Conventional wisdom says that in the year 2020, social media is key to getting noticed, whether you’re an author or a musician or even an artist. The internet is full of people throwing around words like “platform” and “following,” but is a platform really neccessary if you want to be published? Does having a following on Twitter help an author sell books?
The answer, as with so many things, seems to be: it depends. A social media following certainly doesn’t seem to hurt certain authors. I only read Alexa Donne’s space romance The Stars We Steal because I watch her YouTube channel. I have picked up books because I came across recommendations in my Twitter feed, usually from authors who are mutuals (that is, two people who follow each other on a platform) with the author in question. I cannot say that social media unequivocally does not affect an author’s chances at publication or their future book sales. However, for every one of these authors, there are many successful authors with a minimal or even non-existent social media presence. Certainly genre factors heavily too — Young Adult fiction writers are notoriously prolific on social media, particularly Twitter. Adult historical fiction writers, perhaps not quite as much (my favorite historical fiction writer, Sharon K. Penman, keeps a Facebook page and a sporadically updated blog as the full extent of her social media presence and yet she still has managed a long and successful career. Each genre seems to have its own social media norms, but generally speaking, the younger your audience skews, the more important social media will be.
That said, avoiding social media altogether as an up and coming writer in 2020 is probably not a realistic game plan. Sharon K. Penman, who I mentioned above, started her career in the 1980s, and by the time social media was invented, much less widespread, she was already well established as a historical fiction writer. In 2020, however, a social media presence is expected. Not only do accounts on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram give potential agents an idea about your “platform,” perhaps more importantly they give an idea about what kind of person you are and what sort of content you engage with. Do you harass teenagers in the Harry Potter fandom and generally make a fool of yourself? Are you vocal about social issues? Do you interact positively with other writers, or are you antagonistic? These things might count for more than a high follower count, which, afterall, can be a poor mark of your overall reach as a writer.
So do numbers matter? Do you need Twitter followers in the tens of thousands to get published? Certainly not. I can think of dozens of professional published writers who have followings of fewer than 10k. I can name many writers with very high follower counts who gained those followers mainly through writers’ lifts and follow for follow games rather than through genuine interaction. My own personal Twitter following is modest, hovering between 2500-3000 followers, but my interactions are genuine, and when you scroll through my feed, you will get an immediate sense of what I am passionate about. I interact positively with my fellow writers, am vocal about the issues that are important to me. I am happy with my social media presence and do not feel pressured to inflate my follower count just for the sake of empty numbers. Genuine engagement will always make a bigger impression than numbers with no interaction to back them up.
Perhaps the best advice I can give is to build a social media presence, but do it honestly. Do not stress about numbers. If you’re trying for traditional publication, you should probably be on the more popular social media platforms, but you don’t need to be a huge name with a massive following. Create a genuine following, avoid being antagonistic or overly edgy, at least on your main account, and try to interact positively in the writing community. Follow some writers and agents you admire, boost other writers during pitch events, join in conversations about what’s going on in the industry, and you might even start enjoying the process of creating your social media platform. At the very least, the process should feel less like a chore, and more like simply another step on the long road to becoming a published writer.