Don’t Panic

*Note: this is a reprint of the earlier article from my “imploded” version of the blog. I’ll be posting the ones I’ve been able to recover. Thanks for your patience!

I have been hearing a lot of discussion about epublishing lately. Can it be successful? Is it going to destroy everything we, as writers, have built toward? Will only a few authors “make it” while the rest drown in the anonymity of the glut of authors running toward the low-to-no barriers of self epublishing?

First: Don’t Panic.

It was true for Arthur Dent, it’s true for us. Things are moving quickly, but there is still time to breathe, to ruminate… to write. Keep calm and carry on, as the famous war poster advises. If you”re going to be published by the Big 6, or by yourself on Kindle, or on clay tablets in cuneform, you still need to keep writing. Focus on what you can control.

Second: Take Stock.

Where are you in your writing career? If you’ve been published and are currently riding high on bestseller lists — well, welcome to my blog, I”m flattered you”re here. If you’re in the mid-list and wondering where to turn next, what do you want? I’ve advocated looking at goals before, and this is no exception. If you”re looking to make mondo bucks up front, then a break-out with a traditional publisher is what you need… but it’s a long shot. If you”re writing in a relatively unpopular niche, then epublishing might be better for you.

Third: Find Your Tribe.

I repeat this, and repeat this, and repeat this. But it still remains the same. Whether you”re publishing traditionally or electronically (or on clay tablets), you still need to connect with your tribe of readers. This means finding reader groups to contribute to and befriend.

Yes, befriend.

You’re going to need to offer something: input on other books, sympathetic listening, a sense of community. You”re going to become part of the culture. You”re going to go native.

Then, when you”ve got a release, you’re going to tell them. And they’re going to be happy for you… because you’re one of them. Rejoicing with you is celebrating the community.

“But I hate promotion!”

If you hate promotion, then I would say you’ve got one problem: a crisis of confidence. You”re shy, or you don”t want to bother someone with what you perceive to be an imposition. You don”t believe your work is worth interrupting someone to talk about. This is difficult, but not impossible, to overcome. I’m sure there are ways to build your own confidence. I”m going to write about personal word choice, and how your thoughts dictate your outer perceptions: self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you think you suck at promotion, guess what?

You’re going to suck at promotion.

That said, I also know that trying to bully your subconscious into playing ball is like trying to push back a river. So there”s an easier way.

Join a writer tribe first.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two: Writer Unboxed on Facebook, and Savvy Authors. Savvy Authors requires a paid membership: $30 a year gets you a whole bunch of stuff, including their yahoo email loop connection, which I love. Either way, you can lurk for a while, reading other authors. You’ll know that they”re on there for support, as well as to celebrate their accomplishments or ask for help. You’ll dip your toes in. Tell someone she had a good post. Mention a blog you”ve written. Tell them when you”ve completed a manuscript.

You”ll be surprised and pleased by the response. They’re all writers: they want you to succeed. No flaming, no buzzkills, no harshness. Just support. In fact, you could be whiny, or lame, or whatever, and guess what? They’ll still be good to you. (I wouldn’t advocate that all the time, but let’s face it: sometimes we suck. Better to suck in sympathetic company before moving out into the world.)

You’ll also find that it becomes a little easier to open up. You might share some of your work. Find critique partners (for the love of God, find crit partners. You write alone, but you don’t get published alone.) You’ll start to hear promising feedback as well as constructive criticism. You’ll start to grow.

In short, they’ll believe in you until you’re strong enough to believe in yourself.

This is the point of a writer’s community, and it”s one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal. If you’re scared of the future of publishing and unsure of how to move forward, come on. It’s not an emergency: it’s a party for those of us who are facing the future together.

There’s room for one more. Come on in.

You Are Not Apple: Building A Fiction Brand

*Note: this is a reprint of the earlier article from my “imploded” version of the blog. I’ll be posting the ones I’ve been able to recover. Thanks for your patience!

What do you think when you hear: “Build your author brand?”

Most of the time, when people think “brand” they think of the big brand name corporations: Nike, Starbucks, the ubiquitous Apple.  They think of a snappy logo and a clever tagline.  They think color schemes and websites and promo items that all have your name on it.

These are elements, but they’re not a brand.

The best discussion of brand I’ve ever seen has been on Naomi Dunsford’s brilliant site Ittybiz.  (Careful if you’re skittish about language – she can run a bit blue.)  In a nutshell: brand is simply how your audience perceives you.

