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.