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Social media are an inextricable part of author life these days – and for some, the value seems dubious. Writers might flog themselves to blog, tweet until they turn blue, but months in, the magic hasn’t happened. Where are the book deals, the viral quantities of fame? Is it worth all the trouble?
I am here to tell you it is. But you may be looking at the wrong things, or have mistaken expectations. Social media have been an absolute transforming force for me, and if the channels were closed tomorrow I’d be howling for their return. So I thought I’d quantify the ways I’ve found it so worthwhile.
Quick background. I’ve been on social media since 2009. My major haunts are Twitter @Roz_Morris and Facebook. And I blog, obvs. I probably get most of my results from those platforms as they’re where I’m most consistently active, but I also have profiles in the outer reaches of Linked In, G+, Pinterest and Tumblr (see my sidebar).
Building useful contacts
Networking is, of course, the number one aim. Like all professionals, we make our luck by bumping into the right person. Unless you’re born into a clan of literati, you have to build your own black book. Before social media, that came mainly from real-time encounters – book launches, writing groups, courses, conferences. Now we can strike up relationships without being on a guest list. On the internet, a cat can look at a queen (and will probably be photographed doing so).
And it’s much easier to keep our contacts warm. Quick DMs, text messages, Facebook posts are much less effort than letters, emails or – gulp – face-to-face coffee. Indeed, as most of us perform better on the page than at a party, written encounters probably allow us to be more genuine.
But Roz, you might say. What about the numbers? We might have thousands of friends and followers, and thousands we befriend and follow. Setting aside the times we might use social media just because the contact is fun, is it working for our careers? In that clamour, is anyone actually getting anywhere?
I can only speak for myself, of course. But I know this: my career under my own byline has been entirely generated from social media (if that sentence makes no sense, here’s an explanation). Because I blog, tweet etc, I have sold enough books to make it worth writing more; been offered paying jobs, speaking gigs, editing work and spots on online courses; found supporters among influential figures in the writing and publishing world. And I’ve met fantastic people who have become more than colleagues.
Social media work. But for most of us, the results are best measured in annular rings, not by weeks or months. But look back several years and you start to see a big change.
(Of course, much comes down to how you use it. What to blog about? This post has some ideas.)
But there are other benefits too, and you don’t have to wait for them to mature.
Social media helps create a work environment
Non-freelances ask me how I stay motivated if I don’t go to an office. I think they imagine I’m running amok watching Breaking Bad or surfing eBay or strolling to the shops or idling away an afternoon with my horse. Personally I’m too much of an obsessive to skive, but if you are too tempted by the distractions of home, social media can create a circle of colleagues to keep you accountable. On Facebook and Twitter, if you look, there are plenty of writers sharing their milestones or their to-do lists. They just finished a draft. Got edits back. Wrote or approved a press release. Signed up for a course. It’s like mini-Nanowrimo community, except you can use it year-round, 24/7.
If you know how to set up lists on Twitter and Facebook, you can assemble a posse of virtual team-mates whose work ethic will spur you to achieve. (And then make a separate list of people to hobnob with in downtime.)
Social media are a tool for book research
Somewhere, one of your contacts (or perhaps more than one) can verify a snippet of research or point you to a trustworthy source. Of course, you might also get misinformed nonsense, but hopefully you’ll have enough contacts for a reality check.
Social media are a resource for reliable advice on publishing, whether traditional or indie
Thanks to social media, the author corps 2016 is a savvy beast. We’re more clued up about fair book deals. We have our eyes open about the pitfalls and pleasures of the many publishing routes. We have access to fantastic watchdogs like Victoria Strauss, the Alliance of Independent Authors. Other terrific places for advice are Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer and Jane Friedman – generous, knowledgeable professionals who are raising the general level of publishing knowledge for everyone’s benefit.
But there are so many platforms…
Well you don’t have to do all of them. Which platforms should you choose? I only know what works for me, so put these questions to social media expert Adam Waters in this edition of my radio show.
Although social media might seem ephemeral, they are actually permanent. Years on, you might feel a twitch on a thread, and hook a new person.
