Why do professional writers shy away from Twitter…

and other on-line communities? Unfortunately they won’t be able to read this because they “don’t do blogs”, but Sara Sheridan is here to share her thoughts on the matter. 
My digital journey
Sara Sheridan
“Intelligent, accessible writing”
I’m an historical novelist – there are few jobs more retrospective. I dumped science at an early age. I expect that initially my interest and indeed patience for Twitter, blogs and html came from the fact I live with the Greatest Geek alive. So enormously scientific and complex is his day-to-day job that I still don’t really understand what he does. Suffice to say it’s something that enables 30 million users to simultaneously log onto a website without it crashing. Before I met the Greatest Geek I avoided technology and only adopted what my more savvy friends had road-tested and recommended. I was the last to get an email account in the late 1990s, the last to indulge in online shopping and I still sport a brick of a mobile phone rather than a flash Android or iPhone (this last because one of the prerequisites for my mobile phone is that I have to be able to fling it at a wall if I lose my temper). However, I’m a professional writer and I consider it part of my job to publicise my work and these days part of that job is done online.

I was reluctant. The Greatest Geek poured me a whisky and sat me down and said he’d help, but that this was my job and I’d have to do most of it myself (his time being taken up with the 30 million users). I started by building a website for my work on Google Sites and soon I was clicking the html button with aplomb and could understand enough to delete rogue lines or alter links. Then, on a trip to London I was introduced to someone in the digital marketing department at HarperCollins who told me I ought to try Twitter. My soul rebelled. This wasn’t my thing. No way. But I started – tentatively at first, and then surprisingly, I found I really enjoyed it. Writers don’t get to meet readers very often and when they do it’s only for a short time (after a book festival or library event, for example). On Twitter, people who had read my book followed me and I could see what else they were reading, why they’d liked what I’d written and by the by, more about them than I’d ever elicit from two minutes in a tent at a book festival, stuck at a signing desk. It was fascinating.

Next I started following and being followed by librarians and archivists, schoolteachers, events organisers, writers, bookshops, agents and publishers. A whole network was opening up. People were interested and fun and generous. I was offered a couple of event slots and the opportunity to write for a magazine. A famous writer to whom I got chatting gave me career advice. Then I decided I’d try blogging and wrote (non historical pieces) for other people’s blogs rather than starting one of my own. The response was wonderful – people got back in numbers and told me what they thought – not something that happens when you’re writing a story based in 1840s China or Arabia.

After that, I tried Facebook (which didn’t really suit me as it has a bias towards personal rather than professional data) but unperturbed I continued to blog occasionally, to tweet and also administer my own website. I joined Linkedin (to which events professionals seemed to respond) and bought a Kindle (which I love) Then people, or rather, festivals asked me to come to talk about it. And there, I think, was where I became an evangelist. I was in a book festival green room surrounded by luminaries when I first realised there was a huge split in the writing community. I asked if anyone else was on Twitter – in fact, you’d have thought I’d asked if anyone else had recently stabbed their kids in the heart. It just poured out. Writers who’d seemed retiring and quite reasonable started to hiss about intrusion of privacy and the importance of paper books and how un-green it was to sport a Kindle. What, I asked, innocently, less green than felling trees like billy-o, transporting them all over the place and then pulping 40% of them? Privacy? Is anyone asking you to blog or tweet or even facebook (if you must) your personal life? This is about reading and books – it’s an interesting way to meet people and share information.

‘What do you tweet?’ one eminent writer sneered. ‘Do you tell the world whenever you’ve had a scone?’

‘Nope. Just when I’m off at a book festival or reading something interesting,’ I told him. ‘It’s a great way to meet readers and they’ve all been so nice.’

This buttered no parsnips. One or two people said they simply didn’t have time for ‘that kind of thing’. These are people who would have dropped everything to do a newspaper interview or appear on radio. People who complained that their readership was falling and their publishing contracts were not being renewed. Even people whose readership was in the 12-16 age group, who (as yet) didn’t have a website despite the fact that kids of that age are enormously active online. One woman texted her daughter every five minutes whilst saying she had no time to write an 140 character tweet (lady, it’s the same thing). It was simply odd. Other writers and book trade professionals who were taking part in the social media revolution were, like me, bemused. Then some weeks later, I was verbally attacked at a public event by a writer who was mortally offended that I’d suggested she give it a shot (at worst you might not like it, at best it could revolutionise the way you work, I’d said. She hadn’t taken it well.)

