Peggy Pinch-B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
The cynic will say that a platform may be defined to suit whatever author service the blogger is trying to sell us. You’re right. I don’t start out as a fan. I’m repeatedly told that legacy publishers are looking for established author platforms. That’s as may be – but I am not looking for a legacy publisher. So, surely the concept is of no more than a passing interest to confident self-sustaining authors?
However, Polly Courtney’s strap line tells us that self-publishers do everything that traditional publishers do – but they do it better. So let’s, at least, look at it.
I have settled on the elements set out by Jane Friedman in her 2012 blog.
A target audience.
I warm to this because it reflects my own experience. Please forgive me but I do need to offer a brief account of my own self-publishing career if the rest of this blog is going to make any sense. My third book earned me a complimentary ticket to the London Book fair. When I saw the almost obscene amounts that the grown-ups were spending on promoting their lead title for the season, I realised that playing on their sports field would only lead to heartache. That position was reinforced when I learned that the chain stores were interested in titles with a six-week window, supported by print runs of many thousands in partnership with publishers who were happy to pay for national display space. Now, I have never felt sore about this. If the chains did not take that position, they wouldn’t survive and we’d have no chain bookstores and no cheap bestsellers.
Clearly, if I couldn’t hope to play with the grown-ups, I needed to examine what I wanted to get out of my writing What was I trying to do?
I wanted to keep writing and publishing so, I decided, the income from one year’s title needed to finance next year’s title. However, apart from being a book-shopkeeper, I am also a book collector. I wanted to give my readers everything that excites me when filling my bookshelves. So, I pressed forward the idea that reading my books could unlock ‘The World of Malcolm Noble’s Crime Fiction.’
I translated that objective into a detailed financial plan. (I have said this enough times to bore the pants of people so I won’t go into it here; suffice to say that it was my essential key to making the self-publishing experience work for me. I am sure that each of us is different.) With each book, the financial plan generates a marketing strategy and a detailed sales programme. With very little science, I had progressed a long way to defining my audience. The process still is not complete after fifteen full length mystery novels but, as it stands, I am able to tell you twenty things about my audience. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to.) Let’s pick out four characteristics.
My readers are detective fiction fans of which a good proportion are collectors. They are drawn from a predominantly local or regional audience. They prefer shelf books to eBooks and like something more than just a row of books on their bookcases. Library users are an important part of the profile.
A carefully defined audience provides a benchmark for measuring Authority (credibility) Reach and Visibility. I want to add Engagement to Friedman’s list. It then becomes a handy check list. In future everything I do will be measured against one of those elements. The list remains dynamic. The audience develops, new opportunities for visibility and authority emerge and your reach can never be taken for granted.
So, if that’s the platform, how can we achieve it?
My platform relies on neither my social media nor my bookshop window. It depends on the regular readers, the print and broadcast journalists and other authors who promote my books by word of mouth. That network of opinion formers needs to be established on a solid foundation and delicately cared for. It takes time to grow (years) but the good news is that it is inevitable. Talking to people is all you need to do.
Better writers will say that this parochial approach misses the point and comes from a narrow perspective. Well, yes, I am writing as a small time author whose books sell in the middle hundreds rather than the thousands and are unlikely to reach (in large numbers) beyond my niche audience. But the approach has worked for me so, I guess, it might work for someone else out there.
I have the advantage of never having submitted a manuscript to a legacy publisher. My mind set was always to take responsibility as a self-publishing (or self-sustaining) author; I wanted to involve myself in every part of the process and enjoy it. I also knew that I had to bring something extra to my readers so the concept of joining in with the World of Malcolm Noble’s Crime Fiction was there from the start.
I began my taking a stall on our local market where, on the first day, I sold thirty-six copies of my first book. About half a dozen customers returned to say how much they enjoyed the book and fourteen from the group bought the second book, a year later. Five of that original thirty-six now have complete collections of my work and one is producing an independent companion to my writing. From that modest beginning I began to gather a circle of readers (expanding from local to regional and further afield) who enjoyed talking to me about the different series of books and, especially, the emerging backgrounds to the characters. Here, though I didn’t know it, was the genesis of a platform I spoke with them; they spoke with others. (Of course, a much greater proportion wanted to read the books and not talk at all and I needed to respect that.)
