Ep 023: “Blogging For Authors”

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Welcome to the 23rd episode of The Author Hangout, a “Hangout on Air” designed to help authors, especially self-published and indie authors, with marketing their books and improving their author platform. Authors struggle with various aspects of marketing and we are here to help!

“It’s trying to build a readership that’s going to be with you for not just one book, but for every book that you write.”– Jane Friedman

Blogging for Authors

Building an author platform is an important part of of a long-term book marketing plan. One of the ways that you can draw readers in and establish a platform is through consistent blogging about your topic if you’re nonfiction author, or about your writing and other books if you’re a fiction author.

We were joined by Jane Friedman, who helps authors with marketing and publishing. She discusses building an author platform, including the struggles authors face and what the key components of a platform are, tips for blogging for both fiction and nonfiction authors, and what she would do if she started as an author today.

The Author Hangout – Episode 23: “Blogging for Authors”

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Jane shared about how she got involved in the publishing world, and how she began helping authors.

Be sure to listen to the interview to get this insight and background on Jane.

Why is building an author platform so important?

We started with this question because it is something every author should be thinking about:

“It’s what I consider the long game. It’s trying to build a readership that’s going to be with you for not just one book, but for every book that you write or for every story that you tell or every product or service that you develop. So platform goes beyond a single marketing campaign; it’s about developing your audience. For that reason, it tends to be very organic. It’s not like a one-time event. It’s something that you’re going to put a little bit of effort into on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. And certainly there will be campaigns within that, tied to very specific books. Platform building is – I like the term audience development, which comes more from the nonprofit world, about thinking about how one reader’s value extends over a very long period of time.”

Why do you think authors struggle with the idea of a platform?

“Many people find marketing and promotion to be somehow antithetical or at cross purposes to artistic mindset. They feel like they just want to focus on the writing, and they don’t really have time nor do they have the expertise to look at the marketing piece. On the other hand, I think every writer probably has an ideal writer in mind or they want to be read, and I think being able to think about how you’re going to entertain or delight that audience, or how you can best interact with that audience, it only usually increases or furthers your own intrinsic motivations for why you’re writing in the first place, which is to reach a particular readership. So if writers can stop seeing marketing as something that’s outside of the realm of their imagination of creativity and think of it as something that’s intrinsic to the work itself, I think it all goes much more smoothly and doesn’t feel like such a departure from the writing activity. I think one of the biggest problems, to put this in concrete terms, is authors hear this kind of disembodied advice, whether that’s from their publisher or somebody else, to get on Twitter, start a blog, or start a Facebook page. I call it disembodied advice because it really has usually nothing to do with the writer’s personality, the writer’s work, the writer’s skill set. So they hear all of these kind of commandments, like “Oh, you have to do XYZ in order to market your book,” when it may or may not be effective, and it’s not tied to any strategy or long-term thinking about what those platforms can do in the long term.”

What are the key components of an author platform?

“I think the most important is the author’s work. It all starts from the work. You have to be actually producing work before you can be very serious about developing a platform. And I think that’s where a lot of confusion comes into play, because authors get advised to build a platform before they even have a first book out. Which I understand some of the thinking behind that, and I’ll let that go for the moment, but it’s really hard to build a platform when you’re not even sure you have an audience for a particular book yet. You don’t have a book that’s attracting people. So it starts with the work, and it grows from that base. That’s the first principle, I would say. And then you need a website. Every author who’s serious has to have a website, and that is like information central or brand central for everything else that gets done from a marketing and platform-building perspective. Then you layer on top of that the activities that you feel comfortable doing on an ongoing basis, whether that’s interacting on Facebook or Twitter, doing reviews on GoodReads, being a good literary citizen in some way, doing events. So that gets layered on top of that. And then there are other things you can do that are more strategic with community outreach, like doing a reading series or Twitter chats or interviewing authors or experts, as you do. There are just so many ways that you can just build on that base of your work and your website and a little bit of interaction, whether that’s online or offline.”

Is it formulaic or does it need to be tailored to the author?

“I think the only way in which it’s formulaic is you’ve got to have the work and the website. And then after that, I feel like all questions should be answered on a very unique basis. So for instance, just to use a superstar example, John Green, YA author. Very early in his career, he and his brother started this very popular video blogging series called The Vlog Brothers. When you see them on video, it’s like so obvious they were made for that medium. Like, they excel at doing videos. And even the brother has now a very profitable company based on video. But video is actually – that’s suitable for maybe, I don’t know, half a percent of the author population? Maybe I’m underestimating, or I could be overestimating. But that was just so perfect, and he hit on the right thing, and it also happens to be the place where his potential audience is. He’s talking about topics and subject matter that interests the readers of his books. So there’s this really sweet spot that he’s hitting of the right medium or channel, where his audience is, what his strengths are. And so every author has to have this kind of self-awareness of what they can sustain and what they can do well, but also have the patience to get better at whatever it is they’re trying and be willing to experiment with some things that they may have some discomfort with at first because it’s strange or weird. But then once they get into it and practice it a little bit, they realize that there are some benefits there.”

