Monday, May 20, 2019

My First Time: Steven Wingate

My (Second) First Time on Social Media
or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like Facebook

My first book, the short story collection Wifeshopping, came out in 2008 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at a time when having a social media presence was fast becoming a necessity for authors. Back then, Facebook had only 200 million users (it’s now 2.38 billion) and Twitter had only 6 million (it’s now 330 million). I didn’t have a social media presence then, didn’t invest enough time and energy into the platforms to take advantage of their power and reach, and I paid for it. I watched other writers embrace them and launch amazing careers, and I promised myself that when I got another chance at a book, I’d be better at social media.

Just over a decade after my first book, I had a second first time. My debut novel Of Fathers and Fire, the latest entry in the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press, came out this April, and in the run-up to it I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to generate a real social media presence. I looked at other writers who’d perfected social media and knew I couldn’t match them post for post, tweet for tweet. But I knew I had to be better at it, because social media is built into the job description of “writer” today. If you don’t do it, your chances of succeeding in the business plummet.

But the fact is, I don’t enjoy being on social media enough to create the kind of vortex I need for it to move the needle on my writing career. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, sure, but I’ve never become a citizen of the social media ecosystem the way those who use it most successfully are. I can get on for a few minutes at a time before I wear out, overwhelmed by the constant righteous indignation and shameless virtue signaling. Then, too soon to make it work for me, I’m fed up and logged off.

What to do, then, about promoting a new book? As I planned to send Of Fathers and Fire out into the world, I looked for ways to be a more assertive businessperson without relying completely on spending my personal time immersed in social media. I did lots of content marketing, writing articles and guests posts (like this one) that matched my novel’s subjects or covered the literary life in general. Since I didn’t have a broad social media following of my own, my logic went, the venues I published in would help me get my name out there. This piggybacking would undoubtedly work better if I had a Twitter mob and a platoon of Facebook followers to share those pieces, since social media is all about building vortexes. But at absolute worst, I’ve made connections at new venues like LA Review of Books and Stand Magazine, while strengthening my connections with existing ones like Fiction Writers Review. Being in more places also helps build my online portfolio of nonfiction, which will continue to open up fresh venues long after my new book’s release.

I’ve also invested in my book financially, knowing that my university press—as much as I love it—doesn’t have the resources to compete for media attention with giant multinational conglomerate presses. You only get one first novel, and I want to make mine count by getting as many people to hear about it as I can, even if it costs me money. Instead of focusing exclusively on book sales, I think of my novel as a ticket to the races. It lets me into conversations that I couldn’t be in before, and its primary function is the long-term building of a brand.

Fortunately I have a day job, and this kind of investment is possible for me; I realize that’s a privileged situation to be in, and it won’t be open to every writer. By investing in advertising and promotions on top of what my press can do, I make sure that more people know about my novel and about me. That means they can hire me to do workshops and talk about writing to their college students and conference attendees—which can be a major boost to a writer’s income, since one visiting gig can equal a boatload of single book sales.

My investment has been strategic in its outreach to indie booksellers and the readers who frequent their stores. I went to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, which got my book in front of indie booksellers nationwide. I bought an ad in Shelf Awareness for Readers, which put my book directly in front of indie bookstore aficionados. I went to the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s Spring Conference and advertised directly to booksellers in that region, as well as to the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. Just like readers can’t read a book they’ve never heard of, indie booksellers can’t stock a book they’ve never heard of, either.

Since I don’t have a multinational conglomerate behind me, I have to build my brand brick by brick. This is a long game that may take years to come to fruition, and every day I question whether my investment of time and money will be worth it. When all is said and done, I might have flushed a bunch of both down the drain. Ideally all my work will at least bring me to the break-even point and pave the way for later books to get into the hands of readers more smoothly. If I don’t get to the break-even point, then I won’t make the same mistakes on my next book. But having thrown energy and resources into this one, I’ve got skin in the game and lots of motivation to stand behind what I’ve written.

People don’t tell you this when you finish a book, or even when you publish it, but I’m telling you right now: getting behind your book and launching out into the world can help you love it just as much as writing it can. The kinds of love are different, no doubt about it. But they both work, and they’re both necessary.

Steven Wingate’s works include the novel Of Fathers and Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press in April 2019 as part of its Flyover Fiction series, the digital memoir daddylabyrinth, which premiered at the Singapore Art/Science Museum in 2014, and the short story collection Wifeshopping, which won the 2007 Bakeless Prize in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He is an associate professor at South Dakota State University and associate editor at Fiction Writers Review.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Author photo by Kate Heiberger

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