by Hugh Gilmore

Since the February 2004 launching of the social networking service known as Facebook, it has grown to become much more than just a friendship enhancer. Thousands of people with a product to sell also have a presence on Facebook.

The message today seems to be: Get your product’s name lit up in FB neon and start holding your collection bucket under the bling-bling spout. Over a billion people are said to use its services as of September 2013. If you are a nobody-going-nowhere, it behooves you to join. So the emerging social media say.

One day last February as the nine-year parade marched by, a curious man named Hugh Gilmore decided to step off the curb and tag along. Locally viewed as a harmless drudge, Gilmore had some aspirations (“pretensions,” some said) to be “a writer.” Though he was a newspaper columnist, he wrote for a small, local newspaper. He’d dreamed since his youth of one day writing a book that would appear on a bookstore’s, and then a library’s shelves. So he closed off the world and wrote some books.

As he did so, however, whenever Gilmore he looked up from his latest manuscript, he noticed that more American newspapers, bookstores, and libraries had closed. Would there be any left by the time he finished? He said, in a recent email, “I felt like a buggy maker working at the dawn of the automobile age.”

The Internet, with its speed, ubiquity and cheap advertising had outmoded the traditional means of producing and distributing books. What should he do? He didn’t know but, despite the odds, he continued writing. As he did, another industry important to his ambitions began to go under – the book publishing business itself.

Electronic reading devices had quickly jumped to the foreground, making it necessary to distinguish between print and electronic formats when discussing “books.” The number of copies of printed books sold declined steadily while the sales of e-books climbed every year.

Traditional publishing houses responded by putting increased emphasis on looking for blockbuster titles and became less inclined to take risks on buying manuscripts from unknown writers. Literary agents became more powerful as the gatekeepers who controlled a writer’s access to editors and publishers. Gilmore, no longer a youth, despite his fondness for jumping puddles, spent more than a year trying to find an agent and then gave up that approach.

“If I were 20,” he said, “I’d pound on their doors for 20 years, but I’m not. So, the heck with them.”

The new American credo had become Do It Yourself: The same Internet that had crumpled traditional publishing now offered writers, for a cheap fee, the means to self-publish their work, get it distributed and have their sales and merchandising handled too.

Advertising was extra, much extra, unless one was willing to that for himself also. And that’s where Facebook came in. Facebook membership was free. Oh, if one wanted to, he could place paid ads on Facebook, but basic membership was free for the enlisting.

“It’s irresistible, ” Gilmore said, “if you can stand the annoyance that comes with joining the rest of the croakers in the great, cosmic frog pond.”

He also said that trying to make his writing known through Facebook was one of the dumber, more embarrassing things he’s ever done. (Not that Facebook does not work, because it does for some people, but because he never figured out how to work it. And he’s not the type, he said, to look up and wonder why his uncooked spaghetti didn’t stick to the wall.)

Facebook allows its addicts the opportunity to open more than one page. Gilmore kept his basic homepage for sandbox activities and tried to create a page just to announce his writings to the world. Such was the intention, anyway. What he put up there in cyberspace was a page where the dialogues went like this:

Friend: My wife and I are going to Spain for a vacation next week.

HG: That’s great. My book “Malcolm’s Wine” is now available in paperback format.

Friend: It’ll be great not to have the kids for a change.

HG: That’s great. You’ll have plenty of time to read “Malcolm’s Wine” if you want a great noir mystery to take along. It’s on Kindle now too.

“Ad infinitum, ad nauseam,” Gilmore said.

The rule book on self-promotion says one should never lose an opportunity to make the world aware of the product you’re selling. After a while, the process seemed so artificial, so miserably commercial, he decided to stop.

“My lunch kept backing up on me,” he said, faking an “urp.”

Well, was there anything he learned from being on Facebook that might benefit other writers? “Oh, yes,” he said and he rambled on for a half hour, only some of which was comprehensible enough to pass along.

First, he thinks he should have joined a Writers’ Group Page instead of trying to sell his books face-to-face to the civilians who use Facebook just to share their personal news.

On the other hand, the Writers’ Pages seem to be populated by other writers, an audience very unlikely to give a darn what someone else has written (though they’ll write encouraging “you go, girl” notes to one another). And they’re even more unlikely to ever buy a copy, so basically they seem more like support groups.

Third, Gilmore’s Facebook page had a link to his blog site and became the biggest referrer to that site.

Fourth, Facebook is insidious in many ways. It will creep into every aspect of your online life, seeking permission to have you “share” your reaction to everything you buy online by having your purchase announced on your Facebook page. When people got annoyed at that, Facebook simply started making their usurpation of your personal data part of the price of “free” membership.

Fifth. When one tries to quit, the process is not easy. Once you’ve quit, they won’t officially let go of you for 14 days. Their motto is “You’ll be back.”

Is that true? We asked Gilmore. He stroked his gray beard, his kindly eyes twinkling, and said, “I don’t know…but I am curious to see if personal data I’ve given them starts turning up in new places.”

Any final words of wisdom for would-be writers?

“Yes,” he said, “Keep writing. I hope you learn more than I did about how to use Facebook. I felt I’d landed in a special circle of Hell where everyone wore sandwich board advertisements, all of them shouting their messages simultaneously. The din was something awful.”

SPECIAL NOTICE: Our Annual Roundup of Readers’ Book Choices is being readied. Please send me a notice of your “Most Enjoyed” book this year. Remember: This is not a contest. Not a “Year’s Best” list, it is simply a chance to share your “most enjoyed” book with others. Send: Your name, the community you live in, the book title, and a brief statement of why you chose it. “Brief” means brief. You may send more than one title. The book does not have to be recent. Older the better, in some cases. Deadline is December 23.