Tuesday 2 October 2012


Hello, Dear Readers! So last week I was hanging about on Twitter (as I am wont to do) and I noticed that several people in my feed (writers, librarians, maybe an agent) all seemed to be at the same conference, and all seemed to be attending the same talk.

I don't know who was giving the talk or what its official title was, but a lot of the comments that people were tweeting from it had to do with authors using Twitter to build a 'platform', how to best utilise social networking to promote your work, and online etiquette.

In an age where the gap between the mind-bending mega-success of those at the top and the mouldering mushiness of the midlist keeps getting ever wider, and where so often authors feel as if they have no chance at a decent career unless they get a six figure deal and a commitment to hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of marketing and promotion from their publisher (hint: you've more chance of getting hit by lightning. Twice.) often it feels as if the only thing we can do to help ourselves is to leap online and sell, sell, SELL.

But the problem is that (as someone whose name escapes me - sorry! - recently pointed out online) when everyone has built a platform, having a platform is no longer a big deal. If every writer has a blog, and a Twitter, and a Tumblr and a Facebook and we're all online for a reasonable amount of our days being charming and witty and informative, then none of those things actually offer any kind of an advantage to our career anymore, do they?

Thinking about this brought to mind a conversation that I had seen (also on Twitter) a few months before, between a couple of well-regarded, successful agents. They were discussing blog tours - a promotional device whereby, at the time of a new book's release, an author appears on a series of different blogs doing interviews, guest posts and giveaways. A virtual tour. Both these agents agreed that blog tours are now so common that they have become 'noise'. That is, just a part of the constant internet chatter that we all skim past on our daily surf. They don't stand out.

But, as a blogger friend of my rather accutely pointed out - if blog tours are 'noise'? Then so is all blogging. That, in fact, is almost the point of blogging - for each of us to make our own unique noise and hope that a small proportion of other people on the internet notice it, like it and come to listen regularly.

Which brings me to my point (at last! I hear you cry): if you're blogging, Tumblring, Facebooking and Twittering because you think it's going to get you success in your writing career, then stop right now. Because it won't. Seriously. Unless you're a lifestyle blogger hoping to sell a non-fiction book based on the platform/following you've built, having even quite a large amount of followers for your Tumblr or blog or whatever isn't going to have any noticeable affect on your sales. And agents and publishers know this.

The only real reason to have a presence online - to take precious time out of your already limited writing hours to interact with readers and bloggers and writers and reviewers - is because you genuinely get something out of it. It doesn't have to be one particular thing. It can be many things. I personally love connecting with other authors to wryly joke or rant or sympathise about weird little peeves or perks that only professional writers really 'get'. I love talking to my readers because they gently reaffirm my faith in people and in my vocation. I love my blog because I get to maunder on, uninterrupted, about stuff that's important or exciting to me and sometimes other people think it's important or exciting too. I love to talk to bloggers because they are obsessive readers just like me and squeeing about books and authors we adore is fun.

You might get completely different stuff out of being online. Whatever you get is fine. But unless you DO get something out of it other than the hope that it will somehow generate sales? Give up now. I mean it. Do a Suzanne Collins and just stop. Because you're probably putting a lot of really uncomfortable strain on yourself and, what's more, you're unlikely to be making a noise that anyone else online is going to want to listen to.

Which brings me back to all those comments I saw last week advising authors to cunningly and subtly build up an 'online personna', to carefully navigate the treacherous waters of internet interaction with all the caution and diplomacy of a two-bottomed six-breasted alien meeting the Puritans for the first time, and to avoid upsetting anyone at any time ever.

Stuff that. That's going to stifle any possible fun you might get out of blogging or Twittering before it's even begun to develop! It's worse than being in SCHOOL. So here's my own personal advice to writers who'd like to start blogging or Twittering, but aren't sure where to begin.
Writer's Rule No. 1: For crying out loud, don't pretend to be someone you're not. You'll end up looking like a twit in the end. 
I'm not saying that you need to bare your soul and every excruciatingly personal detail of your life to everyone you meet on the interwebz. Far from it. You don't do that when you meet people at work, or chat to an old friend over coffee; you certainly wouldn't do it for a room full of (as yet) relative strangers. Keep your secrets, name no names, and protect yourself to the extent that feels comfortable.

