Twitter for Authors

One thing I’ve learned about this writing lark is that marketing is not something you can do in the last two weeks before you publish your book. You have to start early and build interest. Twitter, from what I’ve read, is an integral part of that. Initially, I didn’t understand Twitter and therefore avoided it for quite a while. Only when I gave myself a deserved kick up the backside did I get down and try to understand what Twitter is, how it works, and what I ought to do to make it work for me.

When I imagined Twitter as being like a cross between a huge cocktail party and a conference, suddenly everything became much clearer to me. I imagine a huge room with lots of people all talking at once; you can wander around and listen to people, and they can listen to you. Some people have little stages to stand on so they can be heard by more people. You can poke people to get their attention, and you can either talk loudly so that everyone nearby can hear you, or you can whisper in people’s ears so it’s private. But either way, because mostly everyone can wander around and listen to whatever conversations they like, and even butt in, you get to talk to people you never would elsewhere.

Why are you here? General Conduct

The aim of your time on Twitter is to establish yourself as the life and soul of the party: someone who always has some interesting and/or amusing to say, who can be relied on for a good conversation, and who is never, ever, boring. Although you are on Twitter to sell your books, just like at a party, it’s not polite to say so. Just as at a party, you may occasionally allude to your book, and you may share your absolute ecstasy that you have finally published it, but being interesting will get you much further than a constant stream of “buy my book, buy my book”. Just think: who do you avoid at the party? The guy who is an insurance salesman but only tells funny stories about selling insurance, or talks about his hobbies or current affairs – or the guy who pins you against the buffet and won’t let you escape until you’ve promised to look at his product literature?

Twitter gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with people you never would otherwise – so use the opportunity to present yourself as someone interesting to chat to, not someone they’d rather hide in the kitchen (or chew off their own arm) to escape.

Setting up

Picking your handle

Your handle is like your name badge. Mine is: @t_k_elliott – you can see that it’s a form of my name. It’s not my book title, or my main character’s name, or my favourite food. Pick any of these things if you like – it’s a free country – but do it knowing what the effects are going to be. If you pick your book title, what about when you write a second book? Or a different series with a different character? Your twitter handle is then not relevant to everything you write. If you pick your favourite food, well, that might not change – but it’s going to be quite hard to identify you from it.

So some form of your name is probably the best bet, if possible. Twitter handles are unique, so if you’ve got a common name some of the easiest forms are probably already taken. Use your imagination, but remember that ideally, you’re going to stick with the same handle forever (because you’re going to be using it in all of your publicity and other communications, so it’s going to be a pain to change).

Shorter is better – it needs to be 12 characters or less.

Your profile

Your profile is where people will go to look to find out about you.

  • Write your profile description. You get 160 characters to describe yourself, so make it good. If you’re on Twitter to market your book, say you’re a writer or an author. Say what you like to read. And say something personal. You’re marketing yourself, really, not your book (remember, Twitter is a huge party), so you want to sound nice. Include keywords (“read” “author”) and links to your blog/website/Amazon author page etc.
  • Upload a profile picture – preferably of yourself. You don’t have to be recognisable (I’m wearing a hat and dark glasses) but it gives people a face to relate to. People like to see other people’s faces, and find it off-putting if they can’t. This is not necessarily logical, but it’s what we have to live with.
  • Upload a profile background – if you have books out already, something from the covers would work nicely. Otherwise, pick something that resonates with what your books are about. At the moment, I don’t have book covers, so I’ve gone with a steampunk-type pattern that I found on the internet (marked free for reuse).
  • You can also add a pinned tweet if you get a lot of people looking at your profile, and there’s something extra you want people to see, like “I just released my first novel! #happy” with a link. This will stick it to the top if your profile where people can see it when they visit.

Following and Followers

Definitions

Following: When you “follow” someone by clicking on the “follow” button on their profile, this will make all their posts visible in your timeline.

Followers: This is when other people follow you, so what you say appears in their timeline.

What to do about it

Following

When you first arrive, you need to find some people to follow. Not doing so is the equivalent of standing in a corner nursing your drink. Go out and mingle.

As a writer, you’re presumably a reader as well. Go and find the accounts of your favourite writers and follow them. They probably won’t follow you back, but it’s good to know what they’re saying. Remember, you’re a person and a reader as well as a writer! Follow anyone you think might be interesting, regardless of whether or not you think they’ll be “useful”.

Search for some fellow writers in your genre, and follow them. If you pick some of the less well-known ones, they might follow you back. You can also look at their followers – people who are interested in the same authors that you are, are likely to be interested in the same things (and might be interested in you).