Over to you. What social media platforms do you like? How do you use them? What works for you and what doesn’t? If you look back over the long term, what have social media helped you accomplish? Any questions? Let’s consult the hive mind.
First of all, why?
An author name is a brand, of course, and traditional publishing has a long history of strategic pseudonymery. Names or initials might make a writer sound more exciting, more serious, more like an already famous author (JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin, anyone?). Androgynous names might do you favours if your readership is gender sensitive. A new surname might put you at a more visible part of the bookshelves or next to giants of your genre (George RR Martin again).
Even a change of nationality might send interesting signals to the reader. Earlier this year I was at an event with Sophie Schmidt, head of author relations and marketing at Epubli, and she told me that German erotica authors often choose English pseudonyms. More tea, vicar?
Multiple identities for separate markets
Deborah Swift (@Swiftstory) has published four historical novels under the name Deborah Swift, and one novel, Past Encounters, under the name Davina Blake (here’s her Undercover Soundtrack). ‘I use a pen-name for Past Encounters because it has a narrower focus, being a close study of two relationships. My publisher was not keen on me changing to a more modern genre (WWII), and rejected the book. I did not want to go through a long submission process, so I self-published to be available for the 70th anniversary of the filming of Brief Encounter and the bombing of Dresden which feature in the story. I thought Past Encounters would attract a different kind of reader, and this has proved to be the case.’
Do you always need to separate yourself so much? Maybe, maybe not. Read on.
Conflict with professional role – a tale of two doctors
Wolf Pascoe (@WolfPascoe) is an anaesthetist as well as a poet and playwright, and you might have seen the Undercover Soundtrack for his poetic memoir, Breathing For Two. ‘I decided in writing about anesthesia to use a pen name for patient confidentiality. Of course, I don’t use real patient names, and I take pains to change any identifying details, but I wanted an extra layer of security. Also, as I’m still practising, I didn’t want there to be a chance that I’d encounter a new patient who might worry I’d be writing about them in the future. And finally, I’d rather not have my hospital knowing about my writing activities — this gives me more freedom to say what I want to say about the medical establishment without fear of retribution.’
In the opposite corner, though, is Carol Cooper (@DrCarolCooper) (also an Undercover Soundtracker). Carol writes parenting books, fiction, tabloid journalism – and practises medicine – all under her real name. ‘From time to time, I’ve been advised to use a pseudonym for different types of writing. After all, I still see patients and teach medical students, so I need to be taken seriously. But my name is part of me, part of my brand. In the distant past I’ve used jokey pen names like Saffron Walden and Cherry Hinton, and written a column pseudonymously as a nurse called Rosemary Sharpe, but nowadays I want potential readers to find me.’
But these days… is there anywhere to hide?
In these superconnected times, a pseudonym is easily busted. Kristen Lamb makes some good points here about the realities of using pen names, particularly if you’re trying to keep your writing activities secret.
Basically, the internet will outsmart you. Real-life friends will innocently post pictures of you on Facebook, and even if they don’t think to tag you, Facebook’s facial recognition software will prompt them to. People who know you as two names may use the wrong one at an inappropriate moment because they didn’t know it was important to keep the distinction.
The double-named life has lighthearted challenges too. Elizabeth Spann Craig (@ElizabethSCraig) who writes three cosy mystery series, one under the pen name Riley Adams, was on a book tour and didn’t notice a bookstore employee calling out ‘Riley? Riley?’ until she was prodded by another author on the tour. Then you have to form an autograph in the alternate name: ‘My signature for the Riley Adams name is appallingly indecipherable…and I had to buy a book or two when I accidentally signed stock with the wrong name.’
Selfpublishing under more than one name = multiple accounts?
On Amazon this isn’t too tricky. KDP and CreateSpace allow you to associate your real account with any pen names you want, so all the revenues can flow to you. There’s no need to set up separate bank accounts. Kobo allows you to enter any name you like in the author field when you upload a book.
Smashwords, however, can’t accommodate more than one author name on a standard account. It offers an upgrade for publishers, agents and other bodies who might want to publish more than one author. Notes are here.
What about social media?
Now this is where the double life becomes a strain.
