The 10 Commandments of Social Media Etiquette for Writers

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the importance of commenting on blogs to raise your social media profile, I forgot to say one essential thing—probably because I figured it's something your mom told you—but for those who've forgotten, here it is…

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it.

That's true even in a thread where a lot of people are being snarky and you're simply going along with the crowd. I've done it myself and ended up hurting good people's feelings. Remember when you're online, you're "in public" and anybody can see what you've written. 

If you're planning to publish traditionally, the reason to follow mom's rule is simple. Editors and agents will Google you (often before they decide to read your pages) and if they find a bunch of nasty Tweets, forum flames, and bullying blog comments, your career is going nowhere.

Why do they Google you before reading your writing sample? The same reason any prospective employer Googles you. Most people prefer to work with level-headed, rational human beings who are not prone to drunk-posting, dissing their co-workers, or dancing naked with tighty-whiteys on their heads. Just the way it is.

Remember, "free speech" means you have a right to say what you want in public (not necessarily on private property) but it does NOT shield you from the consequences of what you say. 

Even if you self-publish, or are planning to—establishing a reputation for being nasty, closed-minded, or self-centered can still damage your career. The indies who do best are the ones who respect fans, guest blog, do joint promotions, and generally play well with others.

It's fine to disagree and/or add new information to a discussion—in fact, that's a great way to raise your profile—but do it like a grown-up, civilized human, not an entitled adolescent with a vocabulary limited to barnyard words.

The tech world was invented by young, rule-breaking types, mostly males. So an early Internet culture evolved that tended to be adversarial, snarky, and intolerant of newbies—more like posturing teenagers than adults doing business.

But the publishing world is the opposite. It's a business that has always been powered by the gentlemanly art of the schmooze.

Making people angry may drive people to your blog, and you may hear that "troll posts" and creating controversy is a way to get traffic. But it's probably not the kind of traffic you want, even if you self-publish.

Remember everything you do or say online is public. That includes your snarky @tweets to your BFF (DM instead) and those party photos your idiot friend took at the Mardi Gras party and posted to FB (ask him politely to take down that tighty-whitey photo, or "untag" you.)

So here are ten tips for online behavior for people planning a writing career. (Unless your life goal is to be a professional extremist ranter—then ignore everything here. Being a person people love to hate can make you rich and famous—if you want that kind of fame.)

But for the rest of us, here are 10 basic rules: (This is not meant as dogma. My Moses impersonation is done with tongue firmly in cheek):

1) Thou shalt not spam.

I realize I'm repeating myself, and some authors will continue to post endless book spam to every social medium until the whole thing has gone the way of MySpace, but here I go again:

What is book spam? 
People want news and personal connections on social media, not robotic advertising.

But I realize some anti-spam rules can be tricky and counter-intuitive. For more here's my post on How Not To Spam

But here's the short version: if you'd ignore it in your own inbox, FB page, or Twitter stream, it's probably spam.

2) Thou shalt support other authors.

Your fellow authors are not "rivals".  Authors who band together do better than antagonistic loners. In fact the number one thing a beginner should be doing on social media is getting to know other authors in your genre and subgenre and making friends.

One of the hottest sales tools in the business right now is the multi-author bargain boxed set with several titles by different authors. These boxed sets are getting on to the bestseller lists and raising visibility for all the authors. Yes. The NYT and USA Today Bestseller lists. 

Another is the joint 99c sale. I participated in a 99c sale with other chick lit authors last year and it got my boxed set on the humor bestseller list where it stayed for 8 months.

Authors who band together get their books in front of the fans of all the authors in the group. Supporting each other is fun and profitable. 

But note: "Support" does NOT involve demanding that other authors market your book for you by spamming their Twitter stream or FB or Google+ page. There's very little evidence that spam sells books anyway.

It also does not mean tagging other authors as members of your "launch party" on Facebook or asking them to play moronic games. (If you let people know you have time to waste on FB games, you're saying you're not writing. You might want to keep that under your hat.)

It also should not include begging for a "mention" on somebody's blog or other social media if you have no relationship with them. And it doesn't mean trading reviews and "likes". Review trading is unethical, and fake likes are pointless.

I've seen indies whine that their fellow authors weren't doing enough marketing for them and hadn't bought their books. That's not asking for support—it's being a brat. Unless you have a "how to write" or book-marketing title, your fellow authors are not your audience. Go find your own readers. 

3) Thou shalt practice tolerance.

The Internet is global. That means primitive, insular thinking will only drive away most of your potential audience. Within a few years, experts predict most ebook sales will be outside of the US.

Hurting people because they have different customs or beliefs from yours has been a human pastime since Zog bonked Gog on the head because Gog's fertility goddess had bigger boobs than his fertility goddess. 

But guess what? Zog couldn't actually make own his beliefs "more true" or Gog's "less true" with violence or cruel words. And neither can you. 

If you're insecure in your own beliefs, go talk to your pastor, shrink, precinct coordinator, Belieber club president or whoever will guide you back to the light.

