What Will Writers Do Without Twitter?

If the book industry is a walled garden, the site is a ladder.

a black fountain pen with the Twitter icon carved into it against a yellow background
Getty; The Atlantic

Twitter might be at death’s door. Elon Musk seems to be running it into the ground at comical speed. New reporting every day tracks mass layoffs within the company, discontinued micro-features, glitching systems. Predictions range from a partial to a full collapse. If Twitter survives, the consensus seems to be, it may not be recognizable—and for writers, this is particularly alarming. The site may have started out as a place to post jokes, personal updates, and ephemeral observations, but it has become a crucial tool for those who write for a living. If the book industry is a walled garden, Twitter is a ladder. It allows people from backgrounds that are underrepresented in publishing to get a toehold. People of color, people who live anywhere other than New York City, people who work day jobs unrelated to media—they can build an audience, post links to their work, attract the attention of editors. If a thread of theirs goes viral, sometimes they can even get a book deal.

I joined Twitter in 2013 because a friend told me I’d be good at it. I was finishing a fiction M.F.A. at the University of New Hampshire. I lived alone in a tiny studio apartment above an optometrist’s office in downtown Portsmouth. I was about to embark on the second of two grueling and isolating winters. The snow was neck-high; the sky was gray, flat, and low. I rarely left the apartment, because it would mean digging my car out. I didn’t own a shovel, and with my car buried, I couldn’t go buy one.

At the time, I knew Twitter as the website that had provided a platform for the Shit My Dad Says account, which had been turned into a TV show starring William Shatner. The guy who ran that account posted bon mots supposedly from his dad, who liked to curse. I didn’t find it funny and was suspicious of the site that had unleashed it on the world. My friend thought I’d thrive there, because I liked writing jokes, but I wasn’t so sure. Still, I joined because I was lonely, because I was bored, because I didn’t think I’d survive another months-long solo journey into the recesses of my mind.

A few years ago, the coronavirus pandemic forced a lot of other writers into similar isolation, and Twitter became even more important. When the world shut down, book events did too. Launches went virtual. Industry conferences, which help promote new titles to independent booksellers, moved online. A lot of readings were simply canceled, a blow to writers trying to get the word out about their books. Support groups like Lockdown Literature and A Mighty Blaze popped up on Twitter in the early pandemic for authors publishing books in these conditions. Within them, writers planned Zoom readings and commiserated. They shared information about book advances, payment rates at different publications, editors’ email addresses—vital for anyone pursuing a freelance career, which is to say a lot of writers.

But even before the pandemic, the site was crucial to the book industry at large. Most authors who are not yet famous don’t get big publicity pushes from their publishers and must rely on their own resources for book promotion. This usually includes a robust social-media presence. Twitter can help readers discover a book, or provide direct access to magazine editors who might publish your work. Like a Rolodex, it tells you who works where and how to get in touch. This transparency might be its greatest service to writers. If the site goes down, that information goes back into a black box.

When I first signed up for Twitter, no one paid attention to me. For years mine was a micro account, with fewer than 500 followers. I tweeted to amuse myself, and it was a fine, nonserious diversion. I finished my M.F.A. and moved to New York. I graduated with no connections or prospects. Nothing I had learned in New Hampshire (that one should read Chekhov, that one should own a shovel) had prepared me for making a career. I worked a series of writing-adjacent jobs. I taught creative writing at a summer camp for middle schoolers; I wrote marketing copy for a credit union in Wisconsin; I worked at a magazine about glass art named GLASS. To frame it like a Twitter joke: The jobs were ridiculous, but at least they paid terribly.

I applied for better jobs in legacy media and never heard back. I pitched magazines and got no response. The items on my r​​ésum​​é did not cohere into a career, or even really seem like jobs. I didn’t know how to go to a cocktail party and convert the person I was talking with into a contact. But what I could do, and did do, was post on Twitter.

I posted about books. I posted observations from my life. I got a better job, finally, as a books reporter, and I posted about the publishing industry. I followed people I found smart, and they followed me back. My account grew from micro to boutique.

A few things happened then: Magazine editors started asking me to write for them, because they liked my Twitter voice. I posted links to those pieces and got more commissions. I made friends with other writers and we hung out in real life. I met my current book agent. This is a common, even modest, success story for a writer on the site. Maybe some of it could have happened without Twitter, but it’s hard to see how.

Literary Twitter has spent the past few weeks eulogizing, making plans for departure, posting Instagram handles, directing followers to their Substacks. But an Instagram post is not the same as a tweet. A Substack is not the same as a Twitter feed. No existing platform facilitates the same kind of engagement.

I’m not nostalgic by nature, so if Twitter as we know it ends, I won’t mourn. Not for myself, anyway. It did plenty for me; I can’t complain. But I worry for the writers who are just beginning, especially the outsiders. How will they break in? Up in New Hampshire or some other far-flung outpost, a young writer is about to have a bad winter, and what will she do?

My account never got big. I topped out at fewer than 10,000 followers, and then, when Musk bought the site, that number started falling. Twitter may have helped my career, but by the site’s own metrics, I wasn’t a huge success. Turns out my friend was wrong—I wasn’t very good at it after all.