My friend Greg Crouch is writing a book which I think has bestseller potential. He’s an engaging writer and he has a great story about the pilots that flew the Himalaya in World War II. But like me, he’s a climber and a writer and, not surprisingly, a latecomer to Twitter. The era of writers being able to trust to publishers to do their promotion is mostly over for anyone but A-List bestsellers like John Grisham and Stephen King, so an author has to take matters into his or her own hands.

I’ve already written about how I use Twitter and why I follow so few people. I’ve also thought about the possible ways to use Twitter. Greg’s situation got me thinking specifics of how to use Twitter as a writer. My books, being obscure scholarly tomes, I haven’t used Twitter to promote them, but I’ve been watching how people use Twitter and what works and what doesn’t and this is my best advice to Greg. If you have something to add, disagree with something, or think this is good advice and want to encourage Greg to follow this advice, please help Greg out by leaving a comment.

If you don’t need a pep talk about self-promotion, you can skip straight to the bit on how writers can use Twitter, but first I feel compelled to address something that might be the biggest obstacle for many writers…

Self-Promotion Makes You Feel Icky? Get Over It!

Best-selling author Tim Ferris gives a great interview on Mixergy.com that provides illuminating insight the new world of book publishing and promotion. Every author should listen to this. If you’re too much of an artiste to get out there and hawk your book, be prepared to see your book remaindered. Comfort with self-promotion is a major hurdle for many authors, especially those of us trained to life of scholarship and poverty. So before we even get into the specifics of Twitter, first ask yourself:

  • Do you think your book is worthwhile and well-written?
  • Do you think that there are people out there who would derive pleasure or useful information from your book?
  • Do you think there’s something slimy about making it as easy as possible for people to learn about and purchase a useful and/or enjoyable book?
  • You’re diligent enough to write a book, are you too lazy to do some work to spread the word about it?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, may you write the book of the century, so brilliant that word will spread all on its own with no help from you. Otherwise, may the Force be with you. I would say "no skin off my back," but if you have a book that I would enjoy reading, it is skin off my back. That’s the realization that changed my attitudes on the subject (though not always my practice). If you have something that could improve someone’s life, even "just" by being entertaining, and you do nothing to get the word out there, you are doing a disservice to all the people who could benefit and you are dishonoring your own labor.

That’s probably preaching to the choir. Most people probably agree with that already or need a lot more convincing than that. But in any case, ask yourself very honestly if self-promotion still makes you feel icky. I’ll be honest, it does me, but thinking about it like I just outlined, makes me a lot more comfortable with it.

Ideas on How to Use Twitter as an Author

Okay, so you’re convinced that you owe it to your soon-to-be adoring public to get the word out about your masterpiece. You’ll want to create a Facebook Fan Page. And you’ll want to build a presence and above all a following on Twitter.

Your goal is to connect with people who share your interests and might enjoy your book in order to create an audience who will be ready to buy when the book comes out. It’s not how many copies you sell in a year that affects your Amazon (or god willing NYT) ranking, it’s how many you’ve sold recently. So one of the keys is preparing the soil. You have all these people following you because you post on stuff they care about. They like you for it and they’re grateful, which is as it should be, because it takes actual effort on your part. Your book comes out. Your Twitter followers buy 500 copies. It’s not many, but it’s all in the same week. That makes you the #1 history book on Amazon and pushes you to the top to get noticed. Small numbers are big here.

