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Thursday, September 25

Blessing Or Curse? The Modern Writer’s Dilemma

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Author Series

The conventional wisdom today is that every author—and especially the self-published author— needs a strong social media presence.

This core assumption is reinforced by agents, publishers, publicists, and other authors. Some agents won’t even take on a new client unless that writer has a Facebook following of at least 500 and a Twitter following in excess of 5,000. At minimum, you also need a website; but you should also blog, guest blog, and have a Pinterest page for your each of your books, right?

And of course you need to interact with your readers, even if they’re only potential readers, and respond to them on each of the platforms you’re active on. Even if it takes time—hours every day—away from your writing, maintaining a strong online presence is something no writer can ignore. Because it’s all about community, right?

I’m not convinced. In fact, I think it’s hogwash.

So then why does everybody think these things are so vital? Try:
  • Insecurity
  • Herd instinct
  • Every writer’s natural inclination to displacement activity and doing anything to put off the hard work of actually getting on with the book
  • Narcissism (I’d like to think this last only applies to a small minority)

But I submit that what a writer actually needs is:
  • To write more
  • Readers
  • A way to let that readership know what books they’ve written and where to find them in the reader’s preferred format
  • The ability to let readers know about new or upcoming releases

Look at your own reading habits. Like me, you probably have favorite authors whose new novels you buy as soon as they release, right? But do you feel a burning need to interact with each of those authors? Would you stop reading them if they didn’t have a Facebook page or Twitter feed you could follow? If you didn’t know about their cats, their family life, and their thoughts on the state of the world? Of course not (unless you’re much needier than I suspect, in which case you should probably skip to another post).

But you do want your readers to know the moment your next book appears.

Fortunately, there are two things—and just two—that will meet your readership’s core needs and leave you with far more time and energy to write: a website and an email list.

A well-designed and maintained website can fill all your readership’s needs in that you can tell the reader about yourself, post excerpts from and links to your books, supply news of upcoming releases, keep a blog (if you feel it necessary), and provide a contact form or email link for the occasional fan mail that makes it all worthwhile.

An email list—strictly opt-in—used at most once a month or when a new book releases is probably the single best way other than word-of-mouth to publicize your work and stay in touch with your readership. The terrific thing about an opt-in email list is that it’s optimally targeted: it goes out to only those people who are actually interested in your work—your readers.

There are counterarguments. If you write middle grade or childrens' books, your readers may have different expectations, and a (limited) social media presence may be of some help. Or perhaps you enjoy community, and a lively and varied dialog with people across multiple platforms, and that interaction sparks ideas and gives you energy. Well, fair enough.

But against this, weigh the inarguable cost of the time spent needed to maintain an active social media presence (not to mention the distractions, video-watching, and web surfing go with that).

Say you spend just an hour a day (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt) on Facebook, Twitter, your writing blog, etc. In a year that amounts to around 350 hours, which is the equivalent of ten thirty-five-hour weeks. And this doesn’t even address the effect that regularly fragmenting one’s time and attention has on the creative mind.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can get a good first draft of an 80k-word novel done in ten weeks just writing three hours a day; give me ten weeks of seven-hour days and I could probably do a decent first revision on it, too. So if we accept—and I do—the other, far more solid conventional wisdom that the best thing an author can do to gain more readers is release more books more frequently, that pretty much clinches it, wouldn’t you say?

This isn’t just idle talk on my part. I’ve already pretty much ditched Twitter—I never liked it and thought it was a waste of time from the get-go—and am about to begin substantially winding down my Facebook presence. My current blog will return to a website, which it originally was, and I’m starting to build my email list. I don’t deny that the process is scary, but so is letting go of any security blanket. I’ve thought long and hard on this, and I’m convinced that it’s the right thing for me. Whether it’s right for you, only you can decide. But I do know that fear, insecurity, herd instinct, and unquestioning acceptance of conventional wisdom are terrible reasons for doing anything.

Do you think a strong social media presence is something a writer can’t do without? Do you ever question the perceived value of community?

Further reading:

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for novella submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. Thanks for this post. I haven't entered the Twitter world just because of what you said here! Passing this post along to some newbie writers.

    1. Anonymous8:57 PM EDT

      Thanks so much, Carol. I've tried to reply below on the question of how to get an email list started, but I can see that you and I are in the minority here ;-)


  2. I agree with you about the value of an email list. That said, a brand-new writer still needs a way to let potential readers know their book exists. If they have no online presence except a static website, and do no marketing, readers won't buy their book because they won't know it's out there. If they don't read the book, they won't sign up for the email list. It's a catch-22. It's nice in theory to say that if you just write more books, you'll eventually be discovered by readers, but with the huge numbers of good books out there, that's just not the case for most new writers. A writer who has already sold books and already built up a readership can ease back from social media to a certain extent, but for new, unknown writers, I don't think that's practical advice. At least not in my experience.

