How do writers in general, but particularly late-life writers, establish an author platform? By “late life” I mean writers over sixty. By “author platform” I mean a soapbox that is slightly elevated above the crowd and that allows authors to shout to passersby that our books exist. That doesn’t mean the crowd will necessarily buy the book. But readers will certainly not buy a book if they don’t even know about it.
The instant a book is published, it becomes a product. Authors must shift gears. The book no longer represents the author’s hopes and dreams for a life of the mind. The book, with its bar code and ISBN number, has morphed into a bar of soap. We must sell the yellow bar of Dial or the smooth and creamy Dove.
How Did We Go From Being Authors to Being Soap-Sellers?
My journey is typical of many men and women who’ve had other careers, raised children, and finally found time in their fifties, sixties, and seventies to finish a book. In my long-ago youth, I was a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building magazine editor. I fit the writing in whenever I could. But, when my last kid graduated from college, my husband I scaled back our expenses, and I did what I’d always wanted to do. I returned to the creative endeavors that fed my soul.
As I had done with everything else in my life, I threw myself into this second career. I applied for fellowships, attended writing conferences, pitched agents, sent queries, had agents ask for partials, had agents ask for complete manuscripts, did rewrites, combed through Publishers’ Marketplace looking for agents of debut novels, won literary prizes and Arts Council awards, did residencies, queried university presses, sent manuscripts, and rode the roller coaster of elation and disappointment. Meanwhile, a revolution was taking place in the publishing industry.
Publishers Followed Readers and Ad Revenue
These were some of the signs I should have noted. During the 1980s The New Yorker published Mary Robison, Mavis Gallant, Cynthia Ozick, William Maxwell, Ann Beattie, Ray Carver, John Updike, Bobbie Ann Mason, and other literary writers, but in 1985, the Fleischman family sold the magazine to Advance Publications. In 1991, Tina Brown, the magazine’s new editor, shifted the focus to nonfiction. In May, 2005 The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction. The changes at these magazines were revenue-driven. The publishers needed to find readers, and people just weren’t reading fiction.
The reading public’s tastes had changed. Movies and television provided competing forms of entertainment. People’s jobs sucked up more of their time. The forty-hour work-weeks of my childhood had vanished. By the 1990s men and women put in sixty hours at their jobs. Rather than sit in the living room of an evening with a book, the average American watched television and might read ten or fifteen minutes before going to bed.
Is it any wonder that books had to be page turners? I’m not sure any of the authors cited above would have been capable of writing a book classified as “light reading” or “entertainment.” They wrote “literary fiction,” which is to say fiction that took time to absorb. And that was my goal.
I should also add that, about this time, New York publishing companies were merging with entertainment companies. Agents wanted to represent books that had the potential to become movies. A movie deal meant money for both author and agent. From 1990 to 2010 the number of New York publishers shrank, making the funnel for traditionally published books even smaller.
The term “author platform” began to be used to describe authors who already had a following in the media. Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From The Edge are but three examples of books that had an instant readership. Biopics by sports-figures and celebrities in the entertainment industry allowed traditional publishers to reduce the risk of remaindered books.
Probably like most aspiring authors, I did not realize that these changes in the industry would have a direct impact on me. I spurned the idea of self-publishing a book. Under the “old model,” so-called vanity presses were the only means by which authors without agents could hold a book in their hands. Among writers, it was well known that vanity presses could produce a book, but that no respectable newspaper would review it, nor would any bookstore carry it. The author would have shelled out a good deal of cash, but for what? A vanity press had no distribution mechanism.
Enter POD Publishing and the Internet
In my blog post about Print-On-Demand (POD) publishers, I discuss the pros and cons of the digital revolution. Print-on-demand (POD) publishing means that books are produced one at a time, rather than in a big print run. That’s the method used by traditional publishers: 1,000 to 10,000 books at a time.
In 2013 when my novel Montpelier Tomorrow was published, I did not know the difference between POD publishing and traditional publishing. I thought my publisher was a small press and that I was lucky they had accepted my manuscript. I knew they were not a vanity press because I didn’t pay them any money. They promised to take the book production off my hands, which they did and for which I am very grateful.
Here’s the downside though. At the time I did not know that a POD press has no book warehouse or distribution channel. A POD publisher cannot get a book into bookstores because, unlike major presses and even not-so-major presses like City Lights, Counterpoint, Softskull, Greywolf and Sarabande, POD publishers do not rent space on the bookstore’s front table.