  • Remember: You’re reaching out to new people, not keeping up with your old surfing buddies. That has a big impact on what you’ll post and it’s good to be clear on your goals. I have two accounts. On my "just for friends" account, for the most part, if we’ve never had a face-to-face conversation, I’m not following you on that account and I’m posting stuff that only people who know me would find interesting (and often not even them). I’ve been playing with Twitter to help attract readers to one of my websites. For that, I tweet on personal topics, but not inside jokes for my friends, and I keep most of the posts on subjects in line with the website.
  • Create a custom profile background. Your background should say something about who you are. Once you have a cover design, you need a photo of the book on your profile page.
  • Link to your book’s website from your profile. You have at least a basic website for your book right? No? Why not? You can build a simple website in an hour.
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re a writer, so you know all about persistence and marathons. If you have a year until your book goes to press, that’s great. You’ll need all of that because it’s important to start building that audience now.
  • Content first, then networking. You can start following your real-world friends right away, but don’t follow people you don’t know until you have some posting history. I always look to see what sort of posts someone has before I follow back. If it’s just 2-3 vague posts, I don’t follow back.
  • Write tweets on topics related to your book. When I say "related to your book" that doesn’t mean only self-absorbed posts about how the writing is going, but also just topically related. If you’re writing about pilots flying over the Himalaya in World War II, then you could have posts on WWII history, aviation, the Himalaya. Link to books or book reviews on something you’ve read lately that you liked. Share something cool you’ve found in your research. And yes, the occasional self-absorbed post about how the writing is going. Tweet enough about topics loosely related to your book that there is always one on your profile page.
  • Don’t sell on Twitter. Your goal is to connect, have a presence and on rare occasions mention that you have a book for sale. Rare occasions. In other words, as often as you would want to get a sales pitch from every person in your stream, that’s how often they want a sales pitch from you. Save it for when you need.
  • Sell on Twitter. Okay, sometimes you do need it. When your book comes out and you want to generate momentum to get higher listings in Amazon or, God willing, the New York Times. That’s when you call on the people who follow you and say, very simply, "If you’re thinking of buying my book eventually, it would be huge for me if you ordered it this week." That’s 101 characters, so there’s even enough left over for a link to where to buy it. Remember though, this it a rare event, calling in a favor from your followers in return for all the great links and thoughts you offer without asking anything in return.
  • Regular updates are good, but more than a couple a day and people get tired of you. There are only two sorts of people who will put up with a regular output of 20 posts per day — people who are filtering and not actually reading you anyway, and people who are stalking you and you shouldn’t be giving them that much information. Everyone else is just getting annoyed and they will unfollow you. One marketer type I was reading said there is an optimum number of tweets per day, and that number is three. I think he meant it half tongue-in-cheek, but that correlates with my experience in terms of who I most like to follow. Also, it’s not about averages. The worst twitterers of all do no posts for a month, then do thirty in two days. Never forget that it takes only one click to unfollow you.
  • No minute-by-minute updates. If coffee doesn’t play a big role in your book, nobody cares what kind of coffee you had this morning. I hate to break the bad news, but aside from your mother and a few friends, nobody cares about you. They will follow you because you have something interesting to say for them.
  • Be personal, be real. The flip side of the last point is that you want to be a real person, the idea is to connect with people on a somewhat more personal level, so your Twitter stream needs some personal flavor, some updates that are not "on topic". It’s a balance, between letting people know who you are and burying them in an avalanche of personal detail. Write a fair number of posts that are specific to you (either personally or your book). If your best friend or spouse can’t guess from the content on the first page whose Twitter stream it is, you’re being way too vague and general.
  • Follow the people who follow you if they don’t look like robots or spammers. If someone looks really off from my interests, I don’t follow, but generally you want to because this allows you to direct message each other which can really help get to know someone. If you’re writing non-fiction and still researching, you probably want to make it easy for people to communicate with you.
  • Actively block spammers and robots. Some people disagree with this. What’s the harm in having someone you don’t like follow you and add to your follower count? The way I see it, when you follow someone, before they follow back, they’ll look at what you post, who’s following you and who you follow. You want that profile to look like "their people" (i.e. actual human beings who read books like yours). Put another way, think about how Google evaluates web pages. It’s who links to you and who you link to that helps them decide which "neighborhood" you’re in. I want my Twitter profile to show that I’m in a neighborhood of "our people". In the Twitter world, I live in a gated community. Spammer scumbags are turned away by security.
  • Find people to follow with Twitter search. With some Twitter readers (Hoot Suite, Tweetdeck, Seesmic, etc.), you can create a column for a search if you really want to follow your topic. Put in some words related to your book and find people to follow and connect with. If you follow someone, he or she will likely look at your profile. If they see a kindred spirit, they’ll follow you.
  • If someone mentions you, they’ll do so with an "at reply" and you must acknowledge it. To fail to do so makes you look like a prima dona too busy to respond to the little people. If you are like Neil Gaiman with thousands of followers, all reasonable people will understand that you can’t respond to everyone (though Neil gets complaints from people who just don’t get it). For most of us, though, it is completely manageable in a few minutes per day. If you don’t have those few minutes, then just don’t be on Twitter. Simple as that. Of be on Twitter, but just for social reasons, not to spread the word about your book.

I know there are many things I’ve left out and maybe some things that you disagree with. If so, please leave a comment to make this post better for other writers!

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