Part 2. The Importance of Platform: Fiction

Last week, I posted about the importance of platform for a nonfiction author. But platform is leaking into fiction as well, albeit in a slightly different form. At the beginning, the quality of the writing, and whether the book will fit into the marketplace at the time, is what matters. Agents and editors looking for fiction usually do not care whether the author has an MFA from Missouri or is an engineer who writes on nights and weekends. After a publisher buys your book, however, editors expect you to connect with the readers leading up to the publication date. Book tours have fallen out of favor due to the effort and expense required for not a lot of sales in return. Twitter and blogs have crept up in their place along with flash promotions and online reviews.

Many novelists would prefer to stay home working on their next book and leave all the promotion to the publisher’s publicity department. While the publicists can book interviews for the author with the media, or send out press releases and review copies of the book to newspapers and magazines, reaching out to the actual readers is something that only authors can do best. Leah Scheier started a book review site before her debut took off, which probably gave her a few followers and a knack for blogging before she launched her author site: http://www.leahscheier.com/. On these sites, authors share updates on their writing progress, offer additional background information on the world they’ve created in their books, host give-away contests, and of course, link out to retail sites where people can buy the books. Some are personal, some are strictly informational, and some send visitors into the realm of the book. Search for a few of your favorite authors; chances are they have a website.

Building a website to promote your novel is a great start, and is practically required these days. To stand out among the other novelists out there, you’ve got to do a little more. Incidentally, Michael Hyatt, author of Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, posted on Friday his seven-step approach to How to Launch a Bestseller. Although he wrote a nonfiction book, he focuses on his actions leading up to publication, which all apply to fiction as well. He emphasizes the following:

  1. Set specific goals
  2. Assume personal responsibility (don’t completely depend on the publisher for promotion)
  3. If you have an existing following, ask for their input early, while your still working on the manuscript
  4. Secure endorsements
  5. Form a launch team
  6. Focus the promotion (to a particular time period or place)
  7. Offer incentives for buying/reviewing/buzz

Hyatt goes into a lot more detail on how he applied each of these steps in his post here,  if you’d like to read more. For those of you lamenting the disappearance of the traditional book tour, I would add that I’ve lately read a few author interviews on some popular book-review blogs. One author said the interview was part of his own virtual book tour, which struck me as a fantastic plan.

If you’re planning on publishing a book, you should consider your platform — do you have followers on a blog or Twitter? What comes up when you type your name into Google? Authors can’t hide behind their pen these days, and publishers expect more.

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Bestsellers share writing advice (for free!)

John Updike just told me that the key to finding a writer’s true voice is to go into an empty room and hum. Speaking voices can be shy or squeaky but a nice solid hum is the essence or your voice. Since I was alone at the time, I paused Updike’s presentation and did just that. I’m not sure if I’m any closer to finding that ephemeral piece of writing style, but I do feel inspired.

Updike is one of many authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Ephron, Michael Crichton, Toni Morrison, and John Irving, who contributes to a new course on iTunes U: Creative Writing: A Master Class. Universities have been teaming up with iTunes since 2007 to create multimedia courses for their students and for the public. The courses that are available to the public are completely free for you to download in piecemeal seminars or to subscribe to a full course of lessons. This particular course is a symposium series of distinguished authors talking about their writing experience in 10-15 minute segments.

I found it instructional, but also encouraging. Arthur Golden spoke about how he knew he had great material for a book, but couldn’t seem to write about it in a way that his first guinea pig readers enjoyed. He tossed the first manuscript of what would eventually become Memoirs of a Geisha when his friends said it was too dry, and began again from scratch. He scrapped the second manuscript when he realized that he needed to write it from the perspective of a younger woman’s experiences. Hearing an author talk about his struggles on the way to success is something invaluable to writers.

This course and others like it — several MFA programs offer courses through iTunes U — are great opportunities for writers. It can be dangerous to write alone or write into a void, but it’s sometimes difficult (or simply intimidating) to find a writing community in your area for encouragement and feedback. MFA programs are great, but they’re expensive and require significant commitment. iTunes U offers you a chance to hear from other writers, to find advice on how someone else learned how to plot a scene, write dialogue, or blend real experiences with fiction.

All of this is available at the iTunes Store under the iTunes U heading. I can’t link directly there since it operates out of iTunes, but you can find their course category listing here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/genre/itunes-u/id40000000.

Part 1. The Importance of Platform: Non-fiction

Platform is a word that publishers throw around as something they look for in an author. But what exactly does it entail? A slogan? A mission statement? Tall shoes? Just kidding. It really depends on the type of book you’re writing. Let’s start with non-fiction.

I worked for a short stint in consumer health books, where we looked for authors who were recognized experts in their fields, the key word being “recognized.” For most consumer non-fiction, publishers are looking for authors who have a national fanbase — authors who have been on the Today Show, have had a feature in TIME magazine, write a syndicated column or host radio show. A breakthrough article in an esteemed medical journal usually doesn’t cut it — not until the media picks up on the significance of the research. A 10-minute feature on the local ABC news station is nice, but only a start.

