Becoming a Social Media Savvy Writer

Having a social media presence is no longer an option, if you're a writer.

If you want to publish a book, potential publishers want you to talk about how active you are on Twitter and Facebook in your book proposal. And promoting your stories via social media sites is becoming every bit as crticial to the success of your career as a journalist as researching and writing those stories in the first place.

Unfortunately, we only have so many hours in the day to devote to the growing number of tasks that fall into the job description of writer. So how can we use our social media time as wisely as possible, as opposed to getting sucked into the vortex of permanent chit-chat and never actually getting any writing done? Here are a few tips, based on what I've learned through the social media school of hard knocks.

Weigh the pros and cons of allowing any of your social media accounts to notify you in real time about messages and posts from friends and followers. Instead, plan to log in to your various social media accounts at certain times of the day. If you're having a great morning writing, the last thing you need is to disrupt that flow because of a Facebook or Twitter alert.

Be honest with yourself when it comes to deciding which types of social media activities are business-building and which types of activities are just for fun. And decide how much time you can afford to spend on either/both.

Don't interpret an increase in follower numbers as evidence that your social media efforts are working. Unless you're been cleaning out your Twitter account on a regular basis with a tool like Twitblock, which looks for spam followers, and/or Just Unfollow, which helps you to identify accounts that have been created and abandoned, there's likely a sizeable gap between your total follower count and your number of truly engaged followers (the number of people you interact with on a regular basis).

Develop a social media style that feels natural to you, that encourages people to interact with you, and that isn't all about spreading content about yourself. The number one mistake that authors (and far too many journalists) make when they first sign up for social media is constantly broadcasting information about themselves. Place information about yourself in your bio and occasionally mention something related to your books/articles, but don't constantly bombard your followers with updates from Amazon.com reader reviews. You will drive your social media audience around the bend -- and away. Repeat after me: it's not all about you....

Find out how you are doing, really. If you'd like to get an objective sense of how you are doing with this social media thing (a more honest opinion than any of your friends will ever give you), you may find a social media metrics tool like Crowdbooster useful. Crowdbooster analyzes data from your Twitter account and your Facebook Pages to let you know which types of tweets and updates are the most effective at engaging your audience. (Data about the number of retweets or shares and the number of people reached is provided for each tweet or update over the past week or month -- or for all time.) As you analyze and think about this data, you can challenge yourself to create even more compelling content. After all, you're a writer.

What you shouldn't do is become obsessed by the numbers. The stats are there to serve a purpose, not to become the sole focus of your energy and your activity. And no social media stat can measure the pleasure your writing just gave to a reader who is enjoying your book on a park bench or the converation your article just sparked at breakfast tables across the country.

The online world still only reaches so far. And no tool can measure everything. It's important to keep that in mind.

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You Can't Be All Things to All People

I've been thinking a lot about a conversation that took place on a panel that I hosted last month at Blissdom Canada: the "To Publish or Not To Publish" panel. The session - which featured Jen Reynolds (editor-in-chief of Canadian Family), Nadine Silverthorne (online editor, TodaysParent.com and CanadianParents.com) and Theresa Albert (YourFriendinFood.com) - talked about taking writing beyond the blog.

At one point during the discussion, Jen Reynolds made what I think was a very important point: writers can't be all things to all people.

If, for example, you want to pursue the corporate spokesperson side of things (a very lucrative way to make a living as a mom blogger), you can't expect to be an editorial contributor to publications such as hers. You have to decide which part of the content creation business has the greatest appeal for you: the advertising side or the editorial side.

It was the first time in a long time I'd heard an editor speak publicly about the once clearly defined boundaries between church (editorial) and state (advertising). And, frankly, it was pretty inspiring. Jen Reynolds is clearly an editor who values the quality of the content that ends up in her magazine and who is willing to safeguard that turf.

That discussion has had me reflecting a lot on my own career as a writer: who I would like to work with and the types of projects I would most like to undertake. One thing I know for sure is that I'll continue to seek out editors like Jen Reynolds who are passionate about the content that finds its way on to the pages of their magazines.

How Did You Land An Agent?

I didn't manage to land an agent until I was ready to negotiate the contract for my fourth book, The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby. And it wasn't for lack of trying.

When I was ready to start trying to sell my book Baby Science: How Babies Really Work, I figured out which agent in Canada was doing a brilliant job of selling the type of book I proposed to write and decided to send her what I hoped would be a truly irresistible pitch.