Elizabeth Spann Craig: ‘There are only so many hours in the day for us to promote our books. After a few mistakes, including Facebook and Twitter accounts under the pen name, I decided to promote as myself. I mentioned my pseudonym and other series in my bios. On social media sites and in my newsletters, I direct readers to my website, which lists buy-links for both series.’
Deborah Swift: ‘I have two Twitter accounts and two websites. It also helps me when networking with other independent authors if I am clear that Davina Blake is an independent author, whereas Deborah Swift is not. In a sense, the boundaries are artificial, but they help me maintain a more honest relationship with my readers and with other authors.’
Wolf Pascoe: ‘Both Wolf and real-me have Facebook accounts. This is against Facebook rules. I probably should have just had an author page for Wolf, but I’ve left it that way for now. I have a regular Google account for both real me and Wolf. This is probably also against the rules. I don’t really take the rules of corporations seriously.’
A tale of two Twit(ter)s
I’ve messed about with multiple Twitter identities myself. When I launched my first novel, I decided I had to keep my fiction identity separate from the writing tutor identity. I wasn’t using a different name, but I was aware I might have two distinct audiences. This was the post where I explained the grand plan. Note the updates from 2014, when I finally decided it was too much. When I returned to just one Twitter handle for both strands of my writing life, the firmament didn’t crack.
Times change. Readers are now more interested in the real people behind author names. Might pseudonyms be less necessary or more necessary than ever? And why?
John Dugdale recently wrote in the Guardian about a decline in the use of pseudonyms. On the one hand we have Robert Galbraith very famously unmasked as JK Rowling. On the other, we have Jeanette Winterson (among others) venturing into new quarters of publishing that, in years gone by, might have been cause to launch with a new name. Today they’re flying as their undiluted selves.
Elizabeth Spann Craig: I think it depends on your motive. Some choose pen names because they’re concerned about upsetting family with their content and they want to be completely anonymous. This approach can be especially tough since discoverability depends so much on online interaction between author and reader. But I think pseudonyms can still have their uses — especially if we explore other genres and our dedicated reader base might be resistant to something strikingly different.’ (Indeed, since this interview, Elizabeth has released her first cosy zombie book as Liz Craig.)
Elizabeth again: ‘The last thing we want to do is create more work for ourselves. If we’re absolutely sure we need a pen name, and we already wrote under a different name, we can limit the social media in the pseudonym’s handle. But if you’re starting out fresh as an author and are only writing under a pen name, it will be easier to have extensive social media platforms for the name. In that case, the only problem for the author who wishes to be anonymous may be the author picture – also a vital part of online presence.’
Some writers find that a separate identity has other benefits too. Here’s Wolf Pascoe again: ‘It’s fun being Wolf. I like Wolf Pascoe as a name better than my real name. But I had a sort of reputation as a poet and playwright as real me, and starting over as Wolf writing narrative, I may have lost some career momentum. This was a drag. Also, I had originally used Wolf’s name when I started blogging, and thought it might free me up to be more open about my darkness. But enough people know about the connection between Wolf and real me that I’ve had to censor my darkness as Wolf, just as I would as real me. On the other hand, Wolf will occasionally say lighter things that I wouldn’t, so in that sense, it’s been freeing. At some point in the future, when I stop practising medicine, I’ll probably make the connection between the two names more public.’
One becomes two; two become one. Has the pseudonym ever been so fluid before now?
Thanks to my interviewees Deborah Swift, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Wolf Pascoe and Carol Cooper. And to JenFoxd for the Penguin Superman pic.
Over to you. Have you used, or considered using a pen name, or publishing under more than one name? Do you have any experiences to share or questions you’d like to put? Let’s discuss.
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My guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Press. Hosting him here feels like the satisfying end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’ve had a question from Tina L McWilliams: Besides Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc, a website is obviously essential. But what type? Some writers have simple ones, with their books, an author biography and so forth. Others – you and Joanna Penn included – have ‘education’ sites. Which I love, and return to regularly. (Thanks! Ed) So, could you discuss the importance and the time involved with both?
Why have them at all?
