Social Media? A No Brainer. How VIDA Goes Beyond It to Help Women Get Published and Reviewed

Posted By on March 5, 2014

VIDA increased the numbers of women published and represented in American magazines in a very short time by using but looking beyond social media grassroots organizing.

VIDA increased the numbers of women published and represented in American magazines in a very short time by looking beyond social media organizing.

Imagine if Costco went Vegan with half its free food samples. Something like that happened to the sampling of books in the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) and many other prominent American literary magazines. In 2010, the NYTBR overall featured or published roughly 67% men to 33% women. In 2013, the numbers evened to roughly fifty-fifty. Wow!

VIDA, a grassroots organization devoted to women in the literary arts, is behind this dramatic shift. How did VIDA change such major cultural institutions in such a short time?

You know what I’m going to say, right? Social media, social media, social media. You’re half-right. But VIDA figured out something else. At the recent AWP Conference, VIDA Executive Board member Amy King told me, “From the very beginning, we used social media as a way to start a conversation.”

Organizing a Flash Mob into One of Those Things with a Board of Directors

Many movements start as a cultural flashpoint. VIDA’s big bang happened when Publishers Weekly (PW) failed to include a single woman author on its list of best books of 2009. In its announcement of the list, PW acknowledged the disparity and explained why it was A-Ok.

In response, VIDA rallied public outrage on social media, resulting in lots of coverage in traditional media. Step one accomplished. VIDA might have fizzled out like many other movements that caught fire on social media if they had they not understood its strengths and weaknesses as a grassroots organizing tool.

Social Media Soap Bubble

Interaction on social media is ephemeral. A viral flare can momentarily call attention to an issue. VIDA immediately saw that the unfairness of the PW list was just a tiny chip in a very flawed publishing world. They wanted to transform the outrage about PW’s list into a movement to redress the scanty attention paid to women writers in the publishing industry.

VIDA conducted its original campaign on both traditional and social media to make sure the larger cultural discussion lasted longer than a soap bubble. Talking with the Guardian in 2009, VIDA President Cate Marvin pointed out the many noteworthy books by women published in 2009 and then said:

“It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.”

Marvin goes from countering facts (the list) with other facts (the books by women that the list missed) to broadening the issue (literary editors have a bias toward male writers)—this a great strategy for landing PR in a traditional media channel.

Using Traditional Media to Build a Social Media Fan Base

VIDA transferred the energy from the mainstream media to garnering attention in social media and vice versa. Some of its social media strategy is basic; some not.

Effectively Using an Organization’s Facebook Page: Most pundits say “Create a Facebook page and start posting.” A no brainer. But on VIDA’s page, VIDA posts links to articles about issues related to women writers, not just to the numbers being published. Over time, these posts turned VIDA’s Facebook page into a community resource and solidified VIDA as an organization who cares about the big picture, not just the issue du jour. They now have 12.7K Facebook friends.

The Public is the Personal: VIDA leaders, such as Erin Belieu, Cate Marvin, and Amy King, are the faces and souls of VIDA on social media. Many members of VIDA’s leadership team and executive board post about VIDA, a tack that is critical in fostering an ongoing, welcoming conversation.

If the VIDA Facebook page has become a community resource, the Comment streams of its leaders and members is where a lot of debate happens. For example, look at the back and forth in this recent Facebook post by Erin Belieu. She’s the Vice President of VIDA Public Relations and has almost 5,000 Facebook friends:

Erin Belieu, VIDA's Vice President of Public Relations, is personable and political when engaging with people on Facebook.

Erin Belieu, VIDA’s Vice President of Public Relations, is personable and political when engaging with people on Facebook.

Erin points people to a BuzzFeed article about issues women writers face. Stephen Kuusisto, a visually-impaired poet and writer, chimes in that cultural assumptions about disabled writers are even worse. Erin’s response to him is classy, civil, smart, and caring.
poet Stephen Kuusisto with his seeing eye dog

Poet Stephen Kuusisto, who has been blind since birth, is the author of the acclaimed memoir “Planet of the Blind.”

She connects with him on a personal level by revealing that her own son has a disability, and then offers to talk to him about organizing politically around this issue (and she doesn’t, you might have noticed, offer to organize it herself). In response to her offer, Kuusisto reveals how lonely he’s been. That’s sad and true and galvanizing. He’s turned to VIDA because of their success in turning small conversations into larger ones.

Erin and other key VIDA people have been posting and responding in this same manner on Facebook since 2009; they also use Twitter well (more on their Tweets in another post). You can see how they’ve built a community through talking and listening to one person at a time.

The Circle Keeps Getting Larger

From traditional media coverage, to community conversations on social media, to real-world community activity, to sharing that activity on social media. Ta da! The New York Times Book Review NOW lets us read more about books by women and more reviews of books written by women. When Slate asked Pamela Paul, the editor of the NYTBR how she made the change, she responded:

“It is not hard work at all. That’s the big secret: It’s not hard!” Paul told NPR on Wednesday morning. “There are so many good books out there by women, and there are so many incredibly good book critics out there who are women. So I actually have to say that I didn’t find it to be an incredible strain.”

You can learn more about joining the conversation at VIDA’s website. Or start your own. If you become a VIDA member, you gain access to its forums where a huge number of discussions are taking place. And then there’s social media.