By now, you may have heard that Twitter's 6.1 million unique monthly visitors make it the third most popular social network, compared to Facebook's 78.5 million users and MySpace's 65.7 million users, according to Quantcast. But as more authors, publishers, booksellers, retailers and book reviewers log on to use Twitter as a promotional and professional tool, there's also plenty of skepticism. Is it worth the time commitment involved? What benefits have industry users found? To answer these questions, PW attended O'Reilly's Tools of Change conference last month, talked with early adopters and plunged directly into the Twitter experience (follow PW at

How Twitter Works

Twitter basics are simple. A tweet is a message of no more than 140 characters, often composed with a bit of shorthand and the help of Web URL-shrinking programs. A retweet (or RT) is when you repeat someone else's tweet to your followers. Followers are those who see your tweets. You can follow anyone, and anyone can follow you, unless you choose to lock your account and approve your followers. But following someone isn't the same as being friends—the person you're following won't see your tweets unless you address them directly or they have chosen to follow you. The number of followers you have is a measure of success, “but quality counts, too,” observes Kelly Leonard, Hachette's director of online marketing. “Some bloggers have exponential influence when they retweet your messages.”

The biggest mistake corporate users make on Twitter is employing it as a one-way megaphone for their marketing messages. Practiced users say it's better to build two-way communication by following those who follow you. “Twitter is like a bank account: you have to put in more deposits than withdrawals,” explains Leonard. “A post about my author appearing on The Today Show is a withdrawal, because it's not 100% for the community. Deposits are about direct engagement with your audience and providing valuable information that's retweeted.”

Why Users Like Twitter

Power users like Leonard and Richard Nash, a marketing and editorial consultant who was the editorial director of Soft Skull/Counterpoint, cite five key benefits of Twitter:

Info filtering: Twitter is a fast way to find out what people who share your interests are thinking, reading and blogging about, 24/7.Targeted networking: It's easy to find smart, likeminded people and jump into a conversation; some of Twitter's biggest names will answer back, too.Direct engagement: What better way to explore reader attitudes and feedback, and to spot new trends, than by talking directly with your customers?Amplification: Retweeted messages are a powerful way to drive Web traffic.Opt in or out: You can tweet as much as you want or lurk without comment, though consistent tweeting and audience engagement are key to attracting and keeping followers.

But even enthusiasts admit that it takes two to three weeks to gain confidence with Twitter, and several months to achieve proficiency. That's partly because of the 140-character message limit, and partly because it takes some observation to learn what makes for a good tweet.

Success Story: Chelsea Green

While most publishers are still figuring out their Twitter strategy, Chelsea Green has attracted more than 3,000 followers since it started Twittering last July. Web manager Jesse McDougall has found that, beyond driving traffic to the house's blog, his campaign has helped the house's books and authors grab the attention of the Huffington Post, Tree Hugger and other major blogs, enabling Chelsea Green to create relationships with these sites and to bring their books to the attention of millions of people through them. In fact, the effort has been so rewarding that Chelsea Green is launching a consulting business to advise other independent publishers on using social media.

McDougall started building his Twitter community by following people who knew a lot about sustainable and green living. “When we had information to contribute from our books, we just threw it out there,” he says. Gradually, McDougall added a weekly contest at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays, for which he puts out a Twitter alert asking people to go to the Chelsea Green site and choose a book they want to win; the 10th person to pick a title gets a free book. “It has grown quickly, and we haven't gotten any negative feedback,” says McDougall. He also runs an Ask the Author program on Twitter, Facebook and the Chelsea Green blog, asking readers to post questions for particular authors and offering the chance to win a free book. “We're always trying to come up with fun things to keep our followers growing,” McDougall explains.

Maintaining Chelsea Green's Twitter account takes no more than an hour a day, according to McDougall. “On contest days, I spend an hour running the account—promoting the contest through the morning, then running the contest later. Otherwise, I spend half an hour on @ChelseaGreen [the publisher's Twitter account], jumping in and out, posting things when I have a moment. It's not like e-mail you have to answer.”