I’ve put serious time lately into building out my newsletter, social media, and blog. With CAMBION’S LAW releasing in just over 3 months (!!!), I want to have my platforms set up and humming along before the real debut marketing crunch starts. And maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I’ve also noticed a lot of folks in my writing communities wondering about how to “do” social media, what platforms are best for writers, whether they need a website and/or blog, and how to increase engagement on the platforms they already use.
I’m no expert, but I’m deep in it right now and learning on the fly. In honor of my blog’s one year anniversary, I want to share what I’ve learned so far about audience-building, social media, and author platforms. Hopefully it will be helpful, or at least spark some ideas for how to approach this time-consuming aspect of a writing career.
1. Choose platforms that fit your style.
What platforms are best for authors trying to grow their audience? This is going to sound like a cheap answer, but it’s a true one. The answer is that you should use whichever online platforms you feel most comfortable with.
A more complex answer is that it depends on what you want to do with your online presence. If you love creating beautiful flatlays and snapping pictures of your life to share, but promoting off-site content is less of a goal, Instagram has an active reader and reviewer community. If you want extensive analytics and a more marketing-focused approach, Facebook provides those tools in its business suite, and it’s probably the best place to connect with a wider audience. If you want to build traffic to your website, Pinterest can support that goal. If you’d rather keep things more informal and you want to share lots of content from other people or places, Twitter makes that simple. (Caveat: I learned recently that Twitter’s algorithm may disfavor offsite links, so check out this article for tips on expanding reach). If you like making videos (my nightmare) or streaming content, then TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch are good platforms to use. And so on.
However, consistency is the best way to build engagement, and the best way to maintain consistency is by using tools that don’t feel like a chore. For me, I decided I’m not doing TikTok or any other video platform because the very idea of it makes me squirm. The media platforms I most enjoy sinking time into are Twitter, this blog, and Discord, although I maintain a presence on Instagram, Facebook, and most recently Pinterest as well. Twitter is the place where I have the biggest following (it’s still very modest but I was very chuffed to pass 1k), and where I’m the most comfortable interacting off the cuff in semi-public, so I spend most of my social media time there. I value the connections I’ve made on Twitter with other authors and I like how it’s so easy to share my own content and that of others. Plus, as opposed to more image-heavy platforms, I don’t feel obliged to cultivate an “aesthetic” on Twitter. I don’t have to have curated images to post there and can just use the written word to engage with people, which is my preferred mode.
Discord is a less public space, though of course it’s not truly private, and that’s where I have found many friendships that feel like real relationships rather than parasocial interactions. Discord is…not the clubhouse, because that’s a whole other thing now (no thank you, Clubhouse), but the…green room in a way? It doesn’t require the same kind of performance. I can workshop things there with people I trust. It’s more like hanging out, and then when one of us has something to perform, we all cheer them on in whatever venue they choose. I love that.
I also maintain this blog and put a lot of time into it first and foremost because I enjoy it. I feel like long form isn’t really on trend anymore, but I still love writing more than 280 characters at a time. And the practical advantage of a blog is it provides me with a repository for original content, which I can then share out on Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Pinterest, and sometimes Instagram. (I haven’t figured out how to drive traffic from Insta to my blog yet, and I’m not sure there is a good way, so that’s probably a topic for another time.)
Anyway, I would really like blogs to be a thing again, so I’m just going to keep doing it until it catches on, or something?
2. You get what you give.
When it comes to engagement, this is the most important rule of thumb. If you want to build a following, community, or audience on any platform, the very best way to do that is not just creating content, but engaging with others by whatever means that platform provides. That means not just tweeting out jokes and hot takes, but replying to others, retweeting them, and interacting with their tweets. It means commenting on and sharing posts to your Insta story. It means joining Facebook groups and replying to other users. For bloggers, commenting, liking, and sharing others’ content can also help build a readership and reciprocal relationships with fellow creators.
Don’t be afraid to engage with “big name” accounts with many followers. In fact, definitely do engage with them, if you have something to say. Just don’t become anyone’s “reply guy.” No one wants that.
Hopefully, you stay genuine and have fun with this. I think when someone is new to a social media community, the instinct is to stay quiet. I know mine was. But that instinct is counterproductive if you are seeking to use social media for networking or audience building. I don’t always look at who follows me on Twitter or Instagram, but I definitely notice the people who interact with my posts, and I’m more likely to follow them back at that point.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t post content for those platforms as well. If you’re looking to increase your followers, you should create content as well. Social media algorithms will favor people who both interact regularly and post regularly. This is true for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Guidelines I’ve read say it’s a good idea to post to your social media at least once per day with your own content, but a sustainable, consistent schedule is better than one you can’t reasonably sustain. (Another good reason to focus on a few platforms you enjoy.)
