How Susan Orlean Built A Posse of 260,000+ Twitter Followers

Posted By on August 21, 2013

When writer and social media rock star Susan Orlean was in town for the Seattle Arts & Lectures series, we had a candid conversation about how she built a following of, at last count, 263,200 people. The single most important reason–she loves Twitter! Her knack for connecting with people also strengthens her author platform and helps sell books. You can listen to our conversation one question at a time or read the transcript.

Susan Orlean portrait

Susan Orlean, an early adopter in the social media realm, makes a strong argument for Twitter as a writer’s tool. Photo Copyright 2013 Cynthia Hartwig

Cynthia Hartwig (CH): What do you think social media has done for you and what can it do for others?

Susan Orlean (SO): I think the single most valuable thing is that it reminds you all the time that writing is about communicating.

You’re not writing in a vacuum. You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing as a conversation.

Certainly, you’re the loudest voice in the conversation but I think for a writer being always aware of the engagement with the audience is always to your benefit. It makes you think how you’re shaping the work. How you’re connecting with the reader. Even if it’s mostly hypothetical.

CH: What is it about Twitter that you like?

SO: Being on Twitter and being engaged in it is almost a daily reminder of the power of the interaction and even just as you shape your 140 characters, how deliberate decisions about words, about diction, about details, and tone of voice make a huge difference even in those tiny, tiny snippets.

CH: You were an early pioneer of using social media to build you platform as a writer. Take us through how you started and earned about social media.

SO: I had a young assistant who said way back when in the early days of Twitter… back about five years ago [who said] “You should be on Twitter.” I said,”What’s Twitter?” Of course it was a complete mystery and her explanation of it was very puzzling to me.

I kept thinking I didn’t get it. Why would I want to be on this and what would I write about? At the time I was living in the Hudson Valley NY on a farm working on my book. Besides my family it was a pretty isolated place to work. Frankly that’s the perfect way to start understanding social media with the emphasis on “social.”

I would in the course of the day just basically chat to this faceless group of Twitter followers, which was very small initially, about my day. About cooking. About a problem I was having on my story. About my goal of writing a certain amount that day. Then I would take a break.

I would sometimes comment on my garden or my chickens or whatever was going on in my life. I didn’t do it imagining that there were a lot of people listening but it was the kind of ambient social conversation that really we all crave and I certainly I do.

I was in a situation where I wasn’t finding that in my normal life. I wasn’t working in an office. I was working on 50 acres and there wasn’t a neighbor near by. My big high light of the day besides my husband and my so, was the UPS man. That’s a perfect environment in which you can understand the value of social media.

CH: Have you learned anything that you’d like to pass along about your Twitter following?

SO: I would not be surprised if a huge number of people on Twitter work alone. It’s the era we work in where office culture is giving away to freelance culture. It’s why places like Starbucks have thrived because people want to go somewhere where they’ll be around other people. And Twitter is essentially that same place.

CH: Do you think any writer can do what you’ve done on social media? Is it too late?

SO: First of all, I think you have to enjoy it. Not every writer enjoys hanging out at the water cooler, which is what it is. I think it’s a myth to think that you must be on social media. If you’re a writer, there are plenty of people for whom this is not natural. They don’t like. it they don’t enjoy it. I think they shouldn’t.

I think you have to find a voice. I certainly think it works if you have a sense of a persona that you are presenting. That isn’t as artificial as it sounds. Similarly, you’re the office clown or you’re the person at the office like Joan of Mad Men who makes everything work. Or you find who you are in a social setting and you play off of that.

I think the kind of writing I do actually lends itself quite comfortably to being on Twitter because it’s full of odd surprises and things that come up that I want to chat about with people.

It’s been an adventure. People say,”Wow!” You’ve lived this where you go from here to there and you write about one subject and then a different subject. There’s a certain of curiosity about what my life might be like. But the same might be true if you’re a White House correspondent. Someone might think, Well, what’s that really like? What’s the backstory, what is it like as you’re waiting for the President to come out?

It’s the added value you can give to readers about the life you’re living which is a very unusual one.

CH:From the early days of Twitter, do you still have people who’ve followed you for five years or longer?

SO: There are people who were among my earliest followers who have become friends. I think of them as friends. They’re people–I’ve never met them and in many cases I don’t even know their full names or even their name at all. And yet I know they’ve been following me from the beginning and we’ve ended up chatting.

Of course, it was different when I had 300 followers versus now. But those [original] people are still there. Some people drop out naturally and maybe some get tired of following. Some might churn their Twitter feed for variety.

There are definitely people who I think of as my posse. I always chuckle when I say that. But it’s real.

CH: Do people come and introduce themselves to you in real life? I’m on your Twitter feed so I’m here introducing myself.

SO: I have met a lot of the people … but there are people who follow me who don’t happen to interact with me on Twitter who will say in person, “Oh, I follow you.”

On book tour I had a lot of people say they followed my Twitter feed, though they never interacted and I’d never talked to them on Twitter.

CH: Besides the sociability and conversation you enjoy on Twitter, what do you think the real value of Twitter is to a writer? Does it sell books?

SO: Someone said to me that it has been shown specifically to move books. I can’t tell you what the study was but someone said that it really does sell books. Does it raise people’s awareness? Absolutely! I think there’s no question. It’s like being on a 365-day book tour.

That sounds onerous and terrible, but it’s not. You are constantly reminding the reader, Here you are, this is what I’m thinking about or here’s what I’m thinking about.

The day I finished Rin Tin Tin I announced it on Twitter and I had hundreds of people applauding. And it was a thrilling feeling and I thought, Well, that’s cool.

Did some of them buy the book? Yeah I bet they did. And did they feel that it was a little more special because they had seen the process? Yeah, I think it did mean more to them because they had some personal investment. “I remember the day you said you were half way through.” Or, [the day] I showed people the cover. There’s no way that can be bad.

CH:Is there anyone you follow on Twitter who is doing a particularly good job?

SO: There are a bunch of comedians who I wouldn’t have known about who are on Twitter.They’re hilarious. It’s almost like getting a free comedy show because they’re so funny and that’s a pleasure. And maybe my experience of them is what people might experience with writers, which is, Wow! I’m getting this constant contact with someone who’s work I like. There are loads of people doing a good job.

CH:If someone wanted to connect with you now on social media, are there a certain number of touches or connections that it takes to get your attention?

SO: You know that’s hard to say. I do notice. I read–not every single reply I get–but if someone were popping up frequently there, I would notice it. But it’s sometimes a little random and someone tweets something at you and you think, well, that’s interesting.

CH: Thank you Susan. It’s been a real pleasure for Two Pens to meet you in the real world. I’ll see you in the virtual one with me and 260,000 of your followers @susanorlean.