Thursday, March 31, 2016

Branding and Career – Part Five: Promotion and Platform

Sorry there was no post the last two weeks. My father died. This post is extra, super long to make up for it.

What is a platform?
A lot of people are confused about what a platform actually is. A person who has a good platform has a means to communicate with a lot of fans whom they have built a relationship with. So they might have a popular blog or a popular youtube channel, they might have a big mailing list they build running seminars. A platform is not sending out emails to hundreds of people who don’t know you and don’t care about you. Platform is also not the tools you use (youtube, facebook, etc), rather it is the connection you have with people.

There are four elements to platform: Visibility, Authority, Proven Reach, and Target Audience.

- Visibility is how easy are you to find and access. How many people are talking about you? Linking to you?

- Authority is how well respected are you when it comes to your area. Do you have the accolades to back you up and do you talk on your chosen field with confidence and accuracy?

- Proven reach is the number of people who are accessing your materials. If you post/upload, how many people will see/read it? Not a guess, but hard evidence, such as the view counter on youtube.

- Target audience is how many of the people accessing your platform are interested in the book you are writing. If you have a highly successful youtube channel on yoga and exercise and you write a steampunk gay romance, you might have a great platform, but it’s not going to translate to book sales. Because people are coming to you for yoga and exercise, not gay romance.

So the goal of an author’s platform is to build a relationship with a group of fans. That is done by providing people with something they want. Always remember, building a platform is necessary for you, but it isn’t about you. It’s about providing something your fans want. They are not coming to you to worship, they are coming to you so you can serve them. And you should serve graciously and joyfully.

So when you are planning your platform, the biggest question you have to ask yourself is: ‘How do I want to serve? How am I going to add value to the lives of my fans?’ I, obviously, chose to write blog posts like this one, supporting writers. Are all of my readers writers? Sadly, no. However I bet 99% of them say they want to write a book one day. I love interacting with other writers, and I love helping people. So this works for me.

How to choose your medium.

There are many tools and ways to build your platform. It’s better to do one well, than eight poorly. Initially I tried to do facebook, twitter, a blog, a mailing list and a pintrest. It was stupid, and it didn’t work. Now I focus on facebook (because a lot of people I like are there and I can chat with them) and this blog. In the future, when Meg and I are building our co-author brand, we plan to start short youtube videos which we will make together.

When you are choosing your medium, you have several things to consider:

1. Where are your fans?
Different age groups congregate on different social media. Where you go to connect with teen boys will be very different to where you go to connect with women in their thirties. Know where your audience are. Pro tip: if you think teenagers are on facebook, you have a lot of research to do.

2. What do you enjoy?
What do you actually enjoy doing? If you hate writing blog posts, don’t run a blog. If you can’t stand twitter, don’t use it. However if you spend all day on twitter anyway, why not make that your platform hub?

3. How much time/energy do you have?
Some social media sites require more time and energy than others. Some people who use blogging as a platform say you need to blog every day. I only post once a week, because that means I can work on a single, high quality post for seven whole days. If you are using twitter, you must be able to post a few times a day, because it is very fast paced. If you don’t want to log on to your account every day and keep up, it’s going to become pretty stressful. But if you have small kids and can only check the internet in 15 minute bursts, it may be perfect. Whereas youtube videos would be a nightmare.

4. What reflects your brand?
Your platform and content need to reflect the brand you are trying to build. If you are writing romance novels, a blog where you focus entirely on how to build latex props for gory horror films will not help build your audience. A pintrest board with cakes and clothes would be much better.
Likewise, if you write YA novels and tweet about parenting all the time, teens are going to stay far, far away, because teens do not want to know about parenting. Nor should they.

What do your target audience want from you?

So you know your genre, you know where your fans are and you know what they like. What do they actually want from you? How do you serve your fans and add value to their lives?
Here are the five main things fans want from authors:

- More books.
- Information about upcoming titles.
- Entertainment.
- Information about areas of mutual interest (EG: publishing, writing).
- Inclusion and a relationship with you, information about your ‘process’ as a writer.
- Exclusive material (EG: pre-publication sample chapters and snippets).
- Other products (EG: bookmarks, mugs, mousepads).

You don’t have to do all of these things. You can pick and choose what works for you. But you need to build a relationship with fans, not just hawk wares like some guy selling phones at a kiosk in the mall. Decide what you want to offer and be consistent. There have been a number of authors I started following because they gave interesting information to start with, but then it slowly devolved into them moaning about their personal life. Some people enjoy that, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, because it wasn’t why I had started following them.

You, the product.

You do have to share some personal stuff though. A big part of platform is letting people see you are a real person. A person they like. My blog posts about chronic illness tend to get a huge response. They are very personal and very raw, however they are not whiny.

Think of yourself as a character in a book. What traits do you want to present? What weaknesses make you a likable protagonist? If you want people to feel like they have a relationship with you, you need to be honest. But you also need to know how and when to edit. Think hard when preparing to comment on religion, politics or other controversial issues. And think hard before including the other people in your life in your social media. I quite enjoy reading updates about some fellow author’s kids, but at the same time, I worry about security.