And if you are secure, other people's belief systems won't affect you one bit, so they're none of your business.

But remember tolerance isn't just about religion, ethnicity, or politics.

Saying rude things to writers who choose a different publishing path from yours is just as ridiculous. Want to prove your path is better? Go write a bestseller, and stop wasting time being snarky on the Interwebz.

I realize this stuff happens because primates are tribal. We instinctively fall into us/them, black/white, either/or thinking.  It's easier to demonize the "other" than to understand them.

Plus we feel safer if we're part of a tribe. Especially if the tribe has a strong leader.

But no matter what chieftain/dear leader/blogger you follow, you'll be happier if you accept that people are different. Some are independent jacks-of-all-trades who can do it all. Others prefer to work as part of a team. Saying one is more "correct" than another is like saying chimpanzees are more "correct" than baboons.

Evolve. I promise you'll find better ways to spend your time.

4) Thou shalt not whine about the stupidity of the reading public, your lack of sales, or the unfairness of the industry.

If you constantly go on about how stupid romance/paranormal/fantasy/chick lit readers are, or how ebooks are the worst thing that ever happened to civilization, be aware you're alienating a huge segment of your potential audience.

Yes, you have an MFA and you've read Proust in the original French and you're furious because you're flipping burgers even though you've written the next On the Road/Ulysses/Work of Staggering Genius. But putting down readers won't change that. Save that stuff for the local coffeehouse where you can commiserate with your fellow proto-post-post-modern-neo-Beats.

This caveat includes detailing rejection woes. I see lots of writing blogs that chronicle the writer's history of rejection. Guess what? Agents see them too. That can be an automatic reject. You'll look like a potentially troublesome client. 

And if you end up self-publishing, that stuff will make you look as if you chose your path because your book wasn't good enough, not because you embrace entrepreneurship.

This is a tough business, no matter how you publish. Most authors go through 100s or even 1000s of rejections before they get a book deal, and most self-publishers spend years building a substantial readership.  

Whining will not sell books. Get off the Internet and go write.

5) Thou shalt remember: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog".

That quote is from the 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, the most reproduced cartoon in the magazine's history. 

It became iconic because it speaks the basic truth of Internet culture:  you never know who you're actually interacting with. 

This is not only because some people/dogs are masking their identity.

It's also because humans tend to assume others are like ourselves unless we have information to the contrary.

So if you're a fresh, eager newbie, you'll assume everybody you meet is new to the writing profession, too. Or if you're a jaded system-gamer, you assume everybody is gaming the system right along with you. And trolls see other trolls under every cyber-bridge.

This can lead to lots of embarrassing faux pas and unpleasant encounters, especially since superstars and/or newbies can show up commenting on a blog thread along with the regulars.

You really don't want to find yourself telling @Neilhimself Gaiman that when he grows up and publishes a real book then he'll understand why all agents are useless parasites.

And you might look bad putting down a Christian grandma for being naïve about BDSM slang. Or a 12-year-old in Mumbai for not getting your references to 1980s US TV shows.

So look before you snark. Pay attention to the person you're communicating with. 

Otherwise, you're only revealing stuff about your own faults and failings you probably want to keep to yourself.

6) Thou shalt not respond to reviews.

No matter how unfair. Just. Keep. Quiet. You can't please all the people all of the time.

We need reviewers, so treat them with respect. Even if you've paid for a review on a blog tour and were led to believe the review would be positive and it isn't. Honest reviewers can't guarantee a rave. (And BTW, the blog tour organizer may be paid, but the reviewer isn't.)

Everybody gets rotten reviews. You have just joined a club that includes every successful author who ever lived.

So go read the rotten reviews of great books and hilarious one-stars of the classics. Then go offline and do your mourning in private. Go to the gym. Buy chocolate and/or wine and call your BFF. Go out to your local pub and imagine the reviewer's face on the dart board—anything but respond online.

You'll not only embarrass yourself, but you may attract vigilantes who will try to destroy your career if you complain—even if it's on your own blog or FB page. The review community has its own brand of extremist ranters who demonize authors and keep honest reviewers in a state of terrified paranoia of the dreaded "badly behaving author."  (Authors can be bullies too. Don't be one of them.)

And yes, we even have to put up with the sadistic trolls who call themselves "reviewers" but don't read anything they "review".

Unfortunately, there's a gang of sock-puppet bullies who play Amazon reviews as if they're a video game. They set up thousands of accounts under fake names so they can leave hateful one-stars of books they haven't read. They often buy an ebook and immediately return it so they can get an "Amazon verified purchase" seal of approval. And they usually know how to keep inside Amazon's guidelines, so Amazon seems to feel helpless to stop them in spite of pleas from publishers and bestselling authors.

It's got so bad that some authors are quitting the business. The Good E-Reader reported the growing phenomenon this week in their piece on "The Bullies Win". Let's not let them. Hang in there and keep reporting these people to Amazon until they put a stop to it.

