Today more than ever, it’s difficult for creative writers to “make it” in the publishing industry; big-name publishing houses sign fewer contracts, hand out less funding, and allocate smaller advances to writers than ever before. But perhaps publishing itself is an outdated mode of finding your audience.
With the internet boom and the growing popularity of social media, the option of self-publishing is more attractive for writers everywhere. With spaces like Facebook, WordPress, and Blogger, authors can carve out their own online spaces and attract audiences from across the world. While we may still be attached to the printed page, that doesn’t mean that we can’t use the digital tools available to us to promote our work.
On Thursday night, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore in collaboration with “Facing Out,” a discussion community for artists, hosted an event called “Changing the Face of Publishing.” The event was meant to discuss how changes in the publishing industry affect authors and audiences. The night included readings by three guest speakers, Zetta Elliot, Neesha Meminger, and Vivek Shraya, all authors in the creative community.
I was there for The Social Times to ask the authors how social media has influenced their work and publishing processes. Here’s what they had to say:
Zetta Elliott is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright. Her poetry has been published in several academic publications, including the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear, and Check the Rhyme. She’s also the author of a novella, a picture book and four plays, one of which was a finalist for the Chicago Dramatists’ Many Voices Project in 2006. Her fourth play, Connor’s Boy, was staged in January 2008 in Cleveland and New York.
Elliott says that social media is the reason that a lot of writers are able to self-publish. “Self-publishing empowers you to validate yourself.” After years of asking herself why her writing was never signed to a big publishing house, Elliott says she started thinking that her struggles were perhaps not personal but political, a part of a systemic hierarchy in the publishing industry. She says that self-publishing on blogs has made the industry more transparent.
“The blog is incredibly important” she tells me “because it allows you to demonstrate that you’re invested in something more than just the sale of your book.” She says that she thinks of her blog as a kind of archive where she stores her writing and traces her accomplishments, although Elliott is adamant about the fact that she doesn’t tweet.
On the other hand, author Neesha Meminger says she can’t keep herself off Twitter. “I love Twitter” she says, “almost to the point that it impedes my writing.” Meminger holds a bachelor of arts in film and media from Ryerson University and a master’s of fine arts in Creative Writing from The New School For Social Research in New York City. On Thursday, she read from her first novel, Shine, Coconut Moon.
Meminger says that social media has made direct-to-reader communication possible. “Social media is changing everything” she tells me. “I feel like Facebook allows you to express the issues you’re invested in” she says. “I got hooked on Twitter because I found so many like-minded people [there]. There’s hashtags that you can follow and through those hashtags, you find like-minded people who are tweeting about the same things [you are].” In addition to connecting her to similarly-interested people, Meminger says that social media is a great way of disseminating her work. She sends much love to bloggers, who have aided in the promotion of her fiction.
“The blog is a space where people can fall in love with you as a writer” says Vivek Shraya. Shraya, a musician-turned author-turned self-publisher, tells me that social media not only plays a big role in promoting his work, but also connects him to Toronto’s artistic community.
Shraya says he uses Facebook and Twitter to organize public events like readings and book-signings, but he demonstrates his artistry with his innovative use of Twitter: “One of the first things I did to promote this book was create a video teaser. We live in a digital age, so I thought about how I could get people to think about purchasing a book if there’s no way to hold it.” Shraya says the video (which is excellent, and can be watched here) was retweeted more than a thousand times and viewed more than five thousand times, and he says that for him, those retweets have translated into measurable dollars: “I’ve had book orders come in from places like Finland and Australia and random places in the U.S. and a lot of that is because of Twitter” he says.
Shraya also told me that social media helps him promote his website, where viewers can learn about him and purchase his work. Because interested audiences can order direct from him, Shraya is able to keep all of the profits from his sales, earning back his initial investment that he paid up front to cover the cost of printing his book. Shraya says he keeps his books in his bathtub at home and when he receives orders, he pays himself back.
While many creative writers today will lament the downfall of the periodical industry and the deterioration of publishing opportunities, it’s time to start thinking about the new and innovative ways writers can engage with social media.
If, as Hemmingway suggested, the writer must write what he has to say and not speak it, perhaps it’s time he tweet it.