Back in 2001 we did a demographic survey so that we could better figure out how to promote Pif to advertisers who wanted to reach our audience. The dot-com bust had decimated online advertising as we knew it and we were scrambling to figure out some way we could keep the lights on. We knew we had a unique audience. Our recent survey had revealed that over 60% of our regular readers were writers themselves. Not the I’m-working-on-the-great-American-novel kind, but more the I-write-a-new-short-story-every-week-when-I’m-not-stuck-at-my-day-job type. In other words: work-a-day writers for whom writing is akin to breathing: a day doesn’t go by that these folks don’t put pen to paper, so to speak.
The unfortunate reality for those of us in this class is that the world as we’ve known it coming to an end. Everything we thought we knew about publishing (and to a lesser extent, writing) is changing. The publishing landscape is quicksand beneath our feet, constantly shifting one way and then another. Never predictable. Wholly unstable.
So how is a modern-day writer to survive?
The short answer is: adapt or perish. The trouble with this flippant response is that there are no Rules of Adaptation for a writer to follow. What works for one writer will fail miserably for another. A methodology that appears solid in one medium will prove itself frail in another.
The Tale of Two Writers and Twitter
The power of social media—especially the powerhouse twins of Twitter and Facebook—can not be underestimated. Justin Halpern, a writer for Maxim.com, began posting quips his 73 year-old father would mutter on the micro-blogging site Twitter back in August, 2009. Using the handle @ShitMyDadSays , the appeal was immediate. Friends re-tweeted Halpern’s posts to their followers, who in turn re-tweeted it to theirs. A self-feeding viral loop was created instantly and within weeks Halpern had over 100,000 followers waiting eagerly for his next post. In less than 2 months he had signed a book deal with HarperCollins (read our review of Sh*t My Dad Says) and in just under 10 months he had amassed an audience of 1.4 million-plus followers. From a publisher’s perspective, if they can sell books to even 10% of Halpern’s followers they have a New York Times bestseller on their hands (which they currently do). It’s a win-win situation, as the saying goes.
Contrast Halpern’s story with that of Rick Moody, the deservedly celebrated author of The Ice Storm and Purple America. In November, 2009, Moody wrote “Some Contemporary Characters,” a short-story designed and written specifically for Twitter. Published by Electric Literature in short (less than 140 characters) snippets on the micro-blogging site, it was, admittedly, a pioneering project. While the publisher claims they accomplished their goals, participating “co-publishers”, and many others in the industry, viewed the effort as a discouraging failure. Some blamed the publisher; some blamed Moody. Either way, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning.
Writing is not tweeting; and tweeting is not writing. If a short-story is akin to an art-house film played to a packed theater of open-minded aficionados, then tweeting is akin to sitting in a smoky bar swapping photos of your kids with a friend over beers. It’s an intimate conversation. And that simple truth can never be forgotten if a writer hopes to use Twitter (or Facebook’s status stream) to their advantage.
The Future is Not Lost
Fortunately, there are several things a writer can do to increase his or her chances of survival in the modern world. All of them are simple. But each of them requires honesty and openness. In no particular order:
- Start a Blog: If you don’t already have a blog, start one today. If you don’t know how or where to set up your blog, post a comment below. Our community of writers will help you out.
Once set up, write about what you’re doing. If you’re having trouble rounding out a character, write about. If you have a great idea for a new short-story and you need some feedback on the idea, write about it. If your dog ate your lunch while you went to answer the doorbell, write about it.
After you’ve written a couple of posts, tell everyone you know (that includes us!) This simple act of sharing will open you up to networks and contacts you never knew you had before you started.
- Get on Twitter and Facebook : Again, accounts are free, so take advantage of them. Start ‘following’ or ‘friending’ any writer you can find. (We highly recommend @thecreativepenn and @sarahdessen as examples of writers who use Twitter well.
Once you’re on, start sharing. Don’t try to be witty, clever, thoughtful or provocative. Just be yourself. Share what you like. If you find a writing resource that you just can’t live without, share it with your followers and friend on Twitter and Facebook. Again, the goal is to create community and the best way to create community is to contribute to the conversation.
Don’t worry if no one is there to “hear” what you have to say. Followers will come. Communicate as if with a cherished writing friend and the rest will take care of itself.
- Read, Read, Read: Don’t pigeonhole yourself into writer’s oblivion by keeping your head down, focused solely on what you are doing. Read what other writers are writing about. Read what industry ‘experts’ are saying. Make it a point to read at least one blog post a day from someone you’ve never heard of before. And when you do, enter into the conversation.
Most bloggers allow others to “comment” on what was written (in the same way Pif allows readers to comment on this article—see below). Take advantage of this invitation. Talk about what you like or don’t like about what you’ve read. This will force you to confront whatever fears you may have about “putting yourself out there” and will hone your writing skills in the process—both of which will ultimately help you as a writer.
If you do all of the above, there is no guarantee that you’ll ever find financial success as a writer. But you’ll have a much better understanding and deeper knowledge of the landscape than your peers.
Publishing is changing. It’s evolving. We all need to be prepared for this exciting future.