A ‘Game of Two Halves’, but ‘Singing From the Same Hymn Sheet’.
Publishing and Social Media Networking at the London Book Fair 2013.
Now the LBF dust has settled, it’s a good time to reflect on the two seminars on social networking that were run back-to-back at the London Book Fair 2013. ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’, delivered by Chris Hamilton-Emery, Director of Salt and a distinguished poet (he publishes with Arco) and small-publisher authors Christina James, Elizabeth Baines and Katy Evans-Bush, was the first. Snapping at its heels came ‘Social Networking: Authors Have Their Say’, with authors Jonathan Grimwood (Canongate), Elif Shafak (book fair author of the day), Phil Earle (Puffin) and Signe Johansen (Scandilicious / Saltyard Books) on the panel.
How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring
Chris Hamilton-Emery (responsible for the Salt Blog Salted) began the seminar by talking about how social media networking had proved to be an example of a ‘cause to action’ and one of the means of the making of Salt.
So, what did this panel have to say on social networking?
An obvious one, but something vital to making any author or publisher known to the audience they are trying to reach. You need followers (indeed, Phil Earle, in his capacity as a publisher at Bloomsbury, later said it was one of the key things he asked potential authors). In order to do this, you must be interesting. Certainly, a quick survey of the panels’ blogs revealed not only people with something to say, but also a considerable body of engaging material.
Christina James’s observant eye roves from extolling the virtues of the (as yet) largely unexplored crime fiction landscape of Lincolnshire, to generously drawing attention to other crime authors’ work in her Christina James Crime Novelist blog. Indeed, it is this theme of sharing intriguing finds and promoting others that is considered important by any blogger worth their salt and was reiterated more than once by both groups.
Elizabeth Baines made the point that a professionally presented blog can raise your profile very quickly. This is something Elizabeth knows about first hand, as the author of the Fiction Bitch blog.
Katy Evans-Bush, whose blog Baroque in Hackney, was short-listed for the 2012 George Orwell prize for political writing, said it was never too late to start a blog.
The general message was if you have something worthwhile to say, then people will read it. In other words…
Even for the publisher, for whom promoting books means achieving sales, it is important not to overdo direct promotion. The panel’s advice was that it is better to write interesting material based on the theme of the book. However, Katy said that content doesn’t matter all that much, provided what you do is of good quality. She often blogs about a subject not related to her work. Over-promotion quickly becomes an irritation rather than a means of creating awareness (spot the same themes clearly relayed by Signe Johansen, in the next group of speakers).
Interaction with the followers who interact with you is very important, and it is simple good manners to reply when people have taken the trouble to engage. The panel responded to a question from the audience about trying to manage a large number of followers by agreeing that it wasn’t possible to look at every follower individually (Salt has over 73,000). However, responding to direct responses should be possible. Some of the panel felt that it was not a good idea to follow too many people.
Christina urged everyone to find other bloggers through Twitter and engage with them.
Short is Beautiful
The brevity of Twitter is wonderful for concentrating the mind and forcing an author to encapsulate his or her thoughts succinctly.
Confluence and Time Management
Chris suggested that all social media and other marketing activities should be developed as a unified whole, rather than as separate entities. This is scalable: the large publisher is more likely to have more manpower at its disposal to orchestrate a larger co-ordination operation.
However, it became evident that, unless managed carefully, online social networking can distract from an author’s ‘real’ work. Everyone had a different way of managing this. A burst of activity, rather than dropping on and off the networks all the time, was suggested as being a more productive way to work.
Elizabeth said it was important to work at your blog because of the forum it provides for you as an author and Katy confirmed that her blog, despite the fact that it does not concern itself with her poetry, has brought her work and publication. So there is a balance to be achieved between investing time in the blog (which is effectively your – very cost-effective – shop-front) and your writing.
Putting Your Philosophy Forward. Creating a Brand
It is important to decide how you want to present yourself to the world before you start making yourself visible. Katy said that you need to be clear about who you are and what you have to offer. It is also important to work to your strengths.
This was something everyone agreed on. The warning was stark. ‘If you are not being genuine, then you will quickly be found out’. So don’t pretend to be someone you’re not; but some authors may give book characters their own Twitter feed, particularly if the character appears in a series, as it is then possible to highlight interesting related pieces of information or link related online items, such as articles and photographic, film or sound archives.
The authors felt it was fine to bring more personal items into discussions (Katy mentioned pictures of your babies covered in food, as being OK. However if you are a crime author be prepared for your offspring to cook up some novel way to despatch you in revenge later on in life!). Chris felt that whatever people saw on Facebook or Twitter was unadulterated Hamilton-Emery.
Promotional Aspects of Online Social Networking
There is no doubt that online social networking has revolutionised the way publishers and authors have been able to conduct promotional campaigns (there is a general sense in the media industry that we are only just experiencing the tip of the iceberg here). Although, as the team agreed, they had yet to see research that could quote actual figures, there are anecdotal stories that suggest its value. Salt can provide one of these. Chris’s own experience changed his view of using social networking overnight. He said that his engagement with the media had been limited when Salt reached a financial crisis. In desperation, he asked his contacts on Facebook if they would buy a Salt book. The result was a startlingly proactive response from his authors, who promptly went on Twitter to relay this question. The ‘Just Buy One Book’ Salt campaign produced enough revenues to lift Salt out of its financial difficulties in a matter of days.
