YA authors and publishers reach out to young readers where they live: online and on their smartphones
by: Karen Springen
Last year Nikki Wang, a 13-year-old from Texas, spent her birthday and allowance money on more than 100 YA books, and she plans to do the same again this year. Almost always, she chooses her titles based on what she sees on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and in blog posts by her favorite authors, including A.G. Howard, Gina Rosati, and Tiffany Schmidt. “They’re a fun bunch,” she says. “And they usually end up giving me hints about what’s to come.” Recently Senshi author Cole Gibsen tweeted to Wang that two characters “aren’t finished with each other.” “I’m definitely dying for the next book after that tidbit!” says Wang, who fills her Goodreads “to-read” shelf with wished-for titles. “I’d always imagined authors to be rock stars and hard-to-reach people. Now they’re still basically rock stars, but more approachable.”
Like Wang, who writes a blog called Fiction Freak, most teens live on social media—which, unlike advertisements, is essentially a free way for publishers and authors to reach them, and the friends, librarians, and booksellers who influence them. “You can have the best book in the world, and if no one knows about it, it’s not going to be a success,” says Brittany Geragotelis, self-published success–turned–Simon & Schuster author of Life’s a Witch and What the Spell. But, she points out, staying abreast of social media is no mean feat. “When I tell people everything I do, they get so discouraged. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest! You are going to be able to hit different people with different interests on different sites.”
Using all of these platforms sounds demanding, and it is, says Simone Elkeles, author of Perfect Chemistry. “You spend 25% of your time writing and 75% of your time interacting with your fans, or at least I do.” Cynthia Leitch Smith, author of the Feral and Tantalize series, devotes two and a half hours every morning to social media and says she typically replies within 48 hours to comments and questions from teen readers, about topics like “what their vision is for the sequel, and whether I can name a character after their cat!”
Not all authors are so eager to embrace digital communication. “I’m more of a quiet, introspective person who finds all of the stimulation intake of social media and output quite distracting,” says Sundee Frazier, author of The Other Half of My Heart. “I’m not the sort of person who can just fire off tweets. My first priority is writing my stories.”
The very private Suzanne Collins is also among those who tend to steer clear of the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr; but other industry heavyweights loom large on social media. More than 1.4 million people follow author John Green on Twitter, and 1.1 million subscribe to the Vlogbrothers channel he shares with his brother on YouTube. Neil Gaiman, who writes for children and teens as well as for adults, has more than 1.8 million Twitter followers, and more than a million readers for the blog he established a dozen years ago. “Tapping an author’s interest and running with that is much more effective than spreading them across five social networks, maybe three [of which] they’re not very comfortable with,” says Alison Presley, online marketing manager at Chronicle Books. But finding a medium that works, whatever that medium may be, is key, she says. “At one point, social media was seen as a ‘nice to have’ by authors. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ any more. Fans really expect to have that direct connection to authors.”
That’s especially true for newcomers. “For a debut author, social media can make or break a campaign,” says Jason Wells, executive director of publicity and marketing at Abrams Books for Young Readers; he cited the five-month countdown to the publication of Splintered, which featured a Spotify playlist for the book, Pinterest boards dedicated to the characters, signed-galley giveaways, and frequent tweets by author A.G. Howard.
Social media boosts visibility for established authors, too. “It’s completely changed my career,” says Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People. “I write serious, global, ethnic fiction. My blog, Facebook, and Twitter allowed me to showcase that my voice is wider—that there’s humor. And I’ve [formed] relationships with librarians, with booksellers. Now I have these people who beautifully and earnestly will handsell my book.”
Whereas readers once sent letters to authors, today’s fans reach out electronically. “If [Beverly Cleary, now 97] had been born 50 or 60 years later, she would have used social media,” says Eliza Dresang, Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth at the University of Washington. While many of the most active authors on the social networks tend to be younger, some are veterans like Judy Blume (who has more than 88,000 Twitter followers) and R.L. Stine (with more than 72,500 Twitter followers). “It really comes down to an author’s comfort level,” says Courtney Wood, associate director of online marketing at Penguin.
Many authors find strength in numbers, promoting one another’s launches and books. P.J. Hoover, author or Solstice (due out in July), set up a Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels Facebook page, Twitter account, and blog with other local writers. The Lucky 13s—a group of several dozen authors with 2013 debuts—connect via their blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account; members include Better Nate Than Ever author Tim Federle, and Caroline Carlson, whose Magic Marks the Spot is a middle-grade buzz pick at BEA. The collective approach can also help authors gain followers and confidence. “There’s a lot of rejection as a writer, and then feeling rejected on a social media platform is no fun,” says Sarah Christensen Fu, a social media and online marketing consultant.
