April 1, 2015 § 3 Comments
Hey guys. Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk at Hamline University as part of their The Writer’s Life Lecture Series. If you live in Minnesota, it is a great series to check out, as they cover topics like how to find a publisher or get work in academia that are useful and difficult for writers of all experience levels. I was asked to give a twenty minute talk as part of a panel discussion on building web presence, along with publicist Linda White, web designer Christine Rousu, and fellow author Addie Zimmerman, and I feel like I gained more knowledge from the fellow speakers than I managed to impart during my speech. That said, everyone was so enthused by the whole day that some of the audience suggested that I post my remarks to my blog.
So, here it is, everything I know about building web presence for authors (please note, though, that I have edited it a bit for length, and to remove many of my witty remarks which, while hilarious, don’t make as much sense written as they do spoken (they’ll just have to remain a bonus for all the lovely audience members who paid the price of admission on the day of the lecture)):
Thanks, it’s a real honor being invited back to talk at my alma mater, especially about social media, since social stuff and media stuff is really difficult to me. If they would have asked me to do this two years ago, when I was first planning to self-publish and promote my serial novel SLASH, I would have had nothing to tell you. Almost nothing. I knew that the Internet liked cats, which is why my first-step was to get an author photo of me holding a kitten. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. Not that I think it has led to any sales or anything, but holding a cuddly kitten was undeniably the most pleasant part of the self-promotion experience.
It is tough enough putting your work out there as a writer, but with social media, it feels even more like you are putting your self out there. It is hard not to feel like you’ve wasted your life when you spend three hours a day, six days a week, for a year working on a novel just to make a big post announcing to everyone you know: “Bump-pa-dum-dum! It is here, the novel that will change the world and affirm your life!” And you get seven likes. You’re not even asking anyone to pay money for it, just affirm the fact that you still exist after refusing all coffee-dates and matinee invites in order to follow your passion—and only seven people seem to notice. Meanwhile, your wife takes a picture of you with your cat and posts it to your wall: seventy likes, instantly. How do you do the math on that and not think you’re wasting your time.
Obviously, though, not everyone can be a social media superstar/novelist like Kim Kardashian. I’m being facetious, of course, but I’m joking about it mostly because that’s my real fear about social media—the way it very concretely quantifies and commoditizes our achievements and selves into winners and losers. Of course, not every good writer can write THE great American novel, just as not every great novel can become a widely read best seller, taught in schools for generations—but I think that ultimate subjectivity is some of what is so appealing about being a novelist for me, too. It is somehow reassuring to me to think that, even if the world seemed indifferent at the time, Herman Melville or Virginia Wolfe were doing great, meaningful, and consequential work. And even if it still seems that the world at large is still indifferent, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because when you’re an engaged reader, you can feel and take part in that certainty of purpose with them.
I’m a big believer in the idea that as a writer, while you obviously always need to be working on your craft and pushing yourself, ultimately you can’t judge your own writing: the healthiest thing you can do is show up to the page every day and do your work; how much the world celebrates or ignores it is largely up to luck and privilege, but as long as you’ve done your best at honestly finding and expressing your voice, you can count that day as a success.
With the ability to constantly empirically measure not just up-to-the-second book sales, but even engagement on your most trivial blog post, it can be a lot harder to find a balance with social media. At least it was for me. Starting off with my serial novel Slash, I wasted a fair amount of time and money chasing social media achievements that turned out ultimately meaningless to my goals as an author, and there was always that nagging doubt when comparing myself to others. It is all out there for everyone to see, so it is hard not to be like, “Well, I blogged, tweeted, tumblred, and FBed for three hours every day this week, so much so that I didn’t actually have any time to write, and it all earned me five new followers and one sold book. Why don’t I just quit it all!”
So in my attempts to get a web presence and use social media to sell my book, I needed to find something like my goal to show up to the page every day, a goal that would be productive and keep me going and trying even in the face of disappointment and failure. So, just as you show up to the page and write until you discover something fresh, I now try to do my social media for the day until I’ve had some sort of meaningful interaction. And by that, I mean something surprising, outside of the normal exchange of social media that can feel and, in fact, often times is, automated. While you’re writing, it is nice to imagine an ideal reader—maybe thousands of them—but if you are really going to make this work as a self-published author, you are going to need real individuals to read your book, one at a time. It’s not only deluded and pompous to treat them like faceless mass of fans, but it is counter-productive, too, because they can tell when you are just trying to sell your book to anyone and everyone—and that’s only if they care to look in the first place. Your readers, if you’re lucky enough to find them, are real people with dreams, desires, and opinions every bit as idiosyncratic as your own, so if you’re going to try to make something out of interacting with them, you need to interact with them as such.
