Author Jennifer Weiner on writers using Twitter: ‘Leave them wanting more’

If you want to catch a glimpse of author Jennifer Weiner’s life and work, follow her on Twitter. She uses Twitter to ask for readers’ input, respond to criticism and stay connected with other authors. She also tries to generate interest in her work by tweeting about how a novel, TV show or short story came about.

Weiner has an app that features her tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, tour schedule and trivia questions about her books. She also just published her first Kindle Single, which took less than a week to write and publish.

I talked with Weiner via email about how her digital strategy has helped her as a writer, and asked her to share some related tips for journalists.

Mallary Tenore: As a writer, you seem to have really embraced technology & social media to interact with your readers and spread the word about your work. How would you describe your digital strategy as a writer?

Jennifer Weiner: I wish I could tell you there was actual strategy involved, and that I sat down back in 2001 and plotted out a five-point plan to take over the World Wide Web. In fact, things just kind of evolved in a very natural fashion. I blogged in the early 00′s. Then I had kids. Then Facebook happened. Then I discovered Twitter, which seemed like the perfect outlet to make brief observations about life, parenting, my work-in-progress, and cheesy reality TV.

I took to Twitter right away, and was lucky enough to get some notice for my tweeting, and I find it’s enriched my writing life — it’s a great way to stay connected, to have an outlet for funny asides and random observations that once might have found their way into a newspaper piece I was writing, back in the day.

If I did have a strategy, it was to be sparing with the self-promotion. I see writers whose every tweet is a version of “buy my book,” or a link to a Goodreads review, or a retweet of someone who’s said something nice about something they’ve written. Automatic unfollow, automatic turn-off. I do some self-promotion, especially when I’ve got something new to promote, but I’m careful to mix it up with other content — funny links, retweets of other people’s observations, book recommendations, jokes, anything else that I, as a reader, would want to see.

Finally, these are my pet peeves, but if your first tweet every morning is some variation of “I need coffee,” I unfollow. That’s not tweet-worthy, that’s more of a casual complaint for a spouse or roommate only. Same with tweets about the weather (unless you’re planning on changing it). Remember, you’re speaking to an audience — make it interesting.

You’re pretty active on Twitter. How have you used it to build an audience and generate excitement and interest in your books?

Twitter’s like a great big freewheeling conversation, and I’ve been lucky that people have wanted to listen to what I have to say. Does Twitter help build your audience? Ideally, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. I feel like maybe there’s a fraction of people who’ve found me on Twitter and gone on to buy my books, but I also think that, for most people who “discover” a writer on Twitter, keeping up with his or her tweets is sometimes all they want or need. It’s a fine line — you want to give readers enough of your voice and content, but leave them wanting more, where more is the book or short story you’ve just published. Easier said than done.

I do think Twitter is great for keeping in touch with and building bonds with the audience you have. For hardcore readers, any access they get to an author’s voice is a great bonus, like a DVD extra, or the notes in a short-story collection explaining how each story came to be. I definitely think about Twitter as a tool for cementing relationships with those readers.

Finally, in terms of using Twitter to generate interest and excitement, I think that less is more. Give people a glimpse behind the curtain to show them the process of how a novel or TV show or short story comes into being, rather than just rah-rah-buy-my-book. People want to get something extra, something they can’t get just by buying the book, and I think that’s a look at the process, or at the person who’s doing the creating.

That said, it’s been important for me to establish boundaries in terms of what is and isn’t fair game. I’ll joke (joke! I swear it was a joke!) about stealing my kids’ Halloween candy, but I wouldn’t, for example, post a picture of them in their Halloween costumes, and I would never talk about where I was, with or without my kids, with one of those “tell us where you are!” Twitter geographical markers.

I’m also careful about the tweeting-all-day-long thing, and Twitter TMI. I’ve seen people who tweet once every 10 minutes, and have absolutely no filters. They’ll post everything: random links, pictures of their kids, stories about their spouses, intimate information about their illnesses and medications and job histories — all kinds of stuff that has no business being in a public, searchable domain — and I just cringe.

In addition to all of this personal information that’s now floating around the Internet, it’s hard to imagine anyone tweeting that frequently getting any work done. I don’t want my readers — or, God forbid, my editor — ever looking at my timeline and thinking, “Wow, she’s not working very hard.”

You recently released your first ghost story. Is this the first time you’ve written a digital short story, and what did or didn’t you like about the experience?

“Recalculating” was the first ghost story I’ve published (not the first one I’ve written — important distinction), and I have to say, I was really pleased with every aspect of the experience. One of the things traditionally published writers envy about our self-published peers is the immediacy with which their work can go from their hard-drive to the marketplace.

I was thrilled that everyone at Atria pulled together to get the story on sale on Halloween, and that we were able to get the story edited, copy-edited, formatted, and have a great cover designed. My only frustration was that it took some outlets longer than others to get it online. But, all things considered, to be able to write a story on a Wednesday, edit and revise on a Thursday, and have it for sale, with a cover, on Monday morning, felt magical.

