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Over the past few years, authors have felt increasing pressure to promote their works and brands online. This is especially true in the romance world, where wired readers have been quick to adopt e-books, and book discussion blogs have sprung up like wildflowers.

Reaching out to readers and making it easy for those readers to pass the message along has clear benefits, but online self-promotion can also be a big time sink, and many authors worry about the erosion of the line between the professional and the personal.

Teresa Medeiros spent a lot of time thinking about the pros and cons of using social media before writing Goodnight Tweetheart (Gallery, 2010), a Twitter-themed romance. She believes that connecting with readers online enhances her enjoyment of the creative life, but she cautions authors against its addictive qualities. “If you’re not careful, the Internet will gobble up your entire life,” she says. “I recently started making my mornings Internet-free and doing all of my writing on a laptop with no Internet connection. Let’s face it—online promotion of your books could easily become a full-time career if you’re not careful. But if you’re not writing regularly, then it won’t be long before there’s nothing to promote.”

Medeiros involves herself in social networking in an effort to drive traffic to her Web site and expand her e-mail list. “Our Web sites and our e-mail lists are the two things that we control,” she points out. “I’ve learned from numerous sources that e-mail marketing is still far more effective in driving book sales than social media. That’s why we all get those e-mail blasts from Amazon every morning.”

Jill Shalvis, author of the upcoming Time Out (Harlequin Blaze, Feb.), starting blogging to stave off the loneliness of novel writing. “I wanted to connect,” she says, “and people started showing up. I quickly realized that I had a fantastic marketing tool. So I spread it from my blog to Facebook and Twitter. People are out there talking about me, and that can’t hurt.” Shalvis is all too aware of the pitfalls of social networking, though: in her novel Simply Irresistible (Forever, 2010), the protagonists’ relationship becomes fodder for their small town’s Facebook page.

Michele Grant (Pretty Boy Problems, Dafina, Aug. 2012) takes a very personal approach with her award-winning Black ’n Bougie blog, created in 2010 as a platform to promote her first book. “I certainly don’t go out of my way to be controversial, but I do shoot straight with my opinions and ideals,” she says. “My thinking was that if people liked my writing on the blog; they would like my writing in books. Even if they don’t agree with my opinions on the blog, they can admire the way I state them. If that sparks someone to buy a book, then it’s a win.”

Like Grant, Victoria Dahl (Real Men Will, HQN, Nov.) is renowned for her very personal, very opinionated online presence. “When I first started, I tried to be ‘professional,’ but I’d get off topic,” she says. “I’d get a little inappropriate, then I’d try to get back on task. But you know what? People were more interested in conversations that had nothing to do with books or writing. And at some point, I stopped worrying about whether or not I was doing it right. I just started enjoying it. I started to be myself. I think that’s why people enjoy my Twitter feed.”

While Dahl cheerfully shares every detail of her life (sample tweet: “Last thing I did before trip? Cleaned toilets”), many authors are reluctant to get so personal. Fortunately, there are other ways to provide interesting, engaging content that keeps fans coming back. Gena Showalter (The Darkest Seduction, HQN, Feb.) occasionally offers exclusive digital fiction on her Web site and likes to preview book covers. She also runs contests and posts video trailers, chats, and interviews. “Because word of mouth is so key to sales, I like to host ‘help me promote my book’ contests,” she says. “Readers enter by discussing my books online (good or bad). It’s easy to do, so anyone can enter. Plus, the prize might interest someone who’s never before heard of me.”

Meljean Brook (Heart of Steel, Berkley, Nov.) also finds contests very useful in rewarding her readers and reaching new ones. “They work on multiple levels,” she says, “the first being exposure: building name recognition and getting a description of my book in front of readers who might not have otherwise heard of it. For those new readers who win a book and enjoy it, they usually talk about it to other readers, and so I’ll receive word-of-mouth promotion that goes beyond the contest. For my established readers, giving away books is one of the few ways that I can say thank you for being loyal; I wish I could give everyone free copies. Large-scale giveaways are the most effective. When I give away one or two copies at a time, I receive a little exposure and I think it’s a fun bonus for guest blogs, but when I give away 20 or 30 copies, I see many more entries from readers who haven’t tried my books yet—and that also means that 20 or 30 more copies are going out and building that word-of-mouth promotion.”

Lisa Kleypas and her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, are rewarding fans who boost her forthcoming Rainshadow Road (Feb.). Using Facebook, Twitter, and Kleypas’s Web site and e-newsletter, they encourage fans to join “Lisa’s Divas” and receive early excerpts and plenty of swag in return for spreading the word about the book. This level of publisher involvement is not available to many authors, but Kleypas points out, “New content is something that publishers are happy to promote, especially when it ties in to a series. For example, I wrote a free 10,000-word story called ‘A Hathaway Wedding,’ which St. Martin’s put on its Web site to help stir up interest in the Hathaway historical series.”

Those Who Can, Also Teach

Writers love to teach and readers love to learn, so it’s no surprise that some romance novelists’ sites have an educational bent. Historical novelists Loretta Chase (Scandal Wears Satin, Avon, July 2012) and Susan Holloway Scott (The Countess and the King, NAL, 2010) write the Two Nerdy History Girls blog, making breezy daily posts about historical garb, manor houses, love affairs, and historical men behaving badly. These posts, which Chase says are designed to “give readers insight into our writer personalities” can be read on the Web or delivered daily via e-mail—and those e-mails aren’t boring walls of text, but entertaining and informative daily missives full of photos and links.

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