Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Building a Writer’s Platform

By Joe Moore

As the responsibility of marketing and promotion falls more and more on the shoulders of the author these days, one of the questions that agents and editors ask novelists is “What is your platform?” With the economy putting extra pressure on publishers, they expect writers to come to the game bringing a ready-made audience. They not only want but expect authors to already have established a fan base or at least a group of potential fans—and for new writers, this is BEFORE your book comes out. Even veteran, multi-book authors must have a solid, established platform. It’s part of the “new” business plan.

So what is a platform?

platform1 In a single word, your platform is your “brand”. Having a platform helps your relationship with your publisher, and it can assist you in selling more books.

So how do you establish or build your platform? The quickest way is to start with the Internet. Here are a couple of methods to begin nailing that platform together.

Website. There was a time when a website was only for the rich and famous. Those days are long gone. A writer without a website is about as logical as an author without a telephone. Outside of the bookstore, the author’s website is the “first impression” a potential reader gets of your brand. It’s truly a no-brainer. Your website is your billboard, your advertisement, your calling card. And the potential for delivering a creative message is only limited to your imagination. Essential elements on your website must include: a method for contacting you; a method for purchasing your book(s); a method for the press to gain information (digital press kit); an incentive to linger or return such as a contest or free sample chapters; a method to track your website traffic. Other considerations include continuity in your site colors and design that are in sync with your book covers or other branding elements, and a reasonable amount of interactivity such as a method of leaving comments or subscribing to newsletters and publication news.

Blogging. You obviously know about blogs or you won’t be visiting this one. A blog is an online method of expressing your thoughts with a means for visitors to leave a comment or opinion. As a writer, your blog will probably be about your writing, your books, or some other connection to your craft and career. Some authors like to venture away from their books and discuss other topics such as politics, religion, economics, etc. A word of warning: You’ve worked hard to establish and build your “brand”. Don’t blow it by pissing off your readers. At some point they just might reject your next thriller or mystery because they don’t agree with your position on unrelated issues. A blog can easily turn into a slippery slop.

Newsletter. As previously mentioned, your website needs a method for your visitors and fans to subscribe to a newsletter or news bulletin. If they’re a fan, they want to know about you and your books. When is your next book coming out? When are you going to do a signing in their area? Will you be at a particular writer’s conference? They want the news. And the best and most economical way to get them what they want is an electronic newsletter. There are numerous email-generating newsletter sources that you can use to put together a value-filled publication. A few suggestions are Constant Contact, MailChimp, and Vertical Response.

Write some stuff. Any writing credit is a good writing credit, and it helps build your platform. No matter what you write, whether it’s for the local paper or a national magazine, you’re byline will contain a mention that you are a novelist. So if the reader likes your article or how-to piece, and they see you also write thrillers or mysteries, that’s a potential plank in your platform.

Book forums. There are a ton of forums out there dealing with readers and writers. A good resource to begin finding them is groups.yahoo.com/. Others include WritersNet, Helium, Backspace, and Absolute Write. Make yourself known on these and similar forums and you’ll be adding to your brand and platform.

Social Networks. Sites like MySpace.com, LinkedIn.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com and countless others are perfect for building your brand. The only potential risk is the time you might spend on these sites instead of writing your book. But they are a terrific source of finding your dedicated or new fans. A word of caution: see the note on blogging above.

Additional platform building tools include professional publicity photos of yourself and a strong press-ready biography. Also, memberships in writer organizations such as the International Thriller Writers or Mystery Writers of America help build your brand and platform among your colleagues and fans. The networking and connections made within these organizations and their subsequent writer conferences are invaluable.

How’s your platform coming? Any other suggestions on building a strong brand?

