Part 1: Online social networking for authors

Writers spend a lot of energy and time generating publicity for their books, whether they have self-published with a print-on-demand service like Lulu or landed a lucrative contract with a major publisher. For authors who are not veteran public speakers, the process of creating an online platform, initiating buzz, and getting reviews is as daunting as it is exciting.

This is the first of a series of tips for writers who want to know more about online networking.

Long before an author’s first book or stories appear in print, he or she can benefit from establishing a Web presence. Networking online allows a writer to begin developing the proverbial thick hide that can withstand a beating critique. Actually, unless a writer’s subject is controversial, most feedback through an online social network will be encouraging. Attracting no responses at all can be typical, until a sufficient number of social connections exists and lively conversations about topics of mutual interest can be sustained.

How is it done?

Online social networks are almost all free to join. Some of them are supported by advertising, which is something to take into consideration. Do the types of ads dynamically displayed on profile pages seem offensive? Then choose a different network.

If you decide to participate, understand that not all social networking services are open to search engines and to people casually surfing the Web. Consequently, you might set up an elaborate profile and sit around waiting for friends and prospective customers to gather without fully realizing there’s no door to your salon—not even a speakeasy window through which other people can peek into your soul.

Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Machado

Most online social networks are designed to make their users feel somewhat safer behind a registration wall. When you register and create a profile on Facebook, for example, you select privacy settings. If you choose to carefully protect your privacy, only your name, network, and avatar may be visible to other Facebook users until you formally request their friendships, one by one, and are accepted into their social circles.

A few examples of social networks behind registration walls are:

What if you want greater exposure?

Suppose you envision a complete stranger (or perhaps a book buyer) delightedly stumbling across your webpage or locating your online presence with a search engine query for “scintillating chick lit.” Your odds of being found online will increase dramatically if you create a Web presence that is not hidden behind a privacy wall. If you’re ready to be exposed to the world, then throw back that shower curtain and choose a social networking service and privacy settings that allow other people to see your stuff without registering as a member of your network.

(As an alternative that may better suit your marketing strategy, you can create your own independent blog or website, but I’ll save those details for a future blogpost.)

Here are just a few of the online social networks that allow members to create pages open to search engines and casual Web traffic:

  • Facebook [Update: A new feature introduced in September allows the user’s profile page to be found by search engines, if the user selects the correct privacy setting.]
  • LiveJournal | an example page
  • MySpace | an example page
  • Ning

Notice that some online social networks permit subgroups to be either protected (private) or open to the Web, depending on the needs of the participants.

Choosing a service

A lengthy but incomplete list of social networking sites can be found on Wikipedia. Glancing through the list will help you determine the approximate size of a network and the types of users it attracts.

New online networking services of every ilk are springing up frequently in a highly competitive market. Be prepared to pack up your salon and move to a more fashionable address when the mood strikes or your free service goes under.

You should expect to switch services or to participate in multiple online groups. Social networks on the Web are like popular boutiques, restaurants, and nightclubs in real space; they come and go. You can return faithfully to your favorite café table—or pew, if that image suits you better—but eventually you might be sitting there all alone.

To learn more about developments in online networking and community building, visit the websites of online social networking experts Danah Boyd and Howard Rheingold, [added on April 6, 2009] or take a look at Chris Brogan’s list of “20 Free eBooks about Social Media.”

Community building on the Web is more complex than it initially seems. The best way to figure it all out is by joining in, experimenting, and asking questions. You’ll find and create all kinds of new ways to network online simply by doing it.

Next in the Series
Part 2: Special online social networks for authors
Part 3: Managing your online identities
Part 4: Launching a book’s website
Part 5: Starting an author’s blog
Part 6: Book reviewers on the Web
Part 7: Free publicity for book authors
Part 8: Book video trailers

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