Reformation of a Former Non-Twitter User

[Originally published in Romance Writers Report, June 2017.]

The Ever-Changing Social Network

Six years ago, I made a confession on the pages of this magazine (“Confessions of a Non-Twitter User”, Romance Writers Report, August 2011). I publicly proclaimed that I hated Twitter, and that I wasn’t going to use it.

At the time, several authors cheered me on for my rebellious stance. But then, I started to feel left out.

Virtually all promotional vehicles (advertisers, blog tours, etc.) ask writers for their Twitter handles. Career opportunities such as writers-in-residence programs want authors to have broad social media bases, including Twitter. Along with Facebook and a website, Twitter has become an absolute foundation for successful writers.

Alas, it’s not enough just to snag a Twitter handle. A blank page without tweets or followers might be worse than no page at all. Successful Twitter usage requires regular posts on topics that interest followers.

Ultimately, I found a formula that works for me. And if you want to build your own Twitter footprint, you can adapt my method to make the bluebird of happiness tweet for you as well.

Book Quote Wednesday – BookQW

My Twitter success is built around Book Quote Wednesday (“BookQW”).  The idea is simple:  Each week, I choose a word. I ask other authors to tweet quotes from their books, containing that word (or some form of the word; the rules are lax). On Wednesday morning, I post a tweet with a unique BookQW graphic (a display of multi-colored pencils beneath the words “Uncover a rainbow of meaning in a single word: #bookqw”) announcing the word of the week. Throughout the day on Wednesday (and occasionally later into the week), authors post their tweets using the hashtag #bookqw.

Of course, Twitter’s 140-character limit challenges authors in the selection of their quotes. The vast majority of BookQW participants get around that limitation by creating graphics, uploading an image that contains their quote (along with, usually, the cover of their book, or some other relevant image.) The advantage of images is two-fold – they allow authors to select longer quotations, and they allow authors to display their book cover to more potential readers, building impressions that will hopefully lead to future sales.

Most BookQW tweets read something like this: “Today is Book Quote Wednesday, and the word is [WORD]!  Buy your copy of MY NEW BOOK at [URL]”. An attached image contains the actual quotation. Instead of soliciting a purchase, the author’s call to action might ask for pre-orders or for readers to sample a free chapter at the author’s website.

Over the course of six months, the BookQW community has grown from six participating authors (all in my publishing cooperative, Book View Café) to more than 100. We’ve increased from half a dozen tweets each Wednesday to several hundred, with an inter-related flurry of “likes”, retweets, and replies. While the vast majority of participating authors post in English from the United States, we have people posting from more than half a dozen countries. Occasional BookQW tweets appear in French.

In fact, we’ve met all my short-term goals and most of my mid-term goals for the project.  My short-term goals were straightforward. For the first four weeks, I wanted to:

  1. Personally post one BookQW tweet each week.
  2. “Like” and retweet each BookQW tweet from each participating author once.
  3. Grow the community to at least one dozen participating authors.

In order to meet those goals, I sent out emails each Monday, announcing the word of the week and encouraging authors to participate. Those emails went to both of my RWA chapters (Maryland Romance Writers and Washington Romance Writers), to a long-established support group for science fiction and fantasy novelists (SFNovelists), and to my publishing co-op.

By the end of the first month, I had successfully posted my own BookQW tweet each week.  (The words of the week were relax, please, fast, and face.)  I had “liked” and retweeted at least one tweet from each participating author. An informal head-count indicated that approximately twenty people were participating (although actual numbers were hard to determine because some authors joined in one week but not the next, only to resurface later.)

My mid-term goals were somewhat more aggressive. For the next six months, I wanted to:

  1. Move the notification system to a newsletter, rather than continuing to email groups where many members might be uninterested in the project.
  2. Grow the community to at least one hundred participating authors.
  3. Diversify the community of participating authors to include authors from all major genres:romance, mystery/thriller, fantasy, and science fiction.
  4. Continue posting one BookQW tweet each week.
  5. Continue regular “liking” and retweeting of posts.

I easily migrated the notification system to MailChimp, creating a new mailing list dedicated to BookQW.  Having a dedicated newsletter allowed me to offer a URL to interested authors as I invited them to sign up.  It also allowed me to schedule word-selection emails in advance, so authors would be notified even if I was traveling, neck-deep in book launch, or otherwise unavailable. Each email contained the word of the week, along with a basic statement of our very informal rules.

I publicized the URL in weekly tweets, capitalizing on the growing popularity of BookQW to spread the word to writers who might be interested in joining us. I also posted the informal rules on my website, placing them in the same drop-down menu as my most popular resource for writers (a list of romance tropes).  At the end of six months, I had 98 subscribers to the weekly email (two shy of my actual goal).

In the interest of making sign-ups for the newsletter as simple as possible, I did not require authors to specify their genres when they joined.  Judging from the weekly tweets, however, there is a fair amount of diversity among the authors. Each week, approximately one third of the tweets are from romance authors.  Approximately two thirds are from authors of fantasy and science fiction (with those tweets being further sub-divided between works intended primarily for adults and works intended primarily for children).  Occasional tweets come from mystery or thriller writers, and a handful aren’t readily classified. At the end of six months, I had some representation from all major genres; I’d like to see more growth among mystery and thriller authors.