Neither does a POD press pay bookstores to hold a place on their calendar for author readings. A POD press does not have a sales rep in regional markets. A POD press has no standing relationship with newspapers and book-review editors, nor does it have connections with local TV stations or newspapers. A POD press does not give you free copies to distribute to book awards.
Furthermore, an author whose book has been published with a POD press is automatically disqualified from entering the book into any of the major book awards that might gain a book national recognition. I’m speaking here of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the literary awards given by PEN America, the Pulitzer Prize, the BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction, and many other awards that typically help create buzz.
The Advantages of Traditional Publishing
When a traditional publisher brings out a book, they have a marketing department working behind the scenes. In the week the book is launched, articles appear in People, O, The Oprah Magazine, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Poets & Writers, AWP Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and the like. Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Purity launched with a bottle of champagne broken across its bow. Thirty or forty articles appeared in mainstream media. Similarly, Colson Whitehead’s novel, Underground Railroad, received a big boost from Oprah and from its Pulitzer Prize.
When a book starts moving off the shelves, publishers will often hire public relations’ firms to handle an author’s Twitter feed. If you’re Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) the publisher will set up a fan page on Facebook and post on the author’s behalf. The publisher will arrange bookstore readings, interviews with radio stations, and guest appearances at places like The City Club or Chicago’s Printers’ Row Book Festival.
Franzen has been building his literary reputation through essays and blockbuster novels, but neither he nor Whitehead had an “author platform” when they began. They’re writers, not entertainers. The publisher created an author platform for each of these once unknown writers.
And why? Because they could make money by giving the authors greater visibility. The publishers could make back their investment.
Back to the Author Platform
It is only on Amazon (and the other online bookstores) that an author whose book has been produced by a POD publisher—or self-published–has any chance of getting books into readers’ hands. To do that an author must have a platform, which is to say a way to connect with readers.
For a non-famous, debut author this is almost impossible. That’s why, in my previous post on author platforms, I said that the author’s personal connections—her or his e-mail list—will be the main way an author can find readers for a book.
But how many readers? Realistically, a trickle.
When my novel was published, my press gave me a list of fifty things I could do to promote my book. They suggested that I begin blogging, which I did, but having no blog followers meant I was in a chicken-and-egg situation.
Gradually, for the past few years, I have been building up a readership for my blog and getting active on Facebook and Twitter. All are gigantic time sinks and distractions from the concentration necessary to finish my next book. But I see now that there is no team of carpenters going to show up and build my author platform for me. I must buckle on my tool-belt and pick up my Stanley hammer.
Here Is Where the Rant Becomes Productive
Since 2013 I’ve tried many ways to connect with readers who will actually buy my books. Here are some tools I use that allow me to partially protect my writing time and that still allow me to add a plank to the platform.
Nimble. Far and away the most useful tool I’ve found to keep from getting totally swamped by social media is Nimble. Rather than checking into Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. individually, I have all those accounts funnel into Nimble’s central hub. When I have a few minutes at the end of the day, I can respond, and more important, I can keep track of people I want to contact again. It costs $22/month and is well worth every penny.
For me, the up side of social media has been the chance to connect with readers individually. Rather than hunting through my various accounts for old messages, Nimble allows me to set reminders and contact folks at regular intervals. Not that I’m good at that in real life! Ask my kids how often I’ve forgotten birthdays! But, Nimble gives me a chance to try and stay on top of it.
MeetEdgar. This app has helped me quell the panic attacks about social media. Unlike Nimble, it doesn’t manage your contacts or notify you of messages. What it does do is allow you to create “evergreen” posts that you can pre-schedule on a calendar.
I preload Tweets or Facebook posts onto the app’s calendar—this can include visual images—and they will put these into a library. My library has Writing Tips, Famous Writers, Funny, Inspirational, Book Promo, and various other categories. On the app’s weekly calendar I can tell MeetEdgar to schedule Random Posts at certain times, or I can tell it which categories to choose from.
What I like is that I can spend two or three hours making visuals for my Twitter feed, and then I can load the Tweets into MeetEdgar and create links that take people to my website. MeetEdgar has recently added a feature that allows me to add .rss feeds from my favorite sites. That should help me change out some of the items in my library.
ShareLinkGenerator. This amazing tool is so simple even a non-techie can do it. And it’s free. So, let’s say you have a blog post or an Amazon book link you want to get out into the world. Type the link in one of the boxes, and you can generate appropriately sized links and text boxes for all the others. This saved me a boatload of time when I was preparing social media posts for the launch of BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, one of which is shown below. And this visual was created on the app I mention next, which is Canva.
