Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Sandra Parshall

Facebook. MySpace. Twitter. Blogs. Websites. Internet listservs.

Somehow it has become an absolute necessity for writers to use them all, and use them frequently, in the hope of enticing readers to buy books. Like
love-starved hermits hoping to make a human connection out there in cyberspace, we sit at our computers, tapping away, posting here and posting there, trying to hawk our books without actually sounding like we’re doing a sales job. Be interesting! Be funny! Be shocking, if you can’t be anything else! The whole point is to attract attention, make people want to know more about you — make people want to read your books.

I had a website before my first book came out. After some resistance, I joined other writers to start this blog. Heaven knows I’m on enough internet listservs. But I refuse to join MySpace, which I’ve always associated with teenagers and pedophiles. I held out against Facebook for a long time before I finally gave in
recently. Twitter? No way. Okay, I have a Twitter account, I even have a couple of followers, but I have never tweeted. Not yet.

It’s astonishing how obsessed writers have become, in such a short time, with creating a “cyber presence” that readers will encounter at every click
of the mouse or touch of a mobile device keypad. Look at the numbers, though, and you’ll understand why that potential audience is irresistible.

Try to absorb this fact (gleaned from the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind magazine): If Facebook were a nation, it would be the fourth most populous country in the world. (The U.S. is the third.) With more than 250 million members on every continent, six-year-old Facebook is way ahead of the older MySpace, which has 125 million users. Twitter has millions of users, but every source I’ve consulted gives a different figure. Is it only seven million or is it 75 million? Whatever — a lot of people are tweeting and following, and writers see them all as potential book-buyers. Facebook seems an especially promising source of new readers, because its fastest-growing membership segment is the 40 to 60-plus age group, more likely than the kids to spend money on books.

But does it work? Considering how much time social networking eats up, is this an efficient way for writers to reach readers? In the short time I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve noticed that most of the messages being exchanged are between writers who know each other — friends chatting about their daily lives. Most writers who have both personal Facebook pages and fan pages have a lot more friends than fans. Even in a universe as vast as Facebook, writers have formed an insular little society of their own. Facebook seems to serve the same purpose in writers’ lives that internet listservs do: providing relief from the isolation of writing. Anytime we feel the need, we can reach out and make contact online, tell somebody what we’re doing or thinking, find out what they’re up to (not much, usually).

In the latest issue of Publishers Weekly, nonfiction author Melinda Blau writes about her own experience with using social media for book promotion and confesses that, like many writers, she let it spiral out of control and take over her life. All her time online hyping her book hasn’t led to fame and fortune. Time to quit, she says. But she’s not giving up social networking entirely. She’ll do it just for fun now, not for book promotion.

I’m torn between wanting to do everything I possibly can to make readers aware of my new book (the title is Broken Places, and it’s out in February, in case you haven’t heard) and feeling a little desperate about spending time online when I could be writing. Because I’ve always been shy, online socializing and promotion has an undeniable allure. Where to draw the line is the question.

Are sites like Facebook useful only for socializing, or do they help writers find readers? What do you think? Have you ever bought a book because you “met” the writer on Facebook or MySpace? If you’re a writer, do you think social networking has helped you increase sales?


Bernadette said...

I don't have a facebook account and don't plan on opening one any time soon so I can't really comment on that part of your question.

However, I have just finished reading what must be the 10th or 11th book that I've bought in the past 12 months after finding an author's blog (this includes shared blogs like this one). Several of these authors also 'hang out' in the Crime and Mystery Room on Friend Feed (it's a social space but 95% of the chat there is related to crime fiction rather than off-topic stuff and there are many non-writing readers there too). I've found that as I grow to 'know' an author via their blog posts and/or comments at the Friend Feed room I often become curious about their books and I track one down (not as easy as it sounds from down here in Australia). I haven't found a single dud and several of my finds have been outstanding and the authors have been added to my 'must read' list.

I've also bought a couple of books after watching an author's comments and interactions on one of the online reading groups (4 Mystery Addicts) though there are many more authors there that I have not read yet (in all honesty I get overwhelmed by the number of messages from that group and often delete the whole lot unread so I don't really get to see a person's comments over time as easily as I do with a blog).

