Twitter and the Book Trade: The good, the bad and the ugly

Twitter and the Book Trade: The good, the bad and the ugly

Watching some publishing types trying to use Twitter can be like witnessing a French kiss at a family reunion: embarrassing, painful and very wrong.

It’s not their fault.  

There’s no rulebook for Twitter, no easy way of knowing the etiquette (of which there is a fair amount).  It’s open and instant; it can be intimidating.  It you’re tweeting from a company account or under a brand, it raises issues that are completely new in corporate communication.  Twitter is not a one-way marketing channel.  How can a brand have individual opinions?  How do you empower - and trust - your employees to voice these?  It is also highly individual - what works for an author won’t necessary work for a publicist, bookseller, or agent.

There are two types of bad tweeter.  Those who want to be on Twitter (but don’t quite understand it) and those who feel (or someone in their company feels) that they should be on Twitter - that they need to be on Twitter.  Keep up!  At all costs!  These are the worst.  Endless, recycled press releases.  Never-ending plugs.  Idiotic comments.  Unwilling to engage in conversation.  Stepping on people’s toes.  Failing to credit RTs.  Damaging their reputation, or worse, their company’s.

Perhaps this is understandable for an industry that is only now appointing heads of digital. 

However, there are some that do it very well - authors who have successfully used this new way of communicating to their advantage, publicists who are able to blend the professional with the personal.

Novelist Jo Jo Moyes says, “I use Twitter because it's full of interesting, funny people, and it's a really good way to connect with your readers. I love it when someone tells me they've just read one of my books, and what they think. And I love hearing other writers' thoughts about what they're doing. It has, if it doesn't sound too dramatic, actually changed my life.” 

Jessica Ruston agrees with her: “Twitter is a complete sanity saver for me. It's my virtual office where I can catch up with other writers, make new contacts and have fun.”  Nick Harkaway calls it his “office water cooler” and Danuta Kean says, “Twitter is quite simply a great water cooler for writers. And if you write about trends, it's a great place to listen and test out ideas.”  Author and columnist India Knight uses Twitter because “I work from home and Twitter makes me feel like I work in the best office imaginable - all of the jokes, all of the news and none of the tedium”.

Writing is a lonely process; it’s little wonder that writers seek out company from the comfort of their own writing rooms.

Katie Fforde says that Twitter is her “Friend, research tool, gossip supplier and time waster, work displacement - everything really” and Sue Cook uses it “to share hopes and fears and cake-envy with other authors, keep tabs on the writing world and the world in general.”

It’s not all gossip and chatter though.  PD Smith uses Twitter for research and enjoys getting an insight into “what makes other authors tick.”  “It's my ego in 140 characters or less,” says novelist Gavin James Bower, although he should be careful.  Nobody wants to end up on a website like, where “self-important tweets get the recognition they deserve.”  Example:

OMG i was saying how i couldn't afford the gas to fly daddy's jet to the riviera this summer, and this barista totally rolled her eyes at me (@babesmcphee)

or my own personal favourite:

it's so life-affirming when the poor fall in love (ibid).

All of the authors I spoke to had something in common: none of them mentioned sales.  They’re not on Twitter to sell books.  This, beyond anything else, has ensured their success on the platform.  Twitter users are savvy and intelligent, for the most part.  They hate being sold to, spammed at, and can spot a rewritten press release from the other side of the country.  If a sale happens to result from their tweeting (which it often does) then this is considered a happy bonus.

As a journalist and author, Hephzibah Anderson has two different takes on Twitter - the first, as a journalist, to “test drive ideas, swiftly gauge opinion and drive readers to articles.”  She warns against underestimating Twitter as a news service, too - something that Sue Cook agrees with:  “You can follow any interest or event worldwide instantly using the hashtag system - from trivia like TV programmes to earthquakes.”  As an experienced broadcaster as well as a novelist, Sue understands its power as a method of communication, and talked about it in detail recently on her new BBC radio show, The Write Lines.  Secondly, Hephzibah tweets under the name of her book (@Chastened).  Uncommon for a writer, but it aids transparency.  As an author, she uses Twitter to interact with her readers and says that it’s “Good for creating (the illusion of?) buzz and may even translate into word-of-mouth recommendations.” 

In the case of Lucy Inglis, blogger of “In a year on Twitter I have been 'found' by an agent, signed by a publisher, met the people behind avatars, and laughed and laughed.”  Amazing things can happen, especially when a platform is in its infancy. Lucy’s book is being published by Penguin in 2012.

Lucy touches on an interesting point: networking.  PD Smith uses Twitter for news on the publishing world and networking.  Most authors do, to a certain extent.  Twitter is a level playing field, unique in almost every way.  Consider the success of the #booktradetweetups.  The first, in December 2009, saw a mixture of agents, authors, editors, booksellers and bloggers meet up in a Soho bar.  The second, which I organised in February 2010 (nicknamed #twinter), swelled to 80 people. Everyone had a great time.  The conversation had moved from Twitter to a bar.  Then, in the morning, bleary-eyed, back to Twitter again.  The FutureBook drinks take this one step further - they’re informal, there is no agenda and they present an opportunity for everyone in digital publishing to meet in the real world for lively conversation with each other.  The next one’s on the 16 September - details can be found here.

