Author platform. Do you really have one?

Looking for likely small publishers (as you do), I came across one accepting the kind of stuff I write, read a little further into their submission guidelines, and was stopped short. In addition to the usual things to send, like the query letter, synopsis and first three chapters, they also wanted an outline of my author platform. To find out what they’re looking for, the prospective customer is directed here:

http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/build-a-platform-start-blogging/building-a-writers-platform

If you thought you had one, I bet that took the wind out of your sales! And the publisher who insists that you know a dozen or so high-profile TV celebrities before you even submit your ms has bugger all in sales. I wouldn’t have submitted to them because of their utter lack of marketing clout. On the other hand, they wouldn’t want some piddling little amateur like me anyway.

As I’ve said on previous occasions, I’m just going to keep writing. All that other garbage is for people who don’t write. Obviously. Where would they find the time?

Version Two: No buts

Is this an improvement?

Deborah has a secret
Though she doesn’t know what it is.
The Protector does
And so does Abaddon, the demon king.
Both of them want her destroyed.

Between them, Jonah and Deborah have forged a weapon
that even the demon fears:
Love.

With this arm, the pariah girl and the dog boy
will change the world.

Or die in the attempt.

The but censors should prefer it anyway.(This line isn’t in the blurb, Fran :))

For the readers who don’t like arms either, there’s this version

Deborah has a secret
Though she doesn’t know what it is.
The Protector does
And so does Abaddon, the demon king.
Both of them want her destroyed.

Jonah and Deborah have forged a weapon.
A weapon that even the demon fears:
Love.

Between them, the pariah girl and the dog boy
will change the world.

Or die in the attempt.

Do you have the can-do factor?

Reading through Monday morning blog posts, my eye was caught by Clare O’Dea’s post about the narcissistic possibilities of blogging. At the end of the post she proposes a test to check your narcissus score. I know I’m not exactly oozing with ‘can-do’ but was still a bit shocked to find how close to the ocean floor I was crawling. Somewhere between the bit the Titanic’s resting on and the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

I don’t think I am falsely modest about my writing—I believe that it’s good. Not exceptional, not brilliant, but good. In fact it would be pretty strange to go to the trouble of publishing books that I considered to be a load of rubbish. If one of the 40 questions had been ‘Do you reckon you are a good writer?’ I could have answered in the affirmative. One brownie point to me. But there were 40 questions about behaviour, not self-esteem, and I score very low on all the—‘If you’ve got it, do you flaunt it?—type questions. Thinking, in a smug sort of way, well at least I know I’m good, doesn’t get you any marks at all.

Transpose all that into marketing and promotional behaviour and you have, in a nutshell, why some of us writers sink without trace and others, who are not afraid to shout their talent from the rooftops, con(vince) readers they know what they’re talking about and sell thousands of copies.

A case in point. The Dark Citadel was in a best YA fantasy competition. It was beaten by a book that the judges, from their comments, seemed to think verged on perfection. Leaving aside how I feel about my own book’s merits, the winner’s was surprisingly bad—derivative, facile, and in places utterly silly. What struck me as typical of the can-do factor at work was how the author lapped up the praise and took it all in her stride, saying that some of the other books in the contest were pretty good so she was pleased though not surprised to have won, because of course her book was awesome and richly deserved to be awarded first place.

This woman has the ‘can-do’ factor in bucketsful. And in one way at least she deserves success, because she has written a book so many people want to read. It’s very similar to books they have already read and enjoyed, and the silliness comes from writing about a city and a country the author has never visited, but most of her readers won’t have either so who’s to know?

I know that many authors hate to be told that they should be pushing their book as a product, targeting a market and hitting their audience where they hang out with the kind of message that appeals to them specifically. We have a tendency to bristle and reply that selling books in not like selling potatoes or washing machines. We like to think that there is something intrinsically ‘worthy’ about a book that sets it on a higher plane than vulgar vegetables or white goods.

I have come round to the belief that the marketers are right. You can sell any old rubbish as long as you can convince people it’s the rubbish they want. Publicists (sorry) are not in the business of telling gospel truths, they are in the business of persuading people to buy product X in preference to product Y. Product X might be utter crap technically, but the publicist’s skill is in convincing the potential buyer to overlook that unfortunate fact and instead look at other advantages. They might be street cred, the colour of the laces, the woman draped across the bonnet, whatever.