So from this reader's perspective I'd say spending time on posting interesting blog posts or interacting in some kind of community that is more dedicated to the purpose of discussing the books you write (e.g. the crime and mystery room at friend feed or a dedicated online reading group) is a better investment of your time than a generic social networking site like Facebook or twitter (I do have a twitter account but have never bought a book based on an author's tweets).

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think, for me anyway, it's about a writing *platform*--an online presence. I factor in the online time as promotional time. I've sold some books that way and expanded a network. I get Facebook mail from readers and tweets from readers, but you're right--I do have lots of interaction with other writers, too.

Writer's Digest has named me one of their top tweeters...and I spend a max of 10 min, daily on it. I don't socialize at all on Twitter...I use it to share links to interesting articles on writing.

Facebook is definitely a social place for me...mainly with other writers, although several print stories in newspapers have come about because of people I "know" in FB. Again, 10 min, daily.

Blogging, though--I spend over an hour daily reading and visiting blogs. I interact with readers, librarians, and writers.

I spend 2 hours or fewer a day, writing. But I'm writing 2 series this year and the schedule seems to work for me.

Different things work for different people, definitely! We all should keep to what makes us comfortable.

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Paul Lamb said...

I'm not convinced that these sites are an effective tool for marketing. I've never seen any rigorous studies that have shown that to be the case. It seems more like preaching to the choir than reach new people. I'd be glad to find out otherwise, but so far it hasn't been the case.

Anonymous said...

I've found many new readers through Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. How do I know? They tell me so.

I'm definitely not about to abandon any of them.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi Sandy! Great post and one to certainly give some food for thought to writers.

Here's the perspective from one reader.

I have never bought a book based on my Facebook presence. I HAVE bought more books than I can even begin to tell you based on Dorothy presence.

I may not be a good one to use as one of your benchmarks for this because I'm also a person who is not at Facebook to see how many friends I can collect, which does seem to be a new hobby. I only "friend" people I know personally, and people I "know" or at least know of in the mystery community. Sometimes I will quickly accept a friend request, but will from time to time go through my friend's list and unfriend people who I've ended up being friends with but then find out there's absolutely no interaction between us that I find interesting or fulfilling on some level. What I've found is that it has gotten SO big that's unless you have a manageable group of friends you aren't even able to catch real friends' important updates. Just my opinion.

DorothyL, however, continues to be a community of friends I'll continue to hang with until I'm finally tarred and feathered and sent on my way.

So,actually, I guess my answer to your original question at DorothyL, "Does social networking (including lists like DorothyL) help writers find new readers and sell more books?" would have to be yes and no.
(evil grin - I'm sorry! No help at all, was I? but that does seem to be the way it shakes out in my own experience).

Sandra Parshall said...

DorothyL has been the most valuable to me, as both a reader and a writer. I was posting there long before I published my first book. These days I don't have as much time for it as I once did, and I regret that. Still, it's my favorite online community.

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Sandy! I have definitely sold books through Tweets (one follower sent her son to my signing and he bought a book for her), and I definitely have through Facebook. Does it make up for all the hours spent socializing? Perhaps not. But talking within the writing community is not really a bad thing, and certainly shouldn't be discounted. I've been given interview opportunities and invitations to blog on new sites from other writers simply because they've gotten to know me online, or we've continued a friendship online that began at a conference.

Vicki Lane said...

It's a question I struggle with. I'm on Facebook but don't do much with it aside from occasionally posting a link to my daily blog. I know my blog has brought me readers because they tell me so.

I think all of us, as the independent bookstores that once hosted our readings close, are looking for new ways to get our names out there and the Internet seems to be working for some.

Bower birds, that's what we are, putting out our bright sparkly words in hopes that a reader will hop into our book bower!

Patty G. Henderson said...