But don't think that you need to make up a new version of you, either. If you're not naturally funny don't try to be a zany, whacky personality online. Don't pretend that you're an easy-going left-winger if you're actually quite conservative in your beliefs and take those beliefs seriously. Don't go with the prevailing tides of Twitter and agree with everyone else's opinions just because those opinions are all you see. BE YOU. If you're a decent person and you're sincere you'll attract other people with whom you share enough vital qualities to actually make friends. The last thing you want is find yourself stranded in the virtual kitchen at the virtual party with a bunch of people you neither know nor like, laughing when everyone else does and trying to look as if you get the joke.
Writer's Rule No. 2: Attempt by every means possible and with every fibre of your being to avoid being a dick.
Look, we're all capable of being a dick sometimes, no matter how generally kind, considerate and thoughtful we are. But you KNOW when you're about to do it - say that insensitive, crude or unkind thing, trample over someone else's feelings to make a point, be controversial for no other reason than because you're bored, or leap to the defence of your own privilege. You do. We all do. You get the little tremble of discomfort deep down in the gizzards that tells you you're about to jump the shark.

If at all possible stop, wait, and consider before pressing 'Tweet' or 'Publish'. Try putting yourself in the place of the person or people to whom you were about to address your comment and imagine what affect those words might have.

If, once you've done that, you still feel it's important to say what you wanted to say - if you still believe passionately in that point you were about to make - if you still believe that you're the only one who can express this thought? Go ahead and detonate the bomb. Sometimes the quiver in the gizzards is just cowardice after all. But waiting and checking beforehand will largely reduce your incidence of dickishness, and the internet will thank you.
Writer's Rule No. 3: When you inevitably end up being a dick anyway, at least have the decency to admit it, and apologise.
Yep, even if you do your absolute best to avoid it, sometimes you'll mess up anyway. Because unless you're reading this from the basement of a top-secret research facility deep in a desert somewhere and your name is Snrkollppkkkksss'gah of Planet Gggg'ggP'fft or M.A.I.S.I.E the Supercomputer, you are a human. The one thing we all have in common is that none of us is perfect.

Admit this yourself, now, and it will be much easier to admit it to others, later. You are not right on every topic. You too, have internalised and unconscious prejudices. Sometimes you react from anger or defensiveness or just try to be funny the wrong way, and you end up hurting people's feelings or enraging them.

Take a step back. Take some time to think. And when the realisation swims up from your backbrain that you made a mistake, apologise sincerely and unreservedly and promise to do better in future. And keep that promise. You and everyone else will benefit from it. 
Writer's Twitter Rule No. 4: Treat people u meet online as if they were your neighbours. That way it's harder to forget they have feelings.
One of the first lines of defense of the internet troll is 'But it's all just words! If you let your feelings get hurt online you're STUPID/HYSTERICAL/OVERREACTING/INTEROGATING THIS TEXT FROM THE WRONG PERSPECTIVE'.

What a bunch of bull. Words have power no matter what format they arrive in. Anonymous or blackmailing letters ruin lives just as easily as threats delivered in person. A text message can break someone's heart as easily as a spoken rejection. Just because you're typing that exclamation point on a nice clean white screen and not screaming in someone's face, that doesn't mean you've lost your all-too-human ability to wound others.

Don't censor yourself, but don't ever forget that people are people, whether they're separated from you by ten thousand miles or a single wall.
Writer's Rule No. 5: Unhesitatingly block those who deliberately attempt to offend you or others. You don't let bigots, bullies and bores in your house, so don't let them in your Twitter feed or comments trail either. 
This advice will save your sanity sooner or later. I have wasted weeks and months of my life trying to make friends of, reason with, or gently educate people who attacked me online. If only I could find the right words to make them understand! If only I could be eloquent enough to make them *see*! Surely there's a glimmer of hope there - that last comment was almost reasonable. If I could just persuade them...

Nine times out of ten, it's not going to work. In fact, I'd go so far as to say forty-nine times out of fifty. People who start a conversation by leaving a deliberately nasty comment on your blog, or by @replying you with a link that you will clearly find provocative are not online in order to make friends, see reason, or be educated. No matter how well-written their remarks are (and quite often they ARE) they're just there to stir up trouble. Otherwise they wouldn't approach you that way. Your arguments are highly unlikely to have the power to reach them, no matter how sensible and obvious they seem to you. If such a commentor seems to change their tune suddenly and be amenable to debate, more than likely they're just drawing you out for their own amusement.

This advice isn't just for your benefit either. Let's say someone rocks up on your blog with one of those pseudo-reasonable comments which is really just horribly racist, underneath all the buttercream. You decide to try and reason with this person. You write several kind, reasonable replies to them, attempting to show them the error of their ways - and giving them a chance to respond with even more of their buttered-up nastiness. Now imagine how it feels to be a person of colour - a reader or a fan or a friend of your blog - reading this exchange. They thought your site or your feed was a place of safety for them. They thought they were among friends. They just wanted to turn up and leave a nice comment. And they're confronted with a screed of nastiness as long as their arm, directed at them, and seemingly not only allowed but ENCOURAGED by you, someone they thought was better than that.

When you start a discussion on the internet in your own space it's up to you to police it so that other people aren't hurt or triggered by the discussion. The delete and block buttons are your friends.

So there you go! My Five Simple Internet Rules for Writers, where success is defined as 'Having fun and keeping your sanity (mostly)'. With thanks to SisterSpooky, who encouraged me to expand my Twitter remarks into a blog post :)


Emma Pass said...

Brilliant post, Zoe. When my publisher gently suggested I start tweeting and blogging, I was skeptical, but it's been fantastic - not for marketing myself or selling books (my book isn't even out yet so there's definitely no point in using it for that!) but for meeting like-minded people, many of whom have become good friends. I love the social networking aspect of what I do because I no longer feel isolated, or that I can't tell people what I do. And I love sharing other people's good news and getting excited about it with them. For me, it's all about having fun.

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: Thanks :) I know just what you mean. For a long time I felt very isolated as a writer - it was only when I started blogging and Tweeting that I realised I was part of a community and it's honestly one of the best things I ever did. But even though my publishers are delighted that I'm active online, I'm yet to be convinced it's had any affect on my profile with readers or my sales!

Rachel Balcombe said...

It has hereI I would never have known about Shadows on the Moon or FrostFire were it not for this blog!

Zoë Marriott said...

Rachel: That's a lovely side affect, but I don't think it would have happened if I was obsessedly trying to sell people books on the blog all the time. It happened because I was just talking like a real person and being interested in my readers as fellow humans and fellow readers. You see?

SisterSpooky said...


Fab post! Honest and oh so right! (Really it's everyone who can use these rules; not just writers!)

R.J. Anderson said...

all the caution and diplomacy of a two-bottomed six-breasted alien meeting the Puritans for the first time

This is a great post on the whole, but this phrase ABSOLUTELY MADE MY DAY.

Amy said...

This is a really great post! I think it would benefit us all if everyone was a little more courteous online, and also I completely agree that you should get something out of your online activity, not just of it for the sake of it. The internet can be a wonderful place to share things, it's a shame that it gets abused.

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: *Smooches back* All thanks to you, hun!

R.J.: Heh - it made me snigger at 6:30 in the morning as I was sipping my first coffee, so I thought it was good. I'm glad to get rational confirmation!

Amy: Very true. Way too many people act out all their frustrations online because they think it doesn't count.

Claire Hennessy said...

Oh, this is a shiny post of joy. Yes, yes, yes. I LOVE twitter, for example, but hearing people talking about platforms and networking and all the rest makes me just feel a little sick and icky. (And I have had to stop following people who seemed lovely but then ended up using Twitter purely for their self-promotion-y stuff, loads of tweet per day being all 'me me me I am great'.) It's not a business meeting where you're all handing around cards, it's a big coffee shop and everyone's chatting and it's about getting to know people and not... well, not USE them.

(And as you've said in an earlier comment, some of the best things about social networks are getting to know other writers - not necessarily selling to readers.)

Plus, yes, people can be really dreadful online. Or seemingly-polite but then having political opinions that are just awfully opposed to anything you might believe in - and you DO have to be selective and learn what to engage with and what not to, in the same way that you don't deal with people being rude and random on the street the same way you would with people you'd chosen to talk to.

Leigh said...

I love this post. Nicely done.

Zoë Marriott said...

Claire: Yay! And yes, exactly. Several people who I initially liked just ended up getting blocked in the end because their feed transformed from 90% personal and 10% promotional into the opposite and it is Just. So. BORING.

Leigh: Thank you :)

Myrna Foster said...

Great post!

My day job is teaching preschool. Social networking means adult conversation with other people, mostly readers, writers and real life friends (those categories overlap a lot). I

I don't have time for spammers or mean people. And I don't care how many followers I have. I certainly don't care how many followers someone else has.

Zoë Marriott said...

Myrna: That's the way to go about it :)

Jesse Owen said...

This is a must read guide for online etiqette :D

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Jesse :) I do my best!

Lari Don said...

This is a really sensible and liberating post. I agree with all your rules, of course, but it was the advice that we shouldn't do online stuff hoping to sell books, but instead because we enjoy it, that resonated with me. My publishers encouraged me to do various online presence things, and some of them I have loved (Twitter, Goodreads) and some of them just don't work for me (Linked in - what is that for?) and I'm not sure that ANY of them are working as marketing tools. So now I feel empowered to just enjoy the ones which feel like a way of chatting to real human beings about my main passion in life (stories) and to gently forget about the ones which were only tools, not part of me. Thanks SO MUCH.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lari Don: Oh, good - I am glad. And you're very welcome :)

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