If you’ve got Twitter, Facebook, G+, you’re certainly making good connections. But you’re fitting a limited format with little room to customise. You need a place to invite folks to when they want to know more.
Also, you control your website’s destiny. A social medium might disappear – or your crowd might (MySpace, anyone?). But your site is yours.
How extensive does the site have to be?
If the site’s raison d’etre is to tell people who you are, you don’t need more than a few static pages – about you, your books, contact details. Perhaps a page of upcoming events if you do a lot of these (I don’t so I use social media for this). And voila: a website.
If you add a blog, you get noticed more. Search engines favour sites that are frequently updated. Human visitors like to see they’re on the blog of a person who regularly shows up, and notices when new folks call. There are a lot of dead, forgotten sites out there, so you need to make your site look alive.
Honestly? The ether is choked with sites about writing and publishing.
Here’s a reason not to: being distinctive If you write straightforward posts about ‘show not tell’ you might find it hard to be noticed – and that’s one of our goals, right? So your posts need to be individual. A lot of writers blog about their lessons and mishaps on their writing journey, so you might find it hard to reach further than immediate friends.
Here’s a reason to: getting your material shared If the content is useful or strikes a chord, it’s more likely to be shared. Certainly a lot of people want to learn about writing and publishing. And you might win fans for your gloriously whacky voice (like Chuck Wendig).
But consider this:
Who do you want your content shared with?
Most authors who blog about writing will only reach other writers. That’s fine for me because writing tuition is part of what I do (but it’s not everything – see below). If you’re blogging to help people develop a taste for your fiction? You might be better choosing something else:
- your issues, if your fiction is issues based
- your historical period if appropriate
- other books in your niche
- host other authors (like Jane Davis), campaign for better recognition for indie authors (like Paul Sean Grieve), start a blog series like David Abrams on The Quivering Pen with My First Time or me with The Undercover Soundtrack.
Blogging to promote your fiction? The dilemma for literary authors
I still haven’t sussed this myself. Partly this is because my kind of fiction doesn’t suggest bloggable ‘topics’. One book might deal with, say, musicians, reincarnation and despair (My Memories of a Future Life). Another might feature repressive regimes and ruined country houses (Lifeform Three).
Even so, those aren’t really my ‘subjects’. I can write the odd guest post about them, but not regular blogs. Ever Rest and my embryonic ideas are different again. My signature, if I have one, is thematic: ideas of the soul and memory, conditions of haunting. I have only realised this as I roam about in Novel 3. I could blog about those themes, but it might discharge my need to explore them in the books.
So subject and issues blogging isn’t going to work for me. But it might be good for you.
Make it regular
Your blog needs to look current. So make blogging a regular appointment. Include a calendar so visitors can see the pattern. A list of previous or popular posts will tempt them to stay longer. The longer people stay on your site, the better.
How frequently should you blog?
As often as you find manageable. Experts say that for SEO significance it should be several times a week, but that might exhaust most of us. And think of it from the reader’s perspective. How much time do you have to read blogs, even the ones you love? Once a week is probably plenty to keep you on the radar.
Which brings me to… what I do and how much time I spend.
Why do I have so many sites?
It was an accident, but it seems to work. Each site has a distinct purpose, and they’re all connected to one hub and to each other.
Nail Your Novel
This one you’re reading is my original site. More here about how it started, where you can also see charming screenshots of how my blogs looked in 2011 (eek!).
Post frequency: I put up a writing/publishing post once a week plus a trailer for The Undercover Soundtrack. Plus signposts if I’ve got a guest spot or devilishly exciting news like a launch. Overall, at least 2 posts a week.
Time taken: I can’t just slap a post out. I spend at least 5 hours of cogitating, checking examples to make sure I’m not making idiotic assumptions, finding pics. You don’t have to spend as long if that’s not your style. Later there are comments to answer, shares to acknowledge and other networking to do. Every few months I might tweak the sidebar icons, so that’s another occasional hour or two. I reckon my blog swallows a full day a week – at least. (Is that shocking?)
Post frequency: twice a week. One trailer to introduce my guest, written by me. One Soundtrack post. Although I don’t write these, they take time behind the scenes. I book guests well in advance (as you’ll know if you’ve featured!). When posts come in, I read them, write back with praise (of course!) and quite often ask for tweaks if I think this would make them fit the format better.
