One recent Friday morning, as I was dropping off my daughter for preschool, the director stopped me in the hall. “Congratulations!” she said. “I didn’t know you were an author. That must be so exciting.” I mumbled something about how yes, it’s an interesting job as jobs go, though not one I usually go around announcing randomly—unless, of course, someone asks about my work, which the director most decidedly had not done until that morning. How had she found me out?
It turns out my cousin, whose kids attend the same preschool, was the one who had let the cat out of the bag earlier in the week, the day my second novel, The Countess, hit bookstores. “Yes,” said the director, “she mentioned you don’t like to toot your own horn.” She smiled as if pitying me a little, or maybe that part was my imagination. “Congrats again!” she gushed. And I got out of there as fast as I could.
She was right about one thing: I don’t like to toot my own horn. At all. I’m a Midwesterner and a woman; bragging about my accomplishments, such as they are, is about as comfortable to me as stripping naked and dancing in the middle of the Edens Expressway. (Even typing that last sentence I couldn’t keep myself from adding “such as they are,” or risk feeling like the worst kind of gasbag.)
I get nauseated before appearances; I find blogging terrifying. I started this blog because the guy who designed my web page said I should, that it would increase my webpage traffic, but the only time I’ve enjoyed working on it was when I was certain no one but a small handful of friends were reading it. I could bitch about the tornado that hit my house and the endless repairs it engendered, or the multiple rounds of infertility treatments and disappointments my husband and I suffered leading up to the birth of our daughter, and know that maybe three people were even bothering to read it. Certainly no one was coming there to look up my novel, the reason I had set up the blog in the first place.
And for the most part, that was okay with me. I often said I became a novelist because I didn’t like talking about myself, because I felt that no one was really interested in me. I prefer to let my characters do the talking. Let them be the pushy ones, the attention hogs, so I don’t have to be.
In the four years since the launch of that first book, a modest critical success that hardly anyone actually read, book-review pages in major newspapers have shrunk, if not completely disappeared. Book tours are rare and precious, and yet both publishers and authors have more riding on each and every new book launch. Thus social media platforms have become perhaps the most important widespread tools for authors, especially relatively unknown authors, to get the word out about their books. And that’s important to me, because my new book is the best thing I have ever written, and I want to get it into people’s hands.
But to say I have mixed feelings about social media is an understatement. Do Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads and their ilk actually help the process of getting out the word on a new book? Can the presence of a dozen reader reviews on social-media sites replace even one really great professional review? And how much am I pissing off my friends by sending them emails and updates about my book when all they probably want to do is play Farmville and watch LOLcats videos and surf the pages of people a hell of a lot more interesting and successful than me?
I came to Facebook a couple of years ago for the reasons most people do: I wanted to look up people I knew from high school and see how bald and pouchy they’d all become over the years. Especially I wanted to see what had become of the bullies who had tormented me during junior high, the ex-boyfriend who’d broken my heart at 16, the girl my husband had dated before we’d met.
And yes, I wanted to keep in touch with the friends whose presence in my life had once been essential but who had fallen out of touch with years and distance. As someone who’d moved zip codes a half-dozen or so times in my adult life, there were more of them than I cared to admit, and most of them had found their way to Facebook over the past few years.
Facebook and Twitter are great for allowing people to keep in touch without having to actually touch. In a world where even writing an email feels like work, updates and tweets offer the appearance of meaningful contact between acquaintances without the icky need to actually contact anyone. Updates go out into the ether, to be read or ignored by lists of friends who may or may not actually be logged on at any particular moment, and who may or may not give a damn about what your cat just chased, or what you made for dinner, or how you feel about the healthcare bill.
So why should I expect these same friends to be interested in my book?
I ask myself that question every day. I dread posting Facebook reminders or sending out email announcements about book launches or appearances. I imagine that the people receiving them, even people who of their own volition decided to “like” my public page, must be getting these reminders in their inboxes, sniffing derisively, and then instantly deleting them as the work of some kind of literary hack too pathetic to be worth the attention of traditional media. The fact that I myself am often the recipient of these same emails from other writers, and that I don’t mind receiving them in the least, is something I always manage to dismiss as irrelevant. (Like a lot of writers, I tend to believe people are telling me the truth only when they’re being negative.)
Beyond Facebook, I try to update my Twitter accounts regularly (I have one in my name and one in the name of my novel's main character), but I must confess I find the Twitterverse somewhat baffling. All those hashtags and little bits of embedded code usually leave me wondering what the hell everyone is talking about. I can’t figure out how everyone else can link to such nice tiny little URLs in their updates when mine are as long and gnarly and twisted as the plot of The Phantom Menace. I don’t know what a # does. I just barely understand how to write @someone. Even admitting to such makes me feel like the old lady on her porch screaming at all those damn kids to get off her lawn.
Worse, my posts and updates never seem as interesting or relevant as those of the darlings of the social-media literary set, the Jessa Crispins and Maud Newtons and Ron Hogans whose posts and tweets I look forward to every morning. I’m not clever with a comeback or a quip as my social-media idols, and rarely do I come up with anything meaningful as a cultural commentator, especially on the fly. I need to think about something, and especially to write about it, before I really understand how I feel and what I think. I’m an analog girl—ponderous and painfully shy and terribly old-fashioned when it comes to writing even a status update. Will so-and-so see me announce a reading and think I’m the worst kind of self-promoter? Will I turn into one of those obnoxious Facebook stalkers that people secretly make fun of IRL (in real life)? Should I bother writing anything at all?
When I do write about something I care about, I’ll rewrite and rewrite again. I’ve rewritten this post twice already, and will probably do so at least twice more before I let anyone see if. If I let anyone see it at all. Rewriting is the novelist’s greatest pleasure, and something that, in the social media universe where timeliness rules all, isn’t terribly important. By the time I’ve written and rewritten a post to the point where I’m happy with it, Facebookers and the Tweeps are already on to something else, and I’m left standing there with a dumb look on my face, like the girl who took so long getting ready for the prom no one noticed she wasn’t in the limo.
Yet every day, I make myself feed the social-media publicity machine. I jump on Twitter and send out announcements about events. I email Facebook fans about book launches and reviews. And I write long, rambling blog posts making fun of my own ineptitude with it all. I do it because in a world where the book tour is a dying animal, where book review pages disappear every day, where too many books are published and not enough are read, I want to continue to work. Because my next book will be the best thing I have ever written.