Which platform is best? “We’re looking for where the audience is,” says Angus Killick, v-p and associate publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “A while ago we were all focused on Facebook and only Facebook. Now teens are hopping around. We have to make sure we’re covering as many bases as possible so if everybody suddenly changes to another platform, we’re already there.” Many authors just gravitate toward their favorites. “I never think about, ‘Oh, what platform should I be on?’” says Martha Brockenbrough, author of Devine Intervention, who favors Facebook “for comedy and occasional research” and Twitter “for newsy, actionable stuff and real-time conversations.” The questions for her are, “Where do I feel comfortable? Where can I contribute to a dialogue? Where can I be positive? What do I have time for?”
These days there are almost as many social media campaigns as there are YA books being published. Here’s a look at the various platforms, and how some authors and publishers are using them.
Though blogs are ancient in social media terms—people were writing them back in the 20th century—they remain a popular home base for both authors and fans. In fact, many if not most social media roads tend to lead back to authors’ own Web sites. Online stars like Maureen Johnson (who has more than 78,000 Twitter followers, and has tweeted more than 59,000 times) always post links to their own pages on their Twitter profiles and on other sites, using social media to drive readers to their blogs. To promote new releases, they also go on blog tours (virtual visits), in which dedicated fans interview them. Publishers pitch in, too: for each of the 16 blogs Dark Triumph author Robin LaFevers visited, Houghton Mifflin provided countdown widgets and books for giveaway.
Authors also provide e-mail contact information on their blogs, using them as a way to directly communicate with readers. Entice author Jessica Shirvington says she lets the messages built up for 10 days, and then spends a whole morning replying. Author Janet Gurtler’s new novel, How I Lost You, is about best friends; since she started running interviews with YA authors talking about their own young friendships, traffic to her blog has tripled. As part of her effort, which will end on June 8 (National Friendship Day), she links to their blogs and Goodreads pages.
“All teens are on Facebook,” says Jo Beaton, marketing and publicity director for Zest Books. “They more or less have to have Facebook profiles just like they have to have e-mail addresses.” But unlike newer social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, Facebook is not specifically designed for use on phones and it’s not as visual, Beaton notes. “We’re not putting a lot of effort into Facebook. I don’t believe Facebook has as much of a cachet to teens as it did several years ago.” Teen blogger Wang agrees: “Facebook is really just for school friends.”
Another issue: Facebook caps regular profiles at 5,000 fans, which means authors often need to create alternative “fan” pages. But readers want to hear personal details as well as publishing news, says Elkeles, who includes non-book-related content on her page. In April, she wrote a post about a seizure that her dog had. “[Readers] want to feel a part of your life,” she says. “I like it because I’m an extrovert. I love the interaction. It motivates me to write.”
No one is ignoring the power of Mark Zuckerberg’s site (the official Hunger Games Facebook page alone boasts some 4.7 million fans). But publishers are trying to use it wisely. For example, they know they’re more likely to get their content to show up prominently in newsfeeds if they get frequent “likes,” tags, comments, or “shares” from followers and if they post more photos and videos, which boosts them in Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm. That’s one reason Facebook is the home of so many contests and pictures, especially now that it owns Instagram (a favorite of such authors as Sarah Dessen and Veronica Roth). On Scholastic’s This Is Teen page (with 98,678 “likes”), a fan can win a tote bag filled with novels by authors including Maggie Stiefvater, Paul Rudnick, and Libba Bray, a manuscript critique by an author (Meg Cabot has done it), or a trip to New York City for a photo op with Andrew Jenks, author of Andrew Jenks: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker. The publisher also hosted a March Madness–style voting bracket—not pegged to a specific book—on its This Is Teen Facebook page, in which fans determined the “2013 Best Literary Character of All Time.”
More than 200 million people, including YA authors Maureen Johnson, Libba Bray, Barry Lyga, Marie Lu, Cory Doctorow (and many others), use Twitter. “Sticking to the 140-word limit—it’s like poetry,” says Perkins. And sometimes, it’s lucrative poetry: she tweeted an offer of five free Skype visits across the country for Bamboo People. One winner was a San Antonio, Tex., school that ended up buying hundreds of copies of the book.
Another devotee is author Amanda Hocking, who describes herself as an “obsessive tweeter” on her Twitter profile. But she is judicious. “If you’re tweeting too much, you’re going to annoy people,” she says. “You [also] have the chance to alienate people. I try to be careful and not post super-political or inflammatory things. I stick to benign things like celebrities and pop culture.” More than 22,000 people follow Hocking on Twitter. “It helps turn a casual reader into a more devoted fan,” she says. “I don’t think new readers find me that much via Twitter. I think it’s about keeping the readers I have engaged.”
