Playing the Digital-Word-of-Mouth Game

The infographic in question.

A few days ago at BookRiot, the writer Andrew Shaffer asked the question, “What do readers owe authors?” He was responding to a much-discussed infographic that’s been making the rounds. Shaffer notes that Amazon’s recent purchase of Goodreads highlights the importance of “digital word-of-mouth” and how authors and publishers need to do “everything in their power to increase the chatter surrounding their own books on social media.”

He cites these familiar examples:

I’ve seen readers tweet to writers that they enjoyed their books, only to have the writer respond with a “small request” to leave their thoughts on Amazon in the form of a review. Snider even suggests that readers “download and print the infographic to use a checklist” when buying books, so they don’t accidentally forget to like, tag, tweet, share, or review their new purchases. When did being a reader begin to feel like such a chore?

Since I’m basically teaching a class that encourages students to be “literary citizens” and directly participate in book culture by “helping” authors in these exact ways, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought.

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Why It’s Hard to Teach People to Blog

Background

I’m supposed to be grading blog posts, but first, I need to explain why it’s so hard to grade blog posts.

See, the students in Literary Citizenship are required to create a blog and post once a week. Originally, I planned to have them blog about the concepts that—to me—make up Literary Citizenship. Hover over the titles “What is it?” and “Actions” above to see the categories for this blog—all of them outward focused.

I wanted them to blog about something other than themselves. I wanted them to be interested in what other people were doing. I figured that the need to create a blog post that “fit” in these categories would generate acts of literary citizenship. That’s good “backwards design.” Determine the outcome first, then design instruction that leads to that outcome.

Here’s the problem.

On the first night of class, I immediately recognized that this would be incredibly limiting. What mattered to me MOST was that their blog really be their blog. That it not be something they “had to do for class,” but the first step in their professionalization process.

I said to the class, “What do YOU need your blog to be? Whatever that is, do it.”

When their weekly post falls within this blog’s categories, I reblog or repost it here. But some weeks, they write things that have NOTHING to do with Literary Citizenship, per se. Rather, they’re doing their own thing.

When you say, “Do your own thing,” how do you grade that thing?

Here’s the rubric I use to evaluate their posts.

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What I’ve discovered is that it’s hard for me to accurately judge the “share-ability” or “influence” of a post unless I, Cathy Day, would share it.

For example:

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Here’s Kiley Neal, who’s trying to establish herself as a writer of fantasy. She wants to find other fantasy writers and—ultimately—readers. This week she wrote about “Talismans, Amulets, and other Enchanted Things.”

I have no idea how to evaluate this post’s potential “influence” or “share-ability” because I know nothing about fantasy. I wouldn’t share this post because most of the people I know on Facebook and Twitter are not fantasy readers or writers.

Most of the students in my Literary Citizenship class are veterans of my novel-writing class, and the majority are interested in commercial novels and authors—Kiley being one example. She wants to be Tamora Pierce.

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Then there’s Austin Hayden, who’s not interested in that kind of thing at all. He’s interested in the Indie Lit Scene. [Correction: Austin says he’s more interested in what he’d call “The Small Press Scene.”] This week, he wrote an AWP-recap post in which he took a picture of a six-pack of beer and did not use any capital letters. Austin wants to be Scott McClanahan.

What I’m trying to say is that:

a.)   I want these students to be whatever kind of writer they want to be.

b.)   I am me. I know what I know.

c.)    I have never read Tamora Pierce, and I don’t know how to help someone have that kind of career.

d.)   I have read Scott McClanahan (I own Stories I and II) , but I have no idea how to help someone be like him.

Confession: while I know many people who are a part of the Indie Lit Scene, it’s not really my world, but rather the world of my BSU colleague, Sean Lovelace. I’m…too old? too square? too earnest? All I know is that when I find myself on HTMLGiant, a voice inside me says, “This is just not for you.” Nothing personal. Just not my thing.

Ironically, this is exactly what Austin said the second night of class as we were discussing Chuck Sambuchino’s Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author. The other students were grooving right along, and in a very kind way, Austin held up the book and said, “This is just not for me.”

Finding Your Blog Voice

What Kiley and Austin do have in common, though, is a pretty clear sense of who they are, what kind of writer they’d like to become. I’m not the intended audience of Kiley’s blog, nor of Austin’s, but I recognize that each is writing from within a clear rhetorical situation.

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Fantasy and Indie Lit–these are two very distinct cultures that both exist under the umbrella of “writer” or “books” or “literature.” But I’m not a part of either culture.

Some—I’d say most—of the students in the class are still writing into a kind of internet void. They’re still looking for their rhetorical situation, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: once you know the rhetorical situation, you’ll find your voice.

The first few weeks, my students’ blog posts read like papers they were writing for a grade, for my eyes only. I said, “No, these posts aren’t assignments. You’re really trying to find readers.”

Who are you talking to?

That’s a really tough question, I know.

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing for the internet is that it must be voice-y.

What makes you want to read something on the internet is when you feel that—despite a cacophony of voices clamoring for your attention—a singular voice rises up and suddenly you feel like someone’s talking to you! It’s sort of intimate. Picture it like you’re a secret service agent, and you’re walking around in a crowd wearing one of those covert security earpiece things, and there’s this voice in your head, the one you trust. You do what it says.

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Have you noticed that I’m writing in second person? The above paragraph was first written in third person (“What makes people want to read something on the internet is when they feel…”) but I switched to second.

I don’t know who “you” are exactly, but if you follow this blog, then I have some idea.

Actually, there are about ten or fifteen of you, a small constellation of readers, and when I blog, I simply imagine that I’m talking to you.

Kiley and Austin and a few other students have found their small constellation of readers, their rhetorical situation. Read their blog posts. Hover over “Who We Are.”

Some of them seem to know exactly (or theoretically) who they’re talking to.

Some are still looking.

I don’t know if they’re going to find their constellation this semester, but I hope so.

P.S.

And perhaps I have also demonstrated to you why it’s so hard (impossible!) to accomodate all styles/genres/subgenres/aesthetics of writing within a creative writing program.


What did you do today to get someone else’s work discovered?

Reading in public is an act of literary citizenship

Q: Professor Day, how do I get published?

A:  Work to create a culture in which books can thrive.

Q: No, seriously. How do I get people to buy and read my work? How do I get discovered?

A: What did you do today to help get someone else’s work discovered?

This is the essence of literary citizenship. Or as Chuck Sambuchino says in  “How to Support an Author’s New Book: 11 Ideas for You,” a new post over at Writer Unboxed:

Help writers sell books. It’s that simple. Just help them and support the publishing industry. Good karma will befall you, and the hope is that others will help you in return as your big release day comes.

They are simple steps: Buy the book. Make sure it’s face-out on the bookstore shelf. Read the book in public. Request the book at your local library. Be an advocate for the book on social media, etc.

If you’re a part of the indielit world, the small press scene, these ideas and suggestions will be nothing new to you. These strategies are what have allowed the independent literary press world to explode and expand in recent years. (Go to the AWP Book Fair. You’ll see what I mean. 11,000 attendees. 650 exhibitors.)

But all authors need readers who will do these things, whether they’re publishing with a tiny micro press or the Big Five.

And all creative writing students need to know this is work they can (and should) do. 

In 1967, there were 13 creative writing programs. Today, there are more than 500. Every year, we generate thousands and thousands of graduates. We spend a lot of time and energy helping them to self-identify as writers. We are fools if we fail to show them how to self-identify as literary citizens, book buyers, lifelong readers, and lovers of books.

We’re creating a small army. Imagine what good work they could do.