"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Building a platform
On Monday, I posted a diagram of the process of self-publishing. Now it's time to break it down. This week's diagram started out with this group of chores at the top:
I am dissatisfied with it for several reasons. First, I would move "Start Online Platform" to the very top of the list. It takes months, even years, to build a presence online. Waiting until you have book written is much too late. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts can be used to tell readers about your book. But the truth is, people are not going to be interested in your book unless they are also interested in you. If you build up a list of followers because you have witty or interesting things to say, if you blog about your travels, your reading, your causes, you will attract others who care about the same things. Then when you write your book, your readers will be waiting, money clutched in their hot little hands. That's what you want from an online platform. So start TODAY!
Now let's look at "Format Book Template." Do you even know what that means? Do you have the computer skills to create a template that will produce the kind of book a publisher or a reader expects? Unless you are very skilled or very experienced, I recommend letting the professionals do this for you. There are all kinds of book-writing programs out there. I am most familiar with Scrivener
, a writing program for Apple users. It is roomy, intuitive, and easy to use. When you open the application, it presents you with a series of formats -- short story, poetry, script, novel, non-fiction. You make your choice and it gives you a bundle of pre-set pages for title page, chapter, etc. All you have to do is start typing; it handles spacing, indents, font size, and a bunch of other things you didn't know you were supposed to worry about. And when you are finished, it gives you more options. It can compile all your chapters and assign numbers to them. It can produce the ugly plain double-spaced page that an agent or publisher expects. Or it can allow you to transfer the basic manuscript to your own word processor to tweak the appearance until it's exactly what you want. If you don't own a MAC, you can hope that eventually the Scrivener folks produce an application that runs on Windows. But there must be similar programs for other computers. Anyone have recommendations? I would be happy to pass them along.
Next comes "Finish First Draft." My objection here is that word finish. It sounds like you're done, and nothing could be more misleading. A first draft is great, but there better be other drafts -- lots of them. I know there are "seat-of-the-pants" writers out there, just letting words fly onto the page. The results are seldom pretty. Writing is hard work, and I don't see that kind of warning here. You will probably need to start with some sort of research, unless you are setting your entire book in your own back yard, which you can see from your desk. If you are setting your book anywhere else, you'd better go there and take a look before you write. And unless you are very talented, you need another kind of road map to follow -- an idea of what your book is about, a plot outline, a theme, a plan for story development, and an idea of where you want to start and where you want to end up. Otherwise both you and your reader are likely to get lost. I've just been working on my book-planning, but what I've learned will have to wait for a different post. For now, just note that instead of "finish" this step should read "think, plan, write, and then rewrite. Rinse and repeat."
What about editing? I've expounded on that before. I've worked with editors and I've done my own editing. Because of the expense involved, this is a decision that will depend on your own circumstances. But for now, let's just be clear that one round of "editing" is not enough. You need to read and re-read -- backwards and out loud to catch your own errors. I went through the manuscript for Beyond All Price
fourteen times, and caught different errors on each go-round. Then you need readers -- lots of them. And you don't want your best friend or your spouse, who is just going to say, "That's great, honey." Find some critics and listen to what they say. Then, when you think the book is perfect, consider professional editing. I'll guarantee you it will improve your product.
I've just joined "Networked Blogs." If you read this blog regularly, please click the "follow" box on the left.That will really help to spread the word to others. You will NOT be giving away your personal information.
I've been asked by
several people to reflect a bit on the virtual launch party I held for the
release of my new Civil War novel, Beyond
. For those of you I am meeting for the first time, I am a retired
history professor, now fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a novelist. Because I wanted to have my book
available by the beginning of the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil
War, I decided to self-publish the book.
self-published and print-on-demand authors, I have complete responsibility for
promoting and marketing the book.
If I didn't call attention to it, no one else was going to. I also happen to be a firm believer in
the future of the e-book, so it seemed particularly appropriate to have an
e-party. It was also cheaper, of
course, and a bit less congratulatory, to use the internet for the book's
introduction, rather than just holding a small party for the folks I knew.
Here's how I went about it.
My publishing imprint
is Katzenhaus Books
, and the company website was already up and running at
Vistaprint. I wanted the launch to
be connected to that site somehow, but at the same time separate and special.
The answer was a second site, opened for just a four-month period, that could
be linked to the company materials when needed. I started planning the party in July 2010, just as soon as I
had finished approving the final proofs for both the paperback and the Kindle
editions. The party itself was set
for September 15-17.
The party website
had many pages, starting with a
welcome page that set a festive tone with balloons and confetti. The book itself had its own page, with
pictures of the cover, the cover blurb, an excerpt, and links to the company
website, including the ordering information. Next came a fun page--what's a
party without a few games? There were some bad jokes, a mystery puzzle, and a
cartoon cat video, among other oddities.
Refreshments were easy.
Visitors found a revolving buffet table with pictures of the food on
offer and the recipes if they were
really hungry. All the items on
the buffet were dishes from the novel. Door prizes and give-aways had their own
page, which also included an opt-in box, so that I could begin to create a
dedicated e-mail list.