So there, that’s the secret, I guess, if I’ve got one to tell you. While I wouldn’t call myself a self-publishing success, I will say that I am usually satisfied with myself as long as I keep trying to make progress in that way, and the responses I get encourages me enough to keep me writing. Whereas selling myself at first felt like a distraction, and then later, like it might wither my creativity completely, since I’ve started approaching it that way, it actually feels like a fruitful part of the process.
I’m sorry that I’m not promising you some secret to achieving your wildest dreams—there are certainly a lot of self-published books you can buy if that’s what you want. But we all know that anyone trying to sell you that is faking because if there was a secret to winning we could all buy, we would all buy it and no one would be winners: we’d tie. And that’s not how capitalism works. I do, though, think writing can work that way: we all have the chance to better understand ourselves and eachother. So I’ll spend the rest of my talk here giving practical examples of how to have those meaningful interactions I’ve taken as my goal when I set out to sell my work for the day.
I think a great place to start is with a blog. As a writer, I feel like is the form of social media that comes most naturally: you don’t even really need to have it be about yourself at all: it can just be writing. Just choose a topic that somehow fits with the audience you think your book will have and get posting. Which isn’t to say blogging is just about writing. It surprised me, at first, how social an activity it is, though I don’t know why it should have, as I had never read a blog before I started blogging. Because most of the people reading blogs regularly are other bloggers, and they are mostly reading so you will read their blogs, so the only way it can work is as this large conversation. WordPress, which I use, even has this follow and like function, which makes it even more obvious how FB and Twitter like it is. The difference, though, is that you don’t add your mom and your coworker and your high-school crush: you have to earn every follow you get in this new community. So the way to do this is being a genuinely engaged and enthusiastic community member. If someone follows you, follow them, if they like something, go to their blog and see if there is anything you like. But the sort of button-clicking steps lose their power after a while. Once a relationship is established like that, to keep it alive and growing, you need to actually engage with and comment on what other people are doing, so they hopefully return the favor: that’s the daily goal of a genuine interaction I’m talking about.
It really is about community, and if you’re writing genre fiction or non-fiction on a specific subject, you might have an easy time finding a ready-made community to join, but for general, literary fiction, which is the world I found myself in, you just have to be a little more creative. For my first blog, I wrote about the relationship between humor and literature and found myself connecting with other literary jesters and misfits. When I was ready to start promoting Slash, I wanted to transition into a blog/website hybrid, where I could draw in attention with fresh posts while still having the links to purchase and review the book there at all times, so I launched slashserial.com hoping to become a hub for literary fan fiction. Four months in advance of the release of the first episode, I started posting more experimental fan fiction contemporaries of mine were doing. The aim here was to flatter: if you post someone else’s work, you know that is at least one person who is going to see it, appreciate it, and probably share it with their friends.
I think it really helps to come up with a series of things to do like that when it comes to blogging, because besides being genuine, consistency is the second key. You need to generate something fresh on a regular basis just to stay a relevant part of the community. If you only speak up in the conversation every other month, no one will remember who you are. Doing Slash serially helped with this, as I had a schedule of built in posts: a preview the new episode, releasing the new episode to ebook, revealing the new physical cover for the ‘zine version, etc… But I’ll also note that after a while, I stopped counting these routine posts as my social interaction for the day unless I got creative with them, changing them from another self-promotion no one asked to hear into something at least partially engaged with an existing conversation.
I use WordPress, and will say in its favor that it is relatively easy to use, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in the specifics of that sort of thing today, in part because they change so quickly. Unless you’re ready to publish tomorrow, much of which I could tell you today about publishing with Kindle Direct versus Smashwords or making FB groups will be entirely different by the time you’re ready to publish. Amazon’s self-publishing wing went through big changes in the year I was self-publishing, with many of the authors who were held up as success stories of the community starting to claim that the new lending system has destroyed their livelihood. In this realm, I think the best advice is to stay educated and be ready to change. Because you can believe that if authors are making huge profits off of Amazon or any other giant corporation, that business is going to find a way, sooner or later, to refigure things so that it gets a bigger share.
So let’s do talk about money, next. It is easy to get caught up in the self-publishing rhetoric about the liberation that comes with doing away with gatekeepers, but I’ll tell you, there are a lot of tollbooths on the road in their place. Starting out, I picked up a special self-publishing issue of Poets & Writers, thinking I would find one of those secrets to success. I was surprised to find, instead, that it read, cover to cover, like a special advertising section, detailing which book designer you could hire for three thousand dollars, and who costs only a hundred, how much you should pay for a publicist, etc. Unlike the rest of literary history, there are not too many self-publishing success stories that start with someone dedicating their life to literature, working a shit job all day to focus on craft at night until they are discovered. Instead, they mostly involve a successful life in a different career followed by the decision to use the riches they’ve gained to pursue a dream that has been on the back burner most of their life.
