I was out and about yesterday and so missed a flurry of online activity sparked by this article on guardian.co.uk, in which Nesrine Malik described Mohsin Hamad as ‘a thoroughly sound and pleasant man who wears his literary triumph lightly’ when encountered in the flesh, but (says Ms Malik) when Hamad goes online he morphs into a praise-retweeting, review-linking-to ‘monster.’
This, it seems, is a Bad Thing:
Most of us expect writers, especially novelists of a certain stature, to be, ascetic, lofty creatures, occupied with the intricacies of the human condition – which explains our surprise when they turn out to be hardnosed publicists seeking to maximise book sales by promoting their product as aggressively as one would push a new shampoo.
Ms Malik finishes with some advice for us writers who frequent Twitter (and, presumably, other online social media platforms, and The Internet Itself):
Literature is a commodity, but can’t be marketed as such. Writers need to either acknowledge this and assign themselves a PR detail, or refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it – a book is too inextricably linked to its author to be promoted flat-footedly and without nuance. That said, it can be done. Here are my tips:
• Do tweet events, book signings, public readings, links to interviews etc
• Don’t exclusively tweet about your work
• Have a personality. Develop a character and a Twitter profile that is not merely a bludgeon wrought of your own brilliance
• Don’t retweet compliments. Ever. Not once
Failing that, walk away from Twitter. Take the advice of Bret Easton Ellis‘s friend, who reportedly told him at the Vanity Fair Oscars’ party: “You need to get off Twitter. People think you’re crazy”
So, some quick thoughts on this:
- Why can’t literature be ‘marketed as a commodity’? People have to pay for it, don’t they? I don’t really understand this.
- Writers can’t ‘assign themselves a PR detail’ because writers cannot, generally, afford such a thing.
- Why is it so toxic to retweet compliments? I’ve seen others say this, but they never say why it’s such a bad thing.
- Does anybody seriously disagree that a Twitter profile that is just retweeted compliments would be a trifle dull? Is this really that insightful?
- ‘Have a personality’. Is that an instruction? Don’t I have a personality already?
- ‘Refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it’. What are these skills? Can I get a licence?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about self-promotion online in the year I’ve been doing it, it’s this: you don’t need to be nearly as squeamish about it as you think you do. There is a fine and noble tradition of writers-with-books hawking them at every opportunity – if you don’t believe me, take a look at Nick Cohen’s website and twitter feed since You Can’t Read This Book came out. He’s at it all the time. He’s relentless. He’s also fantastic.
I put this queasiness about self-promotion in the same box that I put queasiness about authors doing events ‘for free.’ There was a similar flurry about that a few months back, with some distinguished writers saying they thought it was wrong. But what those distinguished writers don’t understand is the same thing that those attacking self-promotion don’t understand, and it’s this: without an audience, a new writer is nothing. Anything that can grow that audience, even by one, is probably worth doing. There’s a very simple equation: if I can do something that grows my audience, I should do it, at least when starting out.
Which means self-promotion is fine until it’s not fine. By which I mean: don’t self-promote to the extent that you drive away the audience you already have. That’s the only rule that matters. If we’re talking Twitter followers, the calculus is brutal and elegant: if your human followers are growing in number you’re doing something right, if they’re going down you’re doing something wrong. Simple as that. End of story. Not rocket science. The same goes for your Facebook page and your blog stats and your email list – are the numbers going up? Then all is well.
You can do it with charm. You should do it with charm. You should be yourself (unless there’s a problem with you being yourself, in which case social media is going to be a miserable experience for you). If you’re creative, be creative (see what Joanne Harris does, brilliantly, on her Twitter stream – she uses it to tell stories). Don’t be squeamish. If you’re British, don’t be British. Well, be a bit British, because that’s what makes you British. But always be aware of your Britishness, and recognise that, in this, it can hold you back.
And as for those commentators who think there is something impure about writers hawking their own wares – well, fine. You spend a year writing a book, and then you put it out there into a world where hundreds of new books come out every week, and you do nothing to promote it, and you see what happens. I wish you the best of luck.
Now, I’m off to promote my new book, in between talking about the Papal conclave and my dog’s strange DNA results. See you online.
That brilliant picture is from Flickr account unwomenasiapacific. Rights reserved under Creative Commons.