There are two camps when it comes to followers on Twitter.
Camp A believes in following back anyone who follows them. I’m in this camp myself, with a few exceptions. I won’t follow back accounts I believe to be bots, or accounts that only promote a product, for instance. Sometimes I’ll pass when the person following has zero connections to writing or books, as I want to keep my feed writing-related. But if a person is clearly a person and their interests are writing-adjacent, I’ll follow back.
The others group, Camp B, wants to limit their social media to meaningful interactions. They only follow back people who interact with them a lot, or who post interesting content. Their platform tends to be more intimate, restricted to those they consider friends.
THE DREADED 5K CAP
I see many folks in Camp B express something like, “I don’t care if people unfollow me right after I follow them because I’m not in the numbers game,” and I completely respect that.
However, if you follow a lot of people, Twitter might make you care. I’ve had three mutuals run into the dreaded 5K cap in the last week. Essentially, they follow 5,000 people, hoping for follow-backs, or maybe just interesting content. Then, without warning, Twitter cuts them off. They try to follow a new writer, even one who follows them, and they get an error message.
To avoid spammers, Twitter allows anyone to follow up to 5,000 people, regardless of how many followers you have (with daily limits). HOWEVER, once you follow 5,000 people, a cap kicks in, and you cannot follow more than 10% more accounts than follow you. So if you want to follow 5K, you have to have 4,500 followers or more, or you’ll be unable to follow anyone else. To reach 6K, you need 5400 followers, etc.
There’s no cap on how many can follow you, and you’ll see really famous people with millions of followers who only follow a few dozen. But once you follow 5K people, you need to watch your margins.
This is the point where unfollowers padding their own numbers can hurt you. I have two tips to address this.
First, cull your following list. Every now and then go through the list of folks following you on a laptop or desktop (the mobile version of the app won’t let you see the full list). Consider unfollowing the folks who unfollowed you. There are apps to track this as well, but I’m not a fan of their privacy policies. They’re collecting all of your Twitter activity to sell to marketers, and not offering much in return.
Secondly, consider letting spammers and bots follow you. Don’t follow back, and mute them instead of blocking. They’ll pad out your follower numbers and muting keeps them off your feed. Unless your DMs and posts are locked, there isn’t much they can do as a follower that they couldn’t already do to bother you.
Now if you plan to keep your following list tight and cozy with people you know, this isn’t an issue. But if your goal is to build a big platform and all the connections and creative knowledge thereof, this is something to pay attention now, before you hit the 5K cap.
DO NUMBERS MATTER?
There are obvious advantages to a large Twitter following for indie-press and self-published authors who have to do their own marketing. It’s an easy platform to build, and once you find that fine line between spam and self-promotion, it’s a great way to drum up interest and reviews! But for traditional publishing, the opinions are mixed.
Some people in the Twitter writing community have said that an agent turned them down for having fewer than 5k, or even 10k followers. When asked, most literary agents I’ve seen offer an opinion on the matter say it isn’t necessary to have a large following, but given two equally good books, a publisher may prefer the author who can build a social media platform.
What it comes down to is that the best way to sell a book is to write a really good book. No amount of social media presence will make a poorly-written story better. If you’re writing between family and a job and only have time for one thing, focus on the writing. But once you have that really good book, a social media platform might give you an edge to get it out into the world. And in an intensely competitive industry, an edge is an edge.