By Margaret McGaffrey Fisk
Copyright © 2009 by Margaret McGaffrey Fisk, All Rights Reserved
Twitter is a social website
where people communicate in spurts of 140 characters or less. The
description, though, barely scratches the surface of a tool that has had
enough of an impact in the political and corporate world that some
people are wondering if it should be held in a single company's hands.
It's the latest, greatest communication engine and no one is quite sure
of the final impact.
That's all well and good,
but why should writers, whether just starting out or already with a
publication or two under their belts, care about a social site? It
might seem that 140 characters (not even words, mind you) are too few to
provide anything of redeeming value, especially not professional
information. But that impression is patently false.
Twitter offers writers the
opportunity to peer over the shoulders of agents, editors, other
writers, publishers, and market experts. Following the right tweeters
means someone else points you to the most critical articles and blog
posts in your interest area. You can get early notification of
submission periods, learn the quirks of an agent or editor you're
interested in, or discover something you thought of as a hard and fast
rule is really more along the lines of 50-50 among various
professionals. You can even gauge the personality of people you might
want to work closely with, learning first hand their ability to present
themselves to the world. The possibilities are pretty much endless.
I follow a handful of agents
and editors whom I have found offer useful information and advice.
Reading their tweets about shows they like, food they eat, or difficulty
with their landlords also helps demystify these writing gatekeepers,
making them seem more approachable. Several agents in my follow list
are ones that I will never submit a manuscript to because they do not
cover my genres, but I read their posts because they still offer a
window into the world of agenting that is otherwise limited to the
occasional blog post about that role.
Even if you think learning
these industry professionals are human isn't a worthwhile use of your
time, both the agents and editors offer tips about common problems they
see in submissions, how to handle conference interviews, what they are
looking for, and dozens of other hints. Not only that, but they act as
a filter for the web itself, pointing out articles they think properly
convey information about their knowledge areas, whether a publishing
terms dictionary or a breakdown of word counts per genre. It's also a
useful method to determine whether your submission has been read since
many report the state of their backlog. Not only that, but several
agencies have run contests through Twitter with a requested partial or
query critique as the prize.
Twitter offers an additional
tool that agents and editors use to flag and organize important
information. These hashtags (a non-spaced group of words marked with #)
allow you to see all the posts related to that topic. They are
accessible by clicking the hashtag on a post in your feed (or typing the
term into the search box) to see all public posts on the topic whether
you follow that person or not. Some of the ones I have checked include:
#pubtips - This is a tag
used to identify information related to publishing. If you have a
question, you can target it to an individual by putting @ before their
handle (for example @marfisk gets me), but if you add #pubtips, anyone
following that hashtag can answer. Some examples would be a question
about the difference between query letters and cover letters, that
FinePrint agent Colleen Lindsay flinches from the term "science fiction
novel" because of the "fiction novel" even though she knows it's the
proper name, and a link to a blog post detailing the way royalties are
#askagent - Periodically,
any one of a group of agents will decide to open their Twitter feeds to
questions, usually limited to non-query questions. This is a spur of
the moment event when they have a spare hour or two. One usually starts
and others join in if they can, but the questions and answers will be
available for some time afterwards even if you miss the actual session.
#queryfail - A controversial
event that is announced ahead of time where agents and editors go
through their submission pile and note trends or errors that people
should correct before sending their work in. The controversy came about
because some authors objected to the level of specificity in the
submissions discussed, but the two I have watched offered some good
And if you're not yet at the
submission point with your writing, you can still follow other writers
who can give you an idea for how professionals manage their workload,
the struggles they go through, how they promote themselves, and many
other bits of information that would take an age to glean from reading
their blogs. Here again there are hashtags to find information about
writing in general (#writing), as well as numerous ones to collect
comments about specific genres or techniques, such as #writingtips where
you'll see both actual suggestions and links to useful web pages.
Another benefit of Twitter
when following agents, editors, and writers is the ability to see a
bird's eye view of the major genre and publishing conventions and
conferences that you may not be able to attend. I've gotten an insider
perspective on BEA (Book Expo America), RWA (Romance Writers of
America), ComicCon, SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and
Illustrators), and World Con this summer. You can learn who won the
various awards as they are being announced, what is the most sought
after swag (giveaways), what publishers seem most interested in, and
that publishers are giving out electronic versions of their novels for
the conference rather than bound ones.
The minute by minute
reporting isn't the only conference benefit as I mentioned above with
agents and editors offering tips in advance of the conference you might
be attending so you can avoid some of the pitfalls. Following someone
on Twitter, for example, is not considered stalking. Chasing them into
the bathroom on the other hand...
There is no requirement to
follow those who follow you, so don't expect a bunch of agents to add
you to their list. That said, if you start to say interesting things
that are ReTweeted (essentially forwarded on Twitter), you may find
yourself with followers who want to know what else you might have to
Many publishers also put a
representative on Twitter to discuss current releases, contests,
submission calls, or other aspects that would be handy to know. To
offer a couple examples: @HarlequinBooks points out when a novel contest
is run along with discounts and sales on their books. @EosBooks
highlights blog posts of interest, and if you're paying attention, you
can see which releases they consider warrant that extra push.
Then you have more general
resources like @PublishersWkly, which offers an article roundup and
highlights specific news relevant to publishing; @fmwriters where you
can learn what challenges, marathons, or classes are running on Forward
Motion; or @JaneFriedman who is publisher and editorial director of the
Writer's Digest brand community at F+W Media and offers a "Twitter
Highlights" blog post every week to call out things you might have
One easy way to start
following the people you're interested in is the We Follow directory.
Twitter participants put their handles into the directory under relevant
tags and you search for the tag to see who you might be interested in.
For example, to find agents, you can look here:
http://wefollow.com/twitter/agent while you'd use the tag search at
the top of any page to find other useful categories.
Now before you run out and
sign up, there are some pitfalls to using Twitter. Keeping up with
everyone's posts, especially if you're quick to follow or follow back,
can be time consuming. Some people have posts go to their phone
(confirm whether it is covered by your plan first because it can get
pricey), others read on one of the many Twitter tools, and still others
stick to the basic website. However you connect, though, reading takes
The flip side of that is
Twitter is a constant stream. If you go on vacation, catching up on
your return is painful. The best way to look at it is as though Twitter
were a huge chat room that you go in and out of. You have no good way
of learning everything that happened when you were absent, but there's
enough value in the current information to make it worth your while.
Don't try to keep up, just enjoy what you can, when you can.
Also, this is an online
presence. Even if your post scrolls deep into the past, it still might
show up on Google some time later. Be smart. Be yourself, but at the
same time, be aware of how you appear to the others following your
stream. People joke about swearing once and losing a handful of
followers, but that's less of a concern than constantly making abrasive,
clingy, or ignorant posts to people who you want to interact with on a
professional level. Just as Twitter can help you learn that agents are
real people, so does your stream let them have a peek at who you are.
Don't Tweet in a manner that you wouldn't use when sitting across the
table from them at a conference, because that will make an impression it
may be hard to overcome.
So, are you all ready to
dive in, then? Go to
www.Twitter.com and sign up. The only charge is to your spare