An Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

An Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of multiple children's books, such as Where Are My Books?, Sam & Eva and Sea Monkey and Bob. Her illustrations also appear in books by Michael Ian Black, Judy Blume, and many more. Personally, I've always been impressed by Debbie's social media presence, which she maintains while also being incredibly prolific in her writing and illustrating career. A few weeks ago, Debbie met up with me at the Northern District Library in Toronto to discuss her social media strategies, how she developed her networking skills, and what authors can do to attract attention online.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I wanted to talk to you because you do have a very impressive online presence. You have 34,000 followers on Twitter alone, which is amazing. 

Thanks, but I try very hard not to be one of those authors who obsesses about the number of followers I have in social media. I’m constantly getting spam by PR companies who offer to get me more followers; I just have to pay them!

You can buy your followers these days.

I know! Isn’t that crazy? My attitude has always been that I’d rather be followed by ten people who are really interested in me and my work rather than by 1000 who aren’t. It’s usually pretty obvious from someone’s feed if they’re just interested in getting a lot of followers.

You post a lot, but you hit that sweet spot where you're very present yet not so much that it’s overwhelming. It's always a welcome sight when your posts come up. But it seems like a huge undertaking to me. Does it feel that way to you? 

No, not really, or at least not now. I think it’s because I’ve always loved online communities, even before the term “online community” started getting used. Part of this is because although I’m an introvert (some people don’t believe me when I tell them this), I enjoy interacting with people with common interests. Online, I can do this with people anywhere in the whole world! And all this from my safe and cozy basement home office.

But that’s just me. There is no one right way to use social media. I’m a big believer in everyone needing to find what works for them. However, I do think there are some basic concepts about social media that authors should understand.

Some authors only think about joining social media when they have a book coming out. This is totally the wrong approach. I honestly don’t believe that social media platforms like Twitter can help sell your book directly. I think Twitter and social media is more about being part of a community. It’s sort of like being invited to a social gathering in someone’s home. If you walk in and spend the entire time telling people about your new book, not only are people not likely to want to get to know you, but chances are good that you won’t be invited back. My approach with promotion stuff stems from the fact that I will do anything to avoid having to hold up my book and say “Buy my book!” I'm really bad at the hard sell, and that's not necessarily a good thing. I’ll offer teachers free resources and anything that feels more natural to me instead.

I originally signed up for Twitter when I was trying to get my middle grade novels published. My agent and I sent out my novels and I could tell I was getting close because the rejection letters were getting nicer and nicer… But in the end, they were still rejections. I felt like I was hitting a wall. I used to have this idea that if I worked really hard on my craft at home, eventually my work would hit the right editor at the right time. While that might be working for some people, it wasn't happening for me, so I knew I had to get out of my introverted hermit cave and start meeting people. This was really hard at first and I was super-awkward and nervous.

It drives me a little crazy when authors or illustrators come to me and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky! It’s so easy for you to get out there and talk to people!” or “Oh, you’re so lucky that social media is so easy for you!” I had to learn how to do everything from scratch, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. When I went to my first conference, I didn't know anybody. I was terrified at the idea of having to introduce myself to people over and over again, chatting with people who had far more publishing experience. But I did it anyway, and it gradually got easier. I even started having fun!

I can relate to that. I'm an introvert as well and it was only through years of working in retail, and at a call center once even, that I learned to stop being scared of people. It does take practice. 

I find it stressful sometimes too but the more you do it, the more you start learning that it doesn't have to be terrifying and you can enjoy yourself. Even the most introverted person can learn to do it but it takes practice. Plus, we’re lucky in that compared to some other communities, the kidlit community is so nurturing and friendly. I feel very lucky.

For those who have an aversion to the idea of networking: remember that networking is not about using people. It’s about meeting like-minded people and hopefully sharing information for mutual benefit. It’s more about “how can I help?” than “what can I get?”

When it comes to marketing a book, can you give me an overview of what falls under your publisher's purview versus what you'd have to take on?

I think it depends on your publisher. I find it best to assume that publishers are not going to help with any promotion, and go ahead and make your own plans (but keep them in the loop). That's not a negative thing. If a publisher wants to help, of course, I am thrilled… but I never assume. Many publishers have very limited funds and are short-staffed. Also, I’ve noticed publishers tend to plan their marketing efforts closer to when the book launches, and I like planning way ahead of time.

I should point out that Simon & Schuster (both U.S. and Canada) has been wonderful in supporting me and my books and I am grateful to have them as my home publisher.

You're on all the social media platforms and you write a blog, which you seem to update every day. 

Thanks! I do try to recycle material to save myself some time (time I should be spending working on book projects). And I’ve also started pulling back from some social media a wee bit, though most people probably haven’t noticed much of a difference yet. There are so many book projects I want to do and limited time.

In the beginning, social media was a way of getting me and my work noticed. Now my focus has changed somewhat, and I find social media a great way to get to know those on the front lines who talk about children’s books, like educators, librarians and booksellers.

I don't think every author has to be on social media to succeed. If you hate social media but force yourself to join because you feel you have to, it's going to show. Everyone needs to find what works for them; there is no one right way to use social media.

Outside of social media, what do you do to build brand awareness, for lack of a better word?

Conferences are one way, though I confess I don’t really focus on the “brand awareness” aspect. So are other in-person appearances.

I don't do as many in-person school visits because I don't drive. That's a challenge for me in Toronto because it takes so long to get to places, which is why I’ve opted for Skype visits and Google Hangouts as an easier way for me to reach out to schools. I do go to in-person events, but most of my promotion is online because of the convenience; I can talk to young readers at schools and then be able to get right back to work. 

