This article about platform building is an adapted excerpt from the third edition of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should by David Gaughran which is available now from all retailers.
I have a considerable platform and it drives fewer sales than you may think. However, the problem with platform building is less to do with its effectiveness, and more to do with the time it greedily consumes.
Platforms can have value, but writers need to be careful about getting sucked into time-heavy activities that have less payout than they might assume. Snarking on Twitter is fun but does little for sales. On a personal level, I get a lot out of blogging, but, honestly, that time would often be better spent writing.
Facebook is a famous time sink. There are ways to use Facebook effectively, but most of our time there is spent liking pictures of purportedly unhappy cats, rather than building a targeted audience.
But some kind of presence on the internet is necessary, of course. How does a lazy author cut through the noise and focus on what really matters? And how are those needs different for fiction and non-fiction authors?
People can use the word “platform” in different ways so let’s start with a definition: an author platform is your combined presence on social media and the internet. It might include a website and/or blog, social media networks like Facebook and Twitter or even LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. And it also includes your mailing list. Together, these things are your platform.
At minimum, you need some kind of website and a mailing list—with a sign-up to that list everywhere you can put it, but predominantly on your website and at the back of your books. I’d also recommend adding a basic presence on Facebook.
Non-fiction authors can go a little further. For example, if you’ve got several books on managing your personal finances, it can really help to build a community around that through blogging, Facebook and Twitter, and you might want to devote a little time each week to building up your presence.
If you focus solely on writing good books and can produce them reasonably quickly, have a newsletter which readers can sign up to, and run the occasional promo, you can build a career out of this. A mailing list is the single most important component in developing an audience.
Without an effective method for collecting readers’ emails, every time you have a sales spike, every time you go on a free run, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to build a sustainable future for yourself as a writer.
I recommend MailChimp. It’s free until you have 2,000 subscribers, it has a good track record at avoiding spam filters (crucial), and you can make pretty emails too. Once you have set up MailChimp (or your preferred provider), you will be given a link to your mailing list sign-up page. The default form is fairly basic; customize it by following these instructions.
You can place this link anywhere you like: your blog, your Facebook Page, and, most importantly, in the end matter of your books. The latter is the most crucial of all. I strongly urge you to put a clickable link to your mailing list at the back of all your books; it should be one of the first things readers see when they finish your story. As long as you have done your job in the book, this is Peak Reader Love moment. You need to capitalize on it.
You need to have a home on the internet, one that you own, a site with some basic information about you and your books. Use WordPress.com to start off with. It’s free and it’s the best around—it has all sorts of bells and whistles the competition doesn’t, you can make your site look like pretty much anything with a little fiddling, there are all sorts of free themes you can download to customize your site, the security is superb, it can handle tons and tons of traffic at no extra cost, and rarely goes down.
WordPress has all sorts of built-in SEO, meaning you have a much better chance of ranking high on Google than if you use its competitors. I’ve been using it for seven years without any problems. You can add a custom domain for a small fee, and transition easily to a self-hosted plan when your needs grow with your audience.
You can make your WordPress site look like a regular website, or a blog. You might even be tempted to start blogging. I must caution you against going down that road. I’ve written well over half a million words on my blog, and that could have been eight more books. Or maybe half the posts and four more books. Probably should have been…
Blogging is a huge time-sink, and the more popular your blog gets the more of your time it will take up. It can be an emotional drain too, if you are covering controversial topics. And it drives fewer sales than popularly imagined; from talking with lots other bloggers, even ones with tons of traffic, I suspect that’s universal.
Like most parts of a platform, a blog can help launch a book, but doesn’t drive ongoing sales in the manner lots of people think. And that’s when your blogging topic is closely tied to the subject of your books. If they are quite different, you won’t see your blog driving very many sales at all.
Non-fiction authors can get a lot of joy from blogging, however. Content marketing is very effective, and authors have lots of content that can be repurposed into blog posts and vice versa. In other words, by being strategic, you can make that content work twice as hard for you.
That’s less applicable for fiction writers. While you can apply a version of the same strategy—say by writing a travel blog about the food and culture of Italy if you write romances set in Tuscany—the spillover will be less than you think. Feel free to do it if blogging is something you will enjoy for itself; just be aware of the time cost and the likely return and prioritize accordingly.
A more static website is a better approach for most fiction authors. It doesn’t need to be too fancy, just a little information about you and your books, as well as links where readers can purchase them (and the covers of course; they sell the book more than anything else). The most crucial part of your website is the sign-up page for your mailing list. This is the page you will push people to from the back of your ebooks, and anywhere online (such as Facebook, perhaps) where you might be driving mailing list sign-ups.
