Writers are not known for their extroverted personalities. Until relatively recently, writing was a famously solitary activity, with several degrees of separation between an author and their audience. Thanks to social media, that is no longer the case; virtually all authors, from indie chapbook writers to multimillionaire novelists, can be sought out personally online, available for comment on everything from particular character motivations to their favorite show on Netflix. Such immediate and direct contact marks a significant change in the way that author-reader relations have carried out for decades, enabling literary conversations on an international, real-time scale. This new, permanently accessible form of authorship may be beneficial for building a following and bumping sales, but it raises some interesting questions regarding technological choice and boundaries for the modern author as well as the broader literary community.
While most authors engage in public appearances to promote their work in some way, attending launches and readings as required, the draw of social media as an entirely fee-free platform with which to promote work is irresistible to most publishers, and many authors are now expected to build and maintain a significant social media following before even being able to get an audience with agents or publishers, the gatekeepers to commercial success. The network with the largest social reach and least-contained audience is Twitter, where content is shared quickly and constantly, and fan interaction is simple and direct. There are clear benefits for an author to be discoverable online, but pressures from publishers and agencies to attain high numbers of followers has been an issue of note in the literary community for quite some time. The bestselling author Jonathan Franzen has been critical about the imperative to use Twitter since it spiked in popularity several years ago.
“Agents will now tell young writers ‘I won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have 250 followers on Twitter,” he told The Telegraph in 2013. “I see people who ought to be spending time developing their craft, and who used to be able to make a living as freelance writers, making nothing and feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion.”
A few years later, a mere 250 followers is considered fairly low even for the average user, never mind an aspiring author with hopes of fame and fortune. According to publishing professional Valerie Peterson, authors should be looking for a fan-base of a far larger scale when approaching publishers and should expect their online popularity to influence prospective success. “Literary agents, book editors, and publishers look for the size of an author platform when considering a prospective author’s manuscript or proposal,” she wrote in The Balance. “Tens of thousands is okay; hundreds of thousands is better, and a platform that gets millions of eyeballs—a book deal is a slam-dunk.”
Asking authors to find a readership of thousands of people before they have even attained a book deal seems counterintuitive, but it has quickly become a standard in the publishing industry. It represents a shift from traditional, clear-cut advertising strategies to a form of celebrity persona-building, requiring authors to put a great degree of ‘self’ into their self-promotion, whether they would normally use such a platform or not.
At a local publishing fair, I asked a number of authors if they had felt pressured by publishers and agents to maintain active social media. Several told me that since social media accounts are a large part of a publisher’s promotional strategy, having a public online presence is a marketing expectation more than a personal choice. “PR is just a part of being a writer,” one writer told me. “Refusing to be on Twitter is kind of like refusing to promote your book at all—it’s how you find readers and make a name for yourself.”
Most of the authors I spoke with had been asked directly by their publishers about their social media following before they finalized contracts, even referencing their follower count, though all of them had been quite active online. The majority were asked to promote their work and events themselves and to actively interact with followers in order to boost engagement. They found this neither surprising nor much of a burden; as one author pointed out, nobody wants to present a reading to an empty room, so there is a clear incentive to publicize on the platforms that have the most reach. It is likely relevant that the majority of these authors are millennials with an enthusiastic and positive relationship with online literary culture. Having been social media interns or having run their own small-scale publications—some of which were completely Internet-based—they were well aware of how useful social media could be for authors without a great deal of resources.
Not everybody is as comfortable with the lack of personal and professional divide when it comes to building a following on social media. The expectation of being constantly accessible has worn out many writers, some to the point that they have abandoned the profession entirely. Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, a pair of authors who wrote many novels between 1990 and 2010, retired from the writing life in 2012 when promotional pressures became too much.
“For us, the business of writing has become a grind,” they wrote in their final statement. “To be successful these days being a good writer is not enough. You must become a brand, a salesman, marketer, publicist, travel agent and a friend to all…. It’s exhausting and at the moment, we don’t want to do it any more.”
The image transformation of the author from an eccentric loner tucked away in a writing room to a public figure as available as any customer service representative has had ramifications outside of opportunities for a book deal. Many authors have complained of readers that feel entitled to their time, or have found themselves at the midst of furious Internet arguments that have a life of their own. Celeste Ng, the Canadian author of Everything I Never Told You, was accused of being selfish by her own follower base when she tweeted asking students to stop contacting her for school projects related to her work. At a recent author talk, British author Zadie Smith spoke about how staying off social media gives her “the right to be wrong” and allows her work to speak for itself, which she quite rightfully notes has been the norm within literary discussions for many years. Earlier in 2017, she had written an essay about the year’s standout horror film Get Out, the controversial Dana Schutz painting Open Casket, and an artist’s “right to a subject.” Not a Twitter user herself, Smith saw the piece go from well-received to highly criticized in a matter of hours, a pile-on effect that she finds both intimidating and unhelpful for the writing process. “I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind,” she told her interviewer. “I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”
Bullying and aggressive shaming is a genuine concern for anyone on social media, but it isn’t just prominent authors that fear being browbeaten by their audience. Indie authors that have a niche fan-base can also find themselves at the center of an online storm—and they are comparatively far easier to topple. Publishers look to social media as indicative of trends, and the high-speed world of social media influencers with advance reading copies and strong opinions can sometimes derail a writing career before books have even hit the shelves.
