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At the encouragement of my publisher, I recently started using several social networking sites in order to create a "digital footprint" in advance of the release of my first novel. "What's a digital footprint?" I asked, "And why do I need one?" An hour later I felt like I used to feel in physics class: confused, anxious and a little annoyed. It's not like I didn't know about social networking; I could cyberstalk my frenemies from high school with the best of them on Facebook. But Goodreads? Twitter? Blogging? Seriously?

Well, yes, they were serious. This is how things are done now. Blog tours have replaced book tours. Fan pages have replaced fan clubs. Twitter has replaced everything. So, a few clicks later I had a Twitter account (and a Facebook fan page, a Goodreads page and some others I've already forgotten - like I needed more user names and passwords in my life!) and I was on my way.

My first tweet was: "You know how to tweet, don't you? Just put your lips together and blow." Really unoriginal, I know, but at least it was under 140 characters. Three and half months later I've learned a few things. Not life-changing, but still.

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There are a lot of unpublished novelists out there. A lot.

I always assumed the reason most people didn't get published was that they fell into the I-have-a-great-idea-for-a-novel-but-I-can-never-find-the-time-to-write-it camp (I have met a lot of these people since I started saying I had a novel coming out. A lot.) But it seems like every other person I "meet" on Twitter is a writer. And that's what they call themselves even if they've never been paid a cent for anything they've written. I hardly told anyone I'd written a novel before I got my book deal, and yet there are thousands, nay potentially millions, of people who are willing to tell millions of other people every little struggle they're having with the printed word. This amazes me.

Take National Novel Writing Month (did you know November was National Novel Writing Month?). On Twitter it goes by the hashtag #nanowrimo. (If you don't know what a hashtag is, don't feel bad). The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. According to their website, in 2008 (2009 stats are not up yet) 119,301 people participated and 21,683 completed the challenge. 21,000 people wrote a 50,000 word novel in a month! And trust me, they were all talking about it on Twitter.

You have to be "authentic"

This one's a little easier to understand. Nobody likes being bombarded with advertising. So, if you want people to like you and follow you (and presumably buy your product) you have to ... not talk about your product. Except for occasionally. But not in a marketing way, more like in the way you would discuss it with friends. Only it's to strangers. And, of course, it's good to be funny if you can. So, no pressure but that first tweet is not going to cut it.

A follow is not always a follow

The easiest way to get people to follow you is to follow them (if this reminds you of picking teams in gym class, that's because geeks rule Twitter). A lot of Twitterers will "auto-follow". So, if you're prepared to sift through the tweets of 5,000 people, you can probably have 5,000 followers. This doesn't mean you're really popular, just that you spent a lot of time finding people to follow. The really popular people (Oprah, John Mayer, those Kardashian girls) have millions of followers and follow very few people.

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And then there was my encounter with ... well, let's just call her a very popular American novelist who writes books about princesses and diaries. I admit that I "celebrity-follow" certain people. A few days after I started following her, she was following me. Oh, the thrill. Ten minutes later I realized she was being followed and following the exact same number of people. So my follow meant nothing. My excitement crushed, I moved onto my next challenge.

If the stars align, Margaret Atwood might just @reply you

I also admit I've spent time trying to get certain celebrity twitters to reply to my directed-at-them-tweets. I've actually had some success at this. Okay, it's happened twice. Good In Bed author Jennifer Weiner responded to my sarcastic tweet about a potential book title choice (maybe not the best way to get her attention ...). Then there was what I thought was a reply from actress Lauren Graham, only that turned out to be a hoax account (oh, yeah: If you're really famous, people pretend to be you. My new life ambition).

But today, as I write this, I'm staring at a real (I think) tweet-back from Margaret Atwood. Yup, that's right. I said something something-enough to get her to answer me. So, my work here is done.

Some statistics:

  • Date joined Twitter: Sept. 23, 2009
  • Date book released: Dec. 12, 2009
  • Following: 277
  • Followers: 270
  • Number of Lists I am on: 24
  • Number of Tweets: 762
  • Hours of my life lost: unknown (don't want to know)
  • Known books sold because of being on Twitter: 5

Catherine McKenzie is the author of the novel SPIN. You can follow her on Twitter @CEMcKenzie1.

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