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Popularity in Publishing: You Thought You Had it Bad in High School?


Suddenly, publishing seems like one big popularity contest. Who was it who said that everything I learned, I learned in high school?

The business of the arts suggests it’s true. When I worked briefly as a music manager, there was one thing that really got me: in a business that was increasingly about touring and media because that was where any money could be made, I started to wonder if being a musician actually meant being a model. Unlike musicians today, writers, fortunately, need not worry too much about superficial appearances, unless a selling point of your book proposal includes being “mediagenic.” Instead, writers benefit because:

a) for most, the craft ripens in middle age, and if you’re really lucky, posthumously; age only works to one’s disadvantage — we often think, the writer can’t depart from himself, or isn’t sufficiently “lived.”
b) without naming names, some of the best authors have also been the ugliest, and
c) today’s social networking allows the mystique of presence paired with invisibility.

But writers are now battling a different identity crisis: Am I popular enough?

Where “indie” bands are still a cool discovery, the less known the better, for authors it’s really the opposite. Unless you have thousands of followers on Twitter, are you worth listening to? If you’re not recommended by a book club, a Bestseller’s List, or your one really literary friend who reads everything, are you worth my $26, $16, or as recent numbers show, just $3?

Recently, all editors, agents and even readers are in this unfortunate popularity game, because the marketplace and blogosphere –I’m clearly not helping matters here! — is now so saturated I find myself, as an agent, by law of the industry, scanning a writer’s numbers as a determining factor of whether a nonfiction proposal has saleable potential, or in the case of marketing/PR, whether a client is going to have a tougher or easier time. And in my year of living by my own advice to authors, I assure you I am not immune!  (I wrote about the trials and triumphs here.) Why did I lose 10 followers last week? and Wow, I gained 20 followers this week, I must be saying something…

Important? Funny? Wise?

Debatable, and unfortunately not much evidence to support what’s worked and what hasn’t, which is why I turn to writers and authors to ask for their personal best practices.The consolation to us all is that popularity, as gauged by social presence, does increase over time. You’ll win some and lose some, but even if you trip down the aisle at graduation, people move on: there’s a wide world of content seekers and voyeurs out there. You will see growth if you commit to the practice of it – which means posting fresh content, even if your own mother admits she’s unsubscribed. Which means interacting with others daily on Twitter, and networking in all the ways the real world teaches us to. And here’s a second consolation, once you’ve developed a brand, as Gretchen Rubin to Paulo Coelho — both of whose blogs and feeds I recommend –there will be less energy required of you. You’ll gain followers on the basis of a tweet a day or even week, because you’ve built a viral fan base, and people are organically coming to you.

In the case of publishing, it’s marketing for the purpose of branding, but thinking about who you want to be and what you want to say, developing that tentative brand first, which will later be decided by your audience, is also a smart way to establish your presence effectively.

As writers or authors, it might help to remind yourself regularly, and have loved ones remind you, that there is a powerful message you have to get out to the world. If you believe in its merit, and can work hard and patiently toward… [hint: in publishing, it's called "commercial"] you’ll understand that gaining an audience is not just the recognition of talent or voice, but of discipline and effort.

If you’re having trouble? There are plenty of teen movies available on demand. Just channel your inner high school.

I would love to hear your best practices on growing your Twitter, Facebook, and other forums for popularity. Comment below or on my Facebook page.