By Naomi Boshari.
We live in a digital world. Everything from banking to finding a life partner is now done digitally. It’s no surprise then that the book world ventured to the online, to e-books, to the easy-to-access, to the cheap, the compact. As a 90s kid, having grown up with only a slice of time without i-this and i-that, this shift toward the digital life seems to have happened overnight.
Last year, I spent Christmas at my great aunt’s house in England. I remember seeing my cousin curled up with a blanket and a Kindle, engrossed in a book she had purchased for $9.99, swiping her hand across the screen like she would flip the pages of an actual text. There was something alien in that image, as though the change really had happened over night and I still wasn’t adjusted to the strangeness of it all.
The entire world of publishing has shifted from physical texts to e-books or articles and journals online. One of the most in-demand jobs right now is content writers who have strong SEO skills. Suddenly it’s not just about being creative and being able to write, but about being up-to-date on everything technological, about being able to market yourself or a company through writing. It causes one to question: what happens to quality of work when the focus is on views and hits? What happens to the author and the publishing industry when everything has become digitalized?
In an interview I did with Catherine Bush, Canadian author of four novels including Accusation (2013), she explained that “all writers have to adapt,” when I asked her about the effects of the digitalization of the book industry on the writer. “I gave a talk at a scientific conference (part of my research for a new novel),” she explained. “I’m now part of a Google group that gives me access to links and correspondence among the world’s top scientists in the field. If I want to look up what the word “rote” means, I can do it in seconds. Or find out about urban farming in Boston. If I need to hear what an Ethiopian accent sounds like, there’s Youtube.”
In one way, the internet can be used strategically as a tool to enhance a writer’s work. It allows for efficiency; an abundance of data right at your fingertips. In another way, it’s a tool for the writer to manipulate. By having an online persona you can gain a large following of readers so when it’s time to publish there’s already people who will recognize your name. In fact, publishers are more likely to sign your book if they see that you have some kind of online platform established, it means there’s less of a risk than investing in the unknown.
It seems, though, that having a following online does not necessarily equate with successful book sales. “People aren’t interested in other people’s raw and endless self-promotion,” said Ms. Bush. “You need to make yourself interesting. You’re creating a character not just selling a product.” Part of the problem is that Facebook hides 3-10% of posts from an Author page so even if you have five thousand fans, most of them might not even see when you wrote that post promoting your new novel. What’s more, fans are not usually following an author for the purpose of buying their next book – they’re there because they find what they have to say interesting or funny or they just want to connect in some way.
It’s true that most writers nowadays have an official Facebook page, a twitter account, a personal blog, etc. While blogs can remain content-focused, twitter and Facebook create a way for the reader to have a perceived intimate relationship to the author. There are benefits but it can also be detrimental. For example, I follow a poet on Facebook who posts photos of herself along with a piece of writing – about half the comments on her posts are readers agreeing with her, the other half are filled with criticism about the choice of photo, comments on her appearance, her style.
The author is no longer an enigmatic figure through which the words speak for themselves, but a very human figure subject to judgement that can detract from the meaning of the words. Writing, like so much of digital media, is becoming just as much about image as it is about substance. It’s about selling that book for $9.99 on a Kindle, it’s about being attractive to pull readers in, it’s about having followers, about popularity.
Writers still need time to write. Serious writing involves limiting social media time and detaching oneself from the digital world. Ms. Bush explained her own method is one of physical removal from the city: “I can turn off the modem but these days I go to the country where there is no internet. I have to actively seek out the solitude and dream time and lack of interruption that seem crucial to creativity.”
The digital world is not some evil force trying to eliminate anything and everything that is tangible. In fact, there seems to be a desire to return to the world of print, or rather, to maintain a balance between both; e-book sales dropped in the last year, Amazon just opened a bookstore in Seattle, and while my cousin was sitting reading her Kindle, so was my uncle reading his print text, so was my great-aunt hidden behind the pages of the newspaper.
We live in a digital world but we also live in a diverse one: there will always be people who prefer the quick and immediate over the exertion of a process. One is not better than the other and together they actually create a larger of body of people who are interested in reading. So long as there remains a balance between the two, perhaps the benefits can outweigh the ramifications. “I don’t think we can go backwards,” said Ms. Bush. “Whatever we do we’ll be creating something new.”
We won’t go back to the days of only print books and independent book shops, but maybe we’re headed in the direction of some kind of hybrid world of both the digital and the material. And that doesn’t seem so bad to me.
Some Tips and Tricks for Writing in the Digital Age:
- The very basics? Create an official Author Facebook page, twitter account, etc. Blogs don’t work as well as they did 5 years ago, but any social media platform can help you to start getting your name out there.
- Don’t be afraid of judgement. It’s easy to want to write in the safety of your own bedroom. The thing about social media is that you are opening yourself up to a lot more judgement and criticism or, on the other end of the spectrum, to no feedback at all. But you’re never going to make it if you don’t start putting yourself out there no matter how scary it is.
- Spend more time writing, less time worrying about your social media presence. Don’t get caught up in numbers, clicks, and shares. No one’s going to buy your book if it’s not interesting in some way, regardless of how many followers you have.
- Connect with your fans and peers. Be real and raw. People can tell when you’re faking it.