Of course, not all authors participate every week. Our busiest week (when the BookQW word was “new”) resulted in participation from fifty-one authors. While most authors posted a single BookQW tweet that week, two authors posted two tweets each. One author posted 21 tweets over the course of the week. While the majority of participating authors did not “like” or retweet posts, seventeen authors “liked” or retweeted at least one post.

Benefits of BookQW

As with most marketing projects, it’s difficult to measure the return on investment for BookQW.  As an initial matter, the costs are very low.  Twitter itself is free.  The approximately 100 participants have not moved me to a different payment level for MailChimp, so the newsletter is essentially free to send.

Selecting the weekly word, setting up the email to authors notifying them of the word, and creating the Wednesday morning tweet announcing the word takes approximately half an hour each week. (Most of that time is spent searching all of my books to determine whether the word I’ve chosen is likely to occur with frequency for other authors.)  Usually, creating my BookQW post takes only a few minutes each week because I maintain a template in Canva and only need to copy in the new quote. When I decide to promote a new book, I must create a new template, which takes approximately fifteen minutes.  “Liking” and retweeting posts is the most time-consuming part of the task; I spend approximately one hour each Wednesday spreading the word about other authors’ tweets.

The returns are more difficult to evaluate. Of course, my Twitter account is much more active.  I have regular posts on my feed, and I regularly interact with other Twitter users. My number of followers remains small compared to most long-time Twitter users (approximately 1200), but I see a slow, steady addition of followers.

I’ve enjoyed meeting new-to-me writers and having them identify me as “that Twitter quote” person – an indication that the BookQW hashtag is reaching further than the actual participants.  I’ve received multiple tweets and more than a dozen emails from authors thanking me for running the promotion, so I know I’m building some good will within the author community.

Using the link management program Littl.ink, I place a tracker on the URLs included in my tweets, but the results vary widely from week to week. Sometimes, no one clicks through to read the free first chapter on my website (or to buy the book at a selected vendor).  Other weeks, a couple of dozen people click on the link. Of course, there’s no way to determine whether someone actually buys the book after they click.

I am able to structure multiple tweets using the BookQW word, specifying individual vendors. In theory, that makes my profile more attractive to those vendors, especially Kobo and iBooks, which claim to monitor authors’ activities unique to their online stores.  I haven’t, though, seen an increase in my books being accepted for promotions at those vendors.

Constructing Your Own Twitter Powerhouse

Many of the lessons I’ve learned can be translated to other Twitter projects. If you choose to launch your own Twitter initiative, here are some points to consider to make your program a success.

Choose a unique, short hashtag.  Twitter’s greatest power is its ability to unite disparate users through hashtags. Those hashtags, though, obviously count against the 140-character limit of each post.  If I had launched BookQW with the hashtag #book, the participants would have gotten lost in the crowd of all other Twitter users making all other posts using that relatively common hashtag.

At the other end of the spectrum, long hashtags are highly distinctive, but problemlatic. If I had launched BookQW with the hashtag #GreatQuotesFromBooksYouWantToBuyRightNow, my participants would have had fewer than 100 characters to convey their individualized messages.

Finally, when choosing a hashtag, verify that the hashtag is not actually a person’s Twitter handle. I did extensive searching as I developed the #bookqw hashtag, trying a number of different distinctive combinations of letters. I neglected, though, to determine whether “bookqw” was used as a Twitter handle (@bookqw).  In fact, it was, and for the first several weeks, our #bookqw feed saw some confusing political posts by a user with the @bookqw handle.

Brand your project.  In addition to naming your project with a unique hashtag, select a unique image or logo to brand your promotional efforts. This logo serves two purposes.  First, it helps your project stand out in the sea of promotion. Second, it distinguishes your group project from any solo efforts you also make on Twitter.

Invest in a newsletter.  A newsletter allows you to reach all of your interested participants in a single communication. At the same time, it eliminates your broadcasting your message to uninterested people who might consider your promotional efforts to be spam.

There is a balance to strike here. Occasional reminders to other established lists (such as your RWA chapter or other active writers groups) might inform people who were previously unaware of your work.  Consider conducting weekly business via your newsletter, with quarterly invitations for people to join your growing network.

Be prepared for too much success.  If your hashtag starts to “trend” on Twitter, other users will begin using it on completely unrelated posts. Similarly, some authors might not understand the rules of your project, and they might use your hashtag on not-directly-related posts. (For example, we often have authors who use the #bookqw hashtag without quoting their books, or while quoting other authors’ works.) Decide in advance how you intend to handle those issues, including whether you’ll reach out to people individually to explain the rules of your game.

Social media are crowded with promotional efforts by authors. Many experts have declared that future success for writers will largely be based on group promotional efforts. BookQW is one model of a successful group promotion that you can adopt and personalize to form your own powerful communication tool.