25 comments:

  1. Very interesting comments, Joe, as always. Let me just put down two of my misgivings about the trend for turning writers into their own marketeers.
    The first is that it's in danger of absolving publishers of their responsibility to market the book properly in the first place. I'm no expert on marketing. I don't want to become one. I don't have the time or the talent. Writers writer. Publishers publish. Bookstores sell. Those relationships seem clear cut and understandable and they're in danger of being blurred.
    The other thing that worries me is market congestion. There's just so much stuff out there right now - blogs and Twitter and Facebook and websites. I wonder how writers can possibly service it, and also how readers can possibly keep up. I have particular misgivings on this account about newsletters, which seem to me a very 1990s phenomenon from the days when most of us thought email was cool and worth receiving. I really wonder how many of feel that way today.

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  2. Hey David, I couldn't agree with you more. I, too, have the same concerns and reservations. Sadly, publishers are pushing away from marketing and placing more of it on the writers. The good news is that much of what can be done on the Internet is cheap if not free. The bad news is that it eats away at our time that should be spent on doing what we do. Like you said, writers write. But the world of publishing is getting blurry.

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  3. This is all great advice. Sadly, you're right about publishers cutting way back on publicity, which leaves a lot of it up to the authors. I think the trick is doing as much as you're comfortable with, sticking to a budget (definitely don't spend more than your advance), and setting aside specific hours each day or week for promo so that it doesn't interfere with writing time.

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  4. You're right, Allison. Time management is so important. And the Internet can be a major distraction. Writing should always come first. Thanks for dropping by.

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  5. I love this discussion. I'm actively retooling my "brand," if you will, because I have an ongoing softboiled mystery series, but I am currently also working on a thriller. So last fall, I gave branding some thought and decided that I needed to develop a platform that would enable me to develop a potential audience for the thriller, and credibility before the thriller is published (or even...ahem, contracted). That's when I reached out to my wonderful fellow Killers and proposed starting what was to become the Kill Zone blog. And here we all are!! Branding! Sob! It's beautiful, ain't it? I think branding is just a fancy term for analyzing how you need to orient yourself in the publishing sphere, and focus your efforts to maximize your success. And if I sound like a pop-up ad for monster.com, it's probably because I've had too much coffee already because my copyedits are due back in NY today (grin).

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  6. Great post, Joe. Sadly, all the marketing falls in the author's lap. I'm published with two houses, one a New York monster, and neither did more than send out a few advance reading copies. If we want to make it, we have to dig in and join the clutter, hopefully standing out from the crowd.

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  7. You're right, Deb. In this case, size doesn't matter. Big pub house or small, they're still going to expect the writer to do a great deal of the marketing.

    And Kathryn, now we know the real reason you got us all into this. :-)

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  8. The word "platform" comes from the world of non-fiction. It's what you stand on to yak at people, on a subject they are interested in. It's not a good fit for fiction writers, but seems to be a new buzzword with editors and agents. I have some opinions on this!

    By far and away the best "platform" for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don't get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

    The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

    Which means to the extent self-promotion starts to detract from your writing, you don't do that aspect of it.

    Gotta have a website. But from there, it's all an ROE (return on energy) analysis. Only you can decide what's right.

    The nice thing is I know several writers who hate self promotion, and don't do much of anything, but sell tons, because they have established trust with their readers. They deliver.

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  9. Your experience is representative of many writers I think, Deb. I was very impressed frankly amazed to read Cara Black's recent interview with her publisher's marketing folks on our blog:
    http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2009/03/cara-black-grills-her-publisher.html
    So much thought, effort and painstaking care being put behind each book, it sounded like! All books should get such marketing care and nurturing!

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  10. Yeah Joe, I'm just a Brandy User...grin.

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  11. "Which means to the extent self-promotion starts to detract from your writing, you don't do that aspect of it. "

    Thanks for the comments, Jim. I find it interesting that my books have done really well in other countries even landing on a number of bestseller lists. And yet, the amount of self-promotion I did in those countries is zero. So aside from assuming the book is good, the single biggest factor is the knowledge and expertise of the foreign publishers in marketing and distributing the book. I believe that without the total backing and marketing engine of the publisher, all the self-promotion in the world will get you zip.