The reasoning behind platform importance is this — with all of the information out there already, a consumer can find what they need on WebMD and online health forums. So why buy a book? Familiarity and trust; a consumer will be more likely to trust someone they’ve seen and connected with on TV, or someone who writes that really great gluten-free blog. Based on the number of these followers, authors with a platform give publishers a better estimate on how many books they might sell.

Let’s take a look at some non-fiction authors who made book deals in the past week, according to PublishersMarketplace. Most of them have a background for the type of book they’re writing, and if you search for them on the web, you’ll find that they also have a strong online presence:

Biographies:
Texas Monthly deputy editor Brian Sweany
Former deputy editor of The Week Thomas Vinciguerra

Business:
CEO of PeopleLENS Global Associates and senior fellow of the Human Capital at the Conference Board Gyan Nagpal
Chicago Equity Partner’s Brian Portnoy
CNBC producer known for her “trillion-dollar Rolodex” Lori Ann LaRocco

Food/Health:
Food writer Ana Sofia Pelaez and photographer Ellen Silverman
Nutritionist Natalia Rose and Chef Doris Choi
Food writer, cooking instructor and blogger Hillary Davis
Nutritionist and master of public health Rania Batayneh
Nutritionist Meghan Telpner

History/Politics/Current Affairs:
Wall Street Journal contributor and author Lee Sandlin
NYC cultural reporter & blogger Joseph Alexiou
Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson
Navy SEAL and NYT bestselling author Brandon Webb
Former White House staffer Jane Hampton Cook
Cultural historian and author Marilyn Yalom
High school English teacher and son of historian David McCullough, David McCullough Jr.
Professional writer Chis West (http://www.chriswest.info/)
British historian Wendy Moore
Former Susan G. Komen svp of public policy Karen Handel

Lifestyle/How-To:
Washington, DC-based image stylist and columnist for The Huffington Post Lauren Rothman
Healthy-living advocate, mother, and actor Alicia Silverstone
Deadspin and Gawker columnist Drew Magary
Two-time Super Bowl winning head coach of the New York Giants Tom Coughlin
Worldwide adventurer and NYT bestselling author Chris Guillebeau

Memoirs/Narratives:
Mother Jones writer and editor Kiera Butler
President & CEO of Tourism Vancouver Rick Antonson
Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek
NYT bestselling author Elizabeth Bard
Only Asian-American woman in the U.S. Army Miyoko Hikiji
Magazine contributor and blogger for Psychology Today Slash Coleman
Poet-farmer Forrest Pritchard
Professional writer and author Louise Steinman

Sports:
Former Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton and New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle
CNN senior producer and staff writer Wayne Drash

There are a few in this list that stand out to me. For instance, high school English teachers do not often get book deals with Big Six publishers…unless of course your father happens to be the most well-known historian in America and you gave a harsh commencement speech that got picked up by national media: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/09/david-mccullough-at-wellesley-commencement-you-are-not-special-video.html.

You also may have noticed that journalists seem to have an unfair advantage in this list. Consider however, they’ve been researching and writing about particular topics for the duration of their careers, they usually have a regular readership or audience, and they have a lot of established sources who might not speak with someone else. They write non-fiction for a living already, so it’s easier for publishers to take a chance on them.

It’s also clear that memoirs and narratives have a little more leeway on platform. That is, if the writing is compelling or the experience is unique, the platform can be more about book promotion than personal fame. This is similar to platforms for fiction authors, which I’ll get into next week.

I find that many writers are surprised that they need to be “qualified” to publish a book of political views or “extraordinary” to publish a memoir. But how often do you go to the bookstore to buy a memoir of an average citizen’s struggle through high school? If you want to write non-fiction, think about your particular background and strengths, and increase your visibility among the other players in that field.

Dissecting a Debut: Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

I’d like to introduce what I hope will be a regular feature here at Lamplight & Ink: Dissecting a Debut. These posts will be similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

I’ve been on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately, working my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original serials. So it’s probably no surprise that I was drawn to this particular debut novel, Secret Letters by Leah Scheier, which follows the adventures of Dora Joyce, who has reason to believe that her biological father is the Sherlock Holmes.

Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

Genre: YA Mystery
Page count: 336
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 9781423124054
Pub Date: 6/26/12
Agent: Irene Kraas
In Brief: Dora accompanies her cousin, who is being blackmailed over old love letters, to see Sherlock Holmes about recovering the letters, and secretly about her mother’s dying message that Holmes is Dora’s true father. But when newspapers reveal that Holmes is dead, Dora takes on the case herself alongside her new detective ally, Peter Cartwright, whose kidnapping case is entwined with Dora’s top blackmail suspect.

 

Sherlock Holmes has been re-cast in fiction so many times he’s practically his own genre. To tackle a new perspective of the famous investigator is perhaps not terribly original in concept, but there’s a certain challenge to breaking in fresh ground on a well-traveled path. Many people have written about Sherlock’s lovers, Sherlock in modern day, Sherlock as an animal, but Sherlock’s daughter, as far as I know, is a completely new character.

