Posts Tagged blogging
Book marketing, self-publishing – and should you seek a publisher? All the fun of the London Book Fair 2013
Last week I was one of Kobo’s writers in residence at the London Book Fair. Several of the questions I was asked reminded me that every day, writers are trying to grasp this new publishing world. I thought it might be helpful to post their FAQs.
Should I post samples of my book on my blog to tempt people to buy?
You could, but you don’t need to. The ebook stores offer a sample of the beginning before readers buy. Here are two other things I do.
- I use the eye-catching animated widget from Bookbuzzr (here’s Nail Your Novel).
- I also have an audio file of the first 4 chapters of my novel – 35 minutes of listening, perfect for a commute. It’s either downloadable (hosted as a file in Google Docs) or there’s an immediate-play version on Soundcloud.
Should I make a print edition?
If you’re going to meet readers in real life, yes. For my talk, I’d brought along print copies. When I pulled them out of my bag, the reaction was immediate and adoring, as if they were fluffy kittens. Even from the Kobo staff. People picked the books up, flicked through the pages, stroked the spine, read the back (spine and back covers are as important as front). I was amazed, actually, at how much impact a print edition makes.
I have a post here about interior formatting, but it’s quite a faff if you’re not used to it. Which leads me to…
If your book is traditionally published, the publisher does a lot of jobs you’re probably not aware of. Developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, design of cover and interior, typesetting and ebook formatting. It’s a growing business to offer these services to indie authors, so The Alliance of Independent Authors has released Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013, with testimonials and warnings where necessary. Before you part with any money, get this book.
What can I do to market my book?
The guys at the KDP stand reported that this year’s number one question was ‘why isn’t my book selling’? (Some writers were ruder than that. I saw a furious lady collar an Amazonian and growl: ‘I have five books on KDP, what are you going to do about selling them?’. If Amazon starts offering marketing services, don’t wail that they’re evil. They get asked about it day in, day out. And it’s very unfair to blame them for it. They just give you the space to use.)
Amazon had some sensible replies: get a stand-out cover, choose categories wisely, write a cracking blurb, get honest reviews, generate curiosity about your work. And (the representative said this with an embarrassed cough): make sure the book is good.
More on marketing
Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre (on Twitter as @MarkLeslie) gave a rousing presentation on writers connecting with readers. One method was ‘street teams’. Remember The Tufty Club? These days, post-Tufty writers are inviting fans to join dedicated sites and giving away special editions, tie-in jewellery, bags and temporary tattoos. If it fits your genre (I can’t quite imagine a red piano tattoo myself) you could make up a few as competition giveaways.
Another tactic Mark described was authors who band together as a bigger presence. Group blogs in a genre such as Crime Fiction Collective, author collectives (such as Triskele Books and Authors Electric) curated collections such as the League of Extraordinary Authors). And of course there are themed blogs like my Undercover Soundtrack.
One of the takeaways is that marketing isn’t one-shot. It’s about staying visible, steadily and sustainably. As with the editorial and production services, there are a lot of marketing companies who’ll take authors’ money for campaigns, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t need a big budget to keep your work on the radar, you just need imagination and likeminded souls. Paid advertising and publicity has its place but there’s a lot you can do yourself.
Let readers pre-order your book
Did you know Kobo lets you create a page for pre-orders? I didn’t. Why would you do this? Because when the book launches, you then get a big spike of sales because they all process on the same day. This pushes you further up the charts and makes you more visible in the Kobo store. Now, if I can just get my blurb written for Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life…
BTW I changed my Twitter name
If you follow my writing advice stream you might have noticed I changed my handle from @DirtyWhiteCandy to @NailYourNovel. @DirtyWhiteCandy was the original name of my blog. I kept it as my Twitter name because I liked its bossy vibe, but as the years go on, fewer people would know (or care) where it came from and if people are looking for writing advice they’d be more likely to follow a tweep called @NailYourNovel. These days, indie author-publishers are looking smart and slick, rather than roguishly maverick. So, much as I liked the @DirtyWhiteCandy story and sass, it has to go.
FAQ: Should I submit to publishers and agents or should I self-publish?
Hmm. Sound of teeth being sucked. Look back over this post and you’ll see the amount of work involved in publishing. You don’t just write a book, upload and hope the fairies tell the world. You need expert help to create it and you need partners to spread the word. Publishers and agents can be your allies if the deal is right.