Followers

As soon as you arrive, you’ll probably start to accumulate followers. Not many at first, but some. Some might be interested in what you have to say; many will probably be either trying to sell something to you (like book promotions) or be following you mostly so that you will follow them back. Don’t despair; this is the natural way of things. When you are a newcomer, you can’t expect everyone to immediately flock to listen to your pearls of wisdom. You have to earn your followers by being worth following.

Note: there are apparently schemes by which you can buy followers. Don’t bother with this kind of thing, because it’s not only against the rules, but it’s silly. Having 50,000 followers is no good unless they’re real people who want to read your book. Don’t get suckered into just thinking about number of followers: consider the quality too. If you have 250 followers who really like what you have to say, and with whom you have a lot of interaction, that’s far more valuable than 10,000 followers who are really computers, or who don’t care about you and what you write.

Following back

It’s a sort of Twitter custom that if someone follows you, you should consider following them back. Right at the start, it’s probably best to follow everyone back who follows you unless you read their Twitter stream and they look like the kind of person you really dislike. Later on, when your following grows, you can start weeding people out.

Bottom Line

  • You want real people following you, not bots.
  • Find people to follow. Some will follow you back (usually people on your level!) and some won’t. But if you’re following interesting people, it’s all good.
  • Follow people back if they follow you, unless they’re the sort of person (or company) that is never going to say anything to interest you, and probably won’t ever read your books. If you can’t decide, then follow. You can always unfollow later.

Writing Posts

This is the scary part. As an author, you are used to working in the thousands-of-words – not 140 characters. How are you going to find things to say? And how often?

How often?

There are some people who seem to spend their entire lives on Twitter. You do not have to be one of those people. On the other hand, you do need to Tweet regularly, or people will forget about you. Remember, this is a huge party – it’s the regulars who get the attention. The only people who get noticed when they only show up once in a blue moon are people who are already celebrities. That is not you.

One tweet every day is a good place to start. Once you get into the swing of it, you may find yourself tweeting more – this is likely, as you will start to interact with people.

What to write?

There are different kinds of posts, which do different jobs.

  • The Original Tweet. This is the classic 140-character bon mot composed by you. Alternatively, you might tweet a link to something written by you, e.g. a blog post. The only rule is that what you write must be interesting, so unless you are a celebrity, keep the tweets about what you had for breakfast to a minimum.
  • The Link Tweet. This is where you compose a tweet, but the important information is stuff written by someone else – e.g. a newspaper article, or a blog post. This is useful because it provides you with something interesting to say with minimum effort, but it also demonstrates that you are interested in what other people say. Also, the person whose stuff you have tweeted may get a notification that you did it (which might make them interested in you).
  • The Retweet. This is a tweet by someone else that you pass along to your followers because you think they might be interested. When you do this, the person whose tweet it was gets a notification. This means that retweets are valuable in several ways: firstly, you have tweeted something interesting to your followers without having to figure out what to say yourself. Secondly, you have attracted the attention of someone who said something interesting (who might now be interested in you). Thirdly, you have done a favour for the person whose tweet it was, by passing their tweet on to your followers (so they, again, might be interested in you). Having your own tweets retweeted is obviously excellent exposure, especially when done by someone with more followers than you, because it passes on your tweet far beyond your immediate followers.
    • Note: you can retweet a “plain” tweet by just passing it on, or you can add a few words of your own.
  • The Reply. This is when someone else asks a question, or says something interesting, and you reply directly to them. Only reply if you have something interesting and relevant to say (just like butting into a real life conversation – only do it if you will add value).
  • The Poll. This is what it says it is. You can set up to four choices, and people pick one, and you get the results.

There is also the Like, which is where you click the little heart button on the bottom of someone’s tweet; this triggers a notification to the tweeter that you have “liked” their tweet. This functions just like “likes” on Facebook:

  • as a way of showing that you approve of the tweet without actually having to reply;
  • as a way of ending a conversation politely and thus avoiding an endless stream of tweets because neither of you wants to be the one to stop.

It’s good to have a mix of original work, links to other people’s work, and retweets. Replies are good too, but are less controllable because they rely on other people saying something that you can usefully reply to.

When to write?

The best times of day to tweet are, apparently, early morning and late evening – presumably because most people have day jobs with bosses who (oddly) may not be too happy with their employees surfing Twitter during working hours. However, I would say that the best time to tweet is when you have time. If you wait for the “best” time, you risk not tweeting at all if it’s not convenient for you. Any time is better than not at all.

