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Yes, artists need social media
But only the good kind.
I recently saw an artist performing on the street. We were at an ice cream shop and there were maybe a dozen of us listening to her singing and playing the guitar as we ate. She had a beautiful voice so I asked if she had a TikTok account so I could follow her, but she said “sorry, I’m really bad at social media.”
I found myself wondering what her strategy was. Of the 12 of us listening, let’s say one of us liked her music enough to want to follow it. Only she has no social media so there is no way for that one person to follow her. In this scenario, there’s no way she can grow an audience for her art—she loses every fan she gains.
She could, of course, not care about growing an audience. She might see playing on the street as a fun hobby and in this case she’s doing everything perfectly. BUT, let’s imagine she had bigger dreams for her art. In this case playing for 12 people every weekend with no way to grow an audience isn’t going to get her far. She’d be better off playing on TikTok, where her work could reach thousands.
Artists need social media
There can be no doubt that TikTok has changed the game for artists. Unlike other social media platforms there is no need to spend years building a following—any video could become an artist’s big break. This is thanks to the app’s algorithm which pairs each video with the people who might best like it.
And artists have been getting their big break. Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, for two, casually asked what Netflix’s Bridgerton series would sound like if it were a Broadway musical—they wrote songs for it on TikTok which went insanely viral, leading the duo to record an album, which then WON A GRAMMY—all because TikTok paired their videos with people who might like them. And a lot of people did.
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Morgan Bullock, for another, spent years developing her craft as an Irish dancer. Then one day she posted a video of her tapping out the song “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé—it went viral on TikTok, ultimately earning her a coveted spot on Riverdance’s 25th anniversary tour. She quit her day job to become the first Black dancer for Riverdance and achieved her lifelong dream—all by sharing her craft on TikTok!
It’s not just performers who have benefitted from TikTok. According to The New York Times, book sales have skyrocketed thanks to a sub-community on the app known as BookTok. The author Madeline Miller, who wrote Circe and Song of Achilles, saw her 2012 book skyrocketing in sales when, in August of 2020, the 19-year-old @moongirlreads_ posted a video entitled “books that will make you SOB” featuring The Song of Achilles among them.
Suddenly the book was seeing a revival. “Published in 2012, The Song of Achilles sold well, but not nearly as well as it’s selling now,” the article reported in March of 2021. “The Song of Achilles is selling about 10,000 copies a week, roughly nine times as much as when it won the prestigious Orange Prize. It is third on the New York Times best-seller list for paperback fiction.”
It has since become a phenomenon. TikTokers flocked to bookstores to grab a copy, and thousands of them posted about it on the app. Videos with the hashtag reached 200 million views. “It was published in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies,” another New York Times article, dated July of 2022, said of The Song of Achilles. “This month, its publisher, Ecco, announced it had sold 2 million copies across all formats.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Ten years after the book was published it sold 2 million copies—far more than when it was first published—just because it gained visibility on TikTok. This sudden influx of book sales changed the author’s life. Miller, who said her income streams—speaking and touring opportunities—dried up during the pandemic, suddenly found herself financially supported with the ability to get back to writing again.
“BookTok has helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021,” the article continued. “So far this year, those sales are up another 50 percent. NPD Books said that no other form of social media has ever had this kind of impact on sales.”
Yep, TikTok has been outpacing all other forms of social media for artist discovery. According to Kaya Yurieff who reports on the creator economy for The Information, “39,000 TikTok accounts have at least 1 million followers. That’s about 6,200 more than on YouTube and nearly 16,000 more than on Instagram.”
Despite the benefits, there is some reluctance on the part of artists to engage with social media this way. I think this viral TikTok post perfectly sums up the sentiment:
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In the post, the author Fire Lyte says: “Marketing won’t support us unless we’re big on BookTok, which is bad because most of us don’t have the time to do this. I should be researching my next book but I’m here doing this hoping it goes viral.”
I get it—no one loves this part and we’d all rather make art. Still, I don’t know where artists get the romantic notion that they should be able to JUST do art, and that should be enough to find readers and make a living from it—as though someone else should handle all the marketing and make it successful. Even if an author is very successful and has the backing of a publisher, this is not, nor has it ever been, how art (or anything else for that matter) works.
Why would a publishing house invest in your art if they can’t expect to earn money from it? And why should you as the artist, expect investment in your art if you aren’t willing to market it? Even the most successful Hollywood actors have to stop acting once the movie is done and spend months on a promo tour to promote it. Musicians spend years promoting their album, hitting all the late night shows and touring after it’s written. There is just no world in which artists can focus all of their time on art, without spending any time marketing it.