A thought-provoking question, Sandy, and one I've also posed myself. Social networking definitely takes time away from writing and can become a hinderance to the writing process. I was lured into MySpace. Then everyone vanished and began touting Facebook as the "in place." I resisted Facebook for the longest time. I was finally dragged into its white, vanilla facade filled with little pictures of people, cartoon prizes for some game or other and short little posts of what people are eating and doing. I didn't think it would be a good tool for promoting and encouraging book buying. To this day, I am not convinced being on Facebook or MySpace has helped garner new readers. However, I can tell you that the endless invites for some game or prize or quiz or other non-writing related activity is a bit...well...tiring. What I can say is that I, personally, have discovered new books at Dorothy L and several other online lists because of recommendations or mini-reviews but nothing yet from my time on Facebook. Does that say anything?

Peg Brantley said...

I think any results are anecdotal, but that doesn't mean there aren't results.

Facebook doesn't attract me (I update through Twitter), but writer/reader loops do, even if I mostly lurk.

It's important to give these resources a lot of time. Through Twitter, I learned of a writer named Jospeh Finder. Don't laugh. I'd never heard of him before. He was talking about his new book, VANISHED, and the various venues he was using for promotion. Interesting, but no sale. After a period of time, he announced a free Kindle download of his book PARANOIA (with a deadline to get it) and I thought I'd give him try. After another period of time, I got around to reading the free download from the author I discovered on Twitter. What am I reading now? My hardcopy of VANISHED.

I'm working on finishing up my first manuscript that has some potential (others have been filed away), but think that over a period of time, I might have one or two readers I wouldn't have without some social networking.

Lisa Harkrader said...

Sandra, you wrote exactly what I've been thinking. I recently set up a Facebook page, and it's fun. But you're right--I'm talking to other writers plus my sister-in-law. Twitter seems like crazy world to me, and I wonder how one voice gets heard in all the static and clutter.

Sandra Parshall said...

Free downloads for Kindle are being offered by a number of publishers these days. A story in the NY Times pointed out that a lot of the "bestselling" Kindle titles are actually free downloads. Some writers have seen enormous increases in sales of new books after readers were able to sample their work for free, so it looks like this tactic works.

carl brookins said...

Good blog. As with all networking the jury is still out as to the sales potential. We cannot know which specific element is the most or least useful. So many of us use several, as do I. I am sure of one thing, it all helps to a greater or lesser degree and we can only, individually, decide how to balance our limited resources.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting post, about something that most of us struggle with. I have set up both personal and fan pages on Facebook. Most people on my fan page are people I know. But not all. I was delighted recently when a reader I met at Malice Domestic last year showed up on my fan page.

I post a monthly newsletter on my website, I blog a couple of times a month, and I try to post on my FB fan page once a week. I hope that the variety gives readers a chance to stay connected in whatever forum they use the most.

One factor that I don't think you mentioned: publishers and agents often expect this type of activity. I'm not sure that anyone knows how much is accomplished by social networking...but if nothing else, it is a sign to publishers that we're trying to do what we can.

Debbi said...

In my opinion, there's no question that social networking can sell books. This is especially true of e-books. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of social networking need only look to Seth Harwood's success with podcasting. Now, there's an example of a self-published author who built a readership with the creative use of Internet resources. His book, JACK WAKES UP, is under contract with Random House now.

And, for my own part, I'll just post these entries from my blog about my experiment with using Twitter and Facebook to make a big push for e-book sales: first, my announcement of the experiment at, then my announcement of the results at

I think the results speak for themselves.

BTW, since June 2, 2009, I've sold more than 1,600 downloads of my novel, IDENTITY CRISIS. I have absolutely no doubt that social networking and Internet marketing in general have helped.

One thing--don't use these tools just to talk to other writers. That's fine--it's a form of professional networking, which is part of any professional endeavor. But use Twitter, blogging and Facebook to reach out to readers. That's your customer base.

For instance, I found my e-book sales really took off after I joined a few Kindle and e-reader forums and posted (where allowed) about my book and my writing.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

I have bought books based on Tweets I have read.

I have found Twitter to be an extremely valuable tool, and what I like most about it is the "information sharing" that goes on. I've learned a lot about the business by reading the links that many writers, editors, and agents post in their tweets.

I tweet links to blog posts that I believe other writers would benefit from, and I have fun tweeting some interesting news pieces and quotes that I find inspiring. I certainly tweet about blog posts that I write and my blog mates; it drives traffic to the blog, and who knows, we may get some new "regular" readers.