This reader element of the network is the most important and needs to be treated right. They have the early opportunity to take the associated merchandise (mugs, calendars, presentation packs and the rest) and they know that they are securely on the list for books published for private circulation only. (Make sure you mention that on the reverse of the title page.) After a few years, you will be surprised by the number of your readers who fall into this category of opinion formers. You will soon be faced with the problem of communicating with them as individuals. Never think of them as marketing opportunities (every bank customer knows how that feels). Remember, people who receive newsletters are names on a list while people who receive personal messages are individuals; draw your own conclusions.
Print and broadcast journalists are the second plank to your network. I’m not sure how many people purchase books because they’ve read about them in the paper, but many buy them because of the press endorsements on the back cover. So, while the print media is dying, they will remain important for several years to come because of their professional authority. With the press, you need to develop the knack of being persistent but not pestering (and when you’ve learned the secret, tell me.) While patience is not always rewarded, the take up rate is sufficient to make the effort not only worthwhile but essential. Some years ago, I sent in a request to a radio show. Eight years later that presenter produced my first two radio plays. Similar informal contact with another journalist (not quite so long but more than four years) resulted in a double page spread in a weekend supplement which was syndicated to two other papers, with a spin-off item reaching a further two (one of which I am still looking for). Hey, that’s five endorsements for the price of one! These two examples show the benefit of getting to know your local journalists. They are skilled writers with their fingers on the pulse. You will find plenty to talk about and there’s no need to push your book beyond a first mention. Put newsworthy stories, or possible stories, their way. In the old days, you took them for a drink. Nowadays, the best way is to … take them for a drink. Again, you’ll be surprised how many form part of your network after just a few years, but never let the relationships run dry.
I won’t need to say much about contact with other authors on this site. There are two rules. Enjoy it and give more than you take. Always encourage unpublished writers; they will never fail to repay your support with interest. For the same reason, try to be ‘in’ at the beginnings of projects to promote the self-publishing world. It helps if you are one of the early names.
I hope I have emphasised that you should allow no room for a hastily built and apple pie platform (crusty on the surface but soggy in the middle). It needs to rely on genuine and firm relationships with benefits on both sides. Constructed in this way, you will have a worthwhile address book which will be interested in what you have to say and, hopefully, share a passion for promoting your work.
So now, you have a bedrock of contacts (certainly more than 100 but you probably couldn’t cope with 200) through which you are going to market your books. How should you use it?
Again, I need to step back and explain how I work of course, others will operate differently. Each autumn I draw up a work plan for next year. So, today, I have an ideas list for 2017 and a work plan for 2016. Out of that work plan, I develop a marketing strategy (with sales and publicity strategies to follow). These spreadsheets show the most productive time to spring the network into action. Each name on the spreadsheet (or in the address book) has a note of the best way of contacting them. I know that some like to receive a letter in the mail while others prefer email, (texts are for reminders). A small number like a telephone call while others like an invitation to my bookshop. Think it through carefully and stick to the plan and I’m sure your network will soon be bringing in orders or promotion leading to orders. I don’t want minimise the amount of work involved. If you write during the day and market during the evenings, you’ll sometimes get a night off. Formal planning is important.
What about social media, which is what everyone thought this blog was going to be about? The downfall is that so much social media is ephemeral. It’s posted today and buried tomorrow and it does rely very much (but not completely) on your contacts taking the initiative to visit the page. (Do you look at every site you subscribe to? I know I don’t.) And social media is increasingly getting a reputation for being superficial and unimportant. Of course, post updates. It would be silly not to. But I’m not sure it can fit into a strategy for maintaining a fail-safe platform. Yes, the website is essential as the reliable and up to date reference site. Further than that, social media is fun. Picture galleries, You Tube videos and regular podcasts can certainly bring something extra to a reader’s experience. I enjoy posting them and I get a good response. But I have found far more effective kicking off points for selling my books.
To each, his own.
For more details about how I use Social Media, you may want to listen to my interview with a social scientist. Here’s the link . I’m sorry but it goes on for forty minutes!
Links to Jane Friedman’s blog and Polly Courtney’s videos are in the text.