Same with books, I’m afraid. The mass market is not made up of discerning literati—they form only a small percentage and they probably wouldn’t ever look at your book anyway if it’s genre fiction—but of people wanting accessible entertainment. That’s the market most of us are hoping to interest. It isn’t important that, unlike books, you can judge all washing machines using the same criteria. People still ignore the evidence and buy crap washing machines. Conversely, many people do judge a book the way they judge a washing machine, ticking off their own set of criteria.

Selling isn’t about hard facts; it’s about wrapping a product up in an attractive package. If you are lucky enough to have a good publisher, you have a head start in the kudos race and can afford to concentrate on your art. The rest of us have to go down the marketing route with our books or doom ourselves to failure.

I’ll stick to getting my thrills from making a modest few ripples in this big pool.

 

Breaking into book marketing. Well, almost.

So, I’ve been doing some research, trying to find out how it is possible to write great books, get tremendous reviews and not manage to sell any of them. The answer lies obviously somewhere in the murky zone of marketing and promotion. There was a time when publishers dealt with the marketing side and authors did their bit towards promotion by doing interviews, book signings, talking to fans etc. Marketing is relatively straightforward for a reasonable publisher. A publisher makes a name by publishing good books. To do that they get their books reviewed, set up book signings, interviews, press releases and by dint of publishing good stuff come to be trusted to deliver a good product.
A publisher who has no marketing strategy, does nothing to promote its authors or its books will swim about like a catfish in the mud at the bottom of the pool. And I speak from experience. Indie authors are in the same boat but without the resources of a publisher.
There is all sorts of advice floating about on the web, mainly written by people who are selling marketing services, about how indie authors need to do it all themselves and how to go about it. Very altruistic of them considering they make their living selling business plans. Putting together the free advice I’ve gleaned, I now know how to market my books.

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1) I decide who I am.
2) I decide who I want to target.
3) I find out where these people are.
4) Get a fan base
5) I get them to read my book rather than somebody else’s.

True, the plan seems to get fuzzier towards the end and I admit I lost the plot of it a while back, but I’ll have a go, step by step.

Who am I? I am the woman who writes dystopian fantasy novels, well utopian really, except for the ones set in an alternate universe, and the stories that retell legends that everybody knows are really historical fact. Okay, that’s me sorted out. I am a writer of historically motivated mythologically based utopian fantasies (except when they’re set in the future). Step one is GOOD.

Next step: Decide who I want to read my books, and I’m not allowed to say anyone and everyone. That’s not allowed in the marketing plan. I suppose I’d have to say anyone from fifteen or so up who reads fantasy stories. That gives me a great big audience and that is GOOD.

Step three: Find out where these people are and reach out to them. Helloooo (waving gaily). At a guess I’d say that the fifteen-year-olds are texting their friends or taking selfies. Teenagers, according to recent research don’t read books anyway, so inserting myself into their text battles probably won’t bear much fruit. I’ll put them on one side for desperate measures if all else fails.

The rest of my potential readers are apparently hanging about in online groups chatting to one another about fantasy books. Yes, there are groups like this on Goodreads, but the rules of the marketing plan specifically state I must NOT ask these people to read my book but approach by stealth disguised in reader’s clothing and only shed it when I have gained the confidence of the group’s guru. The guru will tell the groupies to read my book. Step three: location of the enemy market is GOOD.

Step four: Get a fan base by offering the market something extra. As a writer approaching readers of a fantasy book club, one would presume I write fantasy. So I offer them fantasy books? Not enough—loads of people do that. This is where I pull out the historical mythologically based utopian fantasy set in an alternate Dark Ages—a theme hook. This is called a marketing plan—getting the right product in front of the right market—and it’s how I create my fan base. Theme hook is GOOD.

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Step five: Just a minute, let’s go back a bit. I have my hook, but where do I sling it? The fan base is there, but for them to know they are my fans I have to reel them in. One way (the only way I have seen set out) is to get an endorsement from the big cheese in each of these virtual chat groups. How? Stalk them on Twitter, toss out sycophantic comments in their Goodreads discussion, hinting that I’ve written something much better? All advice falls into one of two camps—this is something writers absolutely MUST do, or this is something they absolutely MUST NOT do. Take your pick.
I’m a writer not a military strategist or a diplomat. However, many marketing plans state that if there is the slightest chance that my approach is going to look spammy, I am allowed to leave this bit out. So I don’t approach anyone. I just lurk. Aqua in bocca.

So, that’s all the steps completed. To recap: I have my author persona, my targeted market, my snazzy theme hook, and my (virtual) fan base. All I have to do now is sell lots of books. This is where the plan starts going round in circles. The marketing plan is to get my books under the noses of my fan base and give them that extra bit of pizzazz so they will be falling over themselves to get to that buy button. So I need a fan base. How do I get a fan base? By putting my books under its collective nose of course, stupid!