It is an example that small publishers should note well. The point was endorsed by a comment from an Inpress representative in the audience, who expressed his frustration at small press reluctance to embrace social media as a powerful PR tool.
Elizabeth followed this up by saying that social media frees up the publisher’s budget for other kinds of promotion. She also went on to say that it is a quick and cost-effective way of getting the message out to a very large, world-wide audience, in a way that conventional PR never can.
It is better for the author, publisher and agent to work together. In this way messages can be retweeted or shared on Facebook. If the information between the different parties is co-ordinated for maximum impact, there is less danger of one source appearing to overdo the promotion. Twitter content moves quickly, so being able to harness the ripple effect by allowing other people to share what you want to promote (particularly those with a large number of proactive followers who will spread the word) works better.
This also goes back to Christina’s point about generosity to others and sharing to help promote other authors’ books or blogs.
Once you’ve started social networking, you must keep going. This doesn’t mean blogging, Facebooking or tweeting every day; but you do need messages or articles to go out at reasonably regular intervals, or people will lose interest.
Your must also be consistent with your persona. Nobody likes dealing with someone who has mood swings.
So how did this compare to the second seminar?
Social networking: Authors Have Their Say
Overall, the second seminar did not contain as much practical advice for an aspiring author or small publisher, as it required its audience to sift through the flow of conversation to pick out useful nuggets.
Which Social Media?
All of the authors in the second panel apart from Jonathan Grimwood – he works with Twitter almost exclusively and does not blog) used a variety of social media platforms.
A platform that was not mentioned in the previous seminar was Pinterest. Signe Johansen said it was useful for her; as a food anthropologist, she takes photographs of such things as culinary raw materials and their preparation and posts them on the site. She echoed the ‘Do Not Overload’ advice of the first seminar. Signe strongly advised against the now prevalent habit of taking photograph of plates of food from every meal and every angle, to show off. She limits her photography to unusual pieces of food or preparations.
Tapping into the system.
The panel was asked about finding the right groups for social networking. The response was that there are pre-formed communities, but Jonathan warned that some genre-based groups sometimes divide into warring factions.
Signe felt that it was no bad thing to find your own niche and bring people into it. This is what she did with Scandinavian cooking.
Elif extolled the virtues of social media in allowing interaction with people and said that they also give you the potential to reach other people who inspire you.
Elif reiterated the importance of the author, publisher and publicist working together to form a coherent network of information dissemination. She also pointed out how helpful it was when her publisher passed her links to news or articles on social networks that she would be interested in and could comment on. Working with a publisher or publicist can take the pressure off the author, by spreading the social media workload.
Again, the message was that this is important, particularly if you are writing Young Adult fiction. Phil has found that he needs to be on Twitter quite a bit. This is because his audience uses Twitter continuously and will quickly shift to another area of interest when it pops up, whereas older people take a more sustained and leisurely approach.
This message was expressed very clearly by all the authors in the second panel who, like those in the first, agreed that it is best to be yourself, because if you try and take on a persona that doesn’t ring true, you will be found out.
The discussion moved to multiple identities. Phil, who also works as a sales director for Bloomsbury Children’s Books, said that he had made a conscious decision to remove publishing from his profile and concentrate on his author persona. Signe felt that juggling more than one Twitter account was too time- consuming.
Achieving the right balance between using social media and actually getting work done seems to bedevil most authors. Jonathan’s answer is to withdraw to a jointly owned, internet-free flat in Paris. Not all of us can have this, but having the strength of mind to switch off the Internet may be a practical answer for authors with more modest budgets. Phil said that he wondered when his family would ‘divorce’ him; he has been known to quickly sneak a peek at the Internet at three in the morning.
Some authors have the strength of mind to take a more strategic approach. A friend of Phil’s has announced that he will tweet at a particular time, so his audience can tune in at this time every day.
Overall, the authors felt it was more important that social media is used in a way that is consistently relevant, rather than by specifically increasing traffic to aggressively promote a new book (although Phil’s earlier take on the YA audience might suggest a reappraisal of this tactic in certain circumstances). Signe said how irritating it was when certain well-known chefs she knew kept ‘blowing their own trumpets’ on social media.
Given the difference between the two groups in their scale of operations, you might have speculated that their advice would be very different. In style, it certainly was; but not in content. The ways in which all the authors used social networking was strikingly similar. Although the more high profile authors obviously achieve higher book sale figures, it would be interesting to compare their blog analytics with those of the small publisher authors, who in this age of electronic equality may well be more than holding their own.
This sense of equality is a reflection on the radical change that online social networking has brought to the publishing playing field. Hopefully the next few years will bring ‘interesting times’ to independent publishers like Salt; but in a far more productive manner than that intended by the old Chinese proverb.