These big-time tweeters and book fans mark their calendars for “Twitter parties.” On May 6, for example, they exchanged bon mots at #TheEternityCureParty for the second book in Julie Kagawa’s Blood of Eden series. “Twitter parties are a fun, crazy way to interact with readers and fans,” says Kagawa. “They’re not location-restricted, so a lot more people can join in. Plus I can do them in my pajamas.”
Many publishers, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tweet links to places fans can go to read chapters from new titles. Twitter is “a means to drive [readers] to another spot where you can put more information,” says Roshan Nozari, HMH’s social media manager. Retweets help quantify the success of a Twitter promotion, but they aren’t the whole story: it’s easier to measure retweets and hashtag posts than point to their direct correlation with sales. Scholastic’s “I read YA” campaign got 300 #IreadYA tweets within five hours of its launch; the campaign also includes promotions with Figment, at bookstores, and in ad buys. “It’s hard to isolate social media specifically [as] a driver of sales on the titles we’re promoting because we are almost always running those campaigns as part of a bigger plan,” says Stacy Lellos, v-p of trade marketing and multiplatform publishing at Scholastic.
As with other social media, authenticity—real or perceived—is key to Twitter success. “You can’t control whether people buy the book, but you can control whether or not they’ve heard of it,” says author Kendare Blake (Anna Dressed in Blood). “But if [you’re] too promotional, people will say, ‘I wish she didn’t just tweet about release dates.’” Twitter has occasionally stepped in to help authors hone their presence. “We encourage authors to share their process, to talk about how they’re crafting a story, how they’re creating a character,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, manager of content and programming at Twitter, who will speak at BEA later this month. Twitter shares its best practices at the URL dev.twitter.com/media/authors; these include tips like the following: “Pick one thing in your daily routine and tweet about it: a word you love (or hate), the weather, the first sentence you write each day.”
The latest Twitter twist: in January, the platform debuted Vine, a mobile app that lets users create and tweet six-second videos—“alternatively called no-budget book trailers,” says Fitzgerald. Beautiful Creatures coauthor Kami Garcia posted footage from “Tea Party w/ Black Moon Winners @ Laduree @mstohl #beautifulcreatures,” which, like other Vine videos, loops over and over again. And HarperCollins used it for a sneak peek inside Lauren Oliver’s Requiem.
Among the highest-profile campaigns to date are the tweet-generated cover reveal and first-chapter reveal for Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess last July. For the cover reveal, 30,000 tweets within two hours exposed, bit by bit, the book’s cover. A chapter reveal was completed in a similar fashion after the publisher reached its half-million-tweets goal in 24 hours. How will the publisher top those promotions? Matt Pantoliano, senior digital marketing manager for S&S Children’s Publishing, says, “I’m asking myself the same question.”
Of the 106 million blogs on Tumblr—which skews younger than Facebook—21% belong to kids under 18 and 30% belong to 18- to 24-year-olds, according to Quantcast, a company that measures Web traffic. On the multimedia-friendly site, authors like Rainbow Rowell, Holly Black, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Neil Gaiman share everything from animated GIFs and playlists of songs to listen to while reading a particular book to photos of nail art and of cakes they bake and decorate in honor favorite books. “Tumblr is kind of like a mix of everything,” says Becky Tsivin, 16, a sophomore at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill. She follows authors including Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Veronica Roth, and John Green, who has a community of some 200,000 fans on the platform. “Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr thrives on creation, collaboration, and mashing-up,” Green says. “And it’s cooler because your mom isn’t on it.”
Another way the platform differs from Facebook: Tumblr lets people write under invented names. So Ellis Weiner, the author of the Templeton Twins middle-grade series, writes the books’ Tumblr and responds to comments in character as the series narrator. “It’s delightfully in-world,” says Chronicle’s Presley. Other publishers are also using the platform to promote books in quirky ways. Bloomsbury invited fans to send in their own vintage family photos, or photos of themselves wearing vintage fashion, for a campaign for Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage. According to Rachel Fershleiser, who handles Tumblr’s literary strategic outreach, “Your URL might be a reference to what you love. The focus is less on who you are than on your passions. The culture on Tumblr is a little bit intellectual, a little bit nerdy. We’ve got a huge community of teens who spend their spare time reading.”
On YouTube, fans can comment on, and share, book trailers and other related videos. The site, launched in 2005 and bought by Google in 2006, has come a long way since the Mentos-and-Diet Coke experiment went viral. In 2010, Elkeles put up a video to promote book #2 in her Perfect Chemistry trilogy, Rules of Attraction, featuring Alexander Rodriguez (Katy Perry’s groom from her “Hot n Cold” video). “My fans just went nuts,” she says. No kidding: the video has been viewed almost half a million times.
