Can Twitter Help Publishers Reinvent Books?

Twitter’s 140 characters may seem limiting for authors, but the platform is using rich media, images, and experimental prose to remake storytelling.

Can Twitter Help Publishers Reinvent Books?
[Image: Flickr user keiyac]

Believe it or not, book publishers are embracing Twitter. For them, the platform represents a way to not only engage with readers, but quite possibly reinvent storytelling itself. But what about writers–is this the best way to reach readers?


Starting today, Penguin Random House and the Association of American Publishers will team up with Twitter for the second annual #TwitterFiction festival. The five-day storytelling experiment runs from March 12 to 16, showcasing more than 50 established authors and first-time creators sharing stories as varied as new supernatural horror from R.L. Stine, to an untitled project promising “something amazing” from comedian-writers Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan.

Select writers receive daily time slots during which tweets will be highlighted and amplified by Twitter, and live-streamed. But the festival is more of a showcase around the #TwitterFiction hashtag, an open invitation for experimentation from all readers and writers. It’s not just about line-by-line narrative tweeting, either. It’s about using Twitter as a creative vehicle: like using multiple accounts for crowdsourced storytelling, incorporating shareable media like photos and videos, and even parody accounts with multiple characters tweeting stories via their POV. Non-fiction and visual stories are fair game, as well.

Besides published authors, two-dozen lucky creators were selected by publishers, editors, and marketers who sifted through two rounds and more than 700 entries.

I wanted to see what’s in it for creators, publishers, and readers, and I came to New York to find out. I’m a writer, and I had something at stake here: I was selected by the festival to share my story, “High Altitude,” inspired by my 18,000 foot trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp for the BBC, where I spent weeks in the Himalayas, writing in a weather-worn Moleskine. That journal blossomed into a book I’m now editing and teasing online. Starting today I find out the impact of sharing a story on Twitter.

Why You Should Participate

“The publishing world is watching,” explains Corinna Barsan, a senior editor at Grove Atlantic, and a festival judge who says she was pleasantly surprised by the creativity of submissions.


Twitter is a great place to mine for talent, she says. But it’s not the only place. Agents and publishers are also monitoring venues like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, looking for voices that have cultivated followings, which translate into built-in audiences. Because readers are now no longer just between pages, the industry is now “examining what it means to publish works that don’t follow traditional guidelines. Some things will translate better than others, but any time you’re getting mass appeal and a lot of buzz, that’s something to look at–something to pay attention to,” Barsan says.

Writers have been experimenting with Twitter long before the festival started. The New Yorker gained attention in 2012 for serializing Jennifer Egan’s short story, “Black Box” over 600 tweets. A year before that, journalist Dan Sinker’s satirical parody account of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel turned into a book you can now buy on Amazon. Then there’s online phenomenons like Shit My Dad Says, a book and short-lived TV series that started as a Twitter feed, and Fifty Shades of Earl Grey, a tongue-and-cheek parody of the erotic guilty pleasure.

The strength of Twitter is connecting creators with fans, Barsan says, a sentiment shared by Andrew Fitzgerald, a writer and former journalist who now works as Twitter’s manager of journalism and news.

“Twitter as a platform is a global stage with a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people,” explains Fitzgerald, who helped organize the festival. He says the publishing world, and readers, are taking the event very seriously, calling it an “extremely powerful tool to connect with readers.”

Fitzgerald, who helps writers use Twitter to boost their online presence and tell better stories, says that’s a win for the people reading, and the companies backing those creators.


“Publishers have a vested interest in authors building a following and growing their audience,” he explains. “This creative experience offers authors another way to engage with readers.”

Twitter is already the home for experimentation, Fitzgerald says. Now it has an official stamp.

“Our thinking was that: If we bring it all together, all the people experimenting into same chronological space, we can also bring some attention to it,” he says.

Last year’s festival saw about 25,000 tweets with the #TwitterFiction hashtag over a period of five days. The increase in this year’s number of showcased creators, growing media attention, and the involvement of traditional publishers makes Fitzgerald predict at least double the engagement this year.

“My hope is that we’ll see much more,” Fitzgerald says. “Twitter is a wide open frontier for creative experimentation.”


What’s In It For Writers?

Last year, Elliot Hold’s story “Evidence,” a murder mystery told through multiple perspectives over the course of an evening, got the author a lot of attention, which made things easier for Random House.

“That ended up being very helpful for her publisher and for her when the book was released, as a way to build her reputation,” Fitzgerald says.

Another winner from last year was Ranjit Bhatnagar. The New York-based artist wasn’t an official selection, but his Pentametron account became a surprise hit of the festival. Bhatnagar, who’s spent the last 20 years building experimental language projects, created an algorithm trolling for tweets in iambic pentameter, and then retweeting them.

“Twitter is all language,” says Bhatnagar, who runs several accounts merging math and literature. Pentametron’s real-time sonnets got him the attention of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, whose Twitter feed he took over and ran for a time.

“I think it’s a great, weird way to get noticed by New York, rather than sending out normal proposals and cover letters and hoping to get through the slush pile,” suggests Richard Kadrey, a New York Times bestseller and one of this year’s featured authors.


Kadrey, who did not participate last year, says he’s planning on using his showcase spot to tweet out the beginnings of 50 different stories. One tweet for each idea. Kadrey hopes that collaborative engagement on Twitter will help him decide which story to pursue and write for his next project–and encourage readers to pen their own related tweets.

“The success or failure of what I’m going to do is based on how many people decide to play along,” Kadrey says, which “might spark something in people who are hesitant, or can’t quite get started themselves. I’m looking for communication with readers, but also trying to get a little bit more back and forth.”

Why Tweet?

Allen Lau, the CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, an online community for readers and writers, says engagement has become the metric for success for the publishing world.

“Readers provide encouragement, validation, and valuable feedback through comments and messages,” Lau says. Gaining a major following on platforms like his, or Twitter, has become the new way to catch their attention.

Dougal Cameron, the COO of the digital publishing software company Pubsoft, acknowledges that Twitter could be useful for sourcing creative voices–but he warns that the platform could be limiting.


“The form and format of the content restricts how instructive competitions are at detecting new talent,” Cameron says. “I think an author who masters snippet-form narrative on Twitter is skilled in that regard, but that skill set is completely different than one who can create a compelling hundred-thousand-word novel.”

Ron Martinez, the chief executive of the digital publisher Aerbook, adds that another challenge could be keeping reader attention–and vetting authenticity.

“On Twitter, verbosity and run-on sentences fail the moment they’re written,” he says. “The festival reminds me of the six-word story purportedly written by Hemingway on a bar napkin, on a bet: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ The authorship is convincingly disputed.”

Cameron and Martinez are right, and the format on Twitter is different than the blank pages writers are used to attacking. But the value here is in forcing creators to flex their muscles in literary exercise, and using Twitter to connect with readers. The industry is changing and in order to stay alive and employed, writers must change, too. The growing popularity of e-readers and mobile communication continues to poach readers from traditional outlets, sending more and more online–all reasons writers should use these tools, and why organizations like the Association of American Publishers have decided to support the festival.

“People love to read in all the ways available to them,” says Andi Sporkin, the AAP’s vice president of communications. “The AAP celebrates great storytelling and great storytellers, so the opportunity to offer writers new outlets is something we support.”


Twenty authors from AAP member publishers have committed to participate. When creators win, no matter where their work is championed, publishers and readers also win, Sporkin explains. “The chance to reach readers through fresh channels, and in innovative ways, advances the mission of publishers. Events such as this help shine a light on the level of talent and the work it takes to create powerful content.”