Brand cannot be controlled, although it can be influenced.  Every single thing you do, every interaction you have with your audience – whether it’s an email you send, a blog comment you make, and especially your books themselves – influence how your reader thinks of you.

Basically, if someone asked your reader “when you hear (your name), what do you think of?”  her answer is your brand.  It could be “funny mysteries.”  It could be “family saga.”  It could be “violent, gritty suspense.”  It could be “Irish stories.”  It could even be “bitch who refused to sign my author copies without saying goodbye.”

The perception is the brand.

The question to ask is: how do you want to be perceived?  How do you want readers to answer that question?

For fiction authors, here are some of the easiest elements to hang your branding on:

  • Subject matter:  Think Karie Marie Moning, and you’ll probably think Highlanders.  Carl Hiassen, you’ll think Native American.  Jim Butcher?  Probably a wisecracking wizard P.I. in Chicago. When readers love a particular archetype or specific subgenre, you’ll be there, giving them exactly what they want. Debbie Macomber covers small towns to perfection, giving readers a sense of comfort and “small town living.”  (This includes her non-fiction knitting books, her recipes, and her website, whose tagline is: “Wherever you are, Debbie takes you home…”)
  • Genre:  Stephen King is known as a master of horror, no matter what the horror turns out to be – vampires, aliens, psychopathic readers. Jodi Piccoult goes hand in hand with tear-jerking women’s fiction.  It’s not enough to build your brand strictly on genre, but it’s a good place to start.
  • Series:  J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series.  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta mysteries.  Create a character and a world that readers love, and they will not only loyally follow it, they will transfer their enjoyment of the series to you.
  • Voice:  Jennifer Crusie has a very distinctive humorous voice that readers respond to, whether she’s writing romantic comedy, light suspense, or even paranormal-tinged horror.  Chuck Palahniuk is known as a “transgressional fiction novelist” that tackles violent, edgy, and darkly humorous work.  Whatever the story line – whether it’s sex addiction, underground fight clubs, or transsexual thieves – you connect with the voice above all.

Whatever you decide to focus on, pick something you can emphasize.  Everything else should subtly (or not so subtly) resonate with this branding.  Stephen King often writes about small towns, for example… and so does Debbie Macomber.  Try switching their website graphics, and you would wind up with some very confused readers.

Also, keep in mind: brand is reader perception of you.  So if you decide you’re changing your brand, it’s going to be difficult for readers to catch up.  Look at Anne Rice.  She’s denounced her horror past, writing strictly about religious topics.  But she’s always going to be known for “Interview with a Vampire.”  You may need to start with a new pen name and a new “brand” to get the results you want.

Do You Know Your “Right Reader?”

*Note: this is a reprint of the earlier article from my “imploded” version of the blog.

When you write a novel, who do you see as your perfect audience?

Most writers balk at this question.  You’ll see that when someone (like an agent) asks: “who do you see your book appealing to?”  Most writers will hem and haw, and say “I think everyone would enjoy this book, if they gave it a chance!”  They don’t want to say “I think that this book would appeal to women in their twenties and thirties who live in cities.” (And honestly, most agents aren’t looking for a full demographic flesh-out, they’re just trying to figure out where the editor should categorize it.)

So why do writers balk?

Because they think that if they target too narrow an audience, there’s no way they are going to make the sales necessary to sustain themselves as an author… especially as a full time writer.  They’re thinking “I need lots of sales” so they don’t want to pin themselves down.

The funny thing is, the less focused you are about who your audience is, the more diluted your actual writing becomes.

When we start out, honestly, most of us have a perfect audience of one: ourselves.  I think that’s not a bad thing, especially when you start.  But as you grow as an author, especially as a published author, you need to have a sense of who your core audience is, what they like, what they don’t like.  Why they like it.

Why do you need to know this?

Because these are what I call your Right Readers.  These are going to be your raving fans.  They’re going to follow you on twitter.  They’re going to auto-buy your ass, and if you disappoint them, they’re going to be super pissed.

That’s not to say you’re going to need to write slavishly, always in fear of pissing off your Right Readers.  But it is something you need to think about if you’re going to look at this as a business.  You want to keep your Right Readers happy.  Technically, everyone else can go to hell.