“You have to give them some sort of content to engage with other than just, ‘I’m an author, and I have a book. Go buy it,’” says Matt Gielen, an audience-development strategist. To promote What the Spell by Gielen’s wife, Brittany Geragotelis, the pair hired an Emmy-winning makeup artist to star in five “magical makeover” videos. (In the book, the protagonist uses witchcraft to gain beauty and popularity.) The professional help paid off: more than 26,000 people viewed the couple’s “Khloe Kardashian Magical Makeover Tutorial.”
Publishers and authors are constantly seeking new ways to use the medium. On May 1, Scholastic launched a “you could be a part of the new official Catching Fire book trailer” campaign, which calls for entrants to post their own videos that complete sentences like, “The best thing about Catching Fire is...” To generate buzz over for Zest’s Dear Teen Me, a collection of stories written by 70 YA authors about their teenage selves, more than 50 of the authors contributed to video book trailers by holding up pieces of paper with handwritten advice for teens. Then the authors shared the trailers through their social networks. “I don’t think you could pay for that type of support,” says Beaton. “It was a way to harness that passion; we couldn’t do [it] in an ad.”
Having cute boys in a promotion doesn’t hurt, either. Since 2011, when Harlequin uploaded “behind the scenes” footage from the casting call for the cover of Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Knight, the video has racked up more than 36,000 views. “We’ve talked about doing it again,” says Amy Jones, director of retail marketing for nonfiction and YA at Harlequin. “[But] you can only play that card so many times. Things get old quickly.”
Goodreads’ 17 million members (half of them 30 and younger) have written 23 million book reviews. The platform’s most popular promotions are ARC and finished-novel giveaways, with 240,000 books distributed free through the site last year, says Patrick Brown, director of the author program. Goodreads, which Amazon bought in March, hosts some 30,000 online book groups, including several YA book clubs with more than 1,000 members each. One of these posts rules like “no cursing” and “don’t leetspeak—leetspeak means writing like this: ‘how r u?’” It holds author chats, too, with writers like John Green, Lauren DeStefano, and Ally Condie. Proof of popularity: fans keep posting questions, even though the one-day chat is long over.
Wattpad and Figment
Wattpad, with 15 million active readers (more than half of them under 25 years old), encourages writers to post stand-alone pieces, which builds “viral buzz around their books,” says Maria Cootauco, Wattpad’s engagement manager. “It’s like a YouTube for writers,” says Geragotelis, who signed a three-book, six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster after her novel Life’s a Witch got 18 million reads in a year. Though most of her fans follow her via Wattpad, she also boasts more than 17,000 Facebook fans. “Everything is interlinked, though I post different things on the different platforms,” she says. Another self-published book that debuted on Wattpad and spread through social-media buzz is The Kissing Booth by 17-year-old Beth Reekles; the book garnered 19 million reads and 40,000 comments online, and was recently acquired by Delacorte.
Established authors turn to Wattpad, too. Prior to the June 4 release of her latest book, Tidal, Hocking (who got her start with self-published e-books) and St. Martin’s put up a complete short story called “Forgotten Lyrics” and also posted extended excerpts of Wake and Lullaby, the first two books in her Watersong series. With Wattpad, authors can post from their mobile devices. If they set their accounts to do so, when they post new chapters or reply to readers, notices post to their Facebook and Twitter accounts as well. “It makes it so much easier for a book to go viral,” says Cootauco. Fans with the mobile app get text “push notifications” every time authors they’re following on Wattpad post new chapters of books. They can then click to read the chapters on their screens.
Figment—a free, share-your-writing-and-love-of-reading Web site geared toward teens—uses weekly newsletters to reach its 300,000-strong audience. In a March survey, the site found that 78.5% of its users also have Facebook accounts, 43.2% use Tumblr, and 38.2% use Twitter. It also found that 87.2% visit YouTube at least once a week, 32.8% go to Pinterest each week, and 30.3% look at Instagram.
Publishers are also starting their own online publishing platforms. In June, Macmillan is launching a crowdsourced site called Swoon Reads, where writers can submit manuscripts. The editorial board at Macmillan will read those with the highest ratings, with the first Swoon Reads novels coming out in 2014. “It’s kind of like a [public] slush pile,” says Killick.
Meanwhile, teen readers continue to flock to social media sites to follow their favorite authors’ writing progress and personal lives. Some writers love the interaction with fans, while others consider it a burden. Does a robust online presence help sell books? The answer is almost certainly yes. Yet as popular as these sites are, things change rapidly in the online world—and in the world of teenagers.
“We joke around when we’re doing marketing plans for books that are coming out in 2014,” says Tracy van Straaten, v-p of trade publicity at Scholastic. “We [make a note] to tell our sales team [to use] whatever social media thing is the hottest thing then. There’s going to be something that doesn’t exist now.”
from: Publisher's Weekly