I read this and thought it food for thought:
Why writers must embrace social media, no matter the genreGuest blogger and local novelist Sara Sheridan shares her digital journey, arguing that writers need to grasp social media or risk losing their rights - including freedom of speech
Share Comments (14) Sara Sheridan Living in Edinburgh I consider myself particularly lucky – we have the biggest book festival in the world, a plethora of fascinating libraries and museums and some of the greatest architecture in Europe. It would be easy not to look outwards at all – our capital city is a comfortable puddle for a novelist. We are awash after all, with writers of all stripes. But that's not my nature – and I'm very aware we are the first generation ever to have such incredible opportunities to express ourselves publicly to a worldwide audience.
As an historical novelist – there are few jobs more retrospective. I dumped science at an early age. I expect that initially my interest and indeed patience for Twitter, blogs and html came from the fact I live with the Greatest Geek alive. So enormously scientific and complex is his day-to-day job that I still don't really understand what he does. Suffice to say it's something that enables 30 million users to simultaneously log onto a website without it crashing.
Before I met the Greatest Geek I avoided technology and only adopted what my more savvy friends had road-tested and recommended. I was the last to get an email account in the late 1990s, the last to indulge in online shopping and I still sport a brick of a mobile phone rather than a flash Android or iPhone (this last because one of the prerequisites for my mobile phone is that I have to be able to fling it at a wall if I lose my temper). However, I'm a professional writer and I consider it part of my job to publicise my work and these days part of that job is done online.
Beyond the book festivals
I was reluctant. The Greatest Geek poured me a whisky and sat me down and said he'd help, but that this was my job and I'd have to do most of it myself (his time being taken up with the 30 million users). I started by building a website for my work on Google Sites and soon I was clicking the html button with aplomb and could understand enough to delete rogue lines or alter links.
Then, on a trip to London I was introduced to someone in the digital marketing department at HarperCollins who told me I ought to try Twitter. My soul rebelled. This wasn't my thing. No way. But I started - tentatively at first, and then surprisingly, I found I really enjoyed it. Writers don't get to meet readers very often and when they do it's only for a short time (after a book festival or library event, for example). On Twitter, people who had read my book followed me and I could see what else they were reading, why they'd liked what I'd written and by the by, more about them than I'd ever elicit from two minutes in a tent at a book festival, stuck at a signing desk. It was fascinating.
Next I started following and being followed by librarians and archivists, schoolteachers, events organisers, writers, bookshops, agents and publishers. A whole network was opening up. People were interested and fun and generous. I was offered a couple of event slots and the opportunity to write for a magazine. A famous writer to whom I got chatting gave me career advice. Then I decided I'd try blogging and wrote (non historical pieces) for other people's blogs rather than starting one of my own. The response was wonderful – people got back in numbers and told me what they thought – not something that happens when you're writing a story based in 1840s China or Arabia.
After that, I tried Facebook (which didn't really suit me as it has a bias towards personal rather than professional data) but unperturbed I continued to blog occasionally, to tweet and also administer my own website.
I joined Linkedin (to which events professionals seemed to respond) and bought a Kindle (which I love). Then people, or rather, festivals asked me to come to talk about it. And there, I think, was where I became an evangelist.
Sheridan has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, but admits initially her 'soul rebelled' against it 'What do you tweet?'
I was in a book festival green room surrounded by luminaries when I first realised there was a huge split in the writing community. I asked if anyone else was on Twitter – in fact, you'd have thought I'd asked if anyone else had recently stabbed their kids in the heart. It just poured out. Writers who'd seemed retiring and quite reasonable started to hiss about intrusion of privacy and the importance of paper books and how un-green it was to sport a Kindle. What, I asked, innocently, less green than felling trees like billy-o, transporting them all over the place and then pulping 40% of them? Privacy? Is anyone asking you to blog or tweet or even Facebook (if you must) your personal life? This is about reading and books – it's an interesting way to meet people and share information.
'What do you tweet?' one eminent writer sneered. 'Do you tell the world whenever you've had a scone?'
'Nope. Just when I'm off at a book festival or reading something interesting,' I told him. 'It's a great way to meet readers and they've all been so nice.'
This buttered no parsnips. One or two people said they simply didn't have time for 'that kind of thing'. These are people who would have dropped everything to do a newspaper interview or appear on radio. People who complained that their readership was falling and their publishing contracts were not being renewed. Even people whose readership was in the 12-16 age group, who (as yet) didn't have a website despite the fact that kids of that age are enormously active online.
One woman texted her daughter every five minutes whilst saying she had no time to write an 140 character tweet (lady, it's the same thing). It was simply odd. Other writers and book trade professionals who were taking part in the social media revolution were, like me, bemused. Then some weeks later, I was verbally attacked at a public event by a writer who was mortally offended that I'd suggested she give it a shot (at worst you might not like it, at best it could revolutionise the way you work, I'd said. She hadn't taken it well.).
These days, to be honest, as a result of that experience, I never evangelise unbidden though I am increasingly being booked for festival and writers' groups events to talk about my experiences online. I tend not to argue with writers who put up a barrage about how impossible it would be for them to have a website or start a twitter account or a facebook fanpage. It makes me sad that these are writers – professional communicators – who are shying away from a medium that is crying out for their skills and demonstrably is the best way to communicate with a wide readership.
Implications for freedom of speech
Most of all this is an era where our digital rights are being defined and because so many writers consider it beneath them, many important issues are not being considered and decided by writers themselves but by the digital operations departments of major publishing houses, online booksellers and other corporate entities.
I am not thinking only of digital copyright – net neutrality is probably the most vital issue for freedom of speech online and should be at the top of any writer's agenda. Most don't even know what that means (it's that the fastest broadband speeds might be chargeable at a rate well beyond small scale bloggers or individuals). If net neutrality is abandoned, individual voices will download so slowly that they would be unheard. This has huge implications for writers, yet in the writing community net neutrality is largely unspoken.
The net has provided a level playing field for criticism and comment – anyone and everyone is entitled to their opinion – and that is one of its greatest strengths. We're all (quite rightly) demonstrating about library closures but I worry that at this critical time in our history that many people are thrusting their heads into the sand rather than opening their eyes to what is happening – both in terms of opportunity and possibility and the actual structure that will contain us as an online community if we allow it to do so.
I didn't expect to love being online as much as I do. I've met some wonderful people and discovered that however arcane some of my interests that there are people out there who are interested too. It's also been a lesson in what my readership do and don't like and what does and doesn't work in terms of promoting my work. And best of all I've made some friends.
Sara Sheridan lives in Edinburgh and has just released her latest book, Secret of the Sands. She can be found tweeting @SaraSheridan.
Sara Sheridan Thursday 14 April 2011 12.41 BST
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