Do writers need social media?

Dublin-based Canadian writer Janet E Cameron's novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was initially rejected because she lacked an online presence. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
Dublin-based Canadian writer Janet E Cameron's novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was initially rejected because she lacked an online presence. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Having an ‘online presence’, like a website, a blog, or being on Facebook or Twitter, is now a must for authors, says Sue Leonard, to keep publishers keen

BEFORE writing, Kevin Barry locks his phone away. Jackie Collins writes in longhand. Both love social media, but are distracted by them. It’s a dilemma for writers.

Do writers need social media? “Absolutely,” says the author Elyssa Kroski, who is giving a three-day workshop on the subject at the West Cork Literary Festival, in July. “It’s absolutely essential in this digital age. I’m an editor, as well as a writer, and when I’m looking for authors, I check their online presence. An author with 5,000 followers on Twitter, and a popular blog, is going to sell more books than someone without an online presence.

“I’d rather write than spend time promoting myself, and there are short cuts. I’ll be teaching how to streamline your efforts. But it does take time on a regular basis — it takes ongoing cultivation to be effective.”

Michael McLaughlin, managing director of Penguin Ireland, says it’s different for every writer, and genre-dependent. “Social media has been hugely beneficial to Paul Howard, as Ross O’Carroll Kelly,” he says.

“Through his 70,000-plus followers on Twitter, his character is able to engage with readers, and potential readers, of his books and columns on a day-to-day basis, and that definitely sustains him as a writer.

“But for a literary writer, who doesn’t publish a book every year, but every three, four, five or six years, it’s possibly not essential. I can’t imagine John Banville or Colm Tóibín wanting to have a website or engage with Facebook and Twitter. We have to be guided by the author... And if they don’t want to be online, we have to respect that.”

Janet E Cameron didn’t want an online presence that wasted writing time, but when her agent sent the manuscript of her first novel to publishers in her native Canada, she had to relent.

“My agent had a message from a major international publisher, saying they loved the book. Two readers had loved it, and they’d get back in touch when they’d had a marketing meeting. The meeting was delayed and delayed. I was dying with suspense, and then they came back with ‘no.’

“They said it was because I was living in Ireland, but when my agent told them I’d be happy to publicise the book in Canada, and even to live there, they said there was another reason. My platform and presence on the internet wasn’t strong enough. They’d Googled me and nothing had come up.”

Janet sold Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World to Hachette after winning a place at the inaugural ‘novel fair’ at the Irish Writer’s Centre last year. By then, she had a website and was on Twitter. “I adore my website. I’m really infatuated with it,” she says. “I’m still adding things to it every week or so. I’ve put up sixty-five 1980s songs, because my novel is set in the 1980s. I posted one each day with a little write-up. And I’ve made contacts in Dublin through Twitter. I love that.

“Hachette were prepared to sell my book in Canada, and are looking forwards to me coming over for a book tour. They saw my website and liked it too. And they’ve given me ideas for things to put up there, and things I can tweet to attract people’s interest.

“I do spend time on it; I spent half an hour on my blog this morning; but I’m not sure, yet, how much it will interfere with writing. I’ve not been able to write recently, with all the publicity for Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World.”!

Melissa Hill doesn’t have a blog; but she has a website, with tips for writers. “Years ago, I used to have a newsletter,” she says. “But, now, I find it’s easier to give readers news through Twitter.”

Melissa loves technology. She ran an online gift-delivery service with her husband, Kevin, her co-author on the Casey Hill books. What about social media? “I absolutely adore Twitter,” she says. “It’s immediate. I can dip in, see if there’s anything interesting; maybe have a conversation and dip out. People say it’s a time-sucker, but it can be a time-saver, in some ways.”

How so? “I’ll use it for spelling. You’ll get an answer quicker on Twitter than on Google. I often use it for books set in America. I’ll ask American readers, ‘would you say this.’ It’s great, too, for getting things off my chest. In January, ten days from deadline on one book, I had two sets of proofs to go through. One for a Casey Hill. I got completely confused in my head, unable, at one stage, to tell one book from another. Tweeting, ‘My head is wrecked,’ made me feel better. Other writers responded.

“Facebook is good, too, but it’s different. It’s good for putting up news on my books, like a new cover. There’s always a great response from my readers... On Twitter, I get a great discussion going.

Journalist Margaret Hawkins self-published her first novel, Deny Me Not. She released it on Kindle, too, so an online presence is a must. “Blogging is a huge thing,” she says. “If people are interested in your book, they want to know more about you. I’m not technically-minded. I have to pay someone to help me.

“I’ve set up a Facebook page, and I think it’s growing on me. But I haven’t done anything on Twitter. I have an account, but few followers. The whole language of it doesn’t make any sense to me. The website is a pressure. I’m reluctant about it, but realise it’s something I have to do.”

- How to create and manage your online presence’, with Elyssa Kroski, runs from Jul 8-10. See westcorkliteraryfestival.ie.

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