One of the highlights for many was the heaving turnout at the Author Lounge in the digital quarter. Every author event was swarming with eager listeners. Authors report overhearing agents muttering about tumbleweed blowing through the foreign rights section, while on the upstart digital stands, all was abuzz.
But don’t be misled. In our own corner authors were calling the shots, but the rest of the conference told a different story.
1: Neil Gaiman
On the Sunday before the main fair, there was the Digital Minds Conference. The keynote speech was given by Neil Gaiman. I have to wonder what the delegates were meant to learn from him about digital media.
LBF’s press releases made much of the fact that he blogs and has a lot of Twitter followers. But, my friends, that’s because he was traditionally published. The publishers may have lauded themselves for inviting an author to tell them the way ahead, but they chose one who reinforces their faith in the old model. Even in his struggling years, Gaiman wasn’t like most new authors, writing books on spec while having another job. He was a contractor at DC Comics, getting paid while he made the work that made his name. In fact, why didn’t they ask JK Rowling, who famously lived hand to mouth while writing?
Better still, their figurehead could have been a bestselling indie author who made their success purely from publishing’s new digital tools. Hugh Howey, anybody? Instead they had Gaiman comparing publishing with a dandelion, throwing seeds out haphazardly and seeing what works.
2: Ahem – monstrous storytelling
Elsewhere at the Fair, the authors weren’t getting much credit. I went to the session on digital storytelling. This featured a panel of publishers and developers, but no actual storytellers – the authors.
One of the panel members, Henry Volans of Faber Digital, wrote an accompanying piece for the Bookseller, in which he mentioned Dave’s Frankenstein app. He credited it to the publisher, Profile Books, and the developer, Inkle. He never mentioned Dave, the author. Now, forgive the personal bias but I hope you’ll see it illustrates a wider point. Dave had the entire idea. He pitched it to Profile, figured out how to make it work, reenvisioned and expanded the entire novel to the tune of 150,000 words. (Here are his posts in case you’re curious: part 1, 2 and 3.) The developer (Inkle) was hired by the publisher to add software and graphics. The reader’s experience comes mainly from the writing, not the pictures or the machinery.
After yet another pundit wrote about Frankenstein and gave all the credit to Profile and the developer, Dave quipped on Twitter: ‘I very much enjoy Amazon’s Wool and Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter.’
Back to the Book Fair
Just two examples, but they betray a general attitude. In an era of revolutions, who gives publishers hope? Somebody who’s conquered the new world? No, a lovable demi-god of the old one. Who might tell them what new products the book might evolve into? The people who understand readers so well they can push the artform onwards? No, the middle men.
Authors still aren’t seen as significant contributors to the industry. And this is reflected in the deals publishers offer. They know you’re far more heavily invested in your book than they are and they’ll take unforgivable advantage. They’ll word the contract with woolly clauses that say ‘at our discretion’ and ‘in our opinion’, which mean they can do whatever they like with your rights and your manuscript. They’ll help you with the launch for a couple of weeks, after which you’ll be as alone as if you’d self-published, only you’ll make even less money. Leaving aside the emotional attachment, they have no idea that the work you put in on the average book probably amounts to two man years, and their contribution is a few man months.
Just tell me, should I seek a publisher?
I still think if you’re new to the industry you should query, because you never know what opportunities you might find. You might get feedback that helps you make the book better, or confirms you’re ready to reach out to the market in whatever way suits you.
An agent is probably more help to you at the moment than a publisher. Even if they don’t get you a deal, it’s a contact in the industry, should you need it. But also consider the agent’s motivation. They’re not risk-takers or talent-nurturers. They want you to make a deal, otherwise they don’t get paid. You might get an offer that looks like quite a lot of money, but it might be all you see and the terms might be punitive.
Publishers at the moment don’t seem to be worth the bother. Smart authors can do better for themselves, but this can’t continue. For a while, publishers will bluster on, trying to keep things the way they are. But in a few years’ time, they might be offering true partnerships and fair, transparent deals.
Bottom line? Explore all your options. Treat publishers like any other partnership or service you might use. Evaluate what they will do for you and what you will give them. Self-publishing offers you a powerful walk-away point, which you can use as a bargaining chip even if you want a traditional deal.
Thanks to everyone who dropped in to see me at LBF! If this post hasn’t bludgeoned you with options and confusion, is there anything else you’d like to ask about publishing?
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The files that make up this blog post are a twinkle in a data farm somewhere in the US. My books are too, blades of virtual grass in the electronic territories of KDP, Smashwords, Kobo and On-Demand Publishing. (If that’s already fried your brain, Daniel Marvello will no doubt save us with a comment that makes sense of it all, and straighten out my assumptions.)
We publish everywhere our language can be read. I’m sure most of the commenters here aren’t from the UK. So I’m quite amused to be invited to A Very British Blog Tour, which aims to celebrate authors from our small isles and pin down whether our national characteristics influence our work. I never even thought about what those were; I simply wrote. Anyway, do drop in for a cup of Earl Grey.(You don’t have to drink it.)
And out of curiosity, tell me: where are you reading this blog?
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Sorry, you got two trailer posts from me today. It’s my turn at Authors Electric, where I’m wondering how relevant SEO is for fiction writers and readers.
It all started when I saw a link to a post on Problogger which advised bloggers to stop running guest posts with a lot of links because of new Google algorithms. Undercover Soundtrack host, please note. This led to a fun, fulminating conversation with Facebook friends Cyd Madsen, Vivienne Tuffnell and Beth Rudetsky about tails wagging dogs. But getting our work discovered is a real issue for writers, and at Authors Electric I’m wondering how that’s done. Come over and join the debate.
(Thanks for the pic Daveynin)
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Everyone’s writing prediction posts right now. I wouldn’t have dared, except the website On Fiction Writing asked what I thought might happen in the industry in the next five years.
Obviously writers can’t be oblivious to what’s going on in publishing, but if you look at what’s changed in the past two years, do we have a hope of predicting anything with accuracy? Anyway, who would trust the predictions of anyone who makes things up for a living? Worlds, economies, social movements roll out of our imagination to suit whatever story we want to tell. (And I see they put my interview next to a novel called The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Adorable cover anyway.)
The only certainties I can predict – for myself and for other writers in 2013 – are these.
- I will need to weigh up several new social media environment and decide if they’re worth the effort. I will need to remind myself that once upon a time I was scornful of Twitter, Facebook and even – gasp – blogging.
- I’ll need to embrace at least one new platform for publishing, on a device that I don’t see the need for. I will have to remind myself that putting Nail Your Novel on Kindle turned out to be a brilliant move.
- I’ll never decide what’s worthwhile unless I have help – which I will probably find by firing off a tweet or a Facebook post to all you guys.
- I’ll get stuck on the novel I’m writing, and when I think all is irretrievably lost the answer will fall effortlessly onto the page. (I talk about writer’s block in my interview, in case you’re wrestling too.)
- I’ll discover several writers whose work contains such insight, I will not know how I did without them (I talk about favourite writers too)
Predictions aside, I’m also talking about self-publishing, publishers developing new roles as partners for indies, finding readers – and ghostwriting. Do join me there and if you’re in a predictive frame of mind, leave a comment here with conjectures, projections and outright fabrications and fantasies for writers in 2013.
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Are you fed up with established, old-school-published writers complaining about self-publishing bloggers in the national press? I think it’s time we celebrated the well-informed, curious, generous, adventurous, innovative, pioneering, rule-busting community we’ve built with all our blogs, websites, podcasts, Facebook groups etc. If you think so too, come over to Authors Electric, where I’m posting today, and say ‘aye’.
(Or if that’s a click too far, say it here )
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I’ve had an email from writer/poet Philippa Rees , who is weighing up whether to use CS or LS for her book. Dave and I have published with both for a number of years, so here’s what we’d say from personal experience…
Philippa: My book is a poetic history of scientific thought. It’s a dip-in-and-return work, most likely to be read in print (although I will put it out as an ebook too). I have seen some VERY amateurish CS-designed books, fairly dire, and some acceptable ones.
Eek, I take it you’re referring to the covers?
CS offers templates for covers and urges you to use them, but I recommend you don’t. For one thing, they’re familiar enough that they yell ‘CreateSpace!’ to anyone who’s been on the CS site. Not that there’s any stigma, but you want your cover to yell about your book, not the company whose rather recognisable template you used.
You don’t have to use CS templates. You can upload a PDF, created by any package you want, either by yourself or a designer, so long as you leave space for their barcode and calculate the correct spine width from your page count. They give you an easy help page to get this all right – and indeed they have excellent help resources in the CS Community.
Although covers may look easy, if you don’t have experience, please, please use a designer. Your book is intended to be taken seriously and it needs a cover to do your words justice. The wrong design, even if it looks nice to you, might send the wrong message to readers. If you’re prioritising what to budget for this is a one-time investment that will do your book endless good.
So far, I’ve designed my own covers, but if I found I was out of my depth (which is extremely likely with my next novel) here’s where I’d look.
- 99 Designs – a design site that lets you host a competition to find the ideal designer for your book. Post your requirements and budget and professional designers will pitch for it. You only pay if you commission a suggestion.
- Smashwords has a list of cover designers that other Smashwords authors have used and would recommend, both for ebooks and for print – email email@example.com and ask for ‘Mark’s list’ (that’s Mark Coker,the very approachable inventor of Smashwords).
- The Book Designer – fantastic site by design veteran Joel Friedlander. He holds monthly book design competitions, so you can browse and find a designer whose work hits your sweet spot. He also writes some of the help entries on the CS site, though he’s not affiliated with them. He’s just a generous-spirited, knowledgeable guy.
When talking to a designer, make sure they know the book will be print on demand. POD processes sometimes don’t crop a book straight, or line up the spine precisely – so you need a design to forgive that kind of error.
Interior design CS also provides a Word template for the interior. Dave tried it, and while it was quick to use and saves you worrying about page sizes and margins, it has glitches. For instance, it insisted on an ‘acknowledgements’ page and when he tried to delete it everything else went haywire. But again, you can upload your interior on a PDF – and that way you have complete control.
Dave and I create our book covers and interiors on Serif PagePlus – much cheaper than the top-end packages like Adobe InDesign, and more versatile than Word. Here’s my post on formatting the interior of My Memories of a Future Life. It’s fiddly, but if it gives you an attack of the vapours, freelance designers can do it for you.
Europe, Australia etc
Philippa: I understand Amazon is difficult about stocking books put out by LS, yet LS may be better for distribution to Europe and Australia.
We’ve frequently found our Amazon listings for LS books are quoted as out of stock or ‘available in six weeks’, for no reason. When queried, Amazon reply that they get the data from the supplier. The supplier said the book was available. In fact, when you do order, the books arrive as fast as any other book. But buyers don’t know this. The same used to happen when I published Nail Your Novel with Lulu.
Pause a moment to growl and stomp.
Initially, LS gets books to the European Amazon sites more quickly. When you approve for press, the cover artwork goes up within a week. With CS, books go to Amazon.com immediately but expanded distribution to the UK site and further takes a good two weeks, sometimes more.
Some writers make CS editions to sell on Amazon, and LS editions for other channels. I’m not sure about the logic of that because once the book is up it’s up.
You make more profit per copy on LS than you do on CS, but LS charges setup fees – GBP£42 to set up each title, and a handsome hourly fee to give you proof copies. If you want to make changes on LS books that can get you into more expense and if there’s something wrong with your files they’ll charge you while they fret about it. As their PDF requirements are a lot more strict than CS, you could find yourself spending a lot of time and cash if you’re new to this.
CS don’t have any hidden charges. Proof copies don’t cost any more than ordinary copies. However, CS quotes long shipping times (6 weeks) in the hope you’ll stump up for express shipping – especially if you’re eager to get your proof. Ignore those quotes and get the cheap option – it’s never taken anything like 6 weeks for me to receive a proof copy.
Advance review copies
Philippa: I plan to print pre-publication copies to get (and then add) endorsements for the final edition.
As I said, proofs cost you dear on LS. So I’d set up a rough ARC edition either on CS or Lulu, where proofs are cheaper. Then if you’re still keen on LS, save your proofing budget for the final, sparkling copy. If you want to stick with CS, changes are easy – upload a new PDF, wait a day or two and check the proof either on line or order a copy.
Don’t try to do without a hard proof copy entirely. Margins in the printed book may not look as you expect. Cropping can make cover proportions look totally different. Colours can look sludgy or gaudy in the flesh, even if the PDF looked luscious.
Use Amazon Marketplace
Do you know Amazon Marketplace? Individuals can sell anything that’s on the Amazon database. A lot of people use it to resell secondhand books, but authors often use them to offload surplus contractual copies and online shops also sell that way. I have a stock of my CS books and put them on Amazon Marketplace to fill supply gaps, for instance -
- - for limbo days when my print copies are unavailable because I’ve updated the cover or interior.