If I had come across this novel as a submission, that new take on an old favorite would have piqued my interest from the get go. But Scheier has added to that a pretty complex plot, an excellent YA heroine, a bit of budding romance, and some nice historical touches about manners and propriety in nineteenth-century London.

I appreciate how similar the writing form and the detective work are to the original Sherlock series — it’s clear that Scheier did her homework. But she also truly made it her own. Dora’s character is an eerily observant 14-year-old girl who’s not quite ready to take on life but finds herself knee-deep in it, and like most good YA heroines, she makes some mistakes, gets a little ahead of herself, and in the end understands a little more about the world, and what kind of choices her parents had to make. Scheier wrote a really useful post over at First Novels Club on how to create human heroines.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write a short story where Sherlock Holmes must track down a blackmailer to save a lady’s honor just before her wedding, but the reader never meets the lady in question and the blackmailer is murdered by a former victim before Holmes can steal the letters. This may have been Scheier’s inspiration, but with the added kidnapping plot, the antics of the intriguing and slightly mysterious sidekick, Peter Cartwright, and Dora’s efforts to overcome the secrets of her own past, Secret Letters has a life of its own.

From what I can tell, Scheier does not have an MFA, or a long record of short story publications. She’s a pediatrician who wrote book reviews on her LiveJournal and hid a novel under her bed. She mentions that this book went through a lot of edits once she found an editor, because it was initially written as an adult novel, not YA. Notice that she has crafted her website as a place to promote her book; this self-promotion is key for almost any author now, especially a debut author.

Scheier is working on a sequel to Secret Letters, and she just finished another YA novel set in present-day Baltimore. She’s sets a good example on writing fan-fiction and allowing yourself to be inspired by someone else’s work (be it a book, a painting, a poem) while still making it your own. She was flexible with her editor, and the final product was a well-crafted commercial YA novel.

Should you self-publish your book?

Self-publishing doesn’t seem like such a bad idea lately. Everyone is babbling about what it means and debating whether it’s a good thing, but one thing is for sure: more authors are having better success with self-publishing now than perhaps ever before, and the stigma is going away. Four Smashwords authors made this Sunday’s NYT Bestseller list, hundreds of indie authors are selling 50,000 plus ebook copies, and B&N is making an effort to put print copies of self-published books in their stores.

There are three keys to this success, the first of which is price points. Your average reader, when given a choice between an appealing romance novel that’s $12.99 and an equally appealing romance novel that’s $0.99, is going to buy the cheaper book (or maybe 10 similar cheap books and still spend less than they would if they had bought that one for $12.99). As long you make sure that your book is a contestant, you can win the sale with a low price-point.

That brings me to the next key in self-publishing, which is marketing. If you create a book, get it up on Amazon, and sit back to wait for the sales to roll in, you’ll probably be disappointed. You have to make sure that your target readers know that your book is out there. Get people to write reviews, see what tags are on similar books and tag your book the same way. Go to events and offer to send your book for free to people, so they’ll start talking about it. I’m not a marketing expert, but you see what I’m saying. Once you build a buzz around your book, it will show up on recommended lists.

Self-published authors could do all of this before though, so why now? The big retailers, namely Amazon, are starting to promote self-published authors who follow these rules. Amazon is constantly recommending books in my preferred genres that are self-published, right along with the traditional books. They also have a list of Top 100 Free books on the bottom right of the Books homepage. This list used to be a mix between indie-authors running promotions and public domain books, until last week when Amazon assigned new ASIN numbers to all the public domain books last week, pushing them to the bottom of the list. (Hint, Hint, if you were thinking about running a free promotion, now’s the magic window before the public domain books start gaining momentum again.)

So, should you self-publish your book? Consider that you need to find a vendor for each step in the process: editing, typesetting, file conversion, distribution, and sales tracking. You also to market the hell out of it. AND start thinking about the next book. But if it’s the only avenue available to publish, it could be worth it, even if you’re thinking of traditional publishing down to road. Successful self-publishers occasionally draw the attention of traditional publishers, much like E.L. James drew in Random House with the web-success of Fifty Shades of Grey.

On the other hand, traditional publishers handle the business aspects of the book and leave you to the writing. They also do things that are still very difficult for indie-authors to do, like create beautiful covers and paper stock for print products, sell translated copies overseas, and cover the author’s expenses with an advance until the book starts earning royalties. For more insight, check out indie-author Joann Penn’s post on why she decided to  go the traditional route for her next book: Why I Signed With A New York Literary Agent.

I’m not going to suggest that one way of publishing is better or worse. Self-publishing seems to work well for people who want to publish something for a local community, people who are very entrepreneurial, and people who have been repeatedly dismissed by traditional publishing. Traditional publishing is changing and adapting to the digital age; it may gain some insight from the self-publishing phenomenon, but it’s still an ideal option for writers who want to focus on their writing.