Gretchen Rubin: Social Media Happiness for Authors

Gretchen RubinBy Joe Dolce, Partner, DolceGoldin

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about what makes us happy. The book came out in December 2009 and immediately hit the NY Times Bestseller List and has been on the list for four months, including hitting #1.

She is also the author of the bestselling Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill; Forty Ways to Look at JFK; Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide; and Profane Waste. Her popular daily blog, The Happiness Project, appears on The Huffington Post, as well as many other sites, and ranks in the prestigious Technorati “Top 2K.”

Rubin has spent years playing with social media and here she shares insights on creating a digital presence and the best practices for authors to build an audience.

JOE DOLCE: What’s the single most important thing that authors should do when using the Internet to discuss and promote their work?

GRETCHEN RUBIN: Start early. About four years ago my agent said, “I think you should start a blog.” I said, “I don’t want to. I’m not techie; I don’t write short, I write long; I’m not a journalist.” But she planted a seed with me. As part of the premise of my book, I needed a way to test the precept that “Novelty and challenge bring happiness.” So I thought I’d take up the challenge of starting a blog, in order to test the theory.

I started in March 2006, and I’ve been blogging six days a week ever since.

I think starting early is super-important; you’ve got to do it in advance, little by little, to get the network effect going. It takes time. I got one little link from Lifehacker and saw my traffic shoot up. Then I got some big things — I became a featured contributor on The Huffington Post and Slate, and that helped a lot.  Here’s my big theory (I didn’t make it up but I think it’s absolutely true):

On the Internet, ubiquity is the new exclusivity. It’s important that your stuff be as ubiquitous as possible.

And I think Twitter is amazingly powerful. It’s one of the main drivers to my blog, and I don’t even tweet that much. Even now, most people don’t use Twitter, but it’s a highly engaged group.

JD: I hear a lot of the resistance from authors to Twitter, “But I don’t want to talk about what I had for breakfast.”

GR: If you don’t want to talk about yourself, don’t. Talk about ideas. Talk about other people’s books. People who are interested in books are always interested to hear what other people are reading. I send tweets like: “Here are the books I saw being read on my subway train.” All book writers need to help each other.

What happened to your blogroll? It’s not on your site anymore?

I took it down. It was too much real estate. I do link every day to someone else’s blog. It’s good karma, plus I’ve made a lot of friends that way. I used to think I had to incorporate references to other blogs into my text, but now I just put a note at the bottom: “Was looking at so-and-so’s blog.” You get a lot of good will, and it’s a great resource for my readers.

Gretchen Rubin on FacebookTell me one clever way you’ve used Facebook.

Geographic targeting. When I did my book tour, the ability to do geo-targeting was so helpful. Because I could send messages by city, I didn’t have to spam people with messages that weren’t relevant to them.

Lately I’ve started posting “Happiness Questions.” I’m getting a great response from these. People are really eager to weigh in with their answers. People want to engage but with the least work possible. Surveys are easy.

What other Best Practices can you recommend to authors?

When I started my blog, I made a list of what I want my blog to be. What’s my voice? What’s my angle? I developed a set of questions: Am I giving good information? Am I being funny? Am I telling stories? Am I showing what it’s like to live in New York City? Am I highlighting great work by other people? Am I being honest about myself?

Also, I never criticize anyone but myself. I never have a funny rant about anybody but myself. No snark, no irony. And I never work blue. I never write anything that my grandmother wouldn’t be comfortable reading.


For my own happiness. I never wanted to feel bad or uncomfortable about something I wrote.  A lot of people said, “Earnestness is not going to work. Irony is what people are interested in.” But I think it’s a voice question. I wanted to be consistent. Mommywantsvodka is heartwarming yet profane. That’s her voice.

More tips please.

Links are gold; personal and URLs. You always want to be linking.

Seth Godin said, “Power is going to continue to accrue to authors with direction connections to readers.” It’s a lot of work to do, but true. Have a newsletter list. I’m sure you tell clients to keep an email list. Authors always say, “What would I say to people? I’m like, “Ummm. tell them you have a new book coming out.”

I was meeting with an agent today, looking at a cover, and she said, “The author has no idea what to do with it now that he has it,” and I suggested that the author ask his readers what they thought of it. Ask them to tell him what they like/don’t like about it, and what it makes them think the book is about.

That’s a great idea. Here’s something I did that turned out to be very useful. When I was thinking of doing the book tour, I asked readers, ‘I’m trying to gauge interest in a book tour. If I came to your city, would you come?’  I got a list of all the people who said they’d come to see me speak, and I was able to let those people know if I did come to their city.  They said, ‘Thanks for emailing me about the event!’ They seemed truly happy to know.

And you were truly happy to see them show up!

Yes indeed! Another thing. I started noticing from my emails that people were reading my book in book groups. That was surprising to me, because most book groups only choose fiction,  and most book groups only read paperbacks, and my book is hardback nonfiction. I wrote a one-page discussion guide for book groups, and HarperCollins made it a pretty, one-page PDF. I announced it on my website: “If you’re reading this in a book group and would like a one-page discussion group, email me.”

I got 300 emails in one month.