Twitter provides the opportunity to make contact with writers, editors, agents, publishers, etc., that may not have occurred otherwise.

I am in the process of completing a true crime memoir, and I hope to find an agent, and if I'm lucky to get a publisher, I definitely plan on tweeting about it to my followers -- and maybe a few will even buy my book.

When an author friend of mine (who is not on Twitter) had a book published recently, I tweeted links to reviews, reminders that it was coming out, etc. It was my pleasure to help promote it for her.

As you can tell, I'm a big fan of Twitter!

Thanks for the thought provoking post, Sandra!

Sandra Parshall said...

It's interesting that some people are most enthusiastic about Facebook and MySpace, others rave about Twitter or blogs or DL -- everyone has to find the cyber hangout where he or she feels most comfortable. I doubt any of us has the time to make full use of all of them at once.

And yes, publishers and agents do expect writers to participate in social networking. It's become mandatory. Even James Ellroy has a Facebook page because, he says, his publisher insisted on it -- but he has an assistant who handles it for him! Social networking by proxy.

jenny milchman said...

This post was laugh out loud funny. (Probably should say LOL in keeping with the whole social network lingo theme.)

It also raises a lot of really important issues. If we spend x hours on such sites, are we giving away time better spent on "real" writing? How much of writing fiction is about connecting--and are these sites especially efficient ways to connect? My book is on submission right now, so I am sort of collecting wisdom about how to steer a career once published. This is definitely a post to be saved.

Maybe even Tweet about.

Marilynne said...

On facebook I follow Dana Stabenow (her clips are usually interesting), Michele Gagnon, LJ Sellers, and Pam Carter Ripling. I'm "friends" with a number of other authors, but they have yet to attract my full attention. So is it worth it? You decide. Do you want to entertain me with a book's long story, or with daily snips of stuff?

It's not a fair question. Michele Gagnon and Dana Stabenow did convince me to buy their next book, but I was a fan of theirs already.

Mike Dennis said...

I'm building an internet platform in advance of my upcoming novel release later this year. Part of this platform, of course, is Facebook. But you know what? I just don't get it.

I have a few friends on Facebook and all I hear about is how the babysitter showed up late and they had a tough day at work and they're just now taking the girls to ballet lessons and on and on. All these little private conversations between two people (of which I am NOT one), which seem like they could be best held on the phone, or via email.

In addition, I find the site very unwieldy, very difficult to navigate or to actually accomplish anything. And I am computer-literate.

Sheila Lowe said...

A big dilemma, for sure. I hope that all the "friend" requests I get from people I don't know are from readers. I recently got a Twitter account and occasionally send a tweet. I've got 20+ followers, unlike my webmaster/brother who has over 800! I sure *hope* these efforts are selling books for all of us. At least it's free advertising, and that ain't bad. Now I'm going to tweet your blog, Sandy.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks, Sheila. I hope if anyone comes in as a result of your tweet, s/he will let me know. IT would be nice to get an idea whether that sort of thing works.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I've been out most of the day and just now reading this. Facinating post, Sandy.

A few years ago I joined a BUNCH of these social networks, MySpace, CrimeSpace, Ning, Squidoo, to name a few. I really got nothing that I could see from those pages I put up, including sales.

However, on Facebook I get news from friends and keep in touch and I can promote both my mystery fiction books and my non-fiction books there far better than I can the other places. So Facebook seems to work well for me.

I've seriously considered closing down my other networking pages but then I don't spend any time on them and if someone happens by one and decides to check me out further, who knows? So I leave them.

Networking on the Internet DOES take a lot of time, but before the Internet authors had to spend more time "on the road" in order to get the word out about their books, so this has to be a time-saver, even though it doesn't seem like it. We just can't let it suck us in so far that we don't write anything else.

One place I have to monitor my time is, of all places, I go there to read the Kindle discussion board so I can keep an eye out for freebie books I might want to read and/or possible problems other owners are having with their units so I'll know what to do if mine freezes up or whatever. It's a REAL time swallower. But some days it pays off.