When you get more into the swing of this, you may want to use one of the programs/apps that allow you to schedule your tweets: write it now, publish it later. This means that you can write a whole bunch of tweets in one go, and have them published at one-hour intervals, or on particular dates, or whenever. There are plenty of apps that do this: Crowdfire is one that is free – I use that one. Hootsuite is apparently excellent, and does all sorts of wonderful things, but requires a subscription.

Using Hashtags # and Mentions @

Hashtags #

Hashtags (putting the #symbol in front of the word) turn a word into a search term. Thus, if you write #Book, then you can type #Book into the search box and see all the tweets which have been tagged the same way. This is useful for two reasons.

  • Hashtags allow you to search only for tweets which have been deliberately tagged, rather than any tweets that include the word. This is useful for words like “book”, which might be used in a lot of tweets, not all about ebooks (“I’ll book a table” for instance).
  • Hashtags allow you to have a conversation about a particular thing or event. Events are often given their own hashtags, usually a word or acronym that isn’t used in general conversation, so that anyone interested can follow the discussion easily by searching for the hashtag.
    • Note: if a hashtag is being used for someone else’s event, or for a particular purpose, it’s bad manners to hijack it for something else.
  • Hashtags can be used for comic effect. For instance, a popular hashtag amongst authors is #amwriting; if you wished to tweet about all the things that were preventing you from writing, then you might list them all, and hashtag it #amnotwriting.

Note: it’s bad form to use more than three hashtags in a tweet, unless you’ve got a very good reason.

Mentions @

You should have noticed that people’s handles all have the @ symbol in front of them. This enables you to give people a virtual poke, by including their handle (with the @) in your tweet. When you mention them in this way, they get a notification. There are two ways to mention people:

  • @handle at the beginning of the tweet: if you put the handle at the beginning, then it turns the tweet into something that’s sort of semi-private. It will be seen by you, the person you mentioned, and anyone who follows both of you. This is for when you are having a conversation with a person, or persons (you can mention more than one person in a row: @joebloggs @janedoe), or replying directly to a tweet by them. The mentioned person will get a notification.
  • @handle anywhere else in the tweet: if you put the handle anywhere except the beginning, the tweet will be shown to all your followers, plus the person whom you mentioned. The person you mentioned will also get a notification.

Mentions are very useful, when used properly. For instance, if you have written a nice review of an author’s book on your website, you can tweet: “What I Did On My Holidays by @author – a great read! #bookreview” with a link to the post on your blog. This will notify the author, and it’s likely that s/he will read it and be happy, and may also retweet it to their followers, thus increasing your exposure.

Note: only @mention a person when you really want them to notice, not just when you’re casually talking about them. Don’t be annoying.

Direct Messages

Direct messages are Twitter’s way of allowing users to say something private to each other. It is designed for private conversations, but it can also be used to set up automatic DMs to all your followers, or to new followers.

In general, do not set up automatic direct messages. It might be tempting to send someone an auto-DM when they follow you, just to say “Thanks for following”, but it’s not necessary – and it’s irritating, because then you get a notification that you take time to go and look at, which proves just to be some auto-DM not telling you anything interesting.

Keep direct messaging for private conversations.

It’s very tempting to use DMs for book marketing, because that’s the one way you can be certain that all your followers will get your message. However, this is very annoying and – speaking from personal experience – probably the one thing that is most likely to make me not buy someone’s book. Do not spam people. It’s rude and it’s counter-productive. People will buy your book if they think you’re nice and/or interesting, but not if you’re boring and/or a spammer.

Lists

Lists are very useful when you get to the point where you are following several hundred people. They are also useful for sort-of following people whom you don’t want to be seen following (if you’re a company, you might want to track your competitor without actually following their account, for instance).

If you are following a lot of people, then your tweet stream is going to get full of all sorts of stuff, some of which might be interesting, and some not. Or maybe it’s all interesting, but you want to be able to look at posts from different people at different times. This is where lists come in.

What is a list?

A list is almost like a tweet-curator. Anybody can create a list (e.g. of the accounts of the top bog-snorkelers in the world), and the tweets of the people on the list form their own twitter stream. You can see how useful this is: you can create a list called, say, “Writing Advice” and add to it a number of interesting people who tweet giving writing advice. This will give you a stream composed of (nearly) nothing but writing advice. So whenever you want to read tweets about writing advice, that’s where you go.