To break it down, how much time you put aside for online content creation versus actual work? 

It’s hard to say. I doodle for fun pretty much every day, and post some of this online. I also recycle a lot of content: comics, quotes, links to interviews and articles on my blog. I keep track of when I last posted or reposted anything.

For Instagram, I use mainly original art. Instagram is my favourite social media platform these days. Twitter’s my second favourite because it’s easy to browse; I use curated lists a lot, public and private.

I have a love-hate thing with Facebook. It’s where so many people hang out and can be a great community-builder, but I do find there is also a lot of negativity and it can be a huge time sink. I especially dislike the fact that there is no way to turn off private messages. I know of some kidlit types who purposely avoid Facebook because of that latter bit, and I can’t blame them.

So how much of what you do online is planned or spontaneous? Is most of it spontaneous?

95% is spontaneous. Which is not necessarily a good thing. I used to try scheduling posts, through Hootsuite, but I was finding that some people were responding to those posts conversationally. Because my posts were pre-scheduled, I didn’t see their replies until the end of the day. At the end of the day, I would check my post and realize, here I am just blasting things off and ignoring the responses. That made me feel kind of horrible. So now I try to only post on social media when I’m actually around, which is why you’ll see a burst of posts all at once.

Another reason I don't like scheduled posts is because they don’t take world events into account. But again, it's a personal choice. I know that some people work during the day or have other commitments, and have to schedule some of their posts.

The other 5% of my posts are linked to specific events going on, so those are definitely planned.

Since your work is so visual, it lends itself really well to platforms like Pinterest or Instagram. How do you feel like you're using your skills to your advantage? Is it something you think about or is it just you doodling?

I post my doodles because I like doodling, and it’s a way of posting something that is fun and easy and somewhat personal.

I do think that illustrators have an advantage when it comes to visually-focused platforms like Instagram. Plus people tend to be inundated these days when it comes to social media, so in a text-based platform like Twitter, posts with images almost always get more attention.

It's one reason I don't usually like auto-sharing. If you auto-share something from Instagram to Twitter, for example, your Twitter follows just see the link; the image is not embedded. That’s why even though it takes more effort, I try to always upload the image directly in Twitter. If it’s something I’ve also posted on Instagram, I’ll include the Instagram link to help cross-promote, and I’ll also personalize the text for my Twitter followers.

When I take the time to create an original image for posting on social media, I usually hope to reuse that image in the future. If I’m creating a fun image to celebrate both International Sea Monkey Day and my illustrations in Sea Monkey and Bob, for example, I’ll make a note to remind myself to reuse it for next year’s International Sea Monkey Day.

Yes, some people will have already seen it but some won’t.

Because you're always getting new followers. 

That’s right. I've been doing this for years and I have so much content to choose from now! One of my challenges now is making sure that my content's tagged and recorded to make it easy to find again, rather than always having to create new content. My goal is to streamline my social media posting so that I can spend less time on social media and more time creating new books. I use Airtable and Scrivener to track everything these days.

I learned all this through trial and error. I try to avoid is spending a lot of time on an image that I can't use again, unless there’s a good personal reason. Or – ahem someone is paying me a lot of money.

Do you have advice for authors who don't have visual arts skills? How can they attract and engage people?

Get a smartphone with a camera and learn basic photography skills. It's important to learn and practice, because once you learn basic photography skills like lighting, there are so many things you can do! You can take pictures of your office. Or of your cat. Or your cat in your office. Many people like getting a personal glimpse into an author’s process, how they work, their interests. There is a lot of stock photography out there, but it's more meaningful to post your own pictures if you can. Get someone to take a photo of you at events. If you're going to meet with your editor or art director, have someone take a photo. If you're self-conscious about asking your editor or agent, be upfront: "Do you mind if we get a photo that I could use to help promote our new title together or that I can use in school presentations?"

Some authors post their favourite quotes. There are apps available that let you add text to your photos. I also advise finding other non-artist authors whose social media posts you enjoy, and observing how they do it.

You have three Twitter accounts, one personal, one for work, and one for board gaming. Do you think authors should keep personal and work social media interactions separate?

I created @inkyelbows as my first Twitter account. The name was a mistake, in retrospect. I should have just used my own name! I started @debbieohi to make sure no one else could use it, but so many people were already following me at @inkyelbows and back then, it was tougher to switch account names. I don’t post at @debbieohi anymore but use it as a placeholder. I created @BGGgirl for my über-nerdy gaming posts.

As for whether authors should keep personal and work social media interactions, separate: it’s up to each individual. One warning, though: be aware that everything you post publicly does have an impact on your personal brand.

I did a survey of editors, agents and art directors a few years ago, asking them if they ever check out an author or illustrator online before signing them. Everybody who responded said yes, they at least sometimes research the person online, and 62% said they decided to NOT sign someone on because of that research. Reasons given usually focused on unprofessional behaviour, badmouthing an agent or editor, or responding to negative reviews.

One agent said, “Why would I want someone who acts like that linked to me as an agent and the agency as a whole?” One editor said they wanted to find out what kind of personality they’d be working with.

Overall message: Be nice, be professional. If you’re posting something negative, be aware of possible consequences.

But again… there is no one right way to use social media! I know I keep saying that, but I really don’t want anyone quoting me as saying “Debbie says you should or shouldn’t do xx” and so on. You need to find what works for you and your own situation.

Many, many thanks to Debbie Ridpath Ohi for taking the time out of her busy day to talk to me. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Visit debbiohi.com for more information about her work, and for the rest of her social media links!

Images courtesy of Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

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