So how much time SHOULD a writer spend on online social networks?
The quick answer: Not so much time that your manuscript is piling up around you--unedited or unfinished.
All writers need to find ways to use social networks; it doesn't have to be time consuming. Only you can determine how much time you spend on your social networks. I recommend an average of 15-30 minutes each for MySpace and Facebook, 2-5 times a week, depending on your schedule. This would include reading and responding to emails, contacting friends with requests (especially reviewers), leaving comments on your friends' pages (socializing), sending invites to events or a bulletin (MySpace) announcing your new article, book, event etc. It all boils down to time management. 3-5 hours a week is a good goal.
Twitter requires less time. 5-10 minutes a day is all that's needed to make an impact on sales, word of mouth, and opportunities. One book marketing expert, John Kremer, likes to send out about 10 tweets (messages) a day. Mine will vary, but on average, I probably send out 5-10 messages every other day. More lately because I'm promoting a contest that is bringing new followers in by the hour. :-) I suggest people set small goals. Use a timer if you have to so you won't go over--or stick to one thing a day. Start small, working up to your goals.
As I mentioned in my presentation at the recent Get Publishing conference, all authors will have various needs. The first thing you need to do is determine WHO you need to connect to and WHY. Who can help you move forward in your career? Publishers? An agent? Bookstores? Magazine editors? Readers? Book Clubs? Book reviewers? Newspaper reporters? TV talk show hosts? Radio hosts? etc. This is the first step--target your network.
In the past I have been reviewed by a New York Times bestselling author because of my friendship with her on MySpace. It happened very quickly after connecting with her. I also have 5 other known authors who will be blurbing my new novel once my agent finds a publisher.
I have found numerous book reviewers through all social networks, and through them found other marketing opportunities, like guest blogging on their blog and using them as hosts for a VBT.
I have had film producers and directors contact me through these networks. Some have read my novels and my screenplay for Whale Song.
I have been interviewed as a result of online networking. I've had book clubs pick up my books; schools have too--which means I'm selling books.
The main thing is by being on these networks it becomes a "viral" form of marketing. Like a virus, word spreads and we all know how vital word-of-mouth advertising is. Twitter is perfect for this. Just add "RT" to your tweet and others will re-tweet your message to all their friends. And so on...and so on...
The bottom line is this: if you want to be a successful writer who is able to continuously bring forth new works and get paid for them, you will want to spend time marketing your books EVERY DAY.
I always try to do at least 3 things a day that will move me forward in some way--even if it's giving someone a bookmark at Starbucks. As with any kind of marketing, it has to be balanced with your writing and other life. If you're spending more than an hour a day maintaining the top 3 social networks (MySpace, Facebook and Twitter), then you might want to look at how you're spending that time. It's totally up to you though.