- - for distributing my books to people who are outside the usual Amazon areas; if people contact me saying they can’t get my book, I direct them to Marketplace or sell them a copy directly using Paypal.
Philippa: What about the tax issue for a non US writer publishing with CS?
As with Kindle, CS deducts 30% from your earnings unless you send an exemption form, for which you need a US tax code. Here’s how you get it. I’d advise you sort the paperwork before you start selling, as CS can’t refund you the tax. You have to apply to the IRS, which by all accounts is like shutting your eyes and wishing really hard.
Phillipa: What’s CS service like?
I’ve been pleased so far. Their support team are quick to answer questions, and patient with what must be moronic queries. Mind you, I haven’t had any real problems, which is usually the acid test. Dave had mighty problems with a graphic novel he was producing with LS, and found their UK help people were clueless and obstructive. But that was a full-colour book with high-resolution graphics. With straightforward text we’ve had no problems.
Is the Amazon connection with CS a genuine benefit?
Undoubtedly. As we’ve seen, it seems to be ‘easier’ to keep a CS title in stock.
I find my CS titles regularly get promoted in ‘three-for-two’ offers (see pic) – especially Nail Your Novel. It gets offered with other top-selling writing titles – priceless promotion that you couldn’t buy. This never happened – ever – when my print edition of Nail Your Novel was on Lulu.
Philippa: My book is probably the most unmarketable book ever written. I believe it will have a market but it will be up to me to find it. Do you know of anyone who has signed up for CS ‘marketing’ help?
I don’t, and I’d like to hear from people who have. But I would be wary of standard packages, especially for unusual works such as yours. Expert help is always worth paying for, but it has to be the right expert.
What works for one book won’t work for another – as I know from the vastly different experiences of marketing an offbeat novel starting from a writing advice platform! To be honest, I’m still guessing – I’m soaking up lessons from novelists who have marketed successfully but the less easily you fit a widely read genre, the fewer equivalents you have. Bide your time, understand who your audience is, and find out how similar writers have reached theirs. If an expert for marketing your book is out there, one day you’ll trip over them.
And – good luck!
Any further questions? Share them in the comments! And comment if you have any further answers, or particularly if you want to set something straight
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Yesterday I discussed why an author might not want to self-host their blog and how to make the best of platform-hosted blogging. But many authors strongly advocate self-hosting – so today I’m going to ask two of them why.
First up is author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna has built a formidable following among writers who want to take charge of their publishing careers and make the best of what the internet can offer. She also develops multimedia courses and she’s hit the bestseller lists with her two thrillers.
Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.
You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?
Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.
How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.
How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.
My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.
Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:
- You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
- You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
- You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.
Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost?
The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.
How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.
I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.
Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.
This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).
How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.
Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.
Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!
If you are thinking of upgrading to a bespoke theme, you might like this by Dan Blank – How I redesigned my website.
Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)
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There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?
Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.
In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.
You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?
Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.
Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.
With freedom comes responsibility
The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)
The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.
Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.
But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.
Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:
- use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
- optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
- use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.
Buy a URL
I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.
Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…
How did you start?
‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’
What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?
‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)
‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’
What about SEO?
‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’
Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…
- Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
- Get your own URL
- Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
- Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
- Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.
If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.
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Let me phrase this another way. Look at the kind of novel you’re writing now. Look at the way it might be marketed – perhaps by a traditional publisher, perhaps by your own efforts as an indie. In five years’ time, will you be playing with the same ideas, treading the same themes? Writing the same genre, perhaps the same kind of characters?
If the answer is no, you definitely need a platform.
Traditionally in publishing, writers get tied to one genre. Careers are built in pigeonholes, set up by editors and marketers. That’s not surprising; it’s their job to decide where you fit in a bookshop, not to nurture your long-term art. After that, publishers want broadly similar works from you, a row of books like a matching set of table mats.
Actually, the readers want that too. A Big Six editor I know was telling me recently that [author of phenomenally big series] wanted to try a new direction. (Yes, those brackets are frightfully coy. Sorry.) She was disappointed to find her fans didn’t buy her ‘departure’ novel. It seems they wanted only [coyly bracketed phenomenally big series].
But look at the music industry. Musicians aren’t expected to stay the same. Their fans are far more forgiving when an artiste evolves. Writers, though, don’t get away with it. Why? Because we hide behind our disembodied words, or only emerge in targeted publicity campaigns built like DVD extras around our books. The books build the readership.
