creative writing community, craft and inspiration
This is a continuation of the past two posts on surviving – no, succeeding in the challenging new publishing environment. Check out Brave New World of Words – Part I and What I Learned at Author (R)evolution Day – Part II, to see how the conversation evolved.
“Gate-keepers are less powerful. Institutional support by brand name publishers is less powerful. It’s up to the writers and community to make the work really good!” This is the battle cry of the new publishing republic, the aftermath of the self-publishing and digital revolutions. As I heard it explored throughout Author (R)evolution Day, I realized that the community I needed to support my writing life has been right here in front of me all along.
First, think back to my last post when we were evaluating personal strengths and weaknesses. What does each of us do well? Better yet, let’s reframe the question:
What do you need to professionally publish a book?
1) You need a brilliant editor. If you’re lucky, you find that editor at a publishing house (or the editor finds you), along with a copy-editor who’ll make sure you’d not overlooked any glaring errors. More and more these days, we first find these editors in our personal writing community. They may be author-friends doing a quid pro quo. They may be freelance editors or other trustworthy, meticulous readers. In any case, every writer knows that we can’t edit ourselves. We’re too close to the work. We can’t see what’s right or wrong. We need an outside eye. In fact, one speaker noted, “The #1 mistake of self-publishers is overestimating their editing skills. You really need a ‘developmental editor’ who will help shape your book into a powerful, readable and engaging professional work.”
2) You need a professional package, inside, outside and virtually. Whether it’s an ebook, print-on-demand or hardcopy print-run, we’re talking format inside and out, from page layout to cover design. You also need to understand the many new and different digital publishing platforms. If you’re doing it yourself, you need to choose the right self-publishing service that will give you a gorgeous product and make it available on iTunes, Kindle, Nook, and whatever other platform is out there. As for cover, perhaps you have some artistic ability, so you might be tempted to try your hand. But I wouldn’t advise it. Even though I’m a published photographer and also do all the design work for TWC, I’d definitely hire someone else to do my book cover. An agent once said to me, “I don’t judge a book by its cover.” I laughed. Agents generally read books before they have covers! We all know we’re drawn to a book because of the cover first, unless we have a foreknowledge or a personal recommendation. A cover is not something to skimp on.
3) You have to get your beautifully edited and packaged work into the world. Possibly hardest for all of us – authors and publishers alike – is spreading the word. That’s why publishers rely increasingly on their authors to do a concerted marketing campaign. (Yes, for self-publishers, there’s also distribution – getting your book into bookstores – but aside from a kindly local bookseller, most self-published works are sold online at least to start. Let’s focus on getting the word out, since I honestly haven’t figured out how to distribute a hard-copy either, and it wasn’t addressed at the conference. ToC, please put that on the agenda for next year!)
Do you focus on building buzz through social media? Do you build your own website or hire a professional? Do you spend all your time booking in-person author appearances? Do you pay for ads or hand out sample chapters on the street? I swear, I’ve seen authors do it in New York, usually poets or prosthelytizers. I definitely wouldn’t choose that path myself.
So how exactly do you jump-start this marketing campaign? Oddly enough, it should’ve started already. It should start right now, right here. And for those of us at TWC, it already has. I smiled as I took these notes on distilled from several of the Author (R)evolution talks, which apply equally to traditionally published and self-published authors. So everyone, take heed:
1) Build a Community ASAP – This is a community both flesh and digital. It’s a community like we have – thank the Universe for all of you! – at The Writers Circle. It’s a community of people who are familiar with your work and can give you honest insights into how to make it better. It’s a community that will “like” you and “follow” you and “tweet” about you and maybe even come to your readings and buy your books when they finally arrive on their Kindle, Nook, iStore, or, hey, Barnes & Noble.
When you’re building this community, you want to make friends, not worry about selling books. You want to give as much as you get – maybe more. You want to respond to interesting comments, start great conversations and share cool links and ideas. It’s a friendship, in essence. But you can’t do it only because you’re planning to release a book. Ideally, you should do it because you care.
2) Build an Author Platform – Here’s the area that calls for some relevant expertise or a good reason why you should take the lead in some of the above conversations. With The Thrall’s Tale, I managed to craft myself into a true Viking and history expert. I was even asked to give keynotes, lectures and comment on the MANKIND documentary. How cool is that?
But if you lack an academic focus or the inclination to write about such things, you might start the conversation with your characters. Amanda Havard apparently set up six of her characters with social media accounts and started tweeting and chatting as them, building a community around “real” people who became “real” parts of people’s digital lives. So you can be really creative about this thing, have fun with it, and make it matter to people all at the same time. Here again, stick with what feels authentic to you. I still can’t imagine having done something like that with my first millennium Viking slave girl!
3) Build Social Media Contacts and Nurture Them – Daily. No, more often than that. I hear Ann Rice and Margaret Atwood tweet five or six times a day, and they are “brand name authors”. They already have a following!
I’m terrible about doing the social media thing, but those of you who are following me might notice a slight uptick in activity. (Kick me in the pants if I slack off, please!) I also wrangled my partner Michelle for a totally self-serving training session in HootSuite, a social media aggregate program that is supposed to simplify things. Find a good friend to do the same for you, or maybe grab Michelle at TWC!
4) Then, and only then, hope that your community will buy your work. Of course! But that’s not the point. It really shouldn’t be. The point is to offer up real content, real concern, real energy and real authenticity to a community of friends and followers who just might become readers. And they’ll like your work and tell two friends and so on….
OK, I know. All that sounds exhausting. I’m tired just writing it all down. In fact, one speaker at the conference suggested, “If you’re not a self-starter, don’t self-publish.” Yet it’s really no different than what any wise author does when they get a traditional publishing contract. Believe me, I see it every day with the authors I connect with on Facebook and face-to-face.
So, how to make peace with the demands of the publishing Perelandra where you’re on your own, better or worse, navigating the tumbling boulders and rippling sinkholes and heaves? More wise advice from Eve Bridburg and friends:
Find community and make good friends. For me, this means friends like all of you that I hug the moment you enter the door and am so happy to see when you show up after an absence on our class roster.
Be purposeful so you won’t feel lost. This means setting specific goals and tasks, and limits to those very same. I’m working on it (not too successfully since I barely wrote these past couple of weeks. But I’m going back to it as soon as this post is done!)
Don’t let the tactics lead. Maintain control over what you do and when you do it. Don’t try to do everything because you’ll get pulled under the horse. (Note the lead-horse metaphor? I love these things!)
Do what gives you energy and joy and makes you feel authentic. For me, again, it’s all of you and what we’re building at TWC. I love you guys and would do this even if I never wrote another word – God forbid! It’s a good life doing things I care about with people I enjoy. Who could ask for more?
Celebrate incremental success along the way, like getting out of my comfy rut and going to this conference. Clearly worth the lost time for work given all I’ve learned and all I have to share with all of you.
Last thoughts: sustaining a campaign, whether traditionally published or self-published, is hard. It takes time and commitment. It’s a distraction from your true love of words. But stick with it. Turn to your good friends and network for support. And don’t do too much. Little by little. Tweet by tweet. It’s just like writing: bird by bird.