• Kacen Callender

WIP: Social Media Expectations

There's a conversation making the rounds on social media about author expectations for engagement. I definitely have some thoughts. :)

So, I’ve mentioned a few times now that publishing controls the market. The industry decides which books will be the bestselling novels, with publishers alerting The New York Times which titles they would like to be considered for the list, and with the NYT list also taking marketing budgets into consideration. (Basically, was the book everywhere you turned? Yes? That ups the book’s chances.) These books are generally chosen to be "big" based on data—which similar books have done well and hit the list in the past, as well as what the publisher/imprint’s list looks like. Is it overcrowded, or is there enough room to pick and choose several titles to let them all shine? There are marketing and publicity meetings where people within the industry choose which titles will be picked as books for certain ranks—which books will be the bestsellers, the mid-listers, and the… let’s say “quiet” titles.

I’ve seen some meetings where the author’s personality and presence comes into play—but this is more of a footnote, really, among other mountains of data: sales numbers of the author’s previous titles and similar comparative titles that have done well in the past, upcoming books that the title will compete with and on which season… I’ve heard, sadly, that it helps if the author is “attractive.” More on that one in a bit.

I say all of this because I’ve realized, with some space from social media, that I struggle with the gaslighting of some of the industry. There’s an expectation by many that authors give more of themselves: to come up with their own marketing schemes, to search for as many opportunities to publicize themselves and their books as possible. There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) suggestion from publishing companies and professionals that, if the book doesn’t do as well as the author might’ve hoped, then it’s actually the author’s fault. They should have found a “street” team ("fans" paid to hype the book up online in a way that seems organic and natural), created their own pre-order campaigns (paying for swag, artists to draw their characters, etc.), pitched themselves to different media outlets, learned Photoshop to create graphics, paid someone to create a book trailer, hyped themselves up in a constant competition for attention online… the list goes on and on.

The gaslighting is this: the publishing companies and industry professionals know that the authors don’t actually control how well their book is going to do. They put that responsibility on the authors, when the responsibility is really meant to be on the publishing companies. That’s why we go with traditional publishing, isn’t it? That’s why so many of us don’t self-publish. We don’t have the necessary marketing skills. (I certainly don’t, anyway.) The marketing/publicity is ultimately publishing’s responsibility. The publishing companies have their budgets, and they spend those limited budgets on the books they expect will earn back a specific amount of money. Authors really don’t need to do anything to find that financial success. Case study A: Suzanne Collins. Where? Nowhere, that’s where. She doesn't do any publicity or marketing, from what I can see. Yet the Hunger Games series is—well, you already know. Clearly there isn’t actually a correlation between authors needing to do marketing and publicity and a book’s financial success.

And—oh, believe me, I tried going the good-author-on-social-media-route! I was up on Twitter all day every day trying to make sure people heard about my books, and my YA titles in particular, knowing that social media tends to be buzzier for teen lit. Sure, maybe a few more people heard about my books and clicked on the buy links. But in my memory, I think I maybe got… about 50 people total, for all my books, who let me know that they were going to buy them? Let’s say double—no, triple!—that number went on to buy books without my knowledge. *Whips out phone and opens calculator app.* Even that would be 150 sales without my knowledge, so 200 total due to my time on social media. Let’s be extra generous and say at least 300 people bought my books because of my social media presence—not for all books across the board, but each. (I say this really wanting to express how unlikely that is. It's very, very unlikely.) I won’t say exactly how much I have actually sold of my titles, but I’d say the average quiet/mid-lister book sells anywhere from 1,000 books to 5,000 books. Is all of the effort I described above actually worth 300 books sold of each title? Especially when it's more likely that I probably sold closer to 100 books of all my titles combined? The sales are not driven by social media presence. They’re driven, always, by the efforts of the publisher, and how much money they’re willing and able to spend for each title.