Bo Parker said...

I have bought several books as a result of being a part of the DorothyL family over the past few years, but for a reason that goes beyond being just a reader.

At a rather advanced age, and after a half-century of non-fiction writing, I decided I wanted to try my hand at creative writing, learned very quickly I needed a new set of skills, and started looking for guidance.

DorothyL has proven to be a great place. Published authors have responded directly to me, some at considerable length, to questions I have posed to the DL community. And based on comments made by authors on DL, I also have felt comfortable enough to ask some of them questions directly, and have always received a reply.

Were these authors taking the time to compose thoughtful comments to one person with the conscious thought that maybe they would entice me to buy their book(s)? I don’t think so. To me it’s been examples of what has been called “passing forward,” that wonderful attitude that the vast majority of authors possess.

What better way to follow up on suggestions from an author than to buy his or her books and read how they did it in their own words?

Sandra Parshall said...

Bo, you will never meet a nicer, more generous group of people than mystery writers. And we all love animals too. :-)

June Shaw said...

Sandy, I've gotten a My Space page and never returned to it. Same for Twitter. I don't even know how to get to it, yet every week I find that new people are following me on Twitter. I figure they just must have boring lives:) My friends on writers' loops seem to help most.

Kim M. Hammond said...

I have purchased books based on what I've read on DorothyL. So authors have gotten sales from me by either personally posting on DL or someone else recommending them on DL.

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Zoe Winters said...

I come at this from a different perspective than a lot of writers. I'm an indie author. I do NOT have a publisher backing me. I'm not on bookstore shelves. I don't have any of the traditional ways of finding my audience. And yet... my book (just "E" right now) is getting read. It could be that I'm in good distribution outlets, but I think a lot of it is the online marketing activities I'm engaged in, which are really more socializing activities. I'm engaging directly with readers.

The point is to network. You aren't trying to reach "every single reader" under your own steam alone. You're trying to make enough meaningful connections that you cultivate "true fans" which will be less generally than your follower count. Then THOSE people who feel they know you, who like you and what you have to offer, tell others about it and it spreads. But I am baffled by the "writers marketing to other writers" phenomenon. It's a pretty incestuous practice as far as I'm concerned. I do interact with other writers but I don't assume they'll read my book. Most of them don't have enough spare time to read my book, or most anyone else's.

Nancy Means Wright said...

I've enountered this discussion on other websites,blogs,and always found it fascinating--but always a draw between yays and nays. I joined Facebook about a month ago--reluctantly, to be sure. I was already on four chatrooms,and desperately needing time to write. But I have to admit I was at once captivated. I not only heard from lost friends and former students, but have already made new friends of all ages. And I began a fan page for my real life 18th century character:in her name, with her portrait, offering me an immediate anonymity and a chance to lure people to the site who might have an interest in rebellious, feminist women. Rather quickly I collected over fifty fans, most of whom I don't know. Will it sell books? Who knows? And does it take time? Well, yes. But I'm having fun and that beats sitting in a bookstore with my bare face hanging out! Nancy

Cyranetta said...

Speaking as a reader, even though I have yet to dive into the morass of the more recent forms of social networking like Facebook, I can tell you that "old-fashioned" mailing lists like DorothyL and blogs (author blogs, library blogs, entertainment blogs which I follow via GoogleReader) have most certainly been responsible for the book purchases I've made in the past decade at least (because I'm made aware both of new releases by favorite authors and new authors which might become favorite authors).

It's a double-edged sword though, as following all the lists and blogs eats into time for reading actual books, so all those new purchases create teetering piles.

I suspect that if I were to join Facebook, I would have to give up the lists and blogs in order to find the time to participate in the Facebook networld, and I'm reluctant to do that, because I like the longer-form content of "traditional" blogs (especially when it comes to discussion of complicated new issues in publishing).

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Darden North said...

Sandra, I enjoyed the history of your journey into cyberspace. I think all of us have had a similar experience. But I cannot ignore the fact that the traffic through my own website and a modest increase in sales of my books seems to correlate directly with my epidodic blogging.

Thanks for a great article,
Darden North

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