Agents are, in many ways, the perfect Tweeters.  They have the authority to say what they want, they are full of interesting industry information and gossip and they’re able to promote their authors without it ever coming across as selling. 

Twitter, for agent Jonny Geller, is to “communicate enthusiasms and stir things!”  For Carole Blake, of Blake Friedman, it’s “A mixture of getting out news about my authors and agency, receiving news fast, seeing opinions and having fun.”  She also calls it “a stress reliever when working fast”.  That there are so few agents on Twitter is a missed opportunity.  Hannah Ferguson of The Marsh Agency is one that sees the potential: “I keep up with news, connect with people and celebrate books and reading.”  What more could you ask of an agent on Twitter?  

Publishers have one of the hardest jobs on Twitter.  The individual tweeter is often operating behind a company account and gain the most spam-suspicion for their tweets.  Many fail.  When they do it well, though, as Vintage Books do, it works exceptionally.

“It's an incredibly effective way to talk to our readers,” says Alison Hennessey, who runs Vintage’s Twitter account.  “To find out what they want to know from us.  Because I'm in publishing, I love talking about books. It's not a marketing method, just a natural extension of what I'm already doing with my colleagues.”

All publishers could learn a lot from watching Vintage.  Alison is an editor, as well as their Digital Media Executive and I think this helps: editors are more likely to tweet interesting things, whereas Comms departments and marketing teams are more likely to oversell and turn readers off.  One exception to this rule are the girls of Jonathan Cape - Chloe Johnson-Hill (Publicity Director), Hannah Ross (Publicity Manager) and Clara Womersley (Senior Press Officer).  Consider the following two tweets from them: 

going to see Tom McCarthy talk to @leerourke at London Review Bookshop this eve, should be ace

I tried making Nigella's Guinness gingerbread last night!  I left it in the oven too long though .... urrrgggh - stupid Clara - BURNT

Each tweet mentions one of their authors - and not a whiff of selling.  Nigh on perfect.  They’re also not afraid to post photos of their cats, either.

Simon and Schuster’s Twitter presence is slowly evolving as they learn what works and what doesn’t.  The account is run by Ally, but was, until recently, anonymous.  “It's an invaluable resource when it comes to communicating with book bloggers, getting feedback on our titles and highlighting promotion,” she says.  The tweeting isn’t as informal as the tone of their SimonSays Livejournal though, which looks like it’s being  phased out in favour of a community on Twitter.

It’s often more interesting to follow individuals at a publisher, rather than the main corporate account - Francesca Main, for instance (Senior Commissioning Editor for Simon and Schuster) understands Twitter better than most digital people.  For Stephanie Jackson, Publishing Director of Octopus, it's “easy, instant and often hilarious”.  Stephanie tweets under her own name, but still connects with other professionals in the industry.  Those who do, often add a little disclaimer to their profile, usually something along the lines of “Works for [insert major publisher here], but all tweets are my own personal opinion” - or, as Katie Espiner, Publishing Director at Harper Fiction, puts it: “All thoughts From the Brain of Katie.”  The sound of backs being covered.  Lisa Edwards, Publishing and Commercial Director of Scholastic Children's Books says that Twitter “Gives me access to news and commentary as they happen and to an on-the-move social and professional network” and Transworld editor Emma Buckley says that “It's a way of keeping my ear to the ground!” - important, for an editor.  Atlantic Books admitted that they don’t use Twitter (although they have an account with the occasional tweet).  “There's nobody here who really has the time to chirp...” they said. 

Managing Director of Penguin Digital, Anna Rafferty, understands the skills needed better than most.  “Twitter is a great way to talk to readers directly, ask them questions, develop goodwill, leak news, get advocacy and get to know them.”  There’s a radical thought that has been forgotten over the last few years - getting to know your readers.  Too often, publishers only see the trade as their customers.  Interesting, too, that Anna doesn’t call them ‘book buyers’ - she speaks as an author would.  From a personal point of view, she loves using Twitter as “an RSS feed of industry news, gossip and inspiration, sometimes 140 characters of giggles”. 

Forget B2B or B2C relationships - Twitter is human to human, H2H.  Where else can an entire industry, from author through agent, publisher, publicist, scout, bookseller, blogger, reader all come together in one, equal place to discuss issues?