    1. Anonymous7:18 PM EDT

      Marcy, that's probably true, and I honestly wasn't necessarily thinking of brand-new writers. But all of us have realworld contacts--family,friends, work colleagues--that we can leverage and network with. Assuming that the writer is writing work that's good in the first place, it seems to me that those people they know directly and already have real connections with are going to be a far stronger possible reader base. And that's where the email list begins. As far as I can tell, there's zero empirical evidence that the time writers spend on social media brings returns in terms of book sales. My personal experience over several years on FB where I have both a personal page and a page for my small press, Panverse Publishing, is that even using "boosted" (paid) posts, the actual results are within epsilon of zero. What one *does* get is a lot of sideline cheering from friends and fans, but book sales from social media are IMO largely mythical. And don't get me started on on the writers on Twitter who scream about their books daylong. ;-)

  3. I'd have to agree with Marcy, what's the secret to getting this e-mail list? I'd love to spend more time writing, but either you keep your name out there, or you disappear into the ether.

    1. Anonymous8:48 PM EDT

      Jbiggar, thanks. See my reply to Marcy above and to gemwriter below. Start with the real world network of friends and family; if already on social media, ask those people; run giveaways and contests; use the backmatter of your book; book launch parties and the enthusiasm they generate are a terrific opportunity; give talks at local libraries; there are so many ways.

  4. Using social media doesn't worry me at all--I enjoy it. I use Hootsuite to schedule posts on all of the social media sites you mention and a few more. It takes me a few minutes every day to do that, and throughout the day, as I read new things I'd like to post to them all, I click, choose the sites, and "shoot." I write for at least four or more hours a day after that.

    Twitter, especially, has introduced me to lots of reader sites and resources I never would have found otherwise, as well. So I check it frequently during the day. I've build a little community of readers that way, and I value that.

    So...I'm not with you on this one, I'm afraid...

    1. Anonymous8:54 PM EDT

      Cynthia, thanks for commenting. That's great--you enjoy social media *and* write several hours a day. But does your social media presence sell any books? What's the conversion rate, the ROI, in terms of books sold? I'm not advocating others who enjoy social media abandon point is simply that I believe that in terms of actual marketing and book sales, the ROI is at the very least hard to measure; frankly, I think it's minimal. Do you have figures on the books your community of readers buys?

  5. I have always believed like you believe, that social networking is a waste of time. I have over 200 titles published and am selling books but not at the pace I want. I have started to experiment with twitter. In a couple of weeks I have grown my "followship" to almost 1500. Sometimes I think it is just a bunch of authors trying to sell each other their books. I seem to have increased my sales a bit, but not sure it has to do with twitter. I will keep this up for a while, but am doubtful as to the result. I have a facebook page, but haven't messed much with it.

    1. Anonymous8:55 PM EDT

      A.E., thanks for your comments :).

  6. How does one develop that opt-in email list? Any specific suggestions?

    1. Anonymous7:21 PM EDT

      Gem, thanks for your reply; please see my reply to Marcy above. We all have realworld networks, and IMO those are far stronger than those on social media.

    2. Anonymous8:44 PM EDT

      Beyond that, I'd say giveaways, freebies, book launch parties, notes in the backmatter offering random prizes for signups.... all these things work.

    3. Dario, I'm going to have challenge you yet again, but I'll try to be somewhat tame (can't promise brevity, though)-

      For some of us, we can't get that connection with like-minded people, either for personal or professional reasons offline. due to where we live and and limited financial and/or transport resources.

      Can it be hollow?


      But so can social stuff in "real life." I put that in quotes because
      while I get what you're saying, and like you I don't think writers should be pressured into things that either aren't vital to what you want to achieve, for some of us what we get from social I don't see it as a soul-free marketing tool as I first did, it's now what I do to frankly BE SOCIAL and by default, get my name out there. I try really hard to be communicative, not just blab about me.

      Sorry if it feels like I'm attacking you, Dario, I'm just being honest regarding my situation, and I know lots of writers who without the internet (despite its flaws) we'd feel entirely alone, I'm not saying social media replaces in-person connection and all aspects of online community, but for some of us it's sadly ALL WE HAVE. Period.

      I'm trying to make the most of it.

      Maybe if I had a more rich offline life I'd feel the way you and others commenting here do, but I don't, and for me and my journey, that community building is rewarding for me, sure I'd wish it'd grow faster, but it's growing.

      To be continued...

    4. As far as raw sales, I can tell you in all honesty I HAVE been convinced to buy or check out from the library specific books and/or authors who are on social media that I otherwise may not have discovered as quickly as I did. Most of my fave authors growing up (who aren't "Triple A" brand names) aren't online much, but the chance to , even if it's only virtual, is PRICELESS to those of us who don't live where they naturally congregate in person and can't afford to go to them.