Your website (and your blog) should be clean and easy-to-read. Light text on a dark background might look stylish, but it’s awful for extended reading. Keep garish colors to a minimum, and make sure any graphics you use are of good quality and that you have permission to use them. First-time visitors should be able to find key information quickly (purchase links for books, links to social media, your sign-up page).
One of the keys to building an audience is engagement. People don’t want someone to talk at them; if they wanted that, they would turn on the radio or watch television. They want someone to speak with them. Make sure the comments are open and that you respond promptly. Try to pose a question or two in your articles, to invite discussion. A blog should be an interactive experience, because that’s the advantage the web has over a traditional column or newspaper article. If you look at the most popular blogs, the real action is in the comments—and that’s what will keep people coming back.
Being on Facebook is non-negotiable, just like having a basic website and mailing list. These are the only “must haves” in your author platform—everything else is optional—so don’t complain! Your readers are on Facebook, so you must be there.
(The reason I know your readers are on Facebook is that everyone is on Facebook.)
The latest numbers show that out of the 320 million people who make up the US population, Facebook has 210 million monthly active users. That number jumps above 2 billion people globally—a quarter of the world’s population! And what’s even crazier is how many of those log in every day: over 1.3 billion.
Facebook isn’t just where your readers are; it’s where they are every day.
Amazon is such a well-trafficked store, with such a huge customer base and so many different opportunities for visibility, that when you have a sale there it can have sale-babies, as each sale propels you higher up the rankings and makes you more visible to new readers. In a similar way, interacting with a fan on Facebook can also lead to new people interested in you and your books. At minimum, you need a basic Facebook presence.
There are some very powerful things you can do with a Facebook Page that you can’t do with a normal profile. The most obvious is running ads. I must caution you though: this is not for beginners. Facebook advertising is incredibly complex and unless you know what you are doing, and have several books out, it will get very expensive, very fast. At this stage, I recommend you just build up Likes on your page organically. Have the link to your Facebook Page in the back of your books and on your site.
Every so often, post some content your target audience might enjoy. If you write speculative fiction with a literary bent, your target audience might be fans of Margaret Atwood and would enjoy news pieces about her. If you write historical novels set in pre-revolutionary Russia, your readers will probably enjoy articles on Rasputin. If you write Space Opera, your people will probably enjoy NASA photos. Think about who you are writing for and the kind of content they like to share on Facebook… and give them that.
Of course, you can also post things more directly related to your work: cover reveals, new release announcements, sales, freebies, news, etc. However, as with all social media, it’s good to have a healthy mix of stuff you are pushing out into the world, so it isn’t all about you. One very smart way to achieve this is to promote the sales and new releases of other writers in your genre.
Doing all of that organically over time will start building up a base of Likes for you, and then when you have more books out, and a larger marketing budget, and a better sense of who your readers are, you can get into the more complex aspects of Facebook advertising. It’s not something you should be worrying about when launching your first book, but I would advise trying to look professional right from the start (which means asking your cover designer to make you a header image for your Page).
And while all of that is ticking away in the background, you can be writing your next book.
Connecting the Dots
The overall aim is an interconnected little world. My book listings on Amazon connect to my Amazon Author Page, which in turn links to my blog and my Twitter feed and Facebook Page. My Facebook Page has links to my Twitter feed, my blog, and my book listings on Amazon. My blog has links to my books, my website, my Twitter feed… You get the idea.
Authors rightly fear spreading themselves too thin, but you don’t have to be active everywhere. I’m “on” LinkedIn and Google+ and Goodreads, but I don’t spend any time there. My blog feeds out to LinkedIn and Goodreads automatically and I manually post the links to my Google+ profile without really trying to build up a presence. But I’m “there” if a reader wants to contact me, and I’ll respond to messages and so on.
You can use all social networks in that kind of passive way, i.e. just to deepen connections with existing readers rather than proactively attempting to increase sales or audience. Plenty of writers do that and just focus on releasing regularly, running a promotion now and then, and building up their mailing list.
I sincerely hope this alleviates the pressure from platform building. Start off with the non-negotiables: a mailing list; a simple, clear website with purchase links to your books and a sign-up to that mailing list; and a Facebook Page. I’d also suggest opening an account at Goodreads and adding your books, even if you never spend another second there.
As for the rest, once you engage in platform building only when you have the time, focus first on deepening connections with existing readers, and remember it’s not something you need to do in order to be successful, you might find you actually enjoy it. I used to think Twitter was dumb. Look at me now…
|David Gaughran is Irish and lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He has helped thousands of authors to self-publish via his workshops, blog, and books. Visit DavidGaughran.com to sign up to his mailing list and get a free copy of Amazon Decoded.|