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  12. @ Joe: "[W]ithout the total backing and marketing engine of the publisher, all the self-promotion in the world will get you zip."

    Also true. And there's a dark flip side, too. I personally know a couple of novelists who got HUGE advances/campaigns. When the books didn't sell through, they were dropped (in terms of support and future contracts) like yesterday's grapefruit.

    Methinks the answer is that your book has to do "better than expected" at EACH level of marketing support, in order to get more support the next time. The "better than expected" is largely out of our hands. The only thing in our hands the book we're working on!

    Such a business, hm?

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  13. Website - CHECK
    Blogging -mine CHECK
    others CHECK
    Book Forums CHECK
    Write Stuff CHECK
    Social Networks
    Twitter CHECK
    Facebook CHECK
    MySpace CHECK
    LinkedIn CHECK
    ITW CHECK
    Newsletter CHECK
    Podcast stuff CHECK
    Give stuff away CHECK
    Prebuilt audience CHECK

    Now I wait in this duck blind for the publisher to come along
    ...then WHAMO!

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  14. By the way, on newsletters.
    I found that the best way to send them only to folks who want them is to have them actively subscribe via your website then you only send it to those who want it and don't bother those who just like your stuff but don't want you stalking them.

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  15. Basil, I laughed out loud on your list. I pity those ducking publishers that happen to wander past. :-)

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  16. Joe~

    I'm gonna sit on the fence on this one. One leg sides with the great David Hewson and one leg sides with you. An author can only do so much in the way of marketing and if an author is to "break out" you really need the support of the publisher. They have the deep pockets to pay the Coop fees to get the book placed in the chains and around the country with the independents. But that doesn't absolve the author from doing her part. She must get out there too - to augment the publisher's efforts. Sitting back waiting for the check is a sure way to piss off a publisher - especially a small press.

    Barry Eisler has a fantastic page on his site for writers. One of the articles is called "Recruiting your Publisher." I recommend reading it. The author/publisher partnership is explained in brilliant detail.

    http://www.barryeisler.com/writers_marketing2.php

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  17. Hey Mark, you're right with your comments AND about by friend, David Hewson. Although I'm not a big proponent of self-promotion, I think it's important to bring the "writer's platform" opportunities to light, especially for authors who are still trying to get published or those assembling their writer's toolbox. The biggest frustration is that we can all do everything right and still wind up getting nowhere. There are no guarantees in this goofy business.

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  18. Mark: There are many sides to a Rhombic Triacontahedron, but it still rolls...although kinda lopsided and it makes a clunky noise

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  19. Great post Joe - wish I had known this before I got started - I felt (and still feel sometimes) way behind the eight ball when it comes to platform or branding!

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  20. Sometimes it's hard to figure out your own brand. One useful suggestion is to listen to readers' comments about your work. You'll see what impression your stories gives the reader and why they keep coming back for more. This is especially important if you write in different genres. What experience does the reader expect to get with one of your books?

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  21. Hey Nancy, great advice. Thanks for dropping by. I hope the breakfast meeting went well last Sat.

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  22. Clare said, ". . . wish I had known this before I got started."

    Me, too.

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  23. My first mystery, "Bleeder," is coming out this summer from a small press and so this discussion is very interesting to me. I've published historical novels before, and so I feel my 'brand' has changed, although "history and mystery" seems to be the emerging theme. I've got most of the suggested venues running and I agree that promoting can really distract one from writing. One aspect of platform-building I didn't see here was participating in conferences/conventions (Bouchercon, Mayhem in the Midlands and so on).

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  24. Hi, John. Thanks for the comments. I agree, participating in conferences is a great way to network, meet fans and fellow authors. As I mentioned, membership in such organizations as ITW, MWA, RWA, and others are a plus for any authors. Good luck.

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  25. I really like your article and agree with all the ideas, including memberships. I belong St. Louis Publishers Association which provides education and networking opportunities for self-published authors. So, I encourage you to look for a local club, organization or Meet-up in your area where like-minded authors gather to learn and share their successes.

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