These days, to be honest, as a result of that experience, I never evangelise unbidden though I am increasingly being booked for festival and writers’ groups events to talk about my experiences online. I tend not to argue with writers who put up a barrage about how impossible it would be for them to have a website or start a twitter account or a facebook fanpage. It makes me sad that these are writers – professional communicators – who are shying away from a medium that is crying out for their skills and demonstrably is the best way to communicate with a wide readership.

Most of all this is an era where our digital rights are being defined and because so many writers consider it beneath them, many important issues are not being considered and decided by writers themselves but by the digital operations departments of major publishing houses, online booksellers and other corporate entities. I am not thinking only of digital copyright – Net Neutrality is probably the most vital issue for freedom of speech online and should be at the top of any writer’s agenda. Most don’t even know what that means (it’s that the fastest broadband speeds might be chargeable at a rate well beyond small scale bloggers or individuals). If net neutrality is abandoned, individual voices will download so slowly that they would be unheard. This has huge implications for writers, yet in the writing community net neutrality is largely unspoken. The net has provided a level playing field for criticism and comment – anyone and everyone is entitled to their opinion – and that is one of its greatest strengths. We’re all (quite rightly) demonstrating about library closures but I worry that at this critical time in our history that many people are thrusting their heads into the sand rather than opening their eyes to what is happening – both in terms of opportunity and possibility and the actual structure that will contain us as an online community if we allow it to do so.

I didn’t expect to love being online as much as I do. I’ve met some wonderful people and discovered that however arcane some of my interests that there are people out there who are interested too. It’s also been a lesson in what my readership do and don’t like and what does and doesn’t work in terms of promoting my work. And best of all I’ve made some friends.
Sara Sheridan was born in Edinburgh and started writing full time in 1998 and the novel Truth or Dare was published. Sara is an active member of the Society of Authors and a supporter of the Scottish Book Trust. She has also co-written two short films, Fish Supper and The Window Bed in 2000, and ghost written many novels. In 2009 she turned to historical fiction with The Secret Mandarin. Early this year  Secret of the Sands, described as a sweeping epic novel, was published, and her children’s book, I’m Me! will be out March 201.

Contact Sara:
Twitter: @sarasheridan
Amazon for Secret of the Sands
And here for I’m Me! at Amazon

She was a slave. He was her master. Both of them long to be free! 1833 — The British Navy are conducting a survey of the Arabian Peninsula where slavery is as rife as ever despite being abolition. Zena, a headstrong and determined young Abyssinian beauty has been torn from her remote village, subjected to a tortuous journey and is now being offered for sale in the market of Muscat. Lieutenant James Wellstead is determined that his time aboard HMS Palinurus will be the conduit to fame and fortune. However, all his plans are thrown into disarray when two of his fellow officers go missing while gathering intelligence in the desert. By an unexpected twist of fate — Zena finds herself the property of Wellstead, now on a daring rescue mission into forbidding territory. Master and slave are drawn ever closer, but as danger faces them at every turn, they must endure heartache and uncertainty — neither of them knowing what fortune awaits them as they make their hazardous way through the shifting sands. A rich and epic novel that will appeal to fans of The Pirate’s Daughter and East of the Sun.
I’m not a princess, a pirate or a witch! I’M ME! Grown ups. Lovely Aunt Sara can pretend all she wants but Imogen doesn’t want to be a princess, a pirate or a witch. Not today. She wants to go to the park with her aunt and play with a ball, swing higher than a tree and eat ice-cream. And why not? This book is perfect for children who know their own minds \-and grown-ups who think they don’t.

25 thoughts on “Why do professional writers shy away from Twitter…

  1. In my head Twitter is a vehicle to share information ie promotions, articles, friends. This vehicle is a motor car, as opposed to a horse and cart (word of mouth, snail mail, leaflets) before Twitter.

    Dan W.


  2. An excellent article. I've been writing professionally for around 35 years now, and 'picked up' technology as I went along, getting my first word processor in 1982 (yes, they did exist then – just – although few people realised they'd be useful for authors!) and have had my website for some years. I now have a messageboard for my readers which is starting to build up a membership, and of course I tweet. It's a great way to get to know other writers, as well as many other interesting people, and can lead to many things – for instance, Sara's article!

    We do have to keep up, and age is no excuse. Even if you have only 10 or 20 years of writing life ahead of you, you will soon get left behind as technology advances even more. Just sitting at home writing is not enough; we have to put ourselves into the public eye by booksigning, speaking, doing interviews, and – most importantly AND most easily – by whatever online facilities are available. Yes, it takes time; yes, it can be addictive (so can wine, chocolate and gardening) but it has to be built into the working day and considered part of the job.

