Author Etiquette 101: Do’s and Don’ts for Writers Using Social Media

“Authors behaving badly” tends to be a hot topic on booky forums and blogs these days. A lot of people blame the indie movement, but some of the worst social media behavior I’ve seen comes from Big 5 authors who are following the dictates of their marketing departments.

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers seem to have studied their craft at the “let’s cold-call random strangers just as they sit down to dinner” school of salesmanship.

As a general rule, I feel if someone has the social graces of a rabid squirrel, he’s probably not the guy to listen to on the subject of winning friends and influencing people—which is what social media is all about. So if you have any choice, ignore the squirrels.

Especially if they tell you to follow a bunch of other authors and then spam them unmercifully until you sell a million books. Because hey, if you’re not selling, you’re not spamming hard enough, right?

Wrong. Thing is, other authors probably aren’t your best audience anyway, unless you’ve got a nonfic book of writing or publishing tips. So think twice before you market to other authors—especially authors outside of your genre.

And even if you’re sure you're targeting the elusive “reader” instead of fellow authors, remember fans are not forever. They don’t like to feel badgered. Asking them to tweet and share every promo and blogpost can turn a satisfied reader into an annoyed boycotter.

Keep in mind that social media isn’t about numbers, no matter how numbers-oriented your marketing department squirrels are. Social media is about making actual friends, not about mass-“friending” a horde of random strangers in order to annoy them.

You’ll make a lot more real friends and sell a lot more books in the long run if you heed the following dos and don’ts.

1) DO remember Tweets are casual: Never tweet a query—not to an agent, reviewer, blogger or editor. Here's Peter Ginna of Bloomsbury Press on the subject . Tweets are breezy and fleeting. When you approach a professional, be professional. Whether you want a review, a guest blog spot, or you’re looking for representation or publication, Twitter is not the place to make your pitch. E-mail is the proper medium.

2) DON’T post advertising on anybody's Facebook “wall”.  A person’s wall is how they present themselves to the world. When you plaster the cover of your book on their timeline you seriously mess with their brand.

Put a naked vampire in bondage on a Christian romance writer's page, and you not only are NOT going to make a sale, you're going to lose a ton of sales for that author. And probably make an enemy for life.

And to whoever put the huge pictures of Krishna on my FB page every day for a week, you'll notice it was bye-bye, not buy-buy. You have no idea how freaked my friends and family were. They thought I'd been kidnapped by a cult or something.

Posting on somebody’s wall is like putting a sign in the front window of their house. Don’t do it without permission. This is true for pleas to sign petitions or donate to charities, no matter how worthy the cause.

And it’s especially true for ads for your own books. I just read a lament from a paranormal author whose wall was getting spammed with links by the author of a similar paranormal book. It may have been an attempt at networking, but it came across as trying to steal readers.

The ONLY time it’s OK to post on somebody’s wall is a ) when you know them well AND b) have something to say that will enhance their wall. Like “happy birthday” or “LOVE your book: just gave it a rave review on my blog: here's the link."

3) DO use social media to interact with people, not to broadcast a never-ending stream of “buy my book” messages. People whose Twitter stream is the identical promo tweet over and over look like robots with OCD. They will only get followed by other compulsive robots.

Twitter is a place to give congrats to a newly agented writer here or a contest winner there. It’s a wonderful vehicle for getting quick answers to questions. Or to commiserate when you've had a disappointment. Or if you’ve found a great book you love, tweet it. Facebook is great for sharing fun videos and talking about them. And for commenting on news items and sharing them. (Keeping in mind #14)

Social Media is a party, not a telemarketing boiler room.

4) DON’T make up an email list from people who have contacted you for other reasons. ONLY send newsletters to people you have a personal connection with, or who have specifically asked to be on your list. Lifting emails from blog commenters without permission is considered especially heinous. Cue Law and Order music…

Yes, I know marketers are hung up on email lists. They tell you to snag 1000s of names of people to harass with weekly spamograms filled with the details of your last trip to the laundromat. Obviously marketers aren’t on any email mailing lists themselves, or they’d know that 99% of those things go into the trash without being opened.