Remember, your platform is not about you. If you need a private facebook to whine about your husband/wife/bills, make one and keep it private. Be very clear on the image you want to present and stick to it. Never post anything in the heat of the moment.

And don’t be an asshole unless you are very, very certain that is the brand you want to sell.

What sells books?

So what actually sells books? What converts best to actual sales? Current data, which could be completely inaccurate in 12 months, says that reviews are the single biggest influence of sales numbers. This probably has a lot to do with amazon’s ranking algorithms. However reviews are a bit like word of mouth, which has always been a very strong sales factor.

Why have a platform at all if reviews are what sell books? Well, there are several reasons. However first you should realise that the purpose of a platform is not actually sales. That said, if people follow you, they probably like you and if they like you, they are more likely to respond to a call to action and write reviews for you.

A platform also reminds your fans you exist in those periods between books. It gets them excited about your upcoming books and keeps them on the fore of their mind when they are recommending books to other people. This is the visibility we were talking about earlier.

Paid ads can also make you visible. Blog tours. Anything that reminds people you exist and funnels them toward your work. So you can see why a platform, while not translating into direct sales, can certainly help with indirect sales.

Stuff not to do:

A lot of people have really fucked up their careers by misbehaving on social media. If you are the sort of person who can’t stay away from internet drama, maybe skip the author platform thing. Because one terrible comment can lead to several thousand 1 star amazon reviews if you piss off the wrong person. Here is a short list of things not to do on social media:

- Over share.
This includes personal problems, your home address, details about your children, etc.

- Preach.
Don’t be that guy.

- Hard sell.
Don’t be this guy either.

- Be an asshole.
Really. Don’t do it to be funny. Don’t do it to be clever. Don’t do it because someone really, really deserves it. Always take the high road in public. There are SO MANY professionals who are perfect saints on social media, who then have the most epic and hilarious bitchfests with me via PM when someone pisses them off. If you think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth, they are probably peeling paint off the walls with their language in a private conversation somewhere.

Final Note:

There is one thing that all fans want from their favourite authors that is 100% guaranteed to sell more books. And that is writing more books.

Never let social media and platform get in the way of that goal. Platform is second to the work. You can have a successful career as an author without ever logging onto the internet. You can’t have a successful career as an author if you don’t write books.

Words first, always.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Branding and Career – Part Four: The Five Book Plan

The Five Book Plan

There used to be an idea in traditional publishing that new authors didn’t start to earn any money until they had three books published. Taking on a new author meant taking a loss until that threshold was met, so publishers were keen to have a long term relationship with authors, knowing full well that for the first three years weren’t going to be solvent.

Now, that number has jumped from three to five. With some editors even claiming the magic number has moved to seven. This is why publishers are even more wary of taking on new authors and why self published authors often give up after a book or two. There are a lot of strong opinions on these topics—none of which I am going to go into here. Instead I want to focus on what you can do as an author to best utilize this information to build your career.

This is where we put the information in previous blog posts in this series into practical use. You have some idea of your brand now and who your fans are/will be. You also, hopefully, know how you want to use your time and what method of publishing is best going to suit your interests, so it’s time to look at your five book plan.

Your first five books in any brand (pen name) are about building, and keeping, your audience. So it’s a good idea to have some sort of structure in place. There needs to be a flow between books, elements that will keep the same people coming back. As I mentioned when in the blog post about your target audience, different people have very different interests. So if your first book is a YA romance about vampires and your second book is about a fat, middle aged detective solving a series of violent torture rapes, fans of your first book are going to be deeply unimpressed with you second book. And even if your third book is a YA romance about were-ocelots, those first fans probably aren’t going to come back. Once burned, twice shy.

So it is generally a good idea to stick to similar themes, similar genres and a similar target audience for the first five books. If you really want to write both children’s picture books and hardcore fireman erotica, do so by building two separate brands (pen names), but keep in mind you need to write five books for EACH BRAND before you can expect to see a decent income coming in.

Obviously this five book rule is not a hard and fast one. Some authors do very well with their very first book. However when you look at ‘overnight success stories’ they are usually 5-10 years in the making. By the time you hear about most ‘overnight success stories’ you will notice they actually have 3-5 books out. Harry Potter, for example, really started to make the news right before the release of book 4.

Publishers really love series for this reason. If readers like a book, it makes sense they will like another book, set in exactly the same setting, with exactly the same characters they already like. So if you already want to do a series (or two trilogies in the same setting) your five book plan is very straightforward.

However if you don’t want to do a series, you have to put more thought in. Most authors have plenty of ideas for stories they want to tell, but can you organise them into a more effective, streamline order? Can you see a flow between them that will hook a reader into buying the next book? Can you, for example, start with the ideas that are a bit more commercial before you branch into the more uniquely bizarre? Or do you want to open with something specialised and niche, then build outward?