    Today's cliché is: Times are changing and we have to change with them. Or we shall be left, literally, on the shelf (if we ever make it to a shelf in the first place.


  3. I don't twitter, but I Blog and Facebook, and through it have had sales to my Books and met some wonderful people. At some point however, one must place a little extra discipline into one's life and have TIME OUT to write only, to keep a healthy balance, otherwise its not worth it. A few hours is healthy, after that, it falls into addiction. But do what ever you can to reach the public with your books.

    Jacqueline Howett Author of The Greek Seaman


  4. I'm one of those that has only just started out on Twitter. And to be honest, I'm still not sure what Twitter is all about. Facebook, myspace etc I haven't touched them, and I don't think I will.

    Do people have different levels of time? Is someones 30 minutes, my five? I mean, just where is the time for all this “connecting”?

    Yes, I can see you'd meet other people in your field. But how many out of the millions on the net can say their meeting resulted in a contract deal?

    Jane, who's sitting on the fence, but not really liking/understanding what's on the other side, so is climbing back down again and abandoning her Twitter account.


  5. Well said! I love to find my favorite authors (and even authors I've never heard of before) on Twitter. I will probably never have a chance to meet them in person, so it's nice to have this way to stay updated on their news and to even chat with them! There is an impressive presence of authors, book bloggers, agents, publicists, and publishers on Twitter. I am astounded by the connections I've made on Twitter, and I'm just a blogger. 🙂


  6. I think it's a generation thing too. It's easy to be left behind by technology, but unbeknown to those who think it's out of their reach it's so SIMPLE it's untrue!


  7. Wow, I hadn't realised there was quite such a rejection of social media by so many writers. It is pretty clearly a generational thing I think. No 18-25 year old YA writer would dream of shunning an online presence.


  8. Wonderful article. I opened myself to the online experience just over a year ago, after years of resisting it. I was afraid, for the most part. But the community of writers and industry representatives from every aspect of the publishing world astounded me with their welcome. For me, the greatest challenge now is disciplining myself so that I'm writing more than I'm networking online. Some days are easier than others!


  9. Thanks for this post. For me, I believe Twitter and blogging are very useful tools for authors – particularly ones who are still trying to build a name for themselves.

    Yes, it does take time away from your writing, but it also challenges you to write in different ways, which can only be a good thing. I've also found both Twitter and the blogosphere to be fantastic for making connections with like-minded people.

    I've received many comments and compliments on my work purely because of my online profile, and for me, that says it's worth the time investment.


  10. I didn't start using twitter until after a book marketing keynote at an e-publishing convention two years ago. I was skeptical at first but I love it now, and I can't even count the doors it's opened. It's for building networks – fellow authors, readers, people who support the same causes as I do in my writing and my personal life.

    I'm sure media platforms will keep evolving – if we want to help our readers find us, we'll have to flow with the changes and meet them where they gather.


  11. Hello, Sarah. Great article. From someone just starting out I may not twitter as of yet, but I'm not opposed to it. I do know, however, there is an enormous amount of information on the internet. Facebook is a great way to make connections and “mingle” (so to speak). I have found some resources I would not have known otherwise. If someone wants to short-change themselves it's a shame but what can you do?


  12. I enjoy the implication that people who use social media aren't “working”, that they're somehow cheating their way into publication. Like Twitter is a 24-hours-a-day occupation, and that without social media, writers spend their entire days doing nothing but writing. Come on. Even if social media is a waste of time — which I maintain it isn't — it's just taking the place of other time-wasters that writers have been employing since we first figured out how to put pen to paper.

    I will never understand the reticence. The ‘What do you tweet? Do you tell the world whenever you’ve had a scone?’ attitude is backwards and offensive. The idea that we're all one step away from having our identities stolen is ridiculous when people use credit cards in person at stores without personally ensuring that the receipts go in a shredder. Especially because no website will force you to reveal your address and information. You're as vulnerable as you make yourself.

    Thanks for the fantastic article!


  13. i tried to read this but oh she went on so long about things which didn't matter … but I don't intend to get involved in these social networking sites unless absolutely necessary. The best way of getting known is to WORK and that is what I am doing. Spending time condensing information to the necessary 140 characters and then telling people to follow you – you might end up spend all day every day following people and doing nothing. One TBer already said Twitter is addictive …
    FB is apparently addictive, which is why I do not go there. This site is bad enough! and then there is the Static Movement board, where I am boosting my anthologies and answering queries … who needs another layer of technology and, if the ITV programme Jay kindly posted (can't remember which thread, sorry, Jay but I did watch the programme) we are all open to cyber attack, identity fraud, massive stripping of our accounts … so every layer of technology you add gives those out there more chance to get in, if they choose, and it seems they do. ST thinks that the chances of being hacked into and identity stolen are relatively remote … but anyone's identity will do if you want to commit a crime and dump information into that person's computer to avoid being caught out yourself.

