By Emily Nguyen
As the world of publishing changes to accommodate social media, young writers suddenly have access to a wide audience typically blocked off by publishers. Self-publishing, online blogs, and other areas of publishing that lack traditional “gatekeepers” have garnered a negative reputation despite (or because of) the availability and quantity of online writing. If anyone can post their work, it makes sense that the quality of the work may be questionable.
These days, however, many young writers start building their fan bases online and over social media. Agents and publishers increasingly depend on authors with social media presence in order to connect with fans and establish a brand. Traditionally “successful” authors have admitted to writing fanfiction, like Rainbow Rowell and Cassandra Clare. The changes create an interesting atmosphere in the writing community, where online experience and popularity becomes invaluable but online creators can be delegitimized.
I reached out to three successful poets on Tumblr in hopes of exploring their thoughts. I asked a series of ten questions about their writing backgrounds, their experiences as online creators, and their perspectives on traditional publishing. The first poet I contacted was Caitlyn Siehl, who runs a popular poetry blog and has published two full-length poetry books and co-edited two poetry anthologies.
How and why did you first start posting your writing online?
Caitlyn Siehl: I started writing and sharing it online my freshman year of college. I lived in a horrible dorm and I was just having a terrible time adjusting to life away from home, so I made a Tumblr. After following a bunch of other writing blogs, I just kind of got this overwhelming urge to start sharing my work.
About how long did it take for your work to start gaining traction?
CS: A long time. I had been on Tumblr for about 2 years before my writing really started to take off. One of my poems, “Do Not Fall In Love With People Like Me” sort of went viral, and that’s when everything began. That was in 2014, I believe.
Are you planning to pursue writing as a career (a sole/main source of income)? If so, are you considering traditional publishing i.e. getting an agent/going through a publishing house?
CS: Writing is always going to be a part of my life, and I am definitely trying to make it a larger part, but I have many different passions that I plan on pursuing. Writing will always be important to me but I don’t see myself doing that and that alone.
A lot of people look down on self-publishing because there aren’t any “gatekeepers” (agents, publishing houses) to keep out lower quality work. Do you think this is a valid criticism?
CS: I don’t see it that way at all. I have a lot of friends who have had incredible success with self-publishing. Other well-known artists such as Lora Mathis and Trista Mateer have self-published work.
The publishing industry as a whole is often slow to embrace new technologies. Have you encountered anyone who judged you or made you feel less legitimate as an online writer?
CS: I definitely have. A lot of older people don’t really understand the significance of online communities. It’s something they’re quick to write off unless you come with 10,000 examples as to why it’s valid and useful. Some people ask, “Oh, so you write for free? It’s not a real job?” People hear “blog” and they already have an idea of what that means in their head.
In your experience, do you think online writers feel bitter or tension towards traditional publishing?
CS: I think, tying it into your previous questions, it’s hard for a lot of us to feel legitimate. I don’t want to speak for other writers, but I always thought of getting published as a distant dream. With people belittling my platform, it definitely can be challenging.
What do you think the benefits are of writing on social media/writing sites over traditional publishing?
CS: Well, for one, you can reach an incredibly huge audience and become a part of a supportive community of other writers. Some of the best friends I’ve made have been people I’ve met through Tumblr and my writing. There’s just a real sense of belonging and community when you share your writing on social media.
Do you think there’s anything that traditional writers might learn from online writers?
CS: Well, I think online writers have a very close relationship with their readers. If that’s something that traditional writers strive for, then having that online presence could be something very useful.
A lot of older authors have difficulty tapping into the young, online demographic – to the point of lacking social media/websites at all. Do you think it would be harder for someone older to begin their career online like you did, since they might be significantly older than their audience?
CS: Not at all. That’s the beauty of online communities. I don’t think age would matter so long as the content was there. There are plenty of older writers on Tumblr who have a pretty large presence.
What do you think are the main factors that might influence someone to choose one (traditional vs online) over the other? Do you think traditional writers and online writers are striving towards the same goal?
CS: We’re all just trying to find an audience while also staying true to ourselves. I don’t like thinking of writing as a performance, because that implies that our writing is for others and not ourselves. That being said, though, I believe that the art we make can be mutually beneficial, and I also believe that there is something so healing about seeing how our work touches others.
I don’t know if traditional vs. online is really a choice that we make so much as a stepping stone. For instance, I started sharing my work online without any hope of being published, but here I am! Sharing our work online can, sometimes, lead to getting published. One is not better than the other, just different!
Caitlyn Siehl can be found on Tumblr under the url alonesomes. Her newest book Crybaby is available on Amazon.