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Dublin: 1 °C Wednesday 26 November, 2014

Column: To be a successful writer nowadays, you have to embrace social media

Writers from the days of print-only publications are still running to catch up with digital revolution, which has levelled the playing field and created almost-boundless opportunities for those with ambition, writes Stephen Downes.

Stephen Downes

WHEN I STARTED writing back in the stone-age of the early 1990s, the idea of getting your work in print represented a Holy Grail for most writers in Ireland. If you were lucky enough to get a poem or a story into a magazine you could be sure of reaching a few thousand but maybe only a few hundred readers.  Today, things have changed beyond all recognition. Just as the Guttenberg Bible revolutionised printing and mass media, now eBooks have not just altered the game, they’ve torn up the rules and started a new phase in how we read.

Writers from the days of print-only publications are still running to catch up with this new technology. Young authors are fortunate that they are now born into a vast international web of communication, where their work can be seen instantly from Dublin to Dubai.

A no-brainer to take part in the new eRevolution

When I decided to follow my life-long dream and write a series of novels in the style of my literary hero, the late, great, Douglas Adams, it was a no-brainer to take part in the new eRevolution. I never even looked for a print publisher; instead of reaching a few hundred people wandering into a book shop in Dublin I can now reach potentially millions across the globe.  Only a few years ago eBooks were regarded by the writing community as ‘vanity publishing’ and a lesser cousin of print.

Now, with eReaders becoming the standard way that people are accessing fiction and the first eBook millionaire authors proving its success, this isn’t the dreaded future that some publishers feared, it is the glorious present that writers like myself have dreamed of for years.

There must be something in the air that Ireland produces more poets and writers per square mile than any other country in the world. E-technology isn’t going to change that; the talent and writing remain the same. What has changed is the audience and the ways we sell our work to them. The audience have become truly international and have replaced the stuffy out-dated critics; every reader has become a reviewer and every good review sells another book.

Talking directly to the reader

Although an old romantic like me loves a book shop, no longer are authors’ slaves to the randomness of browsing. Twitter, Facebook and a myriad of other websites allow each writer to talk directly to their customer. Feedback is now instantaneous. Twenty years ago if you really liked a book you might tell a friend – now you update your status and the reader becoming the agent, the publisher and the critic with one click of a button.

My own book, Cosmogonic Marbles, was conceived, born, educated and is currently living happily on the internet for all to see, on Amazon.com.  Like most authors you meet I don’t like to be categorised or pigeonholed, in the old days the bookstore might put Cosmogonic Marbles on the comedy shelf or maybe the history, they might bury it in the sc-fi section where only the bravest dare to thread.  Now the book can have multiple tags. Is it a comedy?  I think the fact that there’s a sarcastic Oak Tree says yes.  Is it fantasy?  Of course it is.  Does it have history? Yes it does.  What age group is it? Click of a button …all ages 8 to 80 (sorry to all 81 year olds!).

Embracing social media

Launching a book in the past was a shot-in-the-dark experience; sure you had a book launch, and all of your friends bought a copy. You might do some readings in an arts centre, maybe the local paper gave you a mention, and the book sat on a shelf hoping to catch the eye … it was all well and good but eBooks are more demanding creatures. Now my book has its own Facebook page (with more friends than me I might add), it has Twitter followers, YouTube videos and forum discussion groups. In short, if you want to be a successful writer nowadays, you have to be multi-media.

It sounds like hard work, and I won’t lie to you (although as a fiction writer I could), it is. But all this hands-on work has a massive upside – the author has complete control over his/her project. Such a privilege was previously only reserved for major international writers like Stephen King, and even then writers of that calibre have never had the control that the eBook author has now. For my book, I chose my own editors, worked closely with my cover artist Linda J Cunningham and altered the book after direct feedback from online readers (some of whom I’ve never even meet).

I’d rather be a writer in the eRevolution

As I embark on the sequel, my spirits are soaring for the whole Botolf Chronicles series of books I intend to write over the coming years. My work (and your work if you’re a budding writer) doesn’t have sit on the dusty shelf hoping that the right customer happens across it. The right customer has a search engine and is typing in ‘Comedy-Fantasy-Fiction’ and I know they will find, read and hopefully enjoy my work.

Having published three print books early in my career my work is spanning the rift between print and ePublishing and I can honestly say, I love books and always will, but I’d rather be a writer in the eRevolution.

Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, playwright and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve’s first novel, Cosmogonic Marbles (part 1 of 3 in a series) is a comedy fantasy written in the style of his literary hero, Douglas Adams. He is currently working on the second fantasy novel in his series as well as a new poetry collection, he also is in the process of publishing an anthology of new Irish writers.

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