Why you might want to
So, you don’t absolutely need it, but many published authors will recommend it.
Their reasons for recommending it come down to two primary considerations:
- It provides a stable point of contact, a stable place where others can learn about you. For example you can put it on a business card and then hand it to a publisher and then later when they get back to their desk and have five leads that they wanted to hunt through and say “who in the heck was CR Drost?” they can come to a web site and hopefully jog their memory, “oh yeah, this was the young beardy man who was trying to convince me to do this weird fantasy story, well let me see what his social media presence looks like at least…” bonus points if you have something to read there like short stories and someone finds themselves accidentally engrossed in one of them.
- It can be a starting point for building a platform, a community of others who like your work. So, if you have a blog then you can have a podcast. If you have a podcast then you can interview interesting folks who have their own fanbases that are more successful than yours, and maybe those people will sign up for your email list. Keeping a platform going does require periodic reinvestment, but that idea of always having a deadline and always shipping new writing is often one of the disciplines which sharpens your skills. A lot of creative professionals also extol the value of luck: that those periodic publications give you the opportunity to stumble on something special which makes the previous month or two of work worth it.
At the base of this there is a piece of mathematics that you should know because it matters to publishers—I know, I know, if I’m talking to writers then I am likely to get an “ew, math” response. It is the mathematics of atom bombs, if that helps.
A digression on nuclear chain reactions
What happens in a chain reaction is, there are these atoms which are too fat with protons and neutrons: they want to fall apart, but they are just barely held together into an almost stable state. You can imagine that they are like dominos or something, “standing up stably” but also “precariously balanced.” Due to random fluctuations, every once in a while, one of them randomly falls over and breaks into two smaller atoms and a bunch of neutrons flies out. And then what happens to the neutrons, is what's important. Because sometimes those neutrons hit other nearby atoms, and this immediately knocks them over and they break apart and release more neutrons. And so on.
The math is not too hard once you know what to focus on: we want to identify, given one of these “free neutrons,” what is the probability that it hits another atom, times the number of new neutrons that will come out of there? Call this number N. In other words, this parameter tells you about how many free neutrons, on average, a given free neutron will create. And then if you want to start with one free neutron from some atom randomly breaking apart, the total number of neutrons that will be created from that is, itself, plus all of the ones that it creates, plus all of the ones that they create, plus all of the ones that those ones create:
total = 1 + N + N2 + N3 + … = 1/(1 – N).
You don’t need to know where this last formula came from exactly, but it’s not too hard (T = 1 + N T, (1 - N)T = 1, …). But you do need to see that if each neutron creates on average one more neutron, N = 1, then this goes to 1/0 = ∞, and for any larger numbers the formula breaks down because the sum gets infinite even faster.
Even if it is not infinite, it is helpful. For example if each neutron on average has a 2/3rds chance of creating another neutron, this says that each free neutron generates on average 3 neutrons total across its whole life. If it grows to a 9/10 chance, it generates on average 10 neutrons. For a 98% chance, each free neutron creates 50 free neutrons. So you can just use this formula with a calculator, 1/(1 - 0.98) = 50.
For nuclear chain reactions, the thing which increases N is to have more of this fissile too-fat material in one place at one time: if the neutron leaves the mass of material then it doesn't break apart any more atoms, and if it stays inside then it breaks apart some other atom. So there is a critical mass of some material, the mass where N = 1 and the thing will explode. When N < 1 we would speak of a half-life, the amount of time which halves the number of free neutrons in the uranium. Afterwards we would have to speak of a doubling time: after maybe one second there is twice as much nuclear energy in the box, then after another second there is again twice as much, and it just doubles and doubles until it's all in the box, which rapidly ignites into a destructive fireball and creates one of the world's largest explosions.
So how do we stop this? To create an atom bomb, you have to have two chunks of N = 0.7 or so, and you need to keep them at opposite ends of the bomb, and then when you are ready to detonate the bomb, you use a smaller explosion to shove these two things together to create some N > 1 and then it doubles and doubles and there is no way to stop it, boom. Actually when you hear about the way that atom bombs were developed by the US government there are some very scary stories about them trying to study this math, for example they would create a cylinder with a hole inside of it that had N = 0.8 or so, and then they would have a straight tube going through it, and in the top of that tube they’d drop more of the uranium, so that it was moving really fast through the other side, so that it would hopefully generate a critical mass N = 1.2 for just a tiny fraction of a second before falling out from the other side. This was called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and you can imagine that if they didn't get the numbers just right and it doubled too many times while the slug was being fired through the cylinder, the whole thing might have half-exploded anyway—or even worse, might have melted the walls enough to get the next slug stuck in the cylinder so that it would jam up and fully explode for real.
Authors as atom bombs
Now here is how that same math applies to an aspiring author: to be wildly successful, you need people to tell their friends “hey there is this book I am reading and you should read it, too.” We are not talking about free neutrons, right now, but rather readers. Each single reader will on average get N of their friends to read your book.
A publisher wants a high N. Do you remember that number earlier, that if N is 0.98 then each free neutron creates 50 total neutrons? That is a marketing equation. That says “each dollar I spend to create one new reader actually gets me 50 new readers, total.” And of course if you get N = 1 or N > 1 in some circle of people, the book markets itself until everyone in that circle knows about it: no extra spending is needed. (This is thus the mathematics of “going viral,” it just amounts to the fact that a typical viewer of your content shares it to on average one or more of their peers and soon nearly everyone has gotten the message.)
Notice that this number N is not your total number of readers, call that R, who pay attention to you on social media. You can see this by just the fact that N is less than 1 but R might be hundreds or thousands or more. But if you have a large R then people will start to talk to each other about your writing, and then they will feel more comfortable sharing your books with their friends, and so on, so as R increases then N also increases a bit—if you think for instance of John Green whose YouTube videos with his brother created a whole community of “nerdfighters” who started doing awesome stuff together, the internal connections in the community foster greater sharing of his work in general.
Also, in order to build a large R, you necessarily must have either spent a lot of money (unlikely) or had a lot of viral success, written a lot of things which had N ≈ 1 so that your followers each shared with their followers and so on. If a publisher is looking at you for whether you both can make money together, then they care both about your immediate readers R who might read your book just because it was announced, and their marketing multiplier 1/(1 – N). Technically they would much rather you be a viral sensation N ≥ 1 than that you have a large following on social media, but in practice unless you are spending a large amount of money self-promoting, your success in R should point to a success in N.