Nearly a year ago, PW looked at a handful of indie presses and major imprints to gauge their use of Twitter. The piece showed most imprints had a few thousand followers, and that some savvy indies were more adept at using the social networking service than the big houses. The story ran at a time when the industry was grappling with what exactly to do with—and on—the social networking service. Is it for publicizing books? Cultivating brands? A province for authors? For marketers? And, most importantly, can you actually use it to sell books?
Although there are many in the industry who still feel Twitter is more of a time-suck than anything else, some continue to find ways to promote themselves and their books through the site. The key, said those who've become publishing names on Twitter, is talking to people—not at them.
One firm fact of the publishing Twittersphere is that it's a meritocracy. CEOs and editorial assistants—if they're skilled (and frequent) tweeters—can draw equal crowds. Hence, when we asked a number of publishing folk who they follow, people frequently cited Chelsea Green's Kate Rados (who has nearly 800 followers on her personal @KateRados, in addition to controlling CG's other two, more popular, feeds) as well as execs like Twitter superstar Tim O'Reilly (@Timoreilly has 1,425,227 followers) and Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt (who, as @MichaelHyatt, has just over 78,200). And it's in the Twitterverse that @JaneFriedman, the Twitter moniker for the editorial director of F+W Media's Writer's Digest, has 6,656 followers compared to the 1,008 followers for @OpenRoadMedia (the feed that former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman often tweets from).
Rados, who is director of digital initiatives at Chelsea Green, talks shop on her own Twitter account and banters with well-known publishing 'tweeps' (that's Twitter peeps for the uninitiated) like @glecharles (Guy L. Gonzalez, director of programming and business development for Digital Book World, and outspoken Tweeter who has 2,952 followers). She also controls CG's @chelseagreen and @greentweet (which have 13,160 and 12,921 followers, respectively). Rados, who was named repeatedly as someone who 'gets' Twitter, said she believes the social networking site can sell books. 'An author can tweet about their life, their process, start a conversation about their characters, and those readers who feel a connection will most likely buy a book. I know I do,' she said. Rados then elaborated with an example, pointing to Jen Lancaster, author of My Fair Lazy, who she follows. The day Lancaster's new book came out, Rados said she bought it, in hardback.
While Twitter is clearly a platform for authors who can gain fans by lifting the veil on their process and their life, it isn't for selling books directly. In fact, the sales approach is one thing that doesn't work. As Rados explained, on Twitter it's extremely important to be genuine. 'Be the assistant in the marketing department. Be the digital director.' Then she added: 'You can't fake it on Twitter.'
Of course, being able to mix the personal and professional, seamlessly, is one of the difficulties for those less comfortable with the site. Should you tweet about what you had for breakfast? That you're on an overheated subway car? What's worth saying and not worth saying?
@AAKnopf, the Twitter feed that saw the biggest increase in followers on our list, is run by two members of the imprint's marketing department, Mary Buckley (assistant manager of advertising and promotions) and Pam Cortland (assistant marketing manager). The duo's boss, Anne-Lise Spitzer, said she thinks the feed works because it's not just about book promotion. Although Buckley and Cortland don't go as far as sharing personal activities—no one following @AAKnopf would even know their names—the feed is meant to engage followers in a larger conversation about literature. 'They really created a voice,' Spitzer said, noting that the tweets combine a mixture of interesting news (often tied, directly and sometimes not-so-directly, to Knopf authors) and the occasional hard sell (a book giveaway or details about a reading or other event).
For publishing tweeps with personal accounts, the line between what's acceptable and not is fuzzier. FinePrint agent Colleen Lindsay (@colleenlindsay), who commands a following of 20,830, seems to have struck a balance between being honest and informative. Lindsay tweets regularly about work—she even started an informal dialogue with writers called #askagent about the dos and don'ts of submissions—as well as other topics ranging from her cats' activities to queer politics. According to Lindsay, she's merely talking about her passions. 'Has Twitter raised my profile as an agent? Absolutely. Do I think all 20,000 followers are actually paying attention to what I say at any given time? Heck, no.'
While Lindsay thinks Twitter is invaluable for networking and talking shop, she thinks that editors may soon have more sway than imprint-branded feeds in selling books. 'Some of the best Twitter users aren't found in the marketing or publicity departments,' she said. 'They're found in the editorial departments.' These people, she said, are 'finding new ways to connect not only with potential readers but with writers and agents as well.' And since editors are the ones who are the first to champion a book within a publishing house, their ability to authentically reach readers may make the most sense.
As F+W's Jane Friedman blogged last week, and then tweeted, editors who want to take control of their professional destinies need to do so, in part, on Twitter. 'Editors ought to start taking the advice they give authors,' Friedman wrote. 'Build a platform, gain visibility, and look at the long-term trajectory of your career outside a specific publisher.'
Here is our comparison between the Twitter followings of 17 publishers this year and last year: