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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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.