So, what can you do as a poor MFA? Here, I let the having real interactions goal guide me as well. When it came time to put the book together, I’d heard horror stories from blogging authors who signed on with one of the big self-publishing conglomerates for a package deal and ended up either dissatisfied with their cover or the editing, because, big surprise, the wage worker the company hired it out to didn’t seem to care as much about the project as the author did. Instead, I think you should hire cover design out to an actual artist you know, and the same with editing. Assuming their friendship is real, and their passion for what they’re doing is as genuine as yours, they are going to do a much better job than someone who drudges through this sort of thing as a day job supplementing the work they’re actually passionate about. And furthermore, everyone you hire to help is person invested in your project, another person guaranteed to help you promote it.
One arena which I haven’t found much success with yet is advertising, in part because I’ve only tried the impersonal route so far. I’m sure you’ve lately noticed more targeted ads in your FB feed—you can pay to get your page to show up more often, and it increasingly seems like they are moving to a model where you won’t show up randomly at all without paying, so it can be tempting. I was tempted by some similar self-service ads on Goodreads, thinking it might draw people to a give away I had for the first episode. I had misgivings, at first, because, honestly, I would never click on a tiny two sentence Internet ad, but I felt reassured that you paid by the click, so if no one really cared, I wouldn’t be out much money. And at first, no one cared. I think three people clicked that first campaign, and I ended up paying 45 cents. For my next give away, though, I ran it again, and all of a sudden, hundreds of people were clicking it, I was excited at first but then disappointed when none of them even led to a single free download. After talking about it to some other writers, I realized I must have been the random target of a click farm. A click farm is a place you can pay to like your page or add your book or watch your video to get some social media momentum going, but companies like Goodreads or Facebook try to crack down on them to get you to buy clicks the honest way, through their advertising services. So in order to not be obvious, click farms often now click random stuff as well as what they are paid to click, so that they seem more like genuine users. I didn’t have anyone to complain, too, though, because I’d just typed my credit card into a form on a website. I know that some people have had better luck running ads on smaller but more focused websites, so that might be my next step if I ever have money laying around again.
In the meantime, social media seems the best option. I’ll not say a lot about general social media, because I think Linda already did a better job than I could. I’ll just reiterate that like with a blog, you need to be genuine and consistent, so only do what you feel comes naturally, not what you’ll only find the willpower to do once every couple weeks. I’d heard that maxim, but I still tried to force myself on to Twitter, and even with my rule for making interactions, I still couldn’t seem to make it work for me and have happily retired my account to refocus on blogging.
So now I’m focusing on getting reviews for Slash, which is really the self-publishers bread and butter. Probably the best way to get reviews at first, and a way to sort of cement yourself as a member of your little corner of the self-publishing community, is trading with other self-published writers who have new books out or coming soon. It’s a pretty common practice, and the general rule everyone I’ve done it with goes by is that if they are going to give it a bad review, usually anything lower than three out of five stars, they’ll give you the option of posting it or not. But honestly, these reviews are usually pretty casual and the practice seems more about fostering the self-publishing community than practicing exacting literary criticism. It’s a great way to get those first few Amazon reviews, which an author needs to start showing up on searches, and it is also a great way to get those first few blurbs for your promotional materials. It may not be the same as having praise from Michiko Kakutani on your book, but it is a little more official than a quote from your mom.
As far as official book reviews go, I’d say this is the one place where I spent some money for a service and was happy with the return. There are several services out there that will give professional reviews to self-published books for a fee, most around a couple hundred dollars. It might feel scummy at first, but it is much the same process through which traditional publishing houses pay to be reviewed in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and just like there, there is no guarantee of a good review. I went with IndieReader, because I knew they had a reputation for giving tough reviews; one of the authors I traded books with got bombed by them, so I felt like I wasn’t just paying for undue praise. Plus, you get to deal directly with their publisher and founder, with quick email responses, instead of just dead-uploading something to a server. They ended up really liking SLASH, giving it five out of five stars and putting it on their Top Books of 2014 list. That said, I don’t know how many sales it lead to, at least directly, as I don’t think too many people visit IndieReader other than other self-published authors. It was the first piece of my press kit, though, and I include it in most of my promotional materials, so I’m sure it has helped with some sales. And I think it has really helped open the door to book bloggers.