Once you are following more than a couple of hundred people, Lists become essential. If you think of all of those accounts posting at least one tweet a day, that’s at least a couple of hundred tweets and likely a lot more. You aren’t going to have time to comb through all that looking for the really interesting stuff, or stuff you can reply to/retweet. What you need is a way to sort all those people so you can only see the tweets you want to see.

Personally, I have quite a few lists, things like:

  • Writers
  • Readers
  • Book promotion
  • Writing Advice
  • Fun to Follow
  • Generally Interesting

So I can go to whichever list is likely to contain what I want to read about at the moment.

At the moment, I tend to put every single person I follow onto one of the lists, as this makes it more likely I will be able to see it when they say something interesting.

Public and Private Lists

Public Lists

Public lists are visible to everybody, and anybody can follow public lists, just as if they were a person. This is useful because it means you don’t have to create a list yourself – you can follow someone else’s.

It’s also good to remember that when you add a person to a public list, they get a notification that they’ve been added.

Private Lists

Private lists work the same as public lists, except that they are only visible to you (and therefore can’t be followed by anyone else) and the people you put on the lists don’t know that they’ve been added to a list.

Housekeeping

When you have been on Twitter for a while, you will probably want to do some housekeeping. One reason for this might be Twitter’s volume limits: everyone is allowed to follow up to 5000 people, but over this, and you may not be able to follow any more unless you have a certain number of followers yourself. The rules are inflexible, but nobody really knows what they are. But they are a good reason for tidying up your account every now and then.

The easiest way to do this is to get one of the Twitter-housekeeping apps: I use Crowdfire, but there are others.

You will need to:

  • Unfollow any accounts that are inactive (i.e., haven’t posted anything for months).
  • Unfollow any non-useful/boring accounts that aren’t following you back.
  • If you have enough followers, consider unfollowing non-useful/boring accounts even if they are following you.

Note: don’t unfollow too many accounts all at once. Twitter doesn’t like people who follow lots of people then unfollow lots on a frequent basis (this is called “churning”). It’s a better strategy to do your housekeeping once a week, and start early – that way, you never have many inactive/non-useful/boring accounts to unfollow at any one time.

This serves two purposes: it clears your “following” out so you’re less likely to get caught by Twitter’s limits, and – in the case of boring/non-useful accounts – stops your feed getting filled up by boring/non-useful content.

Dealing with People who Annoying

The best way to deal with people who are annoying is to not have to read their stuff. There are two ways to do this: blocking and muting.

Blocking

You can do this by right-clicking on the little cogwheel on their profile. It gives you several options, one of which is “block or report”. When you click that, you will have to choose why you are blocking them (including “this account is annoying” or “this account is abusive”). You can also use this method to report an account, if they are being abusive.

Blocking does the following things:

  • Unfollows you from that account (if you are following them). You can’t follow them again unless you unblock them.
  • You don’t get any notification if that account mentions you.
  • They can’t:
    • Follow you
    • Direct message you
    • View your following or followers lists, likes or other lists (when they are logged in)
    • Add you to their lists
    • Tag you in a photo
  • Tweets from the blocked account will not appear in your stream, but if another account (that you haven’t blocked) mentions them then those tweets won’t be blocked.

Blocking is the closest you can get to making a person not exist in your twitter universe.

Muting

Muting is a less-extreme method of dealing with people who are just annoying – for instance, people who just won’t shut up.

You can do this the same way as blocking, only you choose “mute”.

This is useful for people you still might want to follow, but you don’t want their tweets to show up in your stream. This sounds crazy, but if there is someone who occasionally says something interesting in amongst a ton of dreck, or you want them on your “following” list so you know where to find them for some reason, but you don’t want your timeline full of their babbling, you can mute them. You are still following them (and they you, if they are).

A muted account can still send you a direct message.

  • If you are following them: replies and mentions from the muted account will still appear in your notifications list.
  • If you are not following them: replies and mentions from the muted account will not appear in your notifications list.

Summary: Tiffany’s Rules for Twitter

  • Get started early. Months before you plan to release your book. You need time to build your following.
  • Write at least one tweet every day.
  • The tweet should always be interesting: it is better to be silent than boring.
  • Have a good balance between original content (written by you), links to other people’s articles, and retweets.
  • Every day, try to find a few new people to follow.
  • If someone follows you, always follow back unless you have a good reason not to.
  • Use hashtags and mentions carefully – they can be very useful for increasing exposure.
  • Have patience! You’re the new guy/girl at the party: you can’t expect to be the centre of attention immediately. However, if you work at it, you will gain a circle of friends who will be fun to know (and might also buy your books).
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