I’ve talked, lots of times, about the importance of online support and communities. It’s an important, and valid, subject. Gone are the days of needing a UK publisher and a US one (unless you’re traditionally published and with an agent, where that model still applies). For self publishers, and many of those with small and medium presses, the book is available throughout the world. (I felt like doing a He-Man: “By the power of Kindle!” right about here. I almost desisted.)
What I’ve talked about less is building local networks.
Once, they were the mainstay of any author. Getting a book out meant gaining the support of local booksellers, of visiting reading groups, of having your local press do a little bit of coverage about you. There was no internet, no kindle – your name had to build slowly and surely, like tentacles on an octopus, reaching and reaching.
Then, in the rush to be on facebook and twitter, to have sales in America (and, to make a living as an indie author, you do need to try to break America – if anyone knows the secret, please share…), we seem to have downgraded the importance of meeting and greeting.
I’ll put my hand up and admit to being slow off the starting blocks. By the time I had engaged with communities near me, my first book was out. I regret that – I wish I had attended writing groups and got to know writers around me a little better – but at the time I struggled to find any science fiction and fantasy writers in the country, let alone within reach of a busy mum with two young kids.
A few weeks ago, I availed of one of the opportunities that came up through my local networks and attended a day in Dublin with a load of women writers, and sat in on a panel about communities. I raised the subject of the difficulty of finding those communities when you write something a little different and how I’d had to go online to do so. The inimitable Sheena Wilkinson responded to that, questioning if the two platforms have a different role – one for specialist advice and guidance, the other for face to face support. (Not that I don’t get support from my online buddies, to be clear – I have a closeness with some of them that transcends the miles and makes them the first source of writing-support, and I suspect they always will be.)
But, whisper it – they are different things and they bring different opportunities. Last year, I spent a week at the John Hewitt Summer School, and it was fantastic. I met mates there and had a great time being all writerly. I felt connected to the wider arts community in Ireland in a way I hadn’t fully before.
It’s not just about engagement. Local support also raises additional opportunities. For promo, for engaging with people who might, actually, read your book. For having some good craic. And it can be useful promo - gone are the days when your picture was in the local rag and the town saw it, and no one else. Now, local papers are online. Their article is on my timeline and read all over the place, in no time.
Local engagement also – and this is a big one – starts that elusive word of mouth. I approach word of mouth a bit like I do an important piece of info in a story: a person or book needs to be mentioned in a couple of places, in a couple of contexts, before it sinks in.
This is what local coverage can give you. (And, yes, that does mean people over here will be thoroughly sick of me this summer when I launch the loveliness that is Waters and the Wild.) A panel here, a mention there, a reading in that library, a bookclub visit in that town. They all add up – and they all add together. That’s something that an online presence finds harder to emulate. It happens, sure – but the sources are often further apart, serving a world’s worth of people, so that your name barely makes it to the point where it can be seen, let alone anyone actually taking a chance on your writing.
I think that knowing this gives real opportunities to writers who don’t take naturally to social media. Knowing that it’s okay to run a library event and not a glitzy facebook night. Knowing that talking to a local bookclub is just as valid as writing a blog that you hate, opening yourself to scrutiny and comments from people who don’t even know you. That attending the con down the road is just as good as that huge convention you’re terrified of – and, in the case of Titancon, at least as much fun. (We all love Titancon). That having coffee and cake with another writer is just as important as an hour’s worth of stacking-tweets-for-the-week. And nicer. Because, cake.
Perhaps it’s time to be more open to the opportunities on our doorstep. To step away from the internet and let our faces out of the house, into the sunlight. To meet people and connect, and know not only can it be fun (I did mention the cake, yes? Or, as anyone in the Belfast science fiction group knows, Malcolm’s chocolate fills a gap, too) but it can also be time well spent.