As a note, don’t bother with follow for follow tactics. That way lies a garbage feed, limited interactions, and potential burnout. Vet people at least briefly before you follow them and curate what you see on your feeds. It’s self care!
3. Consider a newsletter.
I know. I didn’t want to have one of these, either.
The problem with most social media I’ve discussed above is the almighty algorithm. None of the major social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram) like to show users all the posts from people they follow in chronological order. Many throttle posts that drive traffic off-site. The algorithms are sometimes impenetrable, always merciless, and geared to drive data/profit toward the platform.
The algorithm will not serve you. You can try to game it, but you can’t stop it.
However, you can choose not to play the game, and the newsletter is a means of doing that. It puts your updates directly into the inboxes of the people who are your core audience. People who volunteer to be emailed by you are very special and they should be valued as such! They are the ones who are most likely to buy your books, talk up your new releases to their friends, leave reviews, and request that their libraries or local bookstores carry your work. Find ways to reward them and make them feel appreciated, whether this be exclusives, freebies, access, or bonus cat pictures. (Know your audience.)
When it comes to creating and distributing newsletters, there are quite a few options out there. Mailerlite (my provider) and Mailchimp provide free services up to a certain number of subscribers. One of my City Owl colleagues uses Flo (a pay-only service) to beautiful effect. There are also formats like Substack and Tinyletter, though my impression is that those are more for delivery of long-form writing than book promo.
What to put in your newsletter? I like Elise Carlson’s blog post on this and also recommend Jane Friedman’s “getting started” guide to email newsletters. Some advice: keep it relatively short and sweet, limit your calls to action (one is ideal), don’t send it too often (once a month is a healthy medium), and offer cross-promos to other authors, i.e. use space to hype their announcements and new releases. Since it can feel extremely awkward to send a whole email essentially selling yourself, newsletter swaps give back and build relationships with a mutual support network that will benefit your career going forward.
Also, after sending out my first newsletter last month, I can tell you that while it is a lot of work to set up, it ended up feeling far more rewarding than I expected. It’s gratifying to see that people care enough to sign up for your emails and then open them. I’m actually looking forward to sending my next one, especially since I decided to share the first chapter of CAMBION’S LAW with my subscribers.
4. Don’t wait on a website.
Do you need an author website while querying? This is a question I see a lot, and my answer is “You don’t have to but you probably should think about it.” Most if not all agents will ask for a link in their query form, and while it’s not mandatory, it gives you an opportunity to show you are serious about this author thing, display a portfolio, and share additional info about yourself. (You don’t have to have a blog, though if it appeals to you, I invite you to join me in my campaign to make fetch happen.) At any rate, there’s no reason to wait until you have an agent or book deal to build your website. For one thing, you’re less busy before that happens than you ever will be afterwards.
Also, get your own domain if you can afford it. I didn’t get one when I started my site and now I want one, but the work of transferring everything over is more than expected and beyond my stress capacity at the moment. Spend the money for a unique domain (there are some cheap providers out there) and build it out like a professional from the beginning, so you don’t have to replicate your work later.
There’s a lot to be said for acting “as if” in this business. I know when you’re in the trenches or on sub it feels like you will be there forever, but things can shift at lightning speed once the ball gets rolling on a book deal.
I started this website exactly one year ago today, and obviously I didn’t think it would come to anything. Even so, creating it and starting to think of myself seriously in that way was a huge step for me, a sea change in how I approached my writing career. My biggest mistake was not leaning in hard enough. (This advice brought to you by the fact that I had to send my website link to my publisher last week and I was kicking myself that it still came with a wordpress dot com domain.)
5. Build it and they will come.
I remember starting this blog and thinking to myself, “I don’t know why I’m doing this. No one is going to want to read what I have to say. I’m just a nobody.” And I was, then, in a way. I didn’t know anyone in the #WritingCommunity. I didn’t have any content planned, other than playing along with Writer In Motion. I didn’t have any published work. I didn’t even have any unpublished work that was ready to share!
But when I made a space for my voice, to my surprise, people came to see what I had to say. Once I built the stage, the audience appeared. Even after the event ended and I let my blog lapse while I focused on other things, views still trickled in. Meanwhile, I continued to build my other social media platforms out by staying engaged and making connections with other writers. Then, when I decided to start blogging regularly this summer, my website and blog were here, waiting for me to use them. I didn’t really lose anything by letting the site sit dormant, other than time.
Which is all to say that consistent content and work will bring consistent audience growth, but at the same time, whatever level of work you do on it will build on itself. You can leave and come back, or use your accounts intermittently, until you need to use them for something big like…announcing your new book! But whatever building you are able to do prior to that will benefit you, too.
And that’s my soapbox time for today. Please leave a comment if you have questions on anything I’ve talked about here! I’m happy to share what I do know, and if I don’t, I can try to point you in the right direction.