5) DO use Direct Messages sparingly. Private messages are for personal exchanges with people you have a legitimate connection with—not for advertising. The fact somebody has followed or friended you back doesn’t give you license to send them advertising through a private message. This is especially true with “thank you for the follow” messages that come with a demand to “like” your author page, visit your blog and buy your products.

I advise against using any kind of automatic Direct Messages. Sending an auto-response "thank you"  that says, “read my blog, and someday you, too, can become a published author” is not going to get you anything but an auto-unfollow from Ruth or me. I must get five or ten of those a week. One-size-fits all responses usually don't fit anybody.

Yes, I realize the auto-respond DM is #1 on the marketer's list of favorite toys, but if you annoy 1000 people in order to make one sale, does that really help establish an attractive brand? (Don't ask a rabid squirrel to answer that or you'll witness some serious mouth-foaming. So just nod nicely and fail to get around to setting up that auto-response.)

I think authors should be careful about automating social media at all. I know lots of people tell you to automate your tweets, but that can lead to social missteps like the one Kim Kardashian made on the day of the Boston bombings.

As a general rule, if you can’t be bothered to put the recipient’s name in a message and you know nothing about them, you have no business sending them a direct message.

6) DON’T forget to check your @messages on Twitter several times a day and respond to them. It only takes a moment, but those are people reaching out to you. Ignoring them will negate what you're doing on Twitter in the first place.

 7) DO change the Facebook default "email" address to your actual email address. You are on social media to connect with people. Post a reliable way to connect—which that Facebook address isn’t (see #8.)

Last year Facebook erased all our email addresses and put in a Facebook Direct Message address instead. You have to change it manually to get your real email address back in there. I strongly suggest you do this, especially because of the problem with messages getting lost in the “other” file.

I've heard rumors that FB wants to charge for sending messages to anybody not on your Friend list.  I don’t know if it’s true, but be safe. Be findable. Who knows, some Hollywood producer may have just read your book and be trying to contact you to option your book. Don’t let him languish in your “other” file.

Which leads me to…

8) DON’T forget to check your “Other” Folder on Facebook regularly. People who want to contact you for legitimate reasons may contact you through a Direct Message, but if they’re not on your “friend” list, the message goes into your “other” file.

A lot of FB users don’t even know it’s there.

If you’ve never heard of it, go to your home page and click on the message button on the left side of the toolbar (It’s the one in the middle, between friend requests and notifications.) They’re semi-invisible if you don’t have anything pending, so if it’s all blank up on the left side of that blue toolbar at the top of the page, move your mouse slightly to the right of the “facebook” logo in white and click around.

Mostly your “Other” file will be full of spam and hilarious messages from third world guys who think Facebook is a dating site. They’ll say stuff like “You face to be so beautiful. I am want to scam you for everything you’ve got get to knowing you for marriage.”  For some reason they seem to target women who are married and/or over 45. No idea what’s up with that.

But nestled in there you may find a note from a fan or a fellow author who wants to co-promote or is asking you to join a blog hop or something useful. So do check it once a week or so.

9)  DO post links to your website on all your social media sites. And have your contact info readily accessible on your site! Being paranoid on social media makes your presence pointless. Even if you’re on the lam, incarcerated, and/or in the Witness Protection Program, you need to be reachable if you want a career. Use a pen name and get a dedicated email address where you can be reached at that Starbucks in Belize.

10) DON'T "tag" somebody in a photograph unless they're in the picture. This is an unpleasant new way writers try to get people to notice their book or FB page. They'll post their book cover or some related photo (or worse, porn) and "tag" 50 random people so they'll all get a notification.

But here's the thing: a tag means a person is in the photo. Full stop. Yes, you may get a person's attention with this—but not in a good way. It's a nasty invasion of privacy as well as a lie. You're not just going to be unfriended and unliked—if you tag somebody in a pornographic photo, you could get sued.

Remember you're trying to get people to like you, not wish for you to get run over by a truck.

