How to Be a Writer on Social Media: Advice from Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Celeste Ng, and Adam M. Grant
Ask the Publicists, a Regular Advice Column from Broadside PR
Before social media became the juggernaut it is today, countless authors were skeptical about how it could be, for lack of a better word, useful. Wouldn’t tweeting just be a time-suck? How could Facebook be anything but trivial? By now, most authors have seen just how influential social media has been in connecting writers and readers—and how extensively it can amplify word-of-mouth. For this month’s column, we asked the opinions of four authors whose social media prowess we admire: Roxane Gay, Celeste Ng, Adam Grant and Alexander Chee.
The Publicists: What did you think about social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) when you first heard about it?
Roxane Gay: When I first started hearing about social media I don’t know that I had any specific thoughts beyond, “Here is a new futuristic thing to learn about.” I liked the idea of being connected to people in a virtual sense.
Celeste Ng: I was on Facebook relatively early (2005), but used it for personal reasons—to keep in touch with friends, etc.—rather than in any professional capacity. When Twitter and Instagram came along, I saw the appeal in using it to connect with people you knew, but was wary of using it as a tool to promote my work and connect with people I didn’t know. Not that I thought it was a bad idea, just that I wasn’t sure it was something I was comfortable with!
Adam Grant: I joined Facebook and LinkedIn very early—they seemed like great ways to stay in touch with old friends and colleagues, and maybe even connect with new ones. But I hardly ever posted. And I thought Twitter was a ridiculous idea. How could you possibly share a meaningful thought in 140 characters?
Alexander Chee: I almost don’t remember when I didn’t know about them. I go back to Friendster, Typepad, and Myspace, so the first things I remember about each… let’s see, I remember being urged to join Facebook by a former student in 2008. He was telling me to get off the others. Facebook seemed very dull and very Republican, and the first thing I heard about it was that it was going to be used by conservatives with ties to the NSA to control us, and I guess we know how that worked out.
The Publicists: Did someone from your publishing team ask you to sign on or did you do so out of your own natural curiosity?
RG: I’ve been on social media well before I had anything like a publishing team. It was just something I enjoyed doing as a writer and editor.
AG: The Viking team and Whitney Peeling dragged me, kicking and screaming. And I couldn’t be more grateful that they did.
CN: I joined Twitter on my own once I’d sold my first novel, because I had a feeling I’d be asked to do so. But I didn’t tweet at first; I just lurked and listened. I didn’t really start tweeting until the Boston Marathon bombing happened. I was living in Cambridge, where the bomber was from, I had friends all over the city, and while we were on lockdown and no one really knew what was happening—Twitter was a way to get and share information faster than the news could. That was the first time I really saw its power in connecting people, and what it could do.
After that, I started tweeting about lit and culture, and found to my surprise that I really enjoyed it. For an introvert like me, it’s a great way to interact with others: I get to think about what I want to say before I send it out.
AC: I am definitely on it for my own reasons. At first, people told me I was wasting my time. That I should be writing more. But in 2009 I knew it would matter when I had an editor at a literary magazine tell me about my traffic on their site. “With the print issue, we don’t know what people read,” he said. “With online, we know what people read.” He then asked me what I’d done to promote the story in his magazine. “I posted about it on my WordPress blog,” I said, “and then I shared it on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.” He nodded. The writing, as it were, was on the wall, or, online really. Up until then, people had been acting as if literary writers didn’t need to do this. After this, it became an expectation.
The Publicists: Is social media a force for good or… not good?
RG: Like most things, social media has both good and bad aspects but in terms of writing and publishing, there is far more good. It is a fantastic medium for connecting to other writers, readers, interesting people. I learn so much about forthcoming books via Twitter, in particular, and I appreciate the ability to share my own work. I enjoy the literary conversations, the gossip, and the snark when some terrible article about writing or publishing starts making the rounds. The less good part is when people have knee-jerk reactions to writers, or when they dismiss someone entirely because they make a misstep. The health of your career shouldn’t depend on the quality of your tweets.
AG: Yes. Like most technologies, it can be used for good or evil. I’m cautiously optimistic that over time, we’ll become more sophisticated about using it to prevent violence, take down trolls, and burst filter bubbles.
CN: This is a little like asking if a hammer is a force for good or not good! It all depends on what you’re doing with it.
A lot of people use social media to harass others, and the nature of social media in general can bring out some of our worst human impulses. At the same time, though, I’ve seen powerful connections forged on social media, and real intellectual exchanges occur. It can be a great place to find and share information, though as is true anywhere, you have to be thoughtful and think critically. It can be a tremendous vehicle for social good—around the time of the initial Muslim ban, I tweeted that I’d match donations to the ACLU, and not only did people pledge $10,000 (way more than I could match!), others jumped in to match my match. And I’ve seen real-life friendships grow out of Twitter exchanges, and I know of at least one marriage that began there, too.
There’s definitely a dark side to social media—and I’m not sure how to fix that, or if we can totally fix it; maybe it’s just inherent in its nature?—but at its best, Twitter reminds me how smart, interesting, funny, and genuine people can be. That’s why I’ve stayed on it so far, despite all the not good it brings with it.