A recent example in the world of young adult (YA) literature is the media storm around The Black Witch by Laurie Forest, a fantasy novel that was heavily criticized for its bigoted themes, starring a character who lives in a problematic society befouled by racism, and who becomes less racist over the course of the novel. Offended by the content, a blogger with an advance copy decried the book to her followers, fomenting a drawn-out campaign to try and pressure the publisher, Harlequin Teen, to pull the book. The novel was inundated with negative reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, with positive reviewers attacked en masse. In many of the messages, Forest herself was tagged, expected either to weigh in or to simply witness the dissatisfaction with her work.
Any reader has the right to be vocal about their opinions, and the arguments that people brought against The Black Witch are sympathetic. But the mass response to Forest’s novel is symptomatic of a trend in online literary discussions, where people will call not only for a personal boycott of a book but demand that the book to actively be taken out of circulation, an attitude that has unflattering roots in censorship. Mass shaming has also become an worrisomely frequent tactic in social media communities, a punitive approach to accountability that has been widely debated in recent years. Author and professor Sarah Schulman has been a leader in speaking out against this toxic dynamic, thoroughly denouncing the practice in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse and criticizing the popularity of community-led shunning as a tool to punish others. The Black Witch may well be a terrible book, and the distress that it has caused is very real, but the power of a writhing throng of Internet strangers who haven’t read it to threaten its publication entirely will pose more problems to the literary community than it will seemingly solve.
Of equal concern is the hostile climate for opposing viewpoints, which removes the opportunity to discuss books in a truly open manner. Literary discussion should be encouraged in formal and informal contexts, within and outside of academia, and that engaging in such conversations is an inherent part of literary culture. Dissenting voices should not fear ostracization for speaking up. The impulse to prevent anyone from reading a book that you disliked is understandable, but it shouldn’t be the basis upon which public literary conversations take place. Forest’s book was not pulled from publication, and she has since responded without resentment, stating that the incident “was a good conversation for me to learn from, to make sure I’m not lazy in my use of language.” Her future works will take her critics into account, something that would not have happened if they had been successful in forcing Harlequin to drop her as a client.
Forest’s response is a positive development on the conversation about her work, and the literary Twittersphere does have the influence to push for these kind of changes, if not an especially finessed approach. Over the past few months, the juiciest literary scandal of the year played out purely as a result of detective work by the online literary community. In September, a relatively unknown author named Lani Sarem suddenly appeared at the top of the New York Times YA bestseller list, knocking off Angie Thomas’s breakout debut novel about institutional racism, The Hate U Give. The sudden dethroning of Thomas’s novel by a book that nobody in the industry had heard of raised suspicions, and a few members of the literary Twitter community went on a hunt for answers.
They soon discovered that Sarem’s appearance on the list was a result of gaming the system, with anonymous purchasers having placed mass orders at stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The book was just a springboard for a film adaptation starring Sarem herself, in need of the New York Times bestseller label to gain publicity for the project. Predictably, this manipulation did not go down well with the online literary community, and in response to the outrage, the New York Times removed the book from the YA list completely. Sarem is by no means the first person to dishonestly portray sales in this way, but she is the first to be exposed by an online readership who are critical of opaque industry practices, and possibly the first to be taken off the list entirely. According to Rebekah Fitzsimmons, an educator at the Georgia Institute of Technology who teaches a course called Making the List: Bestsellers, Best Of, and Banned Books, this may well be the first time that the New York Times took such steps, and it is all because of YA Twitter’s online sleuths.
“The experience of watching this whole thing unfold was surreal,” Fitzsimmons told me. “I am nearly certain that has never happened before and I think the fact that Twitter researched the issue so thoroughly and quickly led to that extraordinary circumstance.”
As a result of social media, the relationship between authors, readers, and other literary organizations is constantly developing. Literary discussions were once entirely disjointed affairs with authors on one side and readers on the other, but it seems unlikely that they will ever be that way again. Bringing literary discussions to a public scale can help expose issues within the industry and open them up for discussion, as demonstrated by Forest’s response to her commentators, or the Handbook for Mortals revelation—but the tendency to devolve into mass attacks and demand direct responses from authors is counterproductive and serves only to create a culture of intimidation for writers, readers, and critics alike. When talking about literature online, we need to create spaces for criticism and discussion that allow dissent and opposing viewpoints, as well as appreciate that authors are not obligated to take note of our critiques, particularly when they are being presented in the form of negative 140-character soundbites. The ability to directly change the industry is remarkable, and discussing shortcomings helps make the publishing world more transparent, but only when carried out respectfully. Insisting on tolerating alternative views in literature means to go against the dominant form of Internet disagreements, but it can and must be done in order to preserve “the right to be wrong,” a cornerstone of traditional literary criticism. For literary and broader industry criticism to be truly constructive, we have a responsibility to maintain a healthy environment for discussion for both readers and authors—even the ones that we dislike.