Off the shelf – The new writers

More authors are using social media to get exposure for their writing


Authors have always warranted a certain amount of prestige. Often with personalities larger than life,  it became a seamless part of how their work was recognized. Bukowksi drinking himself to death in bars, Hunter S. Thompson making a public scene on acid, Hemmingway at the bullfights are all examples of how well known authors of the past would have sold their persona publically. It was the social media of their time and their platform solidified their image as a part of their work.

Although the concept has not changed drastically in the new millennia, the platform has.  This shift represents a large change in the direction the literary tradition has taken but not necessarily ended the grass roots of printing and publication of books. Anyone can be launched into DIY stardom from the comfort of their home. Some authors have elected to use this platform as a way to sell their image in an attempt to fill the gap of advertising and distribution once handled by large publishing companies.

Here in the GTA, Rupi Kaur, started her literary career on Instagram and through it has projected herself and her work to the top of best-selling lists next to Margaret Atwood. Starting with posting a photo-essay about menstrual taboos which gained notoriety through a small dose of controversy, Kaur posted illustrated poems from a collection that would come to be milk and honey which was picked up by a publication in 2015.

One author who has seen the changes first hand over several decades is the Toronto native Stuart Ross. Ross began writing from a very young age and began selling self-published chapbooks, small books of short run poetry, on the street. This then led to creatingmagazines, co-founding the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, starting publishing companies and being published himself as a poet, novelist and essayist.

“In general, certainly from when I was a young writer, there is now more of a sense of being a writer as a career path as opposed to writing because it was something you enjoyed. I think the craft aspect of it has taken a back seat to the career aspects of it,” Says Ross. “Getting a book deal and a publisher and an agent and being famous, all that seems to be more important to some young writers than writing itself,”

Landing a proper book deal with a publishing house and having an agent might be the goal for many young writers but the competition has increased and the bank rolls of traditional publishers have decreased, leaving all of the strain on writers themselves.

“The way things have gone with strains on finances there is a lot less editing done in an editing house and more authors are getting their books edited in advance and the same thing is happening with promotion, it’s getting harder and harder for publishers to promote their work. It’s created a lot of new pressure on the writers to get out there and be a sales person to help their books move and keep themselves on top of mind,” says Ross.

Etobicoke poet and publisher Bardia Sinaee doesn’t think that these revelations in social media are necessary. He, instead, has taken a different approach and championed the use of micro-presses, operations with just a few people that create small runs of printed material. Through his micro-press, Odourless Press, Sinaee has produced chapbooks. This form of publication breaks off the restraint of usinga large company to put your written material into a book, but leaves sales and distribution up the author.

“It works for some people, the kind of people who can transition between themselves, the world and their work seamlessly. Authors selling their persona has been a timeless part of the craft, it just has manifested itself these days in the form of social media,” says Sinaee

He may be on an ever-shrinking list of individuals in the literary field who feel this way about the advent of social media’s role in publishing.

“I don’t use social media to cultivate my work. It can create a discordance between an author and their work. It’s useful for sharing information about book releases or information about my work, like you’d share anything else. If you’re trying to land a large book deal and sell thousands of copies, sure it’s important. It all really depends on the person,” says Sinaee.

Millennial author, motivational speak, and youth mentor Pauleanna Reid might be the kind of author who does think a social media presence is very important. The highly motivated and self-starting Reid published her first novel, Everything I Couldn’t Tell My Mother, in 2014 after spending her career moving up in the world of writing from failing grade 11 English to having her novel backed by Queen Latifah.

Using the internet and non-traditional forms of promotion is something that Reid has been involved in since the beginning of her career. Her career as a writer began when she started sharing her life experiences in a personal blog. After working diligently on her craft, she was able to move her way up to being published in several major Canadian newspapers and working as a journalist. After putting these experiences under her belt she chased after a long-time  dream of hers of writing a novel and becoming an author.

“My own mentor at the time told me that if I wanted to start writing I should start my own blog. Start small, dream big. She then was very instrumental in helping me become consistent and passionate and those transferable skills that opened the door for me in the world of journalism,” says Reid.

Reid uses social media outlets as an extension of her career and ambitions. The advent of social media has provided something far more dynamic than  a simple tool for self-promotion, but a way to really connect with readers.

“Social media has played such a big role because it has helped me create an emotional connection with my audience,” says Reid. “Devoting time to nurturing that connection, anything I say they help amplify. Anything I’ve tried to sell they’ve bought or helped promoted by liking or sharing it. Without social media, I don’t know that I’d be where I am today.”

What this has done, for writers like Reid is create what she calls a “tribe”. This is a group of people devoted to the cause of the individual who are going to advocate for the writer, amplify their message and share the experience with their friends; in other words true fandom.

The publishing industry itself has taken notice and has responded by adapting the way it operates. It used to be that an aspiring author would go and find a publisher, usually through an agent, send in a manuscript and begin the process. But now a person’s following can be judged with metrics. Views, subscribers, followers, and likes have all become something a publishing house will consider before bringing in a writer. In other words, an author must start putting in ground work to generate their own buzz before being noticed by publications. Millennial author Mugabi Byenkya, who published his first book Dear Philomena, in Toronto, considers this shift in attitude for the publishing industry similar to the shift seen in the music industry with record labels.

“Before an artist would drop off a demo and wait to get a call back in hopes to get signed. The publishing industry has changed a lot from what it used to be in the same way. A lot of it depends on how much of a following you have. That’s how artists get signed and discovered. You don’t go to the industry these days; the industry comes to you,” says Byenkya.

The days of the reclusive writer might be coming to an end as so much of the responsibilities of advertising and promotion are up to the authors themselves. There have always been distinct kinds of writers, but the divide between grass root authors and career writers looking for fame just keeps growing. Where one might just be happy with chapbooks made with a small printing press in a friend’s basement sold by the side of the road, others have dreams of being interviewed about their latest novel on national television with a legion of supporters behind them. It would be unjust to say that one has any more merit than the other, because both are just trying to make it in the writing game, except each side play it very differently.



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