Senior Children's Bookseller at Waterstone’s Windsor, Carol Dixon-Smith, finds Twitter a faster way of communicating than phone or email.  “I use it for instant news and updates, networking and information sharing.” Carol, who also handles the local marketing for the branch, goes on to talk about the #askacurator hashtag and the educational benefits.  “But,” she says.  “The value of all these things is in your friends list.”  Waterstone’s as a company have come late to the Twitter party, but have figured out how to do it right.  They have a personality, expressing their own opinions, whilst being able to promote their books (and themselves) and engage with their readers. 

Nina Douglas, a publicist for Orion Children's Books, has the hardest job of all on Twitter.  Why would anyone want to follow a publicist?  “I use Twitter to join in with the online literary community in the discussing of books, issues and everything inbetween: I love the immediacy, the feedback and the opportunity to tell people about the things that I love about my job.  It is now so much a part of my day that I'm not sure I could break the habit, even if I wanted to!”  Nina tweets under her own name, rather than Orion’s, and she is interesting and funny.  What more do you want?

As a freelance editor, Clare Hey is able to talk about what she’s reading and projects she’s working on.  “I was surprised to find it a good source of interesting freelance jobs too - authors can get in touch direct which is great.”  Irish novelist Catherine Ryan Howard has used Twitter to source the kind of services that Clare offers for her first, self-published non-fiction book, “Mousetrapped.”  “It’s put me in contact with people I need (like copyeditors and reviewers) and is also great for marketing/promotion ideas as you can see what everyone else is doing.”  Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years, and Catherine blogged advice about her journey as she went, which she also tweeted.  When the time came to sell her book, she had a built-in audience, even though she uses Twitter “mainly for fun.”  Catherine managed to sell over 500 copies of “Mousetrapped” - the majority of which came through Amazon.  Damn impressive, for a self-published author.  Although, as publisher Scott Pack (who’s also the Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollins) pointed out during his recent appearance on The Write Lines, “Don’t assume that 5000 twitter followers means that you’ve sold 5000 books.  It’s a very different thing - but an important part of it.”

Book bloggers use Twitter for a variety of reasons.  Catherine’s blog helped her build a readership and helped sales. Eoin Purcell, “consultant, publisher, blogger and book lover” uses Twitter to “follow interesting conversations, engage with interesting people and to learn interesting things” and John Self, “the web’s best book reviewer” uses Twitter to promote his blog, the Asylum.  Put simply, he tweets links to reviews that he’s written, so that people can click-through to his site (and also retweet his links if they like what they’ve read).  Importantly, he doesn’t just do this - a balance is struck between promoting what he’s writing and what he calls “sharing and receiving thoughts and links with like-minded souls.”  Following a tweeter like John puts you in touch with things on the internet that you would never have come across on your own.

But for every tweeter like John, there’s a dozen who simply don’t understand how to use the platform.  They don’t know the etiquette.  They annoy other users, without knowing why.  People unfollow them, they’re left puzzled, or simply, they don’t have many followers.

As a result, I decided to set up The Twitter Consultancy, specifically for the book trade.  The idea behind it is to help authors, publishers, agents and other publishing professionals either get started on Twitter, or get better at Twitter.  Get in touch if it’s something you might be interested in.

Why am I on Twitter?  I’m on Twitter because it’s enormous fun.  As a writer, I enjoy having a readership, even if the things I’m writing are only 140 characters long.  When someone sends me a message to tell me that they laughed so hard at something I wrote, they snorted coffee out of their nose, the emotional payoff as a writer is huge.  You might not believe that it happens, but it does.  Sometimes.  As someone working from home, I do use it as a water cooler too - I always have, even when I had a full-time day job, to feel part of an industry that I was working in outside of those office hours.  I don’t see meeting people through Twitter as “networking” and I don’t call them “contacts” - I call them friends.  Human to human, remember.  That’s what Twitter is all about.

Featured tweeters

Anna Rafferty - @raffers

India Knight - @indiaknight

Katie Espiner - @kesp

Jonny Geller - @jonnygeller

PD Smith - @PD_Smith

Danuta Kean - @Danoosha

Catherine Ryan Howard - @cathryanhoward

Nina Douglas - @ninadouglas

Hannah Ferguson - @AgentFergie

Lucy Inglis - @lucyinglis

Nick Harkaway - @harkaway

Simon and Schuster - @simonschusterUK

Carol Dixon-Smith - @cidix

Scott Pack - @meandmybigmouth

Jessica Ruston - @jessruston

Sue Cook - @suecookcom, @theWriteLines

Stephanie Jackson - @totallyjackson

Gavin James Bower - @gavinjamesbower

Atlantic Books - @AtlanticBooks

Eoin Purcell - @eoinpurcell

Alison Hennessy - @vintagebooks

Hephzibah Anderson - @chastened

Lisa Edwards - @Redwoods1

Clare Hey - @Clareaux

Katie Fforde - @katiefforde

Jo Jo Moyes - @jojomoyes

John Self - @John_Self

Emma Buckley - @EmmaB4

Carole Blake - @caroleagent

Jonathan Cape - @jonathancape