Even the bestselling YA author Victoria Aveyard, spends most of her day on marketing. When she posted a TikTok about a day in her life as a full-time author she didn’t even mention writing. Her work day included making a pronunciation guide for her audiobook, meeting with her publicist, and signing tip-ins—oh, and presumably making that TikTok video. And she’s Victoria Aveyard!
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Far from being deflating, I find it empowering that we don’t have to wait around for some big conglomerate to make us a name, instead we can use these tools to our advantage and make a name for ourselves! Aveyard has. With or without a publishing house, she now has a platform where she posts unboxing videos of her new books, shares a behind the scenes look at her life as a full-time author, and answers questions about how she writes her books—and that ultimately catapulted her new book Realm Breaker to the top of the charts.
Artists need better social media
I happen to love TikTok, so I don’t need to be convinced to try it. Exposure to Cirque du Soleil performers, skydiving dancers, comedians, sketch artists, and castle/cabin designers has completely expanded my mind as an artist. And I love witnessing these artists practice their craft on a daily basis instead of only when I hold a $100 Broadway ticket in my hand.
You know what I don’t love though? Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. I’ve wrestled with these apps since I started them. In a lot of ways I felt like I had to do them—LinkedIn is important for my job as a journalist, Twitter too, Instagram is just everywhere. But I just can’t stand being on those apps—it’s too easy to come across something terrible when you’re trying to see something good, and I don’t love having my day sidelined by an errant post I happen to see there.
Even when I try to create boundaries—Instagram and Twitter only on my iPad, TikTok on my phone, LinkedIn on my work browser, Tweetbot blocking Twitter’s algorithm, notifications turned off, screen time limits set, Cold Turkey app blocking websites from my laptop, posts scheduled via Hypefury—I find my attention scattered. I spend all week responding to notifications in all the places and developing a tic in the back of my mind that makes me feel as though there’s always another notification to check. I start thinking in 280 characters. I come up with pseudo humorous quips in my sleep. I don’t publish them because I don’t want to conform to the “Twitter voice.”
Like every artist before me I think: I would rather be writing.
And that’s on the good days.
When I published my article for Esquire, I wrote a tweet that went something like “What if you could invest in your favorite book? What if you could get rich if it succeeds? What if you could make a living writing fanfiction?” My article was intensely hated by literary Twitter and that tweet received hundreds of replies turning my “what if you…” convention into a thousand horrible things I should do.
This was the second time Twitter unleashed its fury on me, and this time I watched the pile on with apathy. I couldn’t help but look at the photos of the authors personally insulting me and think: if we met in real life, if we had a real conversation about art, you wouldn’t say such horrible things about me. In fact, we would probably agree about a lot of things. And I don’t think it’s good for either of us to exist where that kind of context is missing.
At the very least, it wasn’t good for me. I spent the day contemplating whether I even wanted to be on the internet anymore—whether it was even worth writing here. I started hating all the things I’ve written before, reading them with new eyes. I didn’t like the way hate felt on me—that I had to spend so much time and effort trying to shake it. I could see how it could make me angry, how it could have hardened me to my position out of self-defense, how it could have strangled my creativity at the source, how small words on the internet could pit even artists against each other.
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For all the harm those apps have done me, they haven’t done any good. I checked: of my 5,245 newsletter subscribers, only 137 came from social media.1 Which means all the time and energy I poured into those platforms wasn’t worth it. At best, those apps were distracting, at worst they were toxic. I didn’t intend to spend another moment insecure about my art. I’m writing a utopian novel for goodness sake, I need a mind that believes beautiful, impossible things, not one that’s drowning in self-doubt! I deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts without another thought and locked DMs and comments to only my connections on LinkedIn.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
All that remained was one app I really love: Substack. Ever since the app came out, I have been positively living in it. I love finding creative new writers to follow, reading their essays on a daily basis, and interacting with a community of likeminded peers in the comment section. Because there is no algorithm, I read only the work of those I’m subscribed to. As a result, I am guaranteed to love whatever shows up in my feed—I read Substack more often than books now! As both a writer and a reader this is the app I have longed for in my life.
In her article “why I want to quit social media,” Sara Petersen summed up the difference between Substack and social media: “My various newsletter and media subscriptions kept me culturally and socially engaged in a way that didn’t trigger that same cycle of overstimulation as social media does (for me at least). Reading something written by someone whose perspective you enjoy, value, trust, and respect doesn’t carry with it that same potential for emotional upset as an hour on social media might.”