Time taken: about 2 hours per week, depending on resubmissions.
How it started: I’d built a blog for writers, but it wasn’t designed for introducing my fiction. When I launched my novel, I worked out a separate profile-building strategy and wrote this post full of bold plans. I reread it just now and added updates for what lasted and what proved daft or impossible to sustain. Mostly the latter. You might find it amusing.
Another reason to have a separate site was to claim the URL. There are several reasons:
- Easier for readers to find in a Google search
- A handy and sensible URL to put on business cards
- Allowed me to create a separate site with artwork in the novel’s livery (if I went self-hosted again I could have done this without making a separate site, but that would have been too disruptive)
- I can transfer it if I want
Roz Morris, author
I got this by accident. I broke the original Nail Your Novel site, so tried WordPress hosting. I found I’d been given a blog called RozMorris, which sat idle before I realised it even existed. Then I decided to use it as a hub for the others.
Time taken: a few hours to set up introductory pages. I’ve added other material gradually as I write it for other purposes – perhaps 20-30 minutes at a time.
Updating when a new book launches I set aside a few hours to add a new page, update pics and the main header, then all the versions of it on my newsletter head, FB page, blog head and sidebar, G+, Twitter biography… I’ve got a master list in my production schedule so I don’t miss anything.
So many sites!
I did warn you. If I was starting now, I’d have one blog and one author site for everything else. But The Undercover Soundtrack became its own entity, and I couldn’t graft Lifeform Three on without breaking it. I also couldn’t leave Lifeform Three as a poor cousin with no presence of its own.
So my web-web is like a house that’s been extended and extended as times change and the family grows. I don’t doubt it looks messy to purists, and especially when explained here. I’m anticipating comments of horror. However, I don’t think readers mind if the navigation is clear. I doubt they notice the different URLs. But they would certainly baulk if they had to learn a different visual grammar each time. Even though the artwork on each site is different, it follows the same core design so they find what they want quickly.
And yes, apologies. This post is a tad late. Because sometimes life gets in the way of blogging.
NEWS I’m thrilled to announce I’m teaching a Guardian Masterclass in advanced self-editing techniques for fiction writers. Of course, London might not be a manageable distance for you, but if it is, here’s where to find out more. And … psst … it’s one of the many good things that have happened because once upon a time, I started a blog.
Do you have a blog, a website or both? How much time do you spend on them? Do you want to suggest a way for me to streamline mine? Tell me in the comments!
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You’ve seen this week’s Undercover Soundtrack? I want to tell you how I met its author, Dave Newell.
He emailed me out of the blue because he’d run across a comment of mine on a blog written by Nathan Bransford. It was a post about the difficulty of self-publishing literary fiction, and Dave – whose work is indelibly literary – was asking if I knew where those readers hung out on line.
The funny thing is, I left that comment more than two years ago. When I look at it I was talking about episode 2 of My Memories of a Future Life, which had just gone live. Oh, nervous days – I probably wrote it in the hope that it would lead ME to a secret vast land of literary readers. (It didn’t; I should probably work on that.) Probably no one else took much notice, and so it stayed there, falling under new comments and posts, sedimenting into the substrata of the ever-renewing, multiplying internet. Then two years on, Dave Newell typed a few words into Google and it led him there.
We struck up a conversation. I don’t know that I was much help with his problem, though we had fun talking. But I did offer him a guest spot on The Undercover Soundtrack, which I’m very glad he took. Especially as I then had an email from a fan of the series who told me how excited he was to discover this author. (I’m sure there were other converts too, only they didn’t email me to share.)
So does this story have a bigger payoff? Does it end with a hardback deal, an Amazon landslide, a red carpet? Actually no. But it does end with a special reader, who was charmed by a post by someone he’d never heard of. As Dave Newell leaped on a random comment by someone he’d never heard of, which had been made by someone visiting a blog hoping to find likeminded folk. A chain of strangers finding they have kindred interests; that’s rather nice.