The real key to the
success of the party, however, came from my invited guests -- seven authors and
seven internet experts who wrote about writing. I interviewed the authors about their books and their
similarities to my own work; the bloggers wrote articles about their own
specialties -- everything from creating a website to the value of visiting
their settings, proofreading, punctuation, and the future of the publishing
industry. Each one had a page that
was featured for an 8-hour period during the launch. There the guests could post their own picture, pictures of
their books, list their internet addresses, and invite followers. All these materials were accessible for
the entire launch period and for a month afterward through list of guest links.
I cannot begin to
praise my guests enough. They not
only took the time to write their articles; they also publicized the launch for
me on their own blogs, websites, and social networks. When a well-known author
twittered a note saying "I'll be appearing at this book launch at this
time at this URL," their fans
and readers came to visit, and learned about my book along the way. Their help was invaluable!
however. Was it successful? Would
I do it again? What would I
change? Well, for starters, I found out the party lasted too long. I thought I was cutting back from the
only other online launch party I had seen -- one that ran for an entire 7-day
period. Mine started on Wednesday with a respectable number of visitors. The visits
peaked around noon on Thursday, and limped through Friday, falling off to near
nothing by Friday evening. I
should have stopped Thursday night. The fun and games page was not particularly
popular. People who took the time to visit the site wanted to know about my
book or what my guests had to say.
They didn't come to be entertained by other means. The opt-in box was
badly placed. It should have been
at the front of the site, not buried in the back. On the plus sign, people loved the recipes from the book and
reacted well to most of my guests.Who doesn't love food?
Sales were slow but steady through the first
two days. I didn't sell as many
copies as I would have liked, but those who ordered the book were new
customers, most of whom I would not have met if it had not been for the launch
party. And sales continued at the
same pace for several weeks after the actual launch. I also gained new Twitter
followers and Facebook friends. I'm glad I did it, and when my next book comes
out, I'll probably do it again.
Honestly? I had a blast!
Once I started working seriously on my Civil War novel, Beyond All Price,
I also began looking for ways to publish it. Waiting until you have a finished product just does not work; you have to do your homework along the way. I started with the standard approaches. I found books written in my genre (in this case historical fiction set in 1860s) and checked on their publishers and the authors' agents. These were names I could at least be sure would be open to the type of book I was writing. To that basic list, I added other publishing houses and literary agents I found listed in such resources as Writer's Market. I looked up each one on the internet to find out how they wanted submissions handled. Each one on the list received a hand-tailored written or e-mailed query letter.
Responses were spotty. Almost half never replied! Others sent canned messages: "Sorry. We are not accepting new clients." --or -- "Sorry. We no longer consider unsolicited manuscripts." Only a handful expressed any interest whatsoever, and they consistently asked for a full description of my platform before they would consider the book. At that stage, I had no idea what a "platform" looked like in the publishing world, so I had more research ahead of me.
Here's what I found. If you are a household word -- a politician, a celebrity, a sports figure, or a best-selling author already -- you have a built in platform: a fan base of people who will buy your book because of who you are. If you're just a hard-working writer, you have to build your own platform. Publishers and agents suggested that I needed the following:
(1) a personal website visited by hundreds of readers every day;
(2) a blog that had a similar reader base and gathered dozens of comments on every posting;
(3) a personal Facebook page, with hundreds of followers and daily postings;
(4) another Facebook Fan Page, one dedicated to my writing;
(5) a Twitter account, with daily postings and thousands of followers;
(6) a LinkedIn account, with multiple recommendations and connections within my professional community;
(7) a personal e-mail list of media outlets, bookstores, libraries, and civic organizations, all of whom would be eager to do personal interviews with me, invite me as a guest speaker, or host a book signing event.
Fortunately, I'm pretty adept at finding my way around a computer. I just had never bothered to become involved in social networking of this sort. So I went to work, particularly at building my internet resources. These outlets were not hard to create, but they take an enormous amount of time to develop their full potential. I've been working on this platform for about 18 months now, and my numbers surprise me. I have almost 400 Facebook Friends, some 700 Twitter followers, more than 80 connections on LinkedIn, and a website/blog that receives around 100 hits a day. To me, that's amazing, but the figures are still not up to the five thousand guaranteed readers that most publishers want to see. At most, I have a little soapbox that serves as my platform.
And if you are reading this, you are a very important nail in that soapbox. Thanks!
One other factor weighed into my publishing quandary. This year -- 2011 -- marks the beginning of a five-year commemoration of the Civil War. Right now, interest in Civil War history is at an all-time high, and I expect enthusiasm will last for most of the next five years. But by 2016, we're all going to be tired of the topic. My window of opportunity is right here and now. If I wanted Beyond All Price
to benefit from the increased coverage of the Civil War, it had to be ready to go. I simply did not have time to spend several more years pursuing followers, then agents, and then publishers. There seemed to be only one other path to putting the book into the hands of willing readers -- self-publishing.
In the next post, I'll work through the differences and the advantages of doing it yourself. If you have questions you'd like to see me answer, please leave them in the comments below.