The False Idol of the Social Media Platform

Last week, an aspiring author tweeted about how her agent had submitted a book proposal to four editors, and three had rejected her citing variations of the same reason—the “platform” wasn’t “big enough” to “make a splash…in the crowded market.”

Social media platforms—which are just a fancy abstraction for the number of people who follow you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all those other venues—have become all the rage in the last decade. And I admit that I contributed to that, back in the day, extolling social media as a tool for connecting directly with your readership.

I still believe in that potential—but I also saw, during my time as an acquisitions editor, how publishing houses have leaned hard into the numbers part, the same way they do with sales figures on an author’s previous books. Bigger numbers are better, and, beyond a certain point, lower numbers aren’t worth discussing further.

Book publishing is, for the most part, a risk-averse industry, and a large social media following allows publishers to feel slightly more comfortable acquiring a book. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but they can tell themselves the numbers are there! The potential audience exists! It should work!

The problem was that agents and writers inevitably ended up buying into the premise as well.

In my last newsletter for paying subscribers, I talked about escaping social media’s emotional traps, and one of the most seductive of those traps is the idea that the ultimate goal is more. More followers, more likes, more retweets, more shares.

In our efforts to increase our social media platforms, however, we risk losing sight of the real reason to be on social media—to cultivate authentic connections with other people, on the strength of the passions we reveal through our writing.

I’m always reading at least one book of daily “devotional” or “inspirational” messages. This year, one of those books is John Eldredge’s Restoration Year, and though there are several aspects of Eldredge’s version of Christianity with which I disagree (but which are outside the purview of this newsletter), I came across one passage recently that I felt spoke very clearly to a problem with social media. All too often, in the quest to become popular, we’re willing to play to the audience, to behave in slightly (or not so slightly) inauthentic ways because we think it’ll get us noticed.

Once you start down that path, it can be difficult to turn back. As Eldredge writes:

“The awful burden of the false self is that it must be constantly maintained. You believe you have to keep doing something in order to be desirable. Once you find something that brings you attention, you have to keep it going, or risk the loss of attention.”

I talked to premium subscribers about breaking free of “the tyranny of the like,” of getting ourselves to a point where we no longer concern ourselves with whether what we tweet or post to Facebook “resonates” with people in those oh-so-easily quantifiable ways. That doesn’t mean that we should use social media simply as a broadcast tool, to bombard other people with announcements about what we’re doing, what we’ve got for sale.

What it means is that, instead of pursuing likes or retweets, we should concern ourselves with more substantial responses. Does what we write move people to tell us why it moved them, to explain in their own words why they’re sharing with their friends? Does it inspire them to initiate a conversation? Do those responses prompt us to delve deeper into the things that concern us most, rather than going for an easy hot take?

You can’t ignore the quantifiable stuff completely. It’s an awful metric, but it’s still the metric that publishers are using, so you will likely need to acknowledge it at some point, especially if you’re writing nonfiction. Just don’t get caught up in it.

If the version of you that shows up on social media is consistently true to the person who’s being shaped by your writing practice, that authenticity will come through in what you write, and people will pay real attention. And some of those people will want to pay attention to what you write outside social media, if it’s available for them to read. You’ll know, because they’ll tell you. Instead of attempting to go viral, look for those responses. And if a publisher tells you your platform isn’t big enough, recognize what’s underneath that statement: “I might want to publish you, but I’m not confident I’ll be able to get it right, and I’m not comfortable taking the chance.”

Find the publisher who’s willing to take the chance. If you have to, be the publisher who’s willing to take the chance. (But not without doing tons of research. Publishers are risk-averse because publishing has a lot of risk, even if you do know what you’re doing, and even more if you don’t.)

I can’t guarantee that being consistently authentic will bring you a wave of followers. I can guarantee that it will put you on the path to being a consistently better writer.

Quick reminder: I do developmental editorial consulting, and I’m putting together my fall calendar. If you have a manuscript for a novel or a work of narrative non-fiction, I can read it and tell you what’s working—and what you should focus on in the next revision. If you’re not sure you’re ready to submit your entire book to that scrutiny, or you just want to get a better idea of what’s involved, I offer a “first fifty pages” rate, too. (Many clients start with a 50-page read, and the feedback they get from that turns out to be helpful enough that I end up reading the rest of the manuscript!)