Which Brings Up The Bitches

I love the site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  They’re the romance website par excellance: they’re intelligent, they’re funny, they pull no punches.  They quite often give books D- and F reviews, with hilarious, eviscerating write ups.

These D- and F books don’t fail, strangely enough.  Or at least, not always.  Why?

Because Smart Bitches ARE NOT THEIR RIGHT READERS.  Their right readers don’t care about a bad review.  Their right readers don’t care whether or not a suspense plot is perfect, for example — they read it because they love the witty banter between the hero and heroine, or the lyrical description of the prairie, or whatever it is that rings their chimes.  And those authors know that.

When agents and editors recommend that you stick to one genre, it’s with your Right Reader in mind.  Building an audience is tough.  When you genre-jump, only the truly faithful, the ones who adore your voice and the through-line of your career, are going to stick.  I can speak with some experience on this one. (And to you loyal guys… mwah.  You are the reason I still have some semblance of sanity.)

So, how do you figure out your Right Reader?

By figuring out your Hedgehog.  When you know what you do best, what you love, and what the market wants, you’re going to find out what readers want from you.  More importantly, you’re going to know who they are and how to target your marketing to them.  That’s key: know your market so you can give them what they want.  Which means they’ll keep buying you.  Which means you’ll have a career.

Find your Right Reader. Figure out who else she reads, where she hangs out, how she decides what to buy.  Then you’ll know how to find her — and how to help her find you.  And once you’re together?  Magic.

 

A CHARACTER SKETCH FOR YOUR RIGHT READER:

What gender is your right reader?  It will usually, predominantly, be one or the other.

About what age?  Think about your own age – that will usually influence your references.  Also, think about the age of your protagonist.  If you’re writing YA, think a bit younger than your protagonist.

What genres does your reader enjoy?  Who are some of her favorite authors?

What does your reader do for fun?  What does she enjoy?

What is her life like?  Is she using reading to relax?  Does she have a stressful job?  A family?  Is she looking for a quick, breezy read, or something that transports her and is totally engrossing?

Is she social?

How does she spend time online?  Does she read blogs?  Does she post on Facebook?  Is she tech savvy?

What magazines does she read?

What TV does she watch?  What movies?

What music does she enjoy?

What are her hobbies?  Does she enjoy crafts?  Cooking?  Going out to restaurants?  Watching movies in a theater, or at home?  Playing an instrument?  Hanging out with friends?  Exercising?

Your right reader is not your only reader.

You will have lots of readers that don’t fit this profile.  However, the reader that fits this profile is the one most likely to connect with your books.  She is also the most likely to:

  • Post reviews.
  • Send you fan mail.
  • Tell friends about your books and encourage them to try your books.
  • Get on your newsletter list to make sure she knows when your new releases come out.

Your right reader is going to be your life blood.  You want to nurture your relationship with your right reader by keeping her in mind at all times as you go through your “branding” process.

 

 

Forget Promotion. Think Contribution.

*Note: this is a reprint of the earlier article from my “imploded” version of the blog.  I’ll be posting the ones I’ve been able to recover.  Thanks for your patience!

 

As writers, we of all people should know that words have power. The words “promotion” and “marketing” hold a connotation that we are trying to, paraphrasing the words of Fight Club : “Sell shit you don’t need to people who don’t want it.” The conundrum we then have is: We need sales to write full time, or make some sort of side income, or to connect with readers. We have trouble making sales without marketing and promotion . We grit our teeth and do the marketing and promotion , wearing as cheerful a face as we can while doing something we hate. Or, conversely, we’re pushing because we think we’re supposed to: this is where the asymmetrical mass favor comes in. We’re also causing people to avoid us, because they’d rather covertly unfriend/ignore/block us than actively say “hey, would you stop telling me about your damned blogs? I don’t even really know you. You’re driving me nuts.”

How do you feel about “sharing and contribution?”

I haven’t hit on the perfect metaphor yet, but I’m triangulating and getting closer. Instead of thinking “how can I build my platform?” and building a strategy, I think: How can I give my tribe something it wants? How can I be a member with a valuable contribution ?

What does a contribution look like?

This could be telling someone you’re thinking of her when her husband is in surgery. It could mean recommending a new author that you enjoy to a reader group. Sharing something embarrassing, personal, and funny on your blog. Retweeting a great blog post on Twitter. Liking someone’s comment on Facebook. Answering questions. Asking questions, for that matter. Genuinely listening. Those that think, “well, that won’t make you a bestseller” will agree: there’s no loss and nothing wrong with connecting. I’ll bet it actually creates more ripples than you’d believe. Call it starting a karmotion, if you like.