11) DO Network with other writers in your genre. Instead of spamming her fellow author’s wall, that paranormal author I mentioned in #2 could have sent an email (or DM—yes, this is a time when it’s OK) saying how cool it is they have such similar books and how about a joint contest or give-away? Joining up with other authors to share fans and marketing is one of the reasons you’re on social media. You’re not here to sell to other authors, but you are here to pool your resources.

Look how well Ruth and I have done with this blog by teaming up. We met through her comments right here in the thread. Commenting on blogs is one of the best ways to network.

12) DON’T thank people for a follow, especially on Twitter. It may seem like bad manners, but the truth is most people on Twitter and FB would prefer you DON’T thank them for a follow, because those thank-yous have become 99% spam. But if you must, send it in a @ tweet. If you actually want to show gratitude, retweet one of their tweets. Then maybe they’ll thank YOU and you can get a conversation going.

13) DO talk about stuff other than your book. Yes, we’re all here because we want to sell books, but social media is not about direct sales. It’s about getting to know people who might help you make a sale sometime in the future. Consider it a Hollywood cocktail party. You don’t launch into your audition piece every time you’re introduced to a film executive. You schmooze. You tell them how great their last picture was. You find them a refill on the champagne. You get them to LIKE you. Then you might get asked to audition in an appropriate place.

NOTE: Don't talk politics or religion, though. Save extreme partisan or discriminatory religious talk for a different social media account, or better yet, take it offline. It's fine to let people know your religious or political affiliations, but remember your readers may not share them.

14) DON’T call it “giving back” when you’re actually advertising. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. People who say they’re “paying it forward” or “giving back” by letting you know about their book launch, blogpost or freebie days on Amazon are doing no such thing. They’re giving publicity to themselves.

(And I think Catherine Ryan Hyde should get a royalty every time somebody uses the expression “pay it forward”. Most of us had never heard it before her book came out, and now you hear it dozens of times a day. Often misused by marketers. If you use it, at least use it right.)

15) DO Read the directions. If you’re invited to join a group, and you’re instructed to put links to your books only in certain threads, do so.  Anything else will be treated as spam and you could get kicked out of the group. And don't dominate any site with your personal promos, even if it isn't expressly forbidden in the rules. Taking more than your share of space is rude. People don't like rude.

16) DON’T ever dis a reviewer online. 
If you get a horrible, stupid, brain-dead review from some moron who wouldn’t know great literature if it bit his big fat butt, step away from the keyboard. Go find chocolate. And/or wine. Call your BFF. Cry. Throw things. Do NOT turn on your computer until you’re over it. Except maybe to see these scathing reviews of great authors. A bad review means you've joined a pretty impressive club. 

What about you, Scriveners? Have you been making any of these faux pas? (I'm not going to claim I haven't. I have trouble reading directions.) Do you have any funny "Other" folder encounters you want to share? Any do's and don'ts of your own would you'd like to add?

If you're not sick of me yet...


1) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their free or sale books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until May 31st, on a first come, first served basis.

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

2) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post—is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

3) Find a Writing Group through Galley CatOne of the most reliable and popular news outlets in publishing is creating a directory for writers to network to get critiques of their work You can sign up here. 

4) The 35th annual Nimrod Literary Contest: The Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. The Awards offer first prizes of $2,000 and publication and second prizes of $1,000 and publication. One of the oldest “little magazines” in the country, Nimrod has continually published new and extraordinary writers since. For more information about Nimrod, visit their website at Deadline is April 30th.

5) Readwave: A showcase for short stories:
ReadWave is a community of readers and writers who love to discover and share new stories from contemporary writers. Readers can access thousands of stories and read them for free on mobile or desktop--and writers can use ReadWave to build up a fanbase and market their stories online. ReadWave has created a new reading widget, that allows bloggers and website owners to embed stories online in a compact form. The ReadWave widget is the first reading widget to allow readers to "follow" the writer. When a reader follows a writer they are added to the writer’s fanbase and can receive updates on all of the writer’s future stories. ReadWave puts writers in touch with the readers that are right for them. This looks like a great innovative site. You know how I've been encouraging you to write more short fiction? This is where to put it to start building a fan base.

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