Author platforms are also on my mind because this week I was a guest speaker at an online author marketing conference called Get Read. A message we heard constantly was that platforming is a long game, and we might feel like we’re getting nowhere, giving so much of ourselves and wondering if anyone notices. This episode reminds me to keep the faith.
It also reminds me that platforming is full of contradictions. That for all its widewidewide reach, it operates at a micro scale, person to person. That our blurts on websites and social media seem trivial but are actually eternal, and might be summoned to the top of a search by the right Google spell (just like bad party photos). The take-home point of my GetRead session was this: be yourself and stay gregarious. Anything you write might find a new reader, an ally, or a friend.
It’s a bit of a different post this week, but I’d love to discuss this question. Has someone found you because of a comment, post or a tweet you’d long forgotten? Have you followed a trail and made a worthwhile contact?
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I’ll leave the story to that post, but briefly, I saw an interview on the Writers & Artists Yearbook website, responded to it, and seem to have woken them up to the fact that indie authors are rather more advanced than they hitherto thought.
Even better (and this isn’t in the post) Bloomsbury then asked me to call them. They’d had a rummage through my blogs and wanted me to write for their website and newsletter. (Wow. Big smiles at NYN HQ.)
So W&A – the bible for creatives in the UK – is expanding its coverage of self-publishing as a serious and respectable option. But I detected they’re a tad nervous about it. The editor I spoke to asked if I ‘minded’ writing about self-publishing. That suggests he’s encountering more negative attitudes than positive. No matter. They’re responding to what’s happening in the creative world.
I also have to relish a sense of a circle closing. Years ago, when I was a beginner querying agents and publishers, W&A was my route map for what seemed an audacious and mostly impossible dream. When I wrote the querying section of Nail Your Novel, I recommended using them. Now, thanks to a tweet that alerted me to their post, and a tweet I sent to them, I’ve flipped to the other side and they’re introducing me to their audience. In our online, endlessly connected world, new opportunities might be only a tweet away.
In other news, tomorrow I’m skyping into the Grub Street arts centre in Boston as a guest expert in a seminar on creative book marketing so you’ll get a proper post from me about our discussions. And next Saturday, I’m on a panel at Stoke Newington Literary Festival in north London, talking about multimedia self-publishing. Both those opportunities sprang from relationships made completely on social media. In fact, everything has. Before that, I was an invisible editor and a concealed ghost.
So tell me – what opportunities have come to you from social media? And what tips would you give to help people make the best of it? (Oh, and here’s the Independent Authors Alliance post, in case you’re curious about the W&A Incident… )
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In the meantime, I’d planned to make a post appear magically from the archives to jolly along NaNoWriMos (and anyone who needs tips to meet a writing deadline). It began ‘Are you finding NaNo easier than you thought, or harder?’ and was supposed to wait until this weekend, but WP gremlins (or butterfingered me) shot it out prematurely. Immediately I got a bemused comment from a subscriber, convinced he’d got his time machine working. Anyway, here’s the post, if you haven’t already seen it – a NaNo routine to help you finish.
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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford
This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer 🙂
I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.
I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.
I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.
I self-publish a writing book
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.
No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.
So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.
Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.
No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.
I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.
Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.
Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.
Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.
But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.
I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.
Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident
So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform –
- I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
- I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
- my posts were useful and accessible
- I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.
All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.
I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.
As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.
By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.
Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.
I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.
The promotion problem
Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.
That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?
All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.
I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.
(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)
Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:
- I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
- I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
- I didn’t have any budget anyway.
I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.
I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.
This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.
My lovely readers
Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.
I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.
Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life
Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.
I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.
I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.
My changed outlook
So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.
In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.
The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.
But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.
To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.
But that’s non-fiction.
With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.
Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.
To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.
Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage
One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.
Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?
Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.
Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.
There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.
Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in. The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?
This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.
The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?
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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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Do you tweet? If you do, you must have your rules of dos and don’ts. If you’re so new to tweeting that it gets you in a flap, you might find my suggestions useful. Or you might want to hop over and tell me they’re insane, rather like the advice some publishers are giving authors who are tweeting for the first time… Join the conversation at Authors Electric…
Thanks for the pic James G Milles
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