Now, I want to make it clear: personally, I needed to step away from social media for my mental health, only posting these blog posts to Twitter and checking in for news. Everyone who has worked with me in publishing has been understanding. There hasn’t been an expectation that I must be on social media to sell myself and sell my books, even if other publishing folks have said this is necessary. But, honestly, I don’t feel like applauding anyone for giving me permission to not be on social media as an author. This should be the baseline expectation for everyone: that no author should ever have to commodify themselves and their energy and their time for the sake of publishing and for the sake of capitalism. Our only job is, and always will be, to write. Anything else should be what we give of ourselves freely, because we want to—not because it’s necessary. This was a basic understanding, but the rise of influencers—of fake fame via social media—has shifted our focus away from our words and our stories, and to desperately clinging for every bit of attention we can find, thinking this attention equates to our success as authors. It doesn't.

A major part of this entire issue is the imbalance in power. There are so many authors being published these days that publishing, with its general lack of transparency, is in a position where they’re able to suggest “we’re lucky that we publish you” when really, this is a fair business exchange where authors have created products that are making publishing companies money. Case study B: a certain major author was recently described as “plucked from obscurity.” She was “lucky” to be published, right? If even this major author is considered “lucky” by majority white people in the industry, I’m afraid to think of where that leaves everyone else.

This is certainly harder on marginalized people. Back to that unhealthy statement I heard while working in publishing: “it helps that a person is attractive.” What does attractive mean? Is my brown skin with its dark spots going to make the cut? I’m a nonbinary demiboy, but pretty femme—do people expect me to wear makeup because they view me as feminine? Do I need to spend my money on expensive clothes to be considered attractive and acceptable? What about my kinky hair, which takes an incredibly long time and a lot of effort to make “presentable” (to white people, really) with every photo I take and every video I post? What about my ADHD, which makes it difficult and exhausting to speak to neurotypical standards, thinking not only about what I have to prepare to say, but how to suppress myself and my true instincts? And what about my anxiety, too?

(Edit: and, honestly, I don't think I spent enough time on the fact that this is so dehumanizing to authors, whose stories are what matter—not what they look like. Ironic, since we're in a majority cis woman industry, and this is how society tends to treat cis women: that their worth is placed on their appearance more than anything else.)

I actually love events, and I love speaking to people and especially love having the chance to hear from young readers—but a single event can take me days to recover from, even virtually and from the comfort of my home. There was a time when I thought that these events were my job, and I was doing them several times a week, sometimes every single day. This, on top of trying to figure out how to get more eyes on my titles—and me—on social media. I was exhausted, emotionally and energetically sapped. That’s days away from my actual job: writing. Writing, which allows me to pay my rent and put food on the table. What an ironic loop: I and other authors who struggle with marketing and publicizing ourselves are expected to do this for our books, which ultimately takes away from our energy to do our jobs, which in the end leaves us with… nothing. Maybe an extra 50 book sales, if we’re lucky.

To be honest, I used to be pretty bitter that I was on the quiet, sometimes mid-list side of publishing—that I never hit the NYT list, and maybe never will—but that bitterness was unhealthy and sapped me of my energy. I wanted to turn my focus to my writing and to my health and spirituality. A part of the ability to turn away from that bitterness was realizing that I can’t control the sales of my books, or what publishing decides to put behind the marketing and publicity. But this also means that I can’t be blamed for those books’ sales, as many in the industry tend to do for authors who choose not to be active on social media. I think we need to understand that anyone who says a writer must have social media presence to do their job (again, writing)—to commodify themselves, to put energy into marketing and publicizing themselves… are really, truly gaslighting authors and pretending that the author has control of their sales when, really, the company is what pulls the strings and decides a book's financial success.

I think social media can be amazing for making genuine connections. Space away has given me time to reflect and unpack which aspects of social media have been unhealthy for me, including authors' general cultural inability to set boundaries (Case study C: the topic of this entire blog post). I've been coming back slowly, more and more, trying to heal from what has been unhealthy. But we can't heal while we're still in the trauma. And, yes, I do think that social media, and the way authors are treated—dehumanized for the sake of capitalism and entertainment, constantly—is traumatizing. I'm not sure how to make social media a safe space in the way that we authors deserve as human beings. (I wrote more about that here.) It's dehumanizing that I or any author should be afraid to speak about our dehumanization, about the boundaries we want and need to set for our health, dehumanizing that we should be scared our work won't be accepted unless we play along with commodifying ourselves.

Social media is… so complicated. I come back hesitantly, only to see a conversation like this making the rounds. But it also feels hopeful that so many more authors are speaking out.

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