A few years ago, I pondered aloud whether Dickens would get a literary agent if he were trying to become a published author today. I was throwing out some thoughts on what “classic” novels are, whether writers should try to write like the “classics,” and whether those are the kinds of books that attract literary agents today.
I want to follow up on that somewhat by asking if Dickens would have had a blog. That is to say, how much has marketing changed within the publishing industry since the time of Dickens, or, for that matter, since the time of Hemingway, or Stephen King?
The old stereotype of the writer was the recluse in his writing den pounding away on a typewriter, churning out page after page of prose, his wastebasket full of crumpled paper. The writer separated himself from society, living a hermit-like existence, only coming out for the occasional interview, or to buy groceries, or use the bathroom. Maybe to bathe. Marketing was something the publisher did. Ad campaigns, PW write-ups, press releases, bookstore promotions, etc. All the writer had to do was keep churning out the magic.
These days, however, we hear how much new authors need to be “out there.” They need to carve out space on social media, get a Twitter account, discover Facebook, maybe even start blogging. And a web page is a must. We also see writers doing book tours, conventions, conferences. In other words, the days of the reclusive writer are numbered.
I’ve noticed a lot of young writers dive into this new world with gusto and without fear. They seem to be quite socially engaged, comfortable with their cyber existence, promoting their latest books to their friends, doing blog tours, and generally being a social media presence. It is, perhaps, older writers who flinch a little at the new world and new expectations. Is it fair of publishers and readers to have these expectations?
In short, I think yes, it is. This is not Dickens’s publishing world anymore. It’s not even Stephen King’s publishing world, or J. K. Rowling’s. Within the last 10-15 years, in tandem with the social media explosion, people have become much more aware of the broader world, and captivated with the idea that people in many different time zones are but a Tweet away. This blog is read by people not only in the US, but Canada, England, Australia, Singapore, and many other countries (I know, I’ve seen my stats). This article you are reading might also be read by people I’ve never met, and may never meet. It’s the closest thing I can get to being published without actually being published. This is a phenomenon that, until 15 years ago, was unheard of.
If social media had been around in the early 1800s, would Dickens have used it? I think so. If Stephen King could have posted to Facebook when CARRIE was published, do you think he would have? Why not? And when the first Harry Potter novel came out, would J. K. Rowling have excitedly Tweeted all her friends? I see no reason why she wouldn’t have. And this is why publishers are anxious for new writers to use social media, to reach out to their readers in a way that’s too nimble and direct for publishing houses. And what’s more, the modern reader expects his or her favorite writers to be more accessible. That doesn’t mean a writer can’t have his privacy. But it does mean the days of the author-hermit are gone.
Writers like King, Rowling, George R. R. Martin, and others can do without social media if they so desire because they found success in the days before there was such a thing. I believe if they were starting out now, they too would have to embrace technology. I would even go so far as to say that any writer who thinks they can get started in the publishing industry today without an online presence, or without being more socially engaged, is kidding themselves. That doesn’t mean we have to be as active online (and offline) as, say, John Green. But it does mean at some point we need to climb out of our introvert shells and say hello to the world, and find that it’s really not so scary after all. Especially when, most of the time, you can do it effectively from behind a keyboard.
What do you think? If you’re a writer, does social media scare you, or are you excited by the possibilities? Do you think Dickens would have had a blog?