I don’t claim there is a right or wrong order to publish books, however it is still worth giving it some thought. If you want to be traditionally published, editors will be looking for evidence of the next five books and if they are going to fit together in a way that will keep fans returning. (At the same time, don’t include your entire five book plan in your query letter either, wait until they ask or you have a signed contract before talking long term. It’s like talking about marriage on a first date, otherwise!)

Exercise time!

Write a list of all the books you ever hope to write. For some of you, that will be dozens. For others, maybe only a few.

Separate those books into brands (or genres, if you haven’t got that far or only want one brand).

Pretend you have nothing else in print (or don’t, depending on where you are in your career) and list three different possible ‘first five book plans’. It doesn’t have to be anything but five titles, in order from first to fifth. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each of your three plans.

Obviously if you only have a series planned, this exercise isn’t going to be very useful to you. However hopefully, overall, this post has given you something to think about when you are deciding what to write next.

One more thing!

This month I released a short story on kindle. It would mean a lot to me if you read it and reviewed it. Reviews = sales. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Branding And Career - Part Three: Your Perfect Working Day

Branding And Career - Part Three: Your Perfect Working Day.

In part one I discussed your branding and in part two, I discussed your target audience. Part three is going to focus on you, and what you really want, because it’s very difficult to get somewhere if you have no idea where you’re going. You may think we already covered this when we talked about your career path. However you could become a best seller and still be completely miserable. Or better yet, you could not become a best seller, and be really happy and content with your life, because you are doing what you love.

This exercise was first given to me by Wonderdog, who’s been a good friend of mine for close to 10 years now. Apparently he got it from his Life Coach, because he’s the sort of guy who has a Life Coach.

The aim is to think about what you really want to do. Not in the grand scheme of things, but day to day. Because as much as we love the idea of seeing ourselves on the bestseller list, or doing interviews, or receiving fan mail, those are all temporary things. A few minutes a week, a few hours a month, if we are lucky. And quite frankly, no one wants to do those things 12 hours a day anyway.

So what do you want to do 12 hours a day? What is going to make you really happy, on an average, boring, typical day in your life?

Your Perfect Working Day.

This exercise assumes three things. Firstly, that money isn’t an issue. Secondly, that you still have to work anyway. Thirdly, that you have sorted out all your shit. However you may not even realise what that shit is until you start this exercise.

Plan for this exercise to be at least 1000 words, or more than four pages. It can be as long as you like, but if you aren’t close to 1000 words, you’re probably not being detailed enough.

You are going to write down your perfect working day. However you are going to start from the instant you wake up to the moment you fall asleep for the night and you are going to include everything in between.

- Where do you live? What town and country? Describe your house in intimate detail, particularly your workspace if you work from home.

- Who do you live with? How do you interact with them? When do you interact with them? What sort of interactions do you have?

- When do you wake up? How do you spent that first important hour of the day? When do you go to bed? When do you exercise? Do housework? Answer correspondence? What is your commute like if you have one?

- What food do you eat? Do you cook it yourself? Does your spouse cook it? Do you have a personal chef? How is it different to your current diet?

- What sort of work are you doing? Does it involve collaboration? Who are you working with? Who are your mentors? How are you interacting with clients or fans?

- Where do your hobbies fit in? Recreation? Volunteering? Giving back? What do you do to relax and have fun during the day? What is giving you joy?

When you’ve finished, look through and think about what you left out. Are you watching 3 hours of TV in the evenings, but in your perfect day you’re not watching any TV at all? Is your spouse out of the picture because they secretly make you miserable? Are you living in the city in your perfect day, but in reality you live in the country?

When I wrote mine, I was surprised how much focus I put on sustainable living. Gardening. Composting. Keeping chickens. Eating food I had grown myself. I didn’t realise how important that was to me, and how much I wanted it to be a focus in my life. I also put ‘watching movies’ as a part of my plan in the evening. It made me realise I don’t have to feel guilty every time I am watching TV—it is something I consider valuable and entertaining enough to be a part of my perfect day. Four hours of youtube was not on my perfect day though, so now I use antisocial to block youtube and facebook during the day, so I can focus on things that matter to me.

 You will probably find this plan is deeply personal to you and you won’t want to share it with everyone. I am pretty open with the world about many things, but even I would hesitate to share my Perfect Working Day with the whole world.

When you write it, do so with the intention to show no one. So you really can be honest with yourself about what will make you happy. Maybe you will realise you hate writing, but love promoting and you’ll give up the idea of being an author and set up a business promoting authors. Maybe you’ll realise you hate promoting and love writing, and instead give up the idea of being an indie author and focus all your energy on breaking into traditional publishing. Maybe you’ll realise you hate your spouse and want to live in another city. In which case, please don’t show your spouse this blog post when you tell them you are leaving.

Most of all, I hope this exercise will show you you don’t need to be a billionaire best seller to be happy. And that being a billionaire best seller would probably have very little effect on your perfect day. I also hope you use it to make your current, less-than-perfect days a little closer to you ideal. Small steps can make a huge difference to your overall happiness.

I don’t have a hobby farm yet, but I can see my passion fruit plant blooming on the fence right now in my previously barren yard. Small things add up.