“You don’t have to do social media if you hate it”: A Q&A with Marketing Director Rachel Fershleiser
As part of our Social Media Week series, Rachel Fershleiser debunks the myths of marketing and social media and shares tips for how to build an authentic online presence.
A number of myths surround the relationship between publishing and social media: that self-promotion is somehow embarrassing (it’s not!); that writers must have a certain number of followers before they can sell their book to a press (they don’t!); or that a writer has to be on social media at all (be free!). As part of our Social Media Week series, the editorial team wanted to debunk some of these misconceptions and explore the role that an online presence—if you have one—can play in building literary platforms and community.
Tajja Isen: I want to start by asking you about your own relationship with social media, because you have such a robust and vibrant presence online. Did that evolve separately from your work in publishing, or did they grow up together?
TI: I the bookstore beef. As someone who now works with writers, when you’re starting to work with an author, what do you look for or love to see in terms of a social presence?
TI: How unique is that kind of flexibility? Sometimes I feel like it’s quite prevalent in publishing to expect that the writer will have started building their platform even if it’s not relevant to the content of the work.
RF: I think it really depends on the kind of book. I think nonfiction is much more platform driven. More commercial nonfiction is especially more platform driven. Perhaps if you’re trying to sell a personal essay collection, because the question people are trying to answer when they’re acquiring a book, an editor or an acquisitions committee, is why should readers care? Because that’s our job, to bring readers something they’re going to want. So sometimes, the why should readers care is they already love her, they’ve been following her for years, they’re so invested in her family and they’re going to buy her parenting memoir. Sometimes the why should readers care is that something exceptional happened to this person. And sometimes the why should readers care is this is just an incredibly written work of literature from a new perspective. So I think it can be a reason, depending on the book. But again, I don’t think, for literary fiction, it’s a huge driver. It’s a plus! I also think, at this point in our lives, it’s a little inextricable. You wouldn’t say she’s on Twitter as a selling point. But if you were like, She’s friends with all these incredible writers and she’s going to get blurbs from all these successful people, that’s valuable to a work’s publication. And maybe you did that by being friendly on Twitter.
TI: That’s a great point. Its roots have gotten so much deeper now.
RF: Do people like a well-connected author? Yeah! Again, it’s not a requirement. But so much of my job is who’s gonna blurb the book, who’s gonna talk up the book, who’s gonna be their conversation partners at events—so there is a who-you-know aspect to it. Again, not that I would buy or not buy a book based on that, but just as a plus. In a way, that’s really been democratized. There are people who say “I have all these great writers who will support my work and who will do virtual events with me”—maybe you’ve never met them in person! People are building powerful networks. So to that extent I think it’s valuable, but I really want to be clear that I’m never going to say, “You have to have five thousand Twitter followers or you can’t sell your literary fiction.” That’s just not true. And I see people say it on social media all the time in a really knowing way and I’m like, “Who told you that?” I just don’t know anyone who would tell you that, and I’ve been in this industry a long time.
TI: Taking a look at the other side, how does your job change when you’re working with an author who’s not on social at all?
RF: It just means that we do most of the online promotion from our Catapult account, or Counterpoint account, or Soft Skull account. We might change our strategy a little bit in terms of those designed tour cards, where the author posts it and they tag all the conversation partners and then all those people retweet it and that’s a way of getting the word out about all your events—that might not be the way I do it if the author is not on social. We encourage all of our authors to send a personal email to their communities saying the book is coming out and here are some ways you can be part of the publication.
TI: Ah, yes, the “friends and family” email.
RF: Yes. We call it “Dear Community.” So we send that to all of our authors, but if an author has no social media presence, then I might be a little more like, “Please, please send this email?” Because I really do think—I really do—that your friends want to know! The people who read your writing want to know! There’s an idea that people are so apologetic for self-promotion—oh no, I’m gonna tweet about my book, I’m so sorry—people care about your book! They do! People who’ve read your work in our magazine, or people who know you personally, or people who’ve been in writing classes with you—they care, they want to know. It doesn’t have to be social media, but if you think you’re only bothering people by spreading the word about your writing, you’re wrong!
You want to publish your work for a reason: You want to connect with readers.
TI: I know this is something that so many writers are facing now, at a time when there are so many terrible things happening in the world and it’s like, why read my book now? Do you have any sort of counsel for writers in that situation?
RF: I’m gonna sound like such a Pollyanna, but people have written and made art through every devastating turn of history through millennia, and there’s a reason for that. It’s valuable. At the very, very least, someone reads your book and is distracted for three hours from whatever else they don’t want to be thinking about. Then there are our greater aspirations about connecting humanity and expanding hearts and minds. We publish a bunch of books in translation; I’ve read stuff that we’ve published that are perspectives I’ve never read before. I think that’s incredibly valuable. I think it’s incredibly valuable how much less alone I feel as a pandemic parent reading other people’s experiences. Believe me, I share the feeling that we’re all fiddling as the Titanic sinks, but at the same time, I believe in our authors and I believe in the work we publish and I believe that readers want it. I really do!
TI: I’ll wrap up with one more—we touched on this earlier, but are there any other myths or misconceptions about what authors should be doing about their work that you really want to debunk?
RF: That it’s all about how many followers you have, or all about who you know, or that publishers care about all the wrong things. That you’re bothering people by self-promoting. Publish means “to make public.” You want to publish your work for a reason: You want to connect with readers. If you want to write in your diary and hide it under your pillow, you can do that. I think there’s a sense that I wrote the book, my job is done, you guys market it—yeah, it can work that way sometimes. We have reclusive authors and dead authors. But it’s not distasteful to be invested in connecting your work to its audience. You don’t want to be spamming it toward people who don’t want it. What you want to be doing is finding your people. And it’s actually a really beautiful experience when it happens.