    Or perhaps I am simply too old for that kind of social chit chat. Who knows? I read the article in WM very carefully, even copied it to keep and yesterday it went into the shredder. I am not getting involved. This 'following' someone is not healthy. Then we have Writebag insisting that agents do not look at forums and sites like this for potential clients … so, why bother?



  14. I just wish the Internet, Twitter etc had been around when I first started writing. I'm sure I'd be further along in my career by now.

    I can understand that some are sceptical, I mean Twitter is relatively new, isn’t? FB is perceived as mainly a chat room for friends, which I don’t think it has shaken off that belief even now.

    With Twitter ANYONE can potentially see your posts. Is it the name that puts people off? “Twitter” “tweeting”… you have to admit, it does sound daft.


  15. I'm also a convert to Twitter and FB as a way of connecting readers and writers, thoughtful people to other thoughtful people. I'm not an evangelist yet, but…maybe soon. One thing, though: It's actually more “green” to fell trees to make paper books than to use e-readers. The environmental “footprint” of e-readers includes all the raw materials, the processes, energy and water involved in mining the required minerals, extracting other materials, manufacturing, by-products, shipping, and eventual disposal, etc., etc. Unless you're packing 100+ books on your e-reader and then NOT upgrading it every two years (as the industry would like), the environmental impact of reading paper books is far, far less than it is with an e-reader–despite the felling of trees.


  16. I couldn't agree more. It is scary that many old models are fast disintegrating but it has to be exciting that so many new writing forms and media are springing up.
    Social Media is not just a way of promoting work, though, as you say, the opportunity to engage directly with a readership is unique and useful, even inspiring – but I strongly believe that beyond promotion there is a powerful and flexible canvas in the www, most of us haven't even begun plumbing the depths of what is possible. The internet is made for writers and it is an indictment of an unflattering kind that some of the best are so slow to get it.


  17. Well said, Sarah. I joined Twiiter with a certain amount of scepticism too. But like you found it to be a great way to meet people with similar interests to my own in reading and writing. I too have made good twitter friends – you good self among them.

    Thanks for this interesting post and thanks to Louise for hosting.


  18. Excellent post! Avenues for communication have changed. As we say in education, “Get on the bus or be left behind.” Educators are the same way, but thankfully embracing new technology that their clientele is so entrenched in. Your readers are the same people. I'm 37 and look for EVERYTHING online before I'd stroll around just browsing. I look online for book recommendations, an author's website, do they twitter, etc. Many times, based on a writer's tweets, I have bought their book where I would have passes over it just browsing the shelves. A point about YA authors, huge MUST I think to use social media effectively. One person's 2nd grade daughter was recently getting schoolwork help from her dad. He didn't know the answer and she told him, “Just Google it.” He replied, “You don't even know what Google is.” She shoots back, “It's where you go to look for things on the internet.” This is a second grader! Those that choose not embrace social media are missing great opportunities to market themselves and their work, in my opinion (and yours it seems.) 🙂


  19. Very useful article. I tweet, blog and I'm also on Facebook, but I must admit that I don't make the best use of them. If nothing though, the internet has opened up a world I never would have been introduced to otherwise. The connections I've made with other writers is worth much to me. A savvy author will make use of all tools available for PR and marketing.


  20. Sarah
    Thanks for writing this article because it fascinating.

    I’m new to writing and adjusting to regarding myself as a writer.

    However I’m approaching this topic from a different angle and embracing technology because I believe I have a sensible business head as well as a creative mind. I set out with the aim to be published and succeeded in Nov 09, in the digital domain. For me this was huge and then it dawned on me how was anyone going to find me? It’s not the same as popping into a local bookshop or library.

    With encouragement from my son and my mentor I started to write a Blog and I stepped into Twitter, a little restrained at first but here I found a vast wealth of comment, advice, support and fun. To me Twitter is a lifeline, I have learned to promote my work, ‘my product,’ because that’s what it is in this very competitive market. The next step is to consider building a web page and a ‘fanpage’ on Facebook although I will do this very slowly as I am not yet well known.

    However my ambition is clear and I will do me best to embrace all ports of entry to secure this aim as I have a long way to go before becoming a published novelist.


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