AC: If you think it is bad, it is horrible. If you think it is great, it is great. It’s a mirror. Whatever you think it is, it becomes. That said, it has real problems that are still unresolved. The big companies’ services are far too easy to be used as a tool for harassment. And the Facebook algorithm is something that can take an ordinary relationship to someone and turn them into the internet equivalent of a roommate—someone you get sick of seeing every day.
I know, though, that social media has also given us more diversity in our literature, as a diverse range of writers have won new audiences for their writing through social media. And I’ve met so many good friends this way, and had experiences I wouldn’t have had without these tools, that I can only say it is for good more than not.
The Publicists: If an author were to say to you today, “I just don’t see how social media could help my career and I worry it’s going to suck the life out of me,” how would you reply?”
CN: I think the key to social media for authors is remembering this: its main purpose is really to show that you are a real human being who lives in this world. Readers don’t need to know every detail of your life (unless you want to share that!)—what I think most readers are hungry for is just knowing that this book didn’t come out of a vacuum, that an actual person wrote it. So it doesn’t really matter whether you do Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever; what matters is that you share a glimpse of what you do, what you think, what you are about. It could be pictures of your cat; it could be the food you eat; it could be articles you find interesting or internet memes or really anything. And it doesn’t have to be a torrent, either—it can be just a post here and there, maybe once or twice a week, as you feel moved.
And finally, I’d say that if the idea of social media makes you uncomfortable, then don’t do it! (Publicists all over the world probably will kill me now.) [Ed. note: No, we won’t.] But if you’re not into social media, it shows, and I find that half-hearted social media is worse than no social media at all. Try it, and if it feeds you, great. If it doesn’t, or it doesn’t click with you, try another form, or just don’t do it. As a reader myself, I will always look to a writer’s work first—social media is just the DVD extras, so to speak.
AC: At this point, honestly, if you are not on social media, I don’t know how you’ll write about our cultures. It’s no longer a thing that fringe people use, or that only elites use, it’s something many, many people use, in many different ways, just to live. As a writer you don’t want to produce something that my friend, Justin Taylor, calls “Novels about the internet written on typewriters.” Approach it at least the way Zola would if he were alive.
I think if you have trouble setting boundaries with people, you could be quickly overwhelmed. So avoid it if that sounds like you or get help from a therapist before beginning. Know what you’re in it for and ask yourself always if it is worth it. Don’t post what you should pitch, don’t pick fights you don’t want to finish, follow people who are interesting to you and who help you think about the world or some part of it, share your work and anything related to it that interests you, and I think you’ll be ok if you stay within those boundaries.
RG: I would tell them what I tell anyone who asks me if they need to be on social media—it only works if you want to actively participate and you have a genuine interest in doing so. People can tell when your heart isn’t in it so if your heart isn’t in it, find the thing that you do want to do instead. I’d also say that social media only sucks the life out of you if you allow it.
Adam: It all depends on how you use it. If you do it thoughtfully, it can be a source of energy and a real boon for your career.
(1) It’s not promoting yourself, it’s promoting your work—but even more, shining a spotlight on the work of others. If you’re willing to share in articles or books, it’s not that different to put them on social media. And you’ll find that most of your posts are actually about elevating other’s people’s material—interesting articles, moving quotes, fun cartoons, and yes, even the occasional meme. It’s hard to think of an easier way to give.
(2) It helps you keep up with what’s going in the world, curated by people whose views you trust. It doesn’t have to take over your life: I log on a couple times a day, for a couple minutes each, to post and scroll. My new favorite tool is Nuzzel, which sends me a daily digest of what people in my network have shared.
(3) It’s a useful source of feedback on new ideas. I’ve gotten great insights from my audience on article concepts, book titles and covers, and speech topics.
(4) It can open the door to unexpected connections with people you admire. Over the past four years, thanks to one of us happening to spot something the other shared, I’ve stumbled into an exchange with Harlan Coben (I’ve devoured his books for the past 22 years, and it turns out that his wife read one of mine), a friendship with Sarah Robb O’Hagan (the CEO of Flywheel, who brings more zest in a typical email than most people have in a whole week), and a project with an NHL team.
The Publicists: Anything else you’d like to add?
RG: Never read your Goodreads reviews. Goodreads is wonderful but it is for readers, not for writers.
AC: I have relationships with editors that began online first, and have gotten so much writing and teaching work out of my social media use that one of my editors, at first negative about my use of it, finally said she understood.
Social media takes a reader’s moment of interest in you and turns it into a relationship with your sensibility, available through what is basically a broadcast. The problem with using it to sell books alone is that no one likes a sandwich board ad. Not the guy who wears it, not the guy who reads it. That is literally not what they signed up for. The best way to use it as a writer is as a way to record your obsessions or fascinations, or even your disgust, all of it—for a long time on my blog I had a link to my Twitter feed marked “Bitter asides, links of interest.” That’s still pretty much my Twitter feed. And to sell a book? Well, tell the story that sells the story in your feeds, in a way that makes readers interested in why you wrote it and why they’d want to read it. Do that, and they’ll be interested. And when you do it, remember that people just want a human connection, always. If you don’t offer that, you’ll lose them.
Follow these authors on Twitter
Celeste Ng: @pronounced_ing
Roxane Gay: @rgay
Adam Grant: @AdamMGrant
Alexander Chee: @alexanderchee
Ask the Publicists is a monthly advice column from the good folks at Broadside PR.