That’s my big social media push these days: looking for book bloggers to review the new collected edition of Slash. You can blanket the blogosphere with form emails, but there are a lot of bloggers out there doing the same, so you need to stand out. It helps to have a professional review in your press-kit, as proof your book is at least readable, but I think, moreover, it helps to familiarize yourself and connect with the blogs. I’ll usually set out looking at the latest posted book reviews until I find one that I think might fit with Slash, based on what they’re reviewing. Then in the email I send them, I try to reference one of their reviews and say how it made me believe they might like Slash. Because they aren’t blogging in order to promote your book, and they aren’t waiting patiently for your email. They usually have their own goals for the blog, maybe as a resume builder to become an editor or break in to professional reviewing, so you need to convince them that you fit in to their plan—and even better, that you believe in their plan and would love to be a part of it. If you do your research right, you should be able to avoid negative reviews, and most bloggers will say that if they don’t like a book, they’ll quit it instead of plowing through just to slam you in revenge. Even if they don’t lead to a sale, every review leads to a new, very engaged reader: the reviewer themselves, so I try celebrate every one as a goal accomplished.
Lastly, I’ll say that you need to still get out into the real world. I’ve had great luck selling hand-made books at local bookstores. So much so that, at first, it was more popular than the ebook and I considered focusing just on the real world. But then you have to realize that the only way people know to go to the bookstore and get the latest episode is through social media, because, in a way, nothing really happens that doesn’t happen on social media. But that works in your favor, too, as local people and businesses can give you a great social media boost after you’ve met them in person. I got over half the names on my mailing list selling chapbooks at an art sale some friends of mine put on at the Carleton Lofts. That’s my last advice then, say yes to every opportunity, but be flexible in changing out what doesn’t work for you and for what does. If someone asks you to take part in a blog chain or trade a book, say yes. This past year, I joined a podcast on that advice, had a bunch of fun doing it, but eventually figured it really wasn’t helping me interact with possible readers, so I dropped it this year to take an invite to write a monthly literary humor column, so we’ll see how that goes. Who knows?
In the end, much of what I like about writing is how subjective it is. It is a chance for reader and writer to collaborate at making meaning at a level that I don’t think any sort of social media will ever match. Through subtext, a piece of writing can invite the reader into an experience so intimate that the book becomes a part of their life. In the same way, for someone to find your work meaningful enough to give it a try, you need to find a way to make them feel like it is a part of their life, not just yours. Hopefully, some day, after hundreds of such days of hard work, it will be because everyone they know is reading the book and they want to be part of the discussion, but at the start, it really needs to be about actually meeting them where they are.
February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
If you’ve ever dreamt of living the fast-paced life of a self-published author, you should join me at Hamline University’s Writer’s Life Lecture Series, where you to can learn how to go into debt and then pester your friends, family, and the internet at large into helping you break even!
In all seriousness, it will be a great event with lots to learn for authors of all levels. I’ll be covering the self-published angle, but a traditionally published author will be there, as well—along with a professional book marketer and web designer. Here’s a full description:
BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL WEB PRESENCE & SOCIAL MEDIA FOR WRITERS
SATURDAY, MARCH 14. 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM
(NOTE: THIS IS A 1 DAY SESSION WITH 2 PARTS)
Part I: Social Media Demystified
Have you been wondering about Facebook? Does Twitter leave you cold? Do you wonder where you would find the time for social media? Don’t miss out on this exploding avenue for connecting with your fans. This session will help writers, author sand others sort through social media options. We will discuss the most popular social media platforms, what they are best used for, and what kind of time it takes. You will get tips, tricks and ideas for content and interaction to make your social media presence a conversation with your fans. It’s all about building relationships, and it doesn’t have to bbe hard. Note: This is not a tech session; you do not need to have any social media profiles set up and we will not be doing that during this time. Instructor:Linda White, BookMania!
Part II: Building a Successful Web Presence:Panel Presentation
Evan Kingston (MFA ’11) will discuss what worked and what didn’t while promoting his seven-part self-published serial novel, including how to sell your work online without annoying your friends, and maybe even finding an audience outside of them. Addie Zierman (MFA ’11) will talk about her journey in publishing her thesis-turned-memoir, When We Were on Fire, including the need for an author to cultivate an internet presence and how that realization turned into her successful blog, “How to Talk Evangelical.” Christine Rousu (CWP staff/freelance web designer) will highlight the options for creating author sites, from fast and cheap DIY to fully designed and paid-for, including what to look for and what to look out for when building/hiring for an author site.
While it is a real honor to be invited back to my alma mater to speak, I’m equally excited by the chance to learn from the other presenters. It should be a really great event, so if you are in the Minnesota area, you should definitely attend. Plus, if you are thinking about an MFA, it is a great chance to sample one of the best programs in the country! Registration is cheaper before March 6th, so click on over here ASAP.