Social networking – a vital tool or the digital equivalent of timewasting fag breaks? Peter James is a convert

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the (140 character limit) question. And what about Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Google+ and Blogging? Or – erm – just getting on with writing a novel. (Wozzat? – Ed. Do peeps still read ’em 2day?)

In February 2009, I bumped into my friend Anthony Horowitz, literally, on a wet chute in the Wild Wadi water park in Dubai, where we were both guests of the first – and fabulous – Dubai Literary Festival. Full of glee, he told me he had started tweeting, and within three weeks had amassed a (seemingly amazing then) 41 followers!

I was already an avid blogger and, at that time, a disenchanted user of MySpace, which I found was hijacked by people trying to sell things; and I was reluctant to take on something else that would mean yet more demands on my time, especially as I was also toying with Facebook. But Geoff Duffield, Group Sales and Marketing Director of my publishers, Pan Macmillan, got very excited when I discussed it with him and urged me to have a go at both.

Now, two and a half years later, I have 4,500 Twitter followers and 15,000 acolytes on Facebook, and I genuinely think the effort I put into both is worthwhile in several different and very important ways.

First of all, I can have direct, real-time communications with my fans – something that would have been impossible a few years ago. Here’s a post by one on my Facebook page today: “Peter… For a man that writes about the darker sides of human nature… You are always so cheerful on here… Always look forward to reading your posts whilst waiting for the next book! :-)”

Before email, fan letters to authors were a slow process, often taking a month or more to arrive. They’d be posted first to the publishing house, and after a couple of weeks of being shunted around the mail room would get forwarded on to the author’s agent, and a week or two later, finally hit the author’s doormat. Worried about stalkers, like many authors, I used to reply on my agent’s headed paper. I do still occasionally get these snail mail letters. They arrive in a small envelope, with spidery handwriting – a sure sign of someone elderly. I received one two weeks ago, from a retired building engineer, telling me I’d confused concrete and cement in my last novel, and very sweetly explaining, over six barely decipherable pages, about ballast and gravel, and what the differences were. I’ll never make the mistake again!

But research help is one of the greatest of all the virtues of the social networking sites. Frequently on Twitter and Facebook I will ask my mortuary technician fans for the latest model of band-saw used for removing skull-caps in post-mortems, a cruise line fan for the fuel consumption of a particular ship, my criminal fans how to steal a 2011 model Audi A4 (difficult), and my farmer fans how to stop our aggressive hen, Myra Hendley, from killing newly hatched ducklings in the run (eat the hen).

Another, of incalculable value, is the self-promotion potential. This year, mindful that my new hardback, Dead Man’s Grip, was coming out head to head with the new James Bond book, Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver, I put extra special effort in – seeding the book to my fans months in advance; giving links to the Amazon and Tesco sites for advance purchasing; and in the weeks before the 26 May launch, I tweeted the opening chapter, 140 characters at a time! We beat Carte Blanche to number 1 one week by just 94 books, and kept it off the top the following week too. It was a narrow, but utterly crucial margin. Do I think my social networking helped? Undoubtedly it played a role.

An important aspect of this is that my fans feel that they are talking to me and bonding with me. Take this example of a tweet from a female fan this week: “It’ll be gr8 when we read these parts in your book, social media used this way is brilliant!! All these insights into what’s coming in future novels are fascinating!”

I’ve also learned so much about what my readers like and dislike. One early lesson was that you can be as brutal as you like to a human being, but never, ever, ever harm an animal! Another real eye-opener has been hearing which characters in my Roy Grace series they love and which they loathe – and most especially of all, the ones they love to loathe. And of course the on-going hook of Roy Grace’s missing wife Sandy provides me with the ability to do a huge amount of teasing of my readers.

It’s invaluable to have behind me a publishing team and an agent, Carole Blake, who are so plugged-in to this technology. Any review I get, or award nomination, or indeed any praise from a fellow tweeter, is immediately retweeted by Carole to her 6,500 followers, by her colleagues as well, by my editor, Wayne Brookes, my publishing director, Jeremy Trevathan, and by the whole team at my US publishers – so upward of 50,000 people see this each time.

Then there are the real, out of the blue, bonuses of celebrity endorsements. Not long ago, Joan Collins began tweeting to her 35,000 followers about how much she loves my books. To have such an iconic figure doing this totally off her own back is a true money-can’t-buy advertisement.

Word-of-mouth is that elusive alchemy that no marketing director in the world, with any budget, can ever buy. It is the elixir of bestsellers. I believe from my own experience that using Twitter, Facebook and my blog has helped to fuel that word-of-mouth, and that gets stronger by the day as my numbers of followers continue, hopefully, to rise.

It has been said that, “New technology is like a steamroller. You are either sitting on the steamroller or you are part of the road.” I would agree with that, but with one caveat: if you handwrite a letter drunk, you can always rip it up the next morning. But never, ever tweet or post on Facebook drunk. I did once, slagging off the BNP and mistakenly called them the UKIP. The barrage of abuse I got the next day was far worse than my hangover! And I had to feel sorry for a very high profile crime fiction journalist who fetched up in his hotel room, clearly very much the worse for wear, and banged out tweet after tweet after tweet complaining about the lack of porn channels on his hotel’s television. Quite what his very attractive wife said to him the next day was strangely absent from all social networking sites…

© 2011 Peter James / Really Scary Books Ltd