      Plus, when I do fan videos for books I've read, loved and reviewed on "Talking Animal Addicts" and I hear back from the authors and/or illustrators of those books who loved them, that's ALMOST as special to me as if I could meet them in person or workshop our stuff in a more personal way.

      I'd LOVE to meet my fave authors in person and get my books signed, but I rarely get that chance due to my limited mobility (and the fact that most authors I read live outside my country or my state, and when the international authors I love come to my country [USA] it's almost always just NYC or L.A. and I live nowhere near either. Nor can I afford to go to either).

      For me, online media (even beyond Facebook and Twitter) has become an important part, since I don't have much to sell yet, I do this for the community and connection that just doesn't exist offline for me at this point in my life.

      To be continued...

    5. I'm not arguing against why you and many others feel how you do, but for some people, we get something out of it that we can't always quantify, but gives us something we can't get offline for various reasons.

      I do feel for me social media has become a natural part of my process, and believe me, I HATED the idea of doing this at first. I'm not trying to convince you or anyone else to do something you personally/professionally don't find worth it. But for someone like me who has limited offline resources, this is a way to be connected, and I do think I'm slowly building potential readers who are not writers, it just takes time.

      The SAME TIME it takes to just publish a book in the first place.

      THat's what helepd me re-frame the time versus "return on investment" and I really hate that phrase, but that's easiest to frame my POV on this.

      Do I think it's mandatory to sell books? No I don't. But it, the thing I think people don't get is that while many writers keep lecture newbies that it TAKES TIME to draft, revise and publish (whether indie or traditional, the latter some of us still pursue because they just can't fund a pro-level indie project out of pocket all by themselves!), so does engaging on social media.

      Yes, that takes time away from writing actual books, but depending on how you work,
      that varies.

      Not to get too off-topic or far-reaching here, but your counter-argument to why you don't partake in social media is similar sentiment to why I gave up my previous ambition to be a professional chef because it requires skills and a mindset I just don't have. I still love cooking an baking, but I do it for me, and that's enough for now.

      I want to have a career as an author, and because I have to do a lot on my own, I NEED community however I can get it, while still being in line with my core values.

      A lot of the breaks I've gotten as a writer would never have happened without the internet and general As introverted as I am in a lot of ways, I also don't want to be a hermit because that's not emotionally nor professionally healthy for me. I see what I'm working toward as (even though I'm not yet paid for it) but I HAVE to do it in a way where I don't feel like this jaded solitary fool.

      No, I didn't get scouted by agents or editors for my blog or being on social media, but I do it more for me and because it's a surrogate for the community I can't offline right now.

      Also, generally speaking, Dario, DON'T underestimate socializing with your peers!

      Yes, we want lay readers who don't know us to read and love our work, and what comes with that, but connecting with other writers have its merits, too, and I'd frankly be honored if one of my "rivals" read and loved me, too.

      If my literary idols read and loved my work as much any lay reader.

      It's a different experience, yes, but no less valid, IMHO.

      I'll admit some of my "Actual Writing" gets put to the side to enage online, but it's often the ONLY way I can hang out, however virtually, with people who do what I do and get me in ways my family offline never will. Whther they're writers or not. I want my lay readership, but hanging with my fellow authors/publishing insiders has value, too.

      That's all I'm saying and I'll stop there before I go nuts again...

      Take Care
      Taurean W.

  7. I'd like to hear your feedback on this move in 6 - heck - 4 months to see if your thoughts have changed.

    I've never done FB, as I spent 3 hours getting it out of a friend's computer after she decided to close her page. Registry-eaters make me nervous.

    I do have and use Twitter. But feel it provides a different type of communication. The information I get there is like others here have mentioned, new authors, new books, new happenings.

    Like Cynthia says, there are ways to have a lot of control over your social media use.

    To be honest, email and my website are the time-sucks for me.

    I think it's vital to stay as informed as possible within your framework of writing. The writing community world-wide is fluid and constantly crosses borders, genres, and expectations. Why avoid that flow and potential?

    I follow 3 blogs and continually refer people to them - learning and sharing ideas is just too important to ignore the opportunities that are out there in the ether.

    dunno about email opt-in lists, but there must be a way... I managed to put together a listing of web designers in my region with just a little research. YA readers gather online - once you find them (or any other group of readers) seems like just a few more steps to becoming part of the community.

