is an exquisite (and successful) writer but Facebook-phobic has been told by her publicist to surrender her privacy to Mark Zuckerberg in the lead-up to her new book. She hates the idea, but has agreed to dip a toe in the social media sea by creating a page using the name of her family pet. The pet (which hasn’t left the sofa in five years) has already made eight friends.

“Does any of this make a difference, Paul?” my writer acquaintance asked.

To which I responded. “I don’t know. Haven’t you heard? No one knows anything.”

My worry, unlike my friend’s, is overexposure. I write a monthly column (accompanied by my picture no less) in a magazine for 100,000 paying subscribers. I blog because I have no shortage of opinions, and I tweet because I get much of my news as a journalist via Twitter and I feel a reciprocal responsibility to send around interesting links. I have a presence on Facebook partly because I am a fisherman and the First Rule of Fishing is this: Fish where the fish are. If readers of crime novels are spending hours a day Liking, Friending, and Poking each other, then I would be a fool not to reach out to them and join in on the fun (or at least the Poking).

I have to admit that all this social mediating is a.) exhausting, b.) a tremendous timesuck, and c.) of questionable efficacy. Using BookScan (the rating database run by the Nielsen people of television fame), I’ve compared the sales numbers of authors with robust presences online with those who emerge from a mountainside cabin every five years to heave a novel at the world, and I haven’t been able to tell the difference. We’ve all heard about “name” writers with massive online followings, the natural bloggers and effortless Twitterers—the Neil Gaimans and the Susan Orleans—but what about the rest of us? Are we engaged in a new and important mode of communication with our audiences or are we fooling ourselves about what you, the people who buy our books, really care about? If an author tweets in cyberspace and no one is around to read it, does it actually sell a book?

What say you, reader? Has social media—Facebook, Tumblr, MaineCrimeWriters.com—changed the way you read books? Does having a direct digital line to an author add to the pleasure you receive from his or her books? I am genuinely curious to hear your responses because the silver lining in my own personal iCloud has been the awesome feedback I’ve received from people who have enjoyed The Poacher’s Son and Trespasser.

Julia Spencer-Fleming once said something wise to me. That’s not unusual. She does that a lot. “What readers want from us, Paul, are our characters.” They certainly want Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson. I hope some of them want Mike Bowditch, too. (That said, Julia is a social media powerhouse.)

Whenever I finish a blog post, I always feel a pang of guilt because I know I could have devoted the same half hour to writing fiction. I would give up blogging and tweeting in a second, if I had faith that new readers would discover my stories in the digital days to come. But in the meantime, I remain an uncertain but unrelenting blogger. No one knows anything, least of all me.

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16 Responses to How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?

  1. David says:

    Paul,

    Excellent post, and something I’ve thought about a lot in the last few months. I try to be a good Tweeter by interacting with people, retweeting good stuff, and my own stuff gets retweeted a fair amount. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a number of successful writers, who although they appear to have a good social media presence with fans, really don’t — they interact with their own author friends, but not much beyond that. Now, perhaps that’s just the reality — there’s only a limited amount of time to do it all.

    I would say that social media, while fun (and I think Twitter’s 140-character limit is a good way to sharpen my writing in telling jokes or writing a bit of commentary or whatever), has been virtually useless for selling books.

    Even my animated YouTube videos about lawyers and publishing, which have more than 2 million hits, translated into very, very few sales.

    Only when my book started to get noticed by Amazon’s servers was I able to move the needle at all — and I was only able to do that by enrolling my book in their Select program, which allowed me to run a free promo, which, in turn, led to true success for the book after the Free promo ended.

    Anyway, sorry for the long-winded response, but my own experience over the past 4 weeks has been incredibly eye-opening regarding the effectiveness of social media.
    So my own takeaway is that I enjoy blogging and Tweeting and interacting with readers, but I don’t do it with an eye to selling more books, and I certainly have made social media a distant second on my writing priority list.

    David

    Like

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Thanks, David. I actually enjoy the marketing side of things. To me it really does get down to making effective use of my time. I’ll take your experience with YouTube as a cautionary tale. My own take is that a heavy duty marketing push matters most when you have a first book out (everyone wants to discover a great new talent) or if you don’t publish all that often (a book every two years or more). Then you really need to make every pub date count and bring out all your big guns at once, because it’s so easy to get lost.

      Like

      • David Kazzie says:

        Agreed that it’s awesome to hear from readers.

        I do try to remind myself that almost certainly, it will be good books that draw fans to my Twitter account or blog, not the other way around (or at least not in any significant amount).

        Truth be told, after the last month, I’ll just default to the Goldman quote you referenced — no one knows anything!