I think I’ll just concentrate on writing decent, original books instead, even though that part of the marketing plan seems to be optional.

If anyone knows how to get out of that vicious Catch 22 circle, I’d love to hear from you.

How to sell a hundred thousand copies of your book with very little effort

We all want to sell our books, don’t we? Lots of copies of our books, right? And the web is packed with people offering advice in spades as to how to flog better and more, isn’t it? But does any of it work? Short answer is—no.

How many hundred tweets a day do you scroll past begging you to read somebody’s book? How many of them with quotes from people you’ve never heard of extolling the awesomeness of a book that could be about anything at all? Then there are the superlatives. Perfect beach read—says who? Best police thriller I have ever read—who are you when you’re washed? So funny I cracked a rib laughing—can we see the x-rays? Really, does anyone read this kind of stuff and go out and buy the book? There’s the Amazon Cart thingy that maybe works for people who are on automatic pilot, like responding to subliminal advertising. But would you click on an ad and buy a book on the strength of a tweet that was 50% hashtags?

If we accept that since we don’t choose our reading matter the same way lemmings choose which cliff to jump off, there’s little reason to suppose that anyone else would. So we have to ask ourselves, what would work then? I have the answer, and I’m giving it away for FREE. You don’t have to sign up for a series of audio lectures or buy the boxed set of twenty books outlining my infallible marketing strategy. I’ll tell you, for nothin’. It’s so simple I’m reeling with incredulity that nobody has thought of it before. Pin your ears back then, here it comes.

You get a VERY FAMOUS AUTHOR to tweet that your book is awesome. You get that same VERY FAMOUS AUTHOR to leave a review to that effect on Amazon. It doesn’t even have to be a VERY FAMOUS AUTHOR, it could be a VERY FAMOUS TV CHEF or a VERY FAMOUS CYCLIST or a VERY FAMOUS WOMAN WITH BIG BOOBS AND A GOOD DENTIST. You get the idea? Simple and ultra effective. Try to avoid controversial celebs, especially the ones that are either on trial or already in prison. Politicians can be a bit dodgy too, but then you all knew that anyway. Other than that, the link is obvious—any VERY FAMOUS anything at all, even the puppy in the toilet paper adverts would do

I’ll be keeping this post open so that you can all sign in with news of your successes. Good luck, and keep me updated. Oh, and don’t bother with GRR Martin or Mark Cavendish, I’ve done them. They’re either too busy casting TV series or too injured at the moment to reply, but I’m sure they’ll get round to it. I’ve put the champagne in the fridge already.

What next?

It seems like forever since I did anything but pore over text written months, and in some cases, years ago. Once satisfied that the text of The Subtle Fiend was as picked over as I was prepared to go—I do have a life outside of commas—there was the fiddly task of formatting the text for Kindle and making the cover. After the release there’s the promotion, which in my case means telling as many people as possible that I have a new book out, and…well…nothing really.

TheSubtleFiendcover2

Thank goodness there’s the print version to prepare, and the third volume in the series, and the short stories to publish. Otherwise, the book blues would strike again.

 

Ever had the book blues? Bet you have. The feeling that grabs you when the relief and euphoria fade and you realise that you have just told most of the people who might be mildly interested in your book, and very few of the other six billion inhabitants of the planet are going to stumble upon it by accident. You have just acheived a lifetime’s ambition, poured your all into a project. Facing that fact that nobody else is particularly interested, is hard to take.

 

The knotty problem of how to actually sell the damn books is one that I have not been able to solve. There are the blog tours, the guest blogs and interviews, the giveaways and competitions. All are supposed to help create a buzz around an author’s name. Maybe. But who has the time? Just keeping FB and Twitter accounts ticking over takes more time away from writing that I want to spare.

 

Get reviews, they say; good reviews are like gold dust. So I got reviews, good ones too. The thing is, there’s no point having good reviews if no one reads them. To read the reviews, the punters must have already been lured to the book page on Amazon. So how do you entice customers to get that far? If you’re waiting with bated breath for me to tell you the answer, forget it. I haven’t a clue.

 

There is a magical step, or more like a Grand Canyon, that separates the writing of a fine piece of work, passing it round reviewers who say wonderful things about it, from Joe Public parting with hard cash to read it. I am still at the stage of sitting on one side of the Grand Canyon with my growing pile of unknown books, and waving frantically at the milling book-buying hordes on the other side.