    Thanks for the post, Dario, enjoy your thoughts. Don't forget to take a bottle of water with you on this trip. :)

    1. Anonymous8:43 PM EDT

      LOL Maria--and thanks :) My issue with writers blogging, spending time on writer sites, and all the rest, is that other writers are typically not our audience. Yes, there are things to be learned, but I think the writer's business is to write. There must come a time when one has a good command of one's craft, understands the basics of markets, formatting, etc., etc., and really, how informed does a writer need to be? The hard pushback I'm seeing on this post frankly reinforces my view that we've all bought into this bill of goods--as I said,m conventional wisdom. But where are the metrics? How do you measure the impact of social media presence on sales? And do any of us put a $ value on our time ? We should. Because if, as I suspect, one gets one sale for every dozends of hours spent blogging or on social media.... well, at that point we might be better off advertising or hiring a publicist. :)

  8. I agree with the message in this post. The internet is a drain of time and energy. It makes sense to spend more time writing than spend it immersed in the ether. And what about enjoying real life? Meeting people face to face as opposed to online? Writers have to live life to the full because that's where our inspiration comes from.

    However, there are writers who enjoy social media and if that's the case, good for them. For any writer who finds it a drain on their time and energy, it's worthwhile knowing they're not missing out.

    I would also be very interested in hearing more about your experiences in a few months' time after you make the changes.

    Thank you for this post.

    1. Anonymous1:25 PM EDT

      Thanks, Lisa :) Absolutely those who enjoy social media should use it. But we shouldn't kid ourselves it's a powerful marketing tool for writers--there's just no data to support that.

      I was recently on a convention panel and got a good laugh out of the audience when I pointed out that the idea of social media is to be *social*--someone actually tweeted the quote LOL. Anyone who tries to use it primarily and overtly for marketing, as so many do, is likely to alienate more people than they attract. And while I--and several authors I know--enjoy the social aspects, I know it does very little to sell my books--at most I may have had a half-dozen or so sales out of some 900 friends/fans worthwhile for hundreds of hours spent on just FB each year.


  9. Anonymous5:13 AM EDT

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article and discussion.

    I have just published my first YA book and have just entered the world of social media. I am finding it quite overwhelming, not only figuring out how to use them and my time wisely (let's just say, it's a work-in-progress), but how to manage this aspect of being a writer along with the many other demands (paid work, parenting, writing, learning and editing).

    This was a great article that said to me, 'stop and think' before you commit a lot of time building a social media presence.

    I think I will end up using social media to a certain degree, but I will be really thinking about how I use it, why and being very careful about how much time I put in. I can see minutes just getting gobbled up far too easily.

    A perfectly timed article for me. Thank-you. T.R. Milne

    1. Anonymous1:36 PM EDT

      You're welcome, and thanks for your thought--I wish you every success with your book :) The several comments and my replies above may of some help also.

      I think a limited social media presence is good, and can be a lot of fun. I think the kool-aid effect comes in when people think it's key to their sales, and a powerful, mandatory marketing tool.

      With a good deal of work, and if you can provide stimulating, thoughtful discussion on your FB page, blog, whatever, it's not hard to build up a following in the thousands**. Some of those people may already be your readers, and some very small percentage--I'd say less than 5%--may at some point buy a book. But for that to happen takes hundreds upon hundreds of hours and a ton of work on your part. Social media *is* a great place to announce your new release, offer freebies, and so on...but in terms of paid sales and readers you wouldn't otherwise have, I just don't see the ROI (and nobody can supply metrics). One would do better to save the hundreds of hours and just give away a few hundred books and let word-of-mouth do its thing.


      **Twitter followers are easy to get by the thousands, you just follow people and many will follow you back. But why on Earth would they buy your book? There's so much noise out there it's hard to even GIVE books away. Much better IMO to work in the real world, or pursue other avenues.

  10. Anonymous2:04 PM EDT

    As a coda, I came across the item linked below in the comments on Janice's own 2012 blog post on this topic. Very worth reading:

    1. Anonymous2:07 PM EDT

      As are the comments which follow it...

  11. Great advice here. I don't yet have a mailing list or newsletter, and from what I'm hearing, that's bad on my part. *sigh*

    So far I'm doing what I'm comfortable with, which is running a website and blog, plus connecting with others on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. It's fun engaging with other readers and writers. I don't think of it as a sales thing, though.

    1. Anonymous12:50 PM EDT

      Thanks so much, Julie. It IS fun, and as writers we work for long periods in yeah, we need social interaction at many levels. But it's not marketing--at least, not in any significant way, IMO, however much people want to believe that it is.


  12. I'm about as fed up with Twitter as you became. Fortunately, I never tried Facebook. I am getting "discovered" by readers on Google+, however, and will probably maintain a strong presence there, along with maintaining my website & mail list.

    1. Anonymous8:11 PM EDT

      Eduardo, thanks for your comment. I'm very glad that Google+ is working for you, and maybe you're onto something--perhaps the demographic is so different on Google+ that it's a good venue for authors...I don't know. And kudos for having an email list! :)


  13. I guess that the opportunities that social media gives you to explore different types of writing and to have your voice heard by millions of people can't really be missed when you're a writer, otherwise you'll feel like you're missing out!