        Like

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Thoughtful post, Paul. I’ve read that there is software that can lock one’s computer off the internet for chunks of the day, and considered getting it so I am safe from temptation.

    Like everyone else, I have no idea what makes a difference. What I do know is that I’m still most likely to pick a book because a friend suggested it, someone in a bookstore that I trust pulled it off the shelf and put it in my hand, or I read an intriguing review of it.

    Kate

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  3. Rusty Fairbanks says:

    I agree that all this social media is distracting from the really important writing. It can also be addicting. Will all these “friends” actually go out and buy one of my books (when/if I am ever published)? Who knows. I buy real books – not eBooks. I like to read the first few pages, see if the cover stimulates my interest, feel the touch of a page. But that’s me. I don’t tweet/twit. There’s just so much time and I need to use it to write.

    Like

  4. Great post, looking at issues that are important to all authors. I’ve come to conclude that the time I spend on FB, etc., is not valuable because it sells books; it’s valuable because it’s a way to chat with readers where (some of) them like to hang out. It keeps the conversation going between books.

    Like

    • Paul Doiron says:

      Kathleen, I think you’re right that the real value of social media is in the conversational side of things with readers. I love getting fan mail and hearing how people responded to my books. To the extent that Facebook or Twitter or whatever facilitates those interactions, I’m all in.

      Like

  5. Not on Facebook Yet says:

    Interesting post! Our pet is thinking of going on Facebook, maybe Twitter and we may have to follow too. I am concerned about the time suck and supporting Zuckerberg in any sense though I think he is more upfront and in-your-face about what they are all doing with our information.

    Like

    • Rusty Fairbanks says:

      It’s not just what Zuckerberg is going to do with our (that’s a generic “all of us”) information, what Google chooses to call our “profile” for commercial purposes, it’s what this ever-imposing government will decide to do with the profile Zuckerberg determines we have. I prefer my personal privacy to aids the commercial profits of a man who already has too much (money and power, because one always buys/obtains the other). So neither I or my cat will be having any association with Google after 2/29/12.

      Like

  6. Not on Facebook Yet says:

    Since we all run out of time eventually I am also concerned that too much time on social media will deprive us of future books from writers who were keeping up their Facebook presences.

    Like

  7. What a timely topic. That William Goldman quote must be the widest touted in publishing–it fits so many scenarios including this one. I agree with you that Julia is wise, and I agree with Julia that what readers want is a great book. If you write that, they will find you.

    And then they’ll want to see what you Tweet.

    Like

  8. Gordon says:

    I haven’t signed up for Facebook, and I don’ t tweet. I haven’t figured out how to use the Nook Color that my brother gave me for my birthday about nine months ago, not that I went out of my way to learn. I never did figure out to program my VCR, but it really doesn’t matter anymore, because I canceled my cable almost three years ago. I could have gone on using my rotary telephone forever, but I broke down and bought push button telephone when I switched from dial-up to DSL.

    I probably was born two hundred years too late.

    Like

  9. Don’t stop blogging, Paul! I read your books because you’re an excellent writer. I read your blog posts because you’re an excellent writer. ‘Nuff said.

    Like

  10. M. Elizabeth Ward says:

    Paul, as an aspiring writer, I found your subject to be of special interest. The fact that, should I be so lucky as to be published, I’ll then be pressured to spend significant time marketing my work, rather than creating more, is daunting to me.
    As a reader, I have a clear sense of the value of social media to my reading selection: not very much. While a mention on FB, etc, might get me to google an author, and then check out the first few pages of a work, it is the work itself that gets me to the last page, and then onto the second book and the third. Blogs are interesting, and valuable once I’m interested in someone, but often I don’t have time to keep current with them. (Finding your recent post was an exception.) I will make time, however, to read the fiction of someone who has intrigued me in the past. For example, this past summer, I stumbled upon a writer I’d never heard of. I blew a dollar on a bargain book that turned out to be one of several novels in a series. I was so impressed, I researched that author’s work, and started the series from the beginning, reading every book sequentially. I had a similar experience with your work: I discovered “The Poacher’s Son” via the Maine Crime Writers site, but I read “Trespasser” because of your previous work. The internet may have replaced the library and the bookstore as a browing tool, but it isn’t what makes me a fan. It’s the writing that does that. To sum up, I think any value social media participation brings to a writer is in the initial exposure, not so much in continuing exposure.

    Like

  11. Gerry Boyle says:

    Just caught up with this one. Thanks, Paul, for saying that the emperor may not be wearing any clothes. We’re not sure. When you become a writer of a certain age, time is precious. And social media eats up time like the worst procrastination. Is Facebook costing us our best work? I think I’ll sign off and think about it. Alone.

    Like

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