I read on your blog that prior to writing “Recalculating,” you sent a tweet asking if anyone had ever written a story about a possessed GPS. This is just one small example of how you’ve used technology as a resource. In what other ways has technology helped you as a writer?

Like I said, Twitter’s a great big conversation, and an easy way to gauge interest in a topic is just stand up on a virtual chair and say, “Hey, excuse me, has anyone ever read about X? Would anyone want to read about X?” It’s a way to get immediate feedback that I’m not sure writers ever had before — you could always poll your friends and family, or co-workers, but in terms of being able to ask readers, “Would you read a story about this?” or “If you saw an ad in such-and-such publication, would it encourage you to buy a book?” Twitter is unbeatable.

I also think that readers like to be asked their opinion. I remember reading somewhere that, if you wanted to make a friend, you should ask someone for help. Sounds counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t your friends be the people you helped, instead of the ones who helped you? But it turns out there’s something about the way people are wired that predisposes us to respond and feel connected to those who ask us for help.

I think if readers feel like they’ve had a hand in the creation — if they gave their feedback on a cover or a title or an idea or an advertising plan — they’re that much more likely to buy the book, if only to see how it all turned out. But, often, I’m not thinking about any of that when I pose a question on Twitter; I’m thinking that I just need help!

In terms of other uses of technology, I don’t know how anyone did anything before Google. I remember, back in the early 1990′s when I was a newspaper reporter, having to go to the library — the physical library — and look up actual clippings that had been cut out and glued to pieces of paper, and that was how you learned things. Crazy, right?

But the most important thing technology’s given modern writers is a way to build connections, and that’s especially important for genre writers, who aren’t going to have the big newspapers and magazines do that work for them. If you’re an award-winning, literary, once-every-nine-years literary writer, you can depend on The New York Times, and the news magazines and The New Yorker, announcing your latest work with great fanfare, multiple reviews and breathless profiles.

If you’re more of an in-the-trenches writer, you’ll never get that kind of notice, and you have to do that work yourself. Twitter, and blogging and Facebook, are all ways of keeping in touch with your readers, giving them access to your voice between books, and giving them one of the three reminders that marketing studies say consumers need before they’ll actually commit to buying something.

What other writers or journalists do you think are good at using technology to build a brand and an audience?

It’s an interesting question, because I think that what social media and technology are good for is maintaining an audience, maybe more than building one. You can look at writers who have huge Twitter followings but aren’t best sellers, and deduce that there are plenty of people happy to read what they say, at 140 characters per publication, for free, but don’t want to invest in a book. It’s easy to click “like” on a Facebook page or “follow” on a Twitter account, but that’s not the same as clicking “buy book now” and investing $12.99 or 26 bucks when the new one comes out.

I’m curious about writers who have huge followings on Twitter that don’t seem to line up with their sales, and I wonder whether this has to do with a tweeting voice that’s different than the voice of their fiction. If you’re using Twitter to build your audience, and if your ultimate goal is to translate those Twitter followers into book buyers, I think you’d want your Twitter voice to be in line with your writing voice. (I love Colson Whitehead on Twitter and in print, but I do wonder what happens when someone who’s followed him on Twitter picks up “John Henry Days,” which is written in a very different voice than the one he tweets in.)

In terms of using Twitter to give readers something extra, I think Laura Zigman’s “frenemy” videos are a smart use of Twitter and YouTube to give readers lagniappes — little extra bites of content that, ideally, would get them excited about Laura’s next book.

In terms of writers whose tweeting voice and writing voices match, I think Harlan Coben and Julie Klam are good examples. Judy Blume is great — friendly, approachable, entirely authentic — and every time she pops up in my timeline, I have an “OMG! Judy Blume” moment, so that’s cool.

I think professionally funny people are some of the best at using Twitter to build their brands. Mindy Kaling is great at Twitter. So is Aziz Ansari. Spoof accounts are great — I am addicted to the guy (or lady) who’s tweeting in the persona of Jeffrey Eugenides’ vest.

And no discussion of using technology to build a brand would be complete without mention of Ron Charles at The Washington Post, whose “Totally Hip Book Reviewer” segments on YouTube are hilarious, and, for me, book reviewing’s best shot at staying relevant in a world where, truly, everyone’s a critic.

Feel free to add anything else that you think an audience of journalists might be interested in hearing.

My sense is that what matters most on Twitter and social media is authenticity. People have gotten very savvy about knowing when they’re being sold something, or when somebody is not, as they say on “The Bachelor,” “there for the right reasons.” My advice for would-be Tweeters is to find something you’re passionate about, something that goes beyond links to your latest story or plugs for your latest book.

Maybe you’ve got hilarious things to say about your kids, or “Dancing with the Stars.” Maybe you take gorgeous pictures of the food you cook every night, or sunsets, or you post your running diary and weekly race reports. Whatever it is, polish it, edit it, give it the same attention that anything else you were going to publish would get. Make it funny, make it trenchant, make it pithy and relevant and smart, and the followers will come.

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