A new retail site called Screwpulp is trying to combat the Amazon troll culture by offering books free until they collect 25 HONEST reviews. They have a vetting process that claims to be able to detect when a reviewer hasn't read the book. (Great idea, although I'm not in love with their name.)

The best way to fight troll reviews? Write an honest review yourself! Big-name authors get troll reviews even more than indies and newbies these days, so even somebody famous can be helped by your review. Go write one for your favorite book right now!

If the troll makes a personal attack—dissing the author rather than the book, report it. Goodreads has done some housecleaning and will promptly remove ad hominem attack reviews. (Thanks for getting it together, Goodreads!!)

Amazon, not so much—but do report obvious sock puppets. Or sign an anti-sock puppet petition. There are a number in circulation. If the reports reach critical mass, maybe the Zon will finally crack down on them, the way they did with paid reviews a couple of years ago.

If a reviewer obviously got a bad download of your book, you might contact him/her privately and offer a better copy. But even there, you're treading on dangerous ground, and it may be a trap. I almost offered a reviewer a new copy, since a bad download was her only reason for a one-star, but then I saw she'd left the identical review on dozens of ebooks. Either she's  troll or she doesn't know the difference between a book review and Kindle tech support.

Most reviewers are hardworking, helpful people who genuinely love books. (And reading books takes time!) We can't survive without them. Don't confuse the sock puppet trolls with real reviewers.

7) Thou shalt not badmouth beloved authors.

When you diss Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins online, you are alienating a huge percentage of your potential readership. These authors are successful because lots of people love their work. When you call these people bad writers, you're criticizing the taste of all their fans. They won't reward you for it.

If you're also a book reviewer, you certainly can say King's latest book isn't up to his usual standards, or Divergent is no Hunger Games—that's your job. But if you're thoughtful, you'll realize you don't have to say it in sour grapes terms that make you seem like a whiner and a wannabe.

8) Thou shalt check facts before you share.

If something going viral on social media is so outrageous your emotions get triggered, take a deep breath and go to and check news sources. 99% of the time it didn't happen or it's been twisted to make you react.

And no, Bill Gates is not going to give a charity a billion dollars if you "like" some picture of a dying child or an abused puppy. That child and puppy have been gone for 20 years and you cause pain every time you share those pictures.

I have to admit I've fallen for a few scary, untrue Internet memes and I've shared or commented posts that were based on false accusations. I seriously regret that.

Now I avoid blogs that tend to make over-the-top accusations of "bad behavior" or "piracy" and I always check Facebook's watchdog pages like Facecrooks and  Check Scam and Spam on Facebook before I share any of those hysterical "protect your privacy by blocking all your friends from seeing your pages" posts.

I repeat: anything done online is IN PUBLIC. Do not expect privacy here. 

9) Thou shalt not feed trolls.

Trolls are part of Internet life. Kind of like those bloodsucking black flies (midges) in the Maine woods where I grew up.

Why are there trolls? A new Canadian study finds that trolls are "everyday sadists" who get pleasure from other people's pain. They're the people who like to torture kittens and abuse small children. Trolldom is less work than going the serial killer route. It's also equal-opportunity: the report found as many female trolls as males.

The anonymity of the Internet allows these otherwise closeted sociopaths to revel in sadistic behavior. It is simply fun for them.

YouTube and the Huffington Post are battling trolls by banning anonymous comments. Let's hope some more of the big sites will follow suit.

But remember that trolls feed on attention the way black flies feed on blood. So the only way to get rid of a troll is to give it no attention whatsoever—no matter how obnoxious and wrong he/she/it is, because your attention—good or bad—is its food. You must starve it by ignoring anything and everything it does.

Don't think of a troll comment or "review" as an exchange with a fellow human capable of rational thought. Think of it as a pile of poo you don't want to step in.

Unboot from the Interwebz and phone a friend, read a book, or walk the dog. Anything you say online will make things worse.

10) Thou shalt follow Wil Wheaton's Law.

Actor Wil Wheaton first coined the dictum, "Don't be a d**k" at a gaming conference in 2007. He was talking about interactive online game etiquette, but it is a good rule for anybody using the Internet.

In fact, it's a good rule for anybody participating in life itself.

In more polite terms, it can be called The Golden Rule: have empathy and don't do stuff to other people that would feel bad if it were done to you.

What about you, Scriveners? Any commandments to add to these? Have you ever fallen for an Internet meme before checking it out? Have you been a victim of the Amazon trolls?


No Place Like Home 
99c this month on Amazon USAmazon UK, and Amazon CA, and Nook

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
"A fun, charming novel about the rich and less so" ...Karen Doering
"A cross of dry British humor and American wackiness, and it all adds up to a fun read." ...Deborah Bayles.


Narrated by award-winner C. S. Perryess and Anne R. Allen (as Camilla)

Set in San Luis Obispo. Great for that morning commute...

$17.46 for the audiobook or free with Audible free trial. Download of Audible is free for your PC or Tablet. Nearly 8 hours of hilarious entertainment!
Available at Audible  and iTunes


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