Though Petersen wishes she could quit social media, she comes to the conclusion that she still needs it for her work as a writer. She quotes the author Courtney Maum as evidence: “Today, it’s not only hoped for but almost a condition of getting a book deal that you will become a one-person branding operation for your book, pulling a podcast out of your back pocket, a newsletter, blue check verified social media accounts with gazillions of followers, a TikTok dance account, maybe a cooking show, the list goes on.”
This is all true, but I’ve come to a different conclusion. I do believe artists need social media, but we don’t need all of them. We just need one or two platforms we can really focus our energy and attention on where we can grow a following for our work—for me that’s Substack, and maybe TikTok for some added discovery. I checked, 1,298 of my newsletter subscribers came from within the Substack network.2 That means it is a far better use of my time to focus my energy where my community already lives, than to try to attract attention amidst the chaos outside it.
I used to think of my social media as an “all roads lead to Rome” strategy. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn—these were just roads that led to my Substack. But now I think I just live in Rome—that it’s big enough for all of us here. That we have created a vibrant city center filled with an interconnected network of writers and artists and philosophers who can introduce us to an even larger community of writers and artists and philosophers just by virtue of being here. And being part of the movement.
And there is context here. That same Esquire article received much more respectful comments on Substack. Even those who disagreed with the premise (for the most part) weren’t mean. They responded with respectful, much longer than 280-character, well thought out ideas—we were able to have a conversation. That’s because those of you who follow my newsletter have the added context of knowing that I am not out to destroy publishing, but am only hopeful it can become more nurturing for writers.
And Substack is. Not only do I live safe within Rome’s city walls, but by allowing me to lock comments to paying subscribers, I can also create my own little walled garden within them—an epicurean haven overflowing with ideas and creativity and philosophy, where anyone is welcome and a likeminded community of thinkers can thrive. Those who don’t find their people here can simply unsubscribe and leave. As there is no algorithm recommending content to us, they will never see another post from me again.
I had sufficiently Marie Kondoed my social media down to the two that bring me joy—Substack and TikTok—when I received an email from the Substack team: “We’re looking for a small handful of 5-10 writers to be the first to try this feature.”
The idea is a simple one: to create a better social media based on what we are already building here. A community of writers and readers who no longer have to wait to meet in the comments section of a post, but can also meet on a daily basis in the new “threads” section of the Substack app. Here’s what it looks like:
I’m excited to be one of only nine writers testing this feature with their newsletter communities—starting today! (The others are Bill Bishop of Sinocism, Haley Nahman of Maybe Baby, Darryl Cooper of Martyr Made, Marc Stein of The Stein Line, Matt Stoller of BIG, Terrell Johnson of The Half Marthoner, Suleika Jaouad and Carmen Radley of The Isolation Journals, and Scott Snyder of Our Best Jackett.)
In a private thread for those of us who have been testing the feature, Substack’s chief writing officer Hamish McKenzie shared, “A colleague once said to me, ‘Yeah, every writer should have their own social network.’ It struck a chord with me. How might the world be different if social media platforms had to serve writers, rather than the other way round?”
He wrote an incredible post about how Substack can and should support writer communities. I’m so here for it:
I have big plans for this space. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share portions of my life and art that aren’t quite big enough to make it into long-form essays (because sometimes an idea can be summed up in a single sentence or photo). My hope is to create a true literary salon—the collaborative artist community I’ve always dreamed of—and to share more of my life and art on a daily basis!
If you want to join me, all you have to do is download the Substack app and click the threads tab to see everything happening in The Novelleist community, and maybe a few of the other newsletters you follow too! If you already have the Substack app, you might need to update it. If you don’t have the app, you’ll need to download it.
I’m going to keep this community free and open to all Novelleist subscribers through the test period (the end of September) at which point I will start locking some posts to paid subscribers. I’m also going to give my subscribers at the Novelle Collector tier a voice in the community. They can start threads in the community just like I can—everyone can comment.
(If you are one of my paid subscribers at the Novelle Collector tier and you want to participate, please reply to this email—or email me at email@example.com—and let me know so I can get you set-up!)
This is another experiment, but a better one. And I’m excited to build social media without algorithms and character limits—only community.
See you there!
The Novelleist is a reader-supported publication. If you enjoy my work, consider supporting it as a free or paid subscriber.
50 came from Medium
40 came from Reddit
20 came from Facebook which I don’t even have
20 came from LinkedIn
5 came from Vocal
2 came from Instagram
414 came from Substack recommendations
287 came from organic Substack browsing
222 came from discovery within the Substack app
196 came from mentions in other Substacks
114 came from the Substack leaderboard (substack.com)
37 came from searches within Substack
16 came from finding me via their Twitter link
9 came from links in Substack comments
7 came from readers sharing links