I wrote her a letter describing my book and I enclosed a copy of my book proposal, a box of chocolate letters that spelled out the word "YES," and a note that read, "I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm hoping you'll say, 'Yes.'" 

When I hadn't heard back from the agent within a couple of weeks, I decided it was time to follow up.

When I got her on the phone, I asked her if she had enjoyed the chocolate "YES."

It turned out that agents end up with stacks and stacks of parcels in their offices, and my package had yet to be opened. And as much as she loved my creativity (and as much as she and her colleagues would very much enjoy the chocolate "YES,") she simply wasn't taking on any more first-time authors. 

I approached two more literary agencies (a lovely husband-wife team, who specialized in authors who wrote books for children) and the not-quite-so-lovely agent described in my previous post (the one who implied that mothers weren't qualified to write books about babies). Neither of my pitches resulted in an offer of representation, so I decided to get out there and start sending my book proposal out to publishers. And, as you already know from my previous post, I was able to sell Baby Science on my own.

My next two book projects found me. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Canadian History and The Unofficial Guide to Childcare were projects initiated by publishers, who then went looking for authors to write them. (The Canadian publisher of The Complete Idiot's Guides knew me because I'd pitched a parenting book project to him. And I found out about The Unofficial Guides project via The Professional Writers Association of Canada and pitched myself to the series' publisher and editor as a potential author.)

It was when I was asked to write a second title for the Unofficial Guides series -- The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby -- that I thought I'd try seeking representation from an agent again. I asked the then-publisher of the Unofficial Guides series if she could recommend a good agent. She recommended the late Ed Knappman of New England Publishing Associates (NEPA) Inc. 

It was when I was asked to write a second title for the Unofficial Guides series -- The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby -- that I thought I'd try seeking representation from an agent again. I asked the then-publisher of the Unofficial Guides series if she could recommend a good agent. She recommended the late Ed Knappman of New England Publishing Associates (NEPA) Inc. 

I sent Ed a letter introducing myself, telling him why I thought I needed an agent at this point in my career, and spelling out my plans for future books. I wanted him to know that I would generate income for his agency: that I wasn't going to be a one-book author for NEPA. We spoke on the phone, he sent me his agency agreement, I reviewed it, and we agreed to work together.

Ed was an amazing agent. He was by my side during some of the most challenging situations I have ever faced (and ever hope to face) as an author. A few years ago, he announced that he was going to ease into retirement. I had decided at about the same time that it might work well for me to have an agent based in the same country as me. (Ed was in Connecticut and I am in Ontario.) We parted ways professionally, but continued to be friends. And when I received word this past spring that Ed had passed away, I was heartbroken. I learned, from reading his obituary, that he had been a civil rights and social justice activist -- something that made me admire him all the more. I understood why he was so willing to fight long and hard for his authors. 

* * *

Many first-time authors find that it can be more difficult to land an agent than it is to land a book publishing contract. You will increase your odds of obtaining representation from an agent if

  • you write a letter that describes your current book project clearly and concisely and that outlines your longer-term career goals as a writer
  • you offer to send that agent a copy of your book proposal for that project (or you include it with your letter). Tip: Call ahead to find out which approach that particular agent/agency prefers
  • it is clear from your letter that you are a marketable author. (A potential publisher will size up your website, your social media savvy, whether or not you have any media experience, and will want to know about the size and nature of any personal and professional networks that you can tap into to help promote your book.)

It's also important to ensure that you approach the right agent -- someone who represents your genre, for example. And you'll want to find someone who is a bonafide agent as opposed to a wannabee or scam artist. (For tips on distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys, consult the website of the Association of Authors' Representatives.)

And before you sign the agency agreement, make sure you're clear about what you're signing (how much the agency will receive from the proceeds of each of your projects, how revenues will be funnelled to you -- and when, and what will happen in the case of any number of worst case scenarios). The best time to check for a robust exit clause is when you're entering into an agreement, after all.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including The Mother of All Pregnancy Books. She is a popular conference speaker on topics related to writing and social media. Her other website is www.having-a-baby.com

This is the second in a series of questions answered by me about writing and the writing life. If you have a question you would like me to answer, you can either add your question to the comments thread below or you can catch up with me on Twitter (where I am @anndouglas).