Canva. If you’re going to take the job of constructing your platform seriously, you’ll definitely need images. Sizing the images properly is key to image-preparation not turning into a big time sink. I use Canva, and I upload my own images to avoid avoid paying Canva’s annoying $1-per-photo fee. Otherwise, Canva is free.
Google Forms. When you’re trying to build a platform, you’re going to need help from your friends. But rather than try to figure out what they’d be willing to do, a tool like Google Forms can allow you to gently put out there that you’d like their help. You can design forms to enlist helpers for spreading the word on social media, attending your book launch, guest-hosting you on their blog, introducing your book to their book club, or any number of other tasks. Here’s a good YouTube Tutorial on getting started with Google forms. It’s free.
ConvertKit. If you are promoting a book, you need an e-mail management program. That’s because your normal e-mail provider may shut down your account if someone complains that you’re sending them spam. E-mail list-building programs have opt-in forms and unsubscribe links that keep you in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act. I’ve tried Mailchimp (free for the first 2,000 subscribers, but without features you might find desirable), GetResponse, and AWeber. In all of those programs the learning curve was pretty steep. I was wasting a ton of time watching their help videos and getting tech support. When I switched to ConvertKit (0-1000 subscribers, $29/month) that angst went away. Managing my “list” became intuitive.
Leadpages. This program makes it possible to create “lead magnets” and send those painlessly to people who request them. Subscribers to my blog/e-mail list probably recognize some of the offers on the screenshot below. Thanks to Leadpages, I’ve been steadily building my e-mail list and my author platform ($25/month).
Jing, Snagit, and Camtasia. The program I use for screen captures is Jing. The version I use is free, and it allows me to capture all or part of a screen, eliminating the need to open a photo editor and crop. At various other times, I’ve used TechSmith’s other programs: Snagit and Camtasia.
- To sum this up, I use Leadpages to create offers that I hope will be of use to other writers. These offers are free.
- When someone downloads my offer (a pdf), they then receive a series of welcome e-mails. The flow of e-mails is managed by ConvertKit, and the person’s name appears on my e-mail list.
- After five or six welcome e-mails, the subscriber receives a weekly newsletter telling about my most recent blog post and a list of publications that are looking for stories, poems, essays, or book manuscripts. I often also include a poem or essay that seems pertinent to my mission. The goal of the newsletter is to drive traffic to my blog and increase my Google ranking. Of course, I also want to do what I promised when I asked people to sign up.
My mission is to help other people write the best books they can write, get those books published, and connect with readers. I’m especially grateful for the many readers who subscribe to my blog because they are a crucial part of this picture.
What I Don’t Think Works to Sell Books
The strategies that worked to sell books in 2009 when this crazy world of online bookselling first got going don’t work quite as well as they once did. Tweet clubs don’t work. Blog tours organized by a professional blog-tour company don’t pay back in sales. (Many blogs have only 20 to 50 subscribers. You’re not going to get numbers there.)
Hiring a PR firm to promote your POD or self-published book will cost you far more than you will ever make back. I know because I have done this twice, once with the well known Penny Sansevieri and once with a PR firm in Florida. Those investments of $5000 and $7000 didn’t even create a blip in my sales figures.
Even Goodreads giveaways don’t pan out. Those who received free books from me rarely bothered to post reviews.
The plain and unfortunate truth is that the market is flooded with new books. More than 700,000 books were self-published in 2016, and that’s just for the United States. Those books are competing with 13 million books already in Amazon’s bookstore.
Jennifer McCartney’s article in Publishers Weekly cites the figures for authors’ incomes.
…a survey by Digital Book World found that hybrid authors earn the most money, with a median income between $7,500 and $9,999 a year, followed by traditionally published authors ($3,000–$4,999), and indie authors ($500–$999). The assumption that authors only use self-publishing until they can secure a traditional deal bears out less and less.
So should you spend the money on e-mail service providers and the like?
Depends on how much money you have to spend. Just don’t expect a payback.
The Bottom Line
If you are independently published or self-published, you should not outsource the construction of your author platform. You will not see a return on your investment, nor will you achieve your ultimate goal, which is to find readers who enjoy your books. (I dislike the word “should,” and I hesitated about whether I should say “recommend” instead.)
But, you need a platform, or all that time you put into learning to write will have very little payoff, apart from having created a work that expresses your deepest self.
Is that enough? For me it is. And, ever hopeful, I keep adding planks.
I just want to say thank you to Tim Grahl. I’ve taken couple of online courses from him. His motto is “be relentlessly helpful.” Tim’s advice is also what got me thinking that I could help other writers by sharing a few of the things I’ve learned about the writing craft.