What about the “sharing” bit?

That’s where your books specifically come in. You’re not trying to be a one-sale stand, as I’ve said. You want to recommend your books to people who would most likely enjoy them. That means identifying your right reader, knowing where she hangs out, and connecting with the hubs that connect with the readers. You’re not selling: you’re connecting. You’re not pushing your ego onto an indifferent crowd. You’re sharing a gift with friends. There. Now doesn’t that feel better?’,

Forget Platform. Think Tribe.

*Note: this is a reprint of the earlier article from my “imploded” version of the blog.  I’ll be posting the ones I’ve been able to recover.  Thanks for your patience!

I’ve been researching, working on a simple plan book for how to build a platform. And as I’ve given questionnaires, read business books and blogs, and delved into the pros, cons, and conflicting tips on how to build a platform, I’m slowly triangulating on one thing that keeps surfacing:

Platform building doesn’t work.

A different way to think about promotion

Here’s an illustration. I get two emails. One is from an author I am loosely acquainted with on Facebook, telling me she’s added a Facebook page to promote her new book that’s being released on Tuesday, and asking me to please “like” it… and hey, maybe buy the book while I”m at it, because it’s a great read. The other is from a dear friend of mine, someone I’ve been in a critique group with for a few years. Her book is being released on Friday, and she’s thrilled.

Guess whose book I’m picking up on Friday?

That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I am thrilled for my friend. I’ve watched her grow. She’s listened to me rant. She’s lent me books and recommended new authors. She’s been there for a quick beta read when I’ve needed her. I want to support her. Of course I’m picking up her book. And I’m announcing it on my blog, Facebook status and Twitter account. Not because she asked me to, although I wouldn’t mind if she did. Because I like her and I want her to succeed.
I don’t know the other author. While she seems like a nice enough person, I don’t necessarily trust her. Why should I “like” her page, just on her say-so? What incentive do I have? Who is this person, anyway? I’d like to help, but it’s like a casual acquaintance asking to borrow your car. My friend, I’d hand over the keys in a heartbeat. But I don’t know you, Facebook author… and I get requests just like it by the dozens every day. Sorry to be blunt, but what makes you special, random author?

What does this mean for you?

This doesn’t mean you throw in the towel, write what you can, and hope for the best. I still think promotion is important. I think that there have been two camps: the Militant Introverts, artistic purists who think self promotion is “shameless” and who will live or die by their draft; and the Aggressive Promoters, who strategize, implement, and “promo-whore” as best they can.

There is a third band of refugees who cycle from one camp to the other, randomly blogging like mad when a release is out then retreating to a cave for months at a time.

At one time or another, I’ve been all three. And I’m starting to see that there’s another, better way.

Promotion Karma

I’m still developing this theory, but I think that the important thing is to make friends. I’ve seen comments from readers saying they are more likely to buy a book from someone that they “know” even if their only interaction has been online. So the key is to become a friend to people.

I’m sure there are nay-sayers that will point out you need to sell about 100,000 books, at least, to become a bestseller… and you have enough problems keeping track of your family, much less “being a friend” to a cast of thousands. But that’s not what needs to happen.

Remember the Right Reader post? Find your target audience. Then pick one or two groups, and become a friend. A real friend, not just someone hanging out for promo. Listen to what they have to say. Authentically care when there are birthdays, or sicknesses, ups and downs. Participate for at least a month without mentioning your books at all.

Listen. Help. Connect.

Find a few authors who are in the mid-list in the same genre that you’re targeting — discover ones whose writing you enjoy. Then promote them . Do a review on your blog, comment on their blogs, mention them on social media.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll blurb your book when the time comes, or mention your releases. Maybe they won’t. It’s not quid pro quo… it’s karma.

Maybe it’s a crazy dream, but I think that this is the promotion “strategy” I’ve been stumbling around, searching for, for years.

It feels right. After all, your brand is how others perceive you — the way you interact with your readers on a consistent basis, every day. What could be a better brand builder than simply putting yourself out there as a good friend, and mean it?

If this sounds right to you… if this sounds like something that is just crazy enough to work, please re-tweet this, “like” it, tell your friends. And if you know of other writers who are already clued into this, who have written about it or taught it, please email me. I think we’re onto something here.