No room to hide
Of course, our books are what matters. But it seems there’s a danger in letting them do all the talking. It’s even worse if you leave platform-building to someone else, because they become the intermediary between your work and the world. Which might paint you into a very tiny corner.
Building a platform is an extra job. It doesn’t come easily to everyone. Ironically, it’s the genre authors who find it simplest – mainly because there are well defined templates to follow, established groups to hang out with. But if you’re not easily pigeonholed, you need it even more. You need to show people who you are under the books, where you go exploring for ideas. That relationship will keep readers with you when you venture to new places.
Writers now have a fantastic tool to own our creative identity. We can now be like the musicians who aren’t damned for developing or for reinventing ourselves – and indeed are respected for it.
If you know you will always be adding new tools to your repertoire, be stirred by new influences, will change the ways you seek escape and enlightenment – hell, if you might just get older and wiser, you need to build a platform.
It is your ticket to creative freedom.
Thanks for the pic Thuany Gabriela
Tiny bit of news. My Memories of a Future Life was nominated for an award at Underground Book Reviews last month – and I’ve just discovered it won a Reader’s Choice award. If you helped by giving it a vote, thank you very much
Do you think platform is just for one kind of writer and not another? Do you resent having to do it? Do you embrace it? And what are you doing to build it (assuming you are not about to leave a comment screaming ‘NOOOOOOO’)
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‘Keep this anecdote,’ I said. ‘Write it down.’
‘Pah it’s just a dream,’ she said. ‘I was also inspired by this strange thing that happened to a friend…’
‘Write that down too,’ I said.
She thought I was mad, and no doubt you do too. But there will come a time when you will be scratching for things to say about your book and you need something beyond a story summary or a sketch of your main characters.
I first realised this years ago at a friend’s book launch. I’d just finished My Memories of a Future Life and I got chatting to a publisher. I gave my prepared spiel and he nodded eagerly, wanting more. I’d run out of pitch, so I bumbled on about my favourite bits, aware that I was getting obscure, but I was so mired in the book I couldn’t see it as an outsider. What I needed was a crisp anecdote or two to keep him relating to it – perhaps about its influences or what inspired it. (He still asked to see it, though, so no harm done.)
Publicity is a long game of guest posts, interviews and maybe personal appearances. (At the moment, Dave is gearing up for the launch of his Frankenstein book app, and is grappling with interview questions. ‘What on earth do I tell all these people?’ he frequently says to me. ‘I thought it was enough to just write the story.’)
Blah blah blah
There’s only so much you can say about the novel without giving spoilers. And you’re going to be asked the same questions time and again about the writing of it, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same answers. In fact, you shouldn’t. In each case you might reach a new audience, but the chances are, readers will see you several times before they decide to check you out. The more different – but congruent – stories you can tell about your book, the richer it will seem and the more ways you have to reel readers in. And the less you’ll bore everyone, including yourself.
And people who like stories also like stories about stories. I recently added an ‘inspired by’ anecdote to my Amazon listing for My Memories of a Future Life and sales have trebled. This experimental sample of just one seems to prove somethingorother.
The very best are specific but don’t give too much away. It could be
- novels that influenced it
- favourite fictional characters that spurred you to write it
- real-life experiences that fed into it – anything that gives you an insider view of the subject or events
- real-life people who inspired it or helped with research – although be careful of libel
- issues the novel raises
Or it could be something left field, like my series The Undercover Soundtrack on the red blog, where writers tell a tale about their book in the context of music that inspired them while writing.
But thinking of all this stuff – unless someone gives you a specific exercise like my Undercover Soundtracks – is time consuming. And, depending on how complex your novel is, you may not be able to name all its influences at the drop of a hat. I’m still becoming aware of forgotten seeds for both of mine. They emerge by chance in conversations, revisited films and novels I dimly remember. Now I realise I might have a use for these insights, every time I stumble on another, I write it down.
Keep your stories about your stories. You’ll be surprised how easily they’ll slip your mind, but they’re as useful to you as the ideas in the actual novel itself. And you’ll never have enough.
Thanks for the pic Ben Chau
Do you have a tale about your novel? If you can tell it briefly, the floor is yours…
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- Why fiction characters matter and how we make them memorable – video and podcast with Joanna Penn
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- When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay
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