So the lesson is….you have to know what to ask of your publisher?

Yes. Another example: I asked my publisher to make a starter-kit for me, for people who want to start happiness-project groups. I wrote it, and they made it into an attractive PDF. On my blog, I told people, “If you’d like to receive this, email me,” so I could email it to them.

I think publishers would happily do this for a lot of authors, but I think they need to be shown.

HarperCollins also created e-cards for me, because my book was coming out after Christmas, so people could use the e-card to tell gift recipients that a copy had been ordered for them, their gift was on the way. When people come to you, you don’t have to be broad, you can target.

Did the publisher offer good ideas on how to help you?

I have a weekly video; Harper marketing really pushed me to do that.

I think it’s more valuable than a written press release these days; TV producers really like to see how you express yourself and your ideas.

Harper marketing really pushed me, because lots of people want video. So now, each week, I post a 2-minute video. It’s the “2010 Happiness Challenge,” with a theme and a resolution each week.

They did right by you.

They did, but a lot of publishers still don’t. Maybe you could offer your clients help on what to ask of publishers. Many authors don’t even know what to ask them for. I’d ask them, “Can you turn this into a PDF and host it for me?” They can do that!  You could help writers and publishers how to get more value out of their mutual relationship. Publishers don’t have the time to think about it; and a lot of authors don’t know what to ask for.

What mistakes have you made?

The first would be not using lots of ways to engage with people.  I didn’t start my newsletter for two years — it took me that long to get it in gear. But fortunately, I still had two more years to go before the book came out! You know, if you’re going to start using social media, you can spend a lot of time scratching your head over what services to use. When I was starting I found that just the question of what blog format can paralyze you– WordPress vs. Blogspot vs. Drupal.

Gretchen Rubin on TwitterYou can feel very stupid baby-stepping your way in.

Like with Twitter. It’s very easy, but it’s hard at the same time to get started. First of all, turn off the chirping sound on your Tweetdeck. Then turn off the notifications.

I just met with a writer with a book coming out, and I asked, “Are you using Twitter?'”She said, “I have a Twitter account, and I don’t really post anything, and I already have 200 people following me! I’m going to start tweeting when my book comes out.” And I thought, “Those 200 people are just spam followers. They have no idea who you are. They’re not loyal fans.”

That’s a classic mistake.

Another classic mistake is not having a very clear place on your blog’s homepage where you explain, “What Is This Blog.” You need to make it very clear to people, right away, why they should be interested in reading your posts.

Another: If you’re sending an email to someone because you want them to see something you’ve written, and perhaps link to you, don’t just put the link, include the link and the text.

And the headline.

Right! People won’t link through unless they know what it’s about.

What other forms of author resistance do you see?

In the last few years I’ve seen a huge shift.  I used to be seen as a sort of a scab — undercutting the market, it’s not right to write for free. Now other writers are getting very interested in online. Writers still come too late, like 6 months before their pub dates. 

I have to be the bearer of bad news. I have to tell them this is the long road. They think it’s going happen fast. Or they say after 3 months, it hasn’t worked. But I ask them, Is this your only book? If so, yes, it hasn’t worked. But if this is for life, think about it:  Are you building a following that you can call upon time and time again?

A non-fiction writer was making the case to me about why she shouldn’t have a blog. She said, “Nobody wants to read about my topic online.” I had to ask her, “If you don’t think anybody’s going to read you free for 3 minutes online, what makes you think they’re going to pay $25 for a book?”

If there’s no audience online, it’s hard to imagine an audience in the bookstore.

Joe Dolce is a partner in the Public Relations/Media Strategy firm, DolceGoldin, and the creator of a new online publicity system for authors. He was the former editor in chief of Details and Star magazines. He can be reached via email.

10 thoughts on “Gretchen Rubin: Social Media Happiness for Authors

    1. Scott Nicholson

      Thanks for the tip on adding more links. I’ve gotten the message in several places to link more to other authors and book sites (like this one, which I did a couple of days ago). Seth Godin also has some good advice on personalized communication. I try to write about the writing life and publishing industry, but I notice i get a much better response when I am funny. That’s good, because I don’t take myself seriously. In fact, I bill myself as “the world’s laziest hack.” Happiness to you.

      Scott Nicholson

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  4. Tim Barrus

    I run the largest VOOK group on Facebook. We put our narratives, struggles, and video right to the group’s wall. I had no idea so many people who gravitate to it. It gets lively out there. Today, instead of beating my head against brick walls built by publishers, editors, and agents, I have access to an entire world of voices, ideas, electric focus, madness (I love madness), the obsessed, the visionary, and instead of pounding on doors in publishing that were always locked to me, and always will be, I actually have a life. And a place to put the images from that life.

  5. kathryn stoll

    I enjoyed your article. I am attempting to write more days than not every week especially since I am taking a 250 words a day chsllenge and attempting a book using BIAM by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I have a question for you though. How do you feel about writing reviews of products, in my case, helpful how to writing books? I already have AD Sense, but very little readership to my blog yet. I am still learning the ropes. Thank you for your article. I may read some more of your articles sometime. How do I link you to my blog?

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