Saturday 23 February 2019

Social Media: Occupational Hazard?

An author I know has quit all social media recently. Goodbye Facebook, goodbye Twitter, adios Instagram, auf weidersehen Reddit. The author in question felt that these things were having a negative effect on their mental health, and if you feel that way then they undoubtedly are!
Social media can be having a bad impact on your metal health even if you don't feel it is.

The thing is that as an author these days you are strongly encouraged both by your publishers and by logic to partake of social media. Wallow in it. Dive in and only come up for air when you need to write.

The best of books can utterly fail without sufficient initial publicity (the author in question is actually a prime example of this - their excellent book only flourishing after belated publicity following years in the wilderness). So clearly there is a vast pressure for authors to engage with the public, be seen on forums, be available on Twitter, be responsive, witty, entertaining, constantly placing their product in the spotlight without seeming to do so. All striving for that golden ratio of "just enough" selling that it moves books while not pissing folks off.

And that's fine if you enjoy social media and have a more or less healthy relationship with it. Many of us do enjoy it. With my caring duties it's basically my only social life, a much needed window on the world. I would be all over social media whether I had a book to sell or not.

But for those whose personal makeup makes them vulnerable to the harm that social media can inflict ... to then be bound to it by your profession must be a very hard thing. Like having to drink poison in order to stay alive.

And an author's relationship with social media is not quite like Joe Public's. Not only are we spreading our wares out, but we are talking with strangers who know us only through our stories. We are part of a complex network of obligation and interactions each with different boundaries. We talk with reviewers and readers, with authors who sell way more, or way less, or broadly similar amounts to us. Strangers of various shades become friends in varying degrees. We have to say "no" a lot, to reading this book, to critiquing that chapter, to signing at this venue. Everyone has expectations of us. Some think we can help their careers, some we know could help ours. Everything is potentially coloured by these sorts of unhealthy considerations when really we would just like friends.

So again, for those of us with sufficiently thick skin, arrogance or whatever is required to navigate these waters safely, its great to have a swim. But to those who feel they are drowning in it, social media is a burden.

And what if you set it aside and then your next book dies on the launchpad? Imagine how that feels. You, left unable to tell whether that would always have been the book's fate or if somehow you had swallowed your medicine and gone out to bat for it on Reddit the book might have found its audience and soared.

It's a scary equation to consider. Nobody should think they have to do themselves harm in order to succeed.

In the end it is definitely possible to succeed and to continue to flourish with your back turned firmly toward all forms of social media. And I wish those who take this path every success. But, sadly, it is also entirely possible for superb books to fail entirely without that first flame being applied to their touchpaper. And in this day and age it's hard to walk away from the channels of communication knowing that they really could make the difference between the career you want and writing as a hobby.

I've no answers to offer.

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  1. I got rid of all personal social media about a year ago, for various reasons. I was happy without it. But I would love to make writing a career, so I set up a twitter for my pen name. While there are good things about social media, I don't like feeling as though I have to use it or else no one will ever find my future work. Instead of worrying about just the quality of my work, I worry about things like my brand, and how to be a part of communities despite the fact I'm naturally quiet. It feels a bit like going back to high school and wondering how to be popular. Not the best environment for anxiety/depression. I have a lot of sympathy for the author

    1. I hear you. I abhor social media and am very much an introvert much like yourself (isn't that a big part of why we write in the first place?). However, for similar reasons I have begrudgingly waded into the waters with platforms like Facebook, GoodReads, and Reddit. In fact it was Josiah Bancroft's comments in the afterword of Senlin Ascends about the Fantasy subreddit that prompted me to join. I interact with these platforms differently and leverage them for different purposes. At the end of the day, I really want readers to be engaged with my work, and not me personally. I have every inclination to keep my personal life separate from my writing. It's hard to do that if you want people to know about your books. It's also hard to stay true to your work and not succumb to things that will cheapen it, which is an artistic integrity question you have to confront when looking at things from a marketing/sales angle.

  2. I feel this almost could have been written about me. I have drastically pared back my interaction on social media because I too feel it is not conducive to my mental health, yet with another book out this year I am all too keenly aware that we authors depend on it. I wish there was a third way but I'm not sure there is - sometimes you just have to tough it out. Maybe it is inevitable that we suffer to attain our goals, in any age and walk of life. Like you I have no ready answers.

  3. I never quite know how useful social media is to me as an author. I have a Facebook page, a group for my Space Captain Smith novels, and I go on Twitter daily, but I use all of these either to talk nonsense or to point people towards things on my own website. I do have to check what I say, especially given the idiocy that happens on Twitter, and I'm careful to keep things cheerful and generally family-friendly.

    I wonder, though, how much it helps in the long run. Have I sold many books through social media? I doubt it. I think it's been more useful for telling people what I'll be doing, and putting out entertaining stuff that's too short or weird for publication. But it can waste time and on occasion it's depressing. As you say, nobody should have to drink poison to stay alive.

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