In the beginning cover

 

If all goes according to plan, and Createspace doesn’t reject my manuscript for formatting errors, and the back and front cover designs come together in a book shape, The Subtle Fiend will be available very soon in paperback. It will be another milestone reached, and I will have crept up a bit higher on the learning curve. It won’t sell; I’m quite prepared for that but, like Mount Everest, it will be there. There is a lot more material in the pipeline, and just as soon as the comma adjuster has been through it, it will be available. My dream is that one day more people than just reviewers will read my books. Until then, all I can usefully do is keep writing them, and hope that the pile grows so big a few of the six billion trip over it.

MidnightCover

What’s your genre?

I was reading an article on a friend’s blog today about that much-discussed subject: genre. There was a time when the classification of book types was sort of instinctive. There were books for adults and books for children. Within the adult books there was literature, books for the ‘serious’ reader, with sober covers; and there were the books for people who read books in much the same way they eat a packet of crisps, for the simple, easy, accessible pleasure of it. Often they had easily recognisable covers: pink for romances, black for crime, and great big font for airport thrillers. You knew where you were.

Not so anymore. Now there is a plethora of genres, and subgenres, and each is supposed to have its own market. They are not watertight; there is some leakage on either side, but each category is supposed to have its own target group of readers, and to approach them accordingly.

It makes things easy for booksellers. The author/publisher specifies the genre and the bookseller sticks the book on the right shelf, or under the same electronic heading. It makes it easier for readers to go straight to their preferred fantasy genre without having to plough through the nineteenth century classics, the spy thrillers or the bodice-rippers. The fans of epic fantasy aren’t distracted by the steampunk, zombie, or dystopian selections, and the legal minors will be safely diverted to YA paranormal and away from the adult vampires. For people who like sorting things, I can see the attraction, but to get to this kind of precision implies authors producing books that fit into a very specific category and have a very specific age group in mind.

Something that Mary Meddlemore said in her blog post about stories being stories, not genres, made me think that this analysis hits the nail on the head. Despite what agents and publishers require, that the author have a very clear idea of who their book is intended for, and know exactly which category it fits into, they are still just stories. They are inspired by all sorts of things, and pour out as they think fit. A story doesn’t hesitate on the edges of the imagination, undecided about whether it’s suitable for the under sixteens, or whether there is enough retro stuff in it for it to be considered steampunk. It just comes out and gets written.

Any insistence on the genre, the age group, or the fantasy type; pinning down into a definite genre a thriller/horror/paranormal/mystery, is to enter into the realms of marketing, and not writing. I know, who doesn’t market doesn’t sell, but there must be a better way of ‘selling’ a story that by sticking a label on it. ‘Ballet Shoes’ has a precise target readership of young girls who aspire to be ballet dancers. But it is rarely so easy. Where would you stick “The Call of the Wild” for example? YA dogs?

© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak
© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak

Cast adrift in cyberspace

I just had a fright. I couldn’t access my blog; it was blocked. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything illegal, no incitation to racial or religious hatred, no bad language or mucky pictures. But you never know what some people might find offensive.

I lost Trixie too. My avatar had been removed—my black cat protesting about an empty food bowl had obviously offended the anti-cat lobby. I felt extremely uncomfortable. What had I done wrong? I sent out messages, twittered to the twittering universe, but got no replies.

A few minutes ago, while I was penning a question to the great white WordPress in the sky, Trixie came back, and with her, access to my blog. Panic over. But it has made me think about how fragile the virtual network is. As authors we are told that our reputations depend on our web presence. Our image, our brand, our future. Without the web we don’t exist. So what do you do when your Trixie goes blank and all that stuff you have accumulated to reply to the demands of an image doesn’t respond any more?

My first reaction was to check that I still had a FB account, that I could still twitter. The conspiracy theory kicked in immediately. I don’t regret the good old days of brown paper envelopes, IRCs and the vagaries of the postal system, the waiting for months and long months to receive a slip of paper saying thank you but no thank you. However, in the good, slow old days, we were aware that the postman might not make it as far as the right letterbox, that somebody in a far away office might have taken our sub home to read and left it on the train. We made copies. We prepared for long waits. We got on with writing.
Now we want replies at the speed of light, we want our latest quip to be repeated on and on across the universe. But what do we do when somebody pulls the plug?

I don’t have an answer. I just keep sending out the messages into the ether and hope I don’t get up somebody’s nose to the extent that they get me shut down. Instead of having that long-promised mug shot taken, I’ve decided to have my portait painted instead.

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