How can authors set up their website?

“I think the first steps with the website are you want to be thinking about the branding that you have on it and making sure that whatever your most recent book is or whatever your series is, that that’s very plain and clear in the branding of the site, and that it’s clear what sort of books that you write and that you’re appealing to your target audience. And there should be a very clear call to action, too. Most people who visit your site might not be there for more than 10 seconds; they might not ever come back. So if they have any interest at all in your books or your work, you need to drive them to the #1 thing you want them to do if you do have them for 5 to 10 seconds. That might be signing up for your email newsletter or reading an excerpt from your work, maybe buying the book; it kind of depends on how they got to your website. But that needs to be very clear, and I think a lot of authors just assume people will spend minutes on their site, when it’s really seconds. So you have to be very conscious of the short attention spans.”

Can authors do it all? Do they have to do it all?

“I run into this with the magazine I run, Scratch, which doesn’t really earn me any income but is very important to me from a service perspective, and I think there’s a bigger future there. But if we were really doing it right, we would be having Twitter chats every month and we would be doing a podcast, like you are, with some of our contributors. There is so much we should be doing, but you have to prioritize. You can’t do it all.”

How can an author use blogging to help build their audience?

“It’s great that you brought this up, because I just did a blog post a couple days ago on what should authors blog about, and actually I have a very long preface to the real meaty advice, which is maybe you just shouldn’t blog in the first place. If you have to ask what you’re going to blog about, maybe you shouldn’t. And again, this is my reaction to the disembodied “go blogging” advice that so many authors get. You can tell that they’re just basically confused and probably aren’t going to stick with it long enough for the time and effort to be meaningful. So the thing that I would say just most critically is that blogging is an art form, and a lot of people treat it as something throwaway. And I really believe that for it to be done well, you have to actually enjoy what blog posts are in and of themselves, and not try and force them to be something they’re not. A lot of writers and authors just will treat it as if they were writing for print or for some other kind of formal publication, but it’s not the same. So there has to be a willingness to understand that and to get better at that type of writing, which is a very particular kind of writing. So as far as what you blog about, there are several different models. I think fiction writers and poets have it tougher, because you’re not going to be blogging parts of your book, or you’re not probably – you’re going to run out of content if you’re talking about your writing process or your research. There’s just a limited amount to discuss there, at least from my perspective, for most authors. Nonfiction how-to authors have it easier, or any kind of nonfiction author who’s not writing narratives, because your subject matter or your topics that will likely lend themselves right away to all sorts of blog posts, especially if you’re educating in any way or doing workshops.”

What about blogging for fiction writers?

“There’s this thing called literary citizenship, which is very popular to talk about in the more literary MFA community, which is kind of their palatable way of thinking about marketing and promotion. Which means talking about books, writers, and things that surround the literary community that you want to see flourish. It could be interviewing other authors, reviewing or talking about books that you’ve read lately, looking at news and trends in your community. So there’s a range of ways to talk about books and the literary community that could be beneficial, but the big question is, how can you bring your own angle or perspective to it without repeating what’s already out there hundreds and hundreds of times on all sorts of sites? I think some of the most successful blogs that I see from authors are usually multi-contributor blogs, where you see like five or six thriller authors or romance authors or science fiction authors get together, and that helps reduce a little bit of the burden and the pressure because you’re trading off blogging responsibilities, but you’re also bringing together all of the different audiences you have, and there’s a lot of good cross-pollination there. So for some authors, especially those in the commercial fiction genres, I think that can be a very interesting way to get the benefits without the huge time commitment that it takes.”

How important is consistency in blogging?

“Well, there’s two types of consistency; there’s the frequency, which I think if you’re just starting out, if you’re not doing it at least once a week, I’m not sure you’re ever going to gain the momentum you need. I would recommend at least twice a week. And then there’s the kind of consistency that’s about the subject matter or the topics. You can think about this in terms of headlines for your blog posts. If you look at a month’s worth of headlines, they need to tell a story about the types of stuff you’re writing about, and it should send a really strong message to your potential reader about what they can expect or how they’re going to benefit from reading your posts on an ongoing basis. A lot of authors have trouble staying focused and disciplined with one topic or subject matter, either because they think their readers will get bored or maybe they’ll get bored, but it’s just so hard to gain traction if you’re jumping around all the time, you’re not consistent with the sorts of posts you’re doing, and people don’t know when to expect them. Like, they can’t even trust that you might come back next week. So I would say you’re looking at at least 3 to 9 months of really consistent frequency and topics before people will start sticking around. Because I mean, obviously so many blogs start and then go nowhere, because people just aren’t committed.”

Does the consistency help potential readers to engage with you?

“I think the importance of consistency is not so much that people are waiting to see if they’re going to trust you or actually subscribe, but it actually takes people seeing links to your posts over many months before they might actually click through on one. Or before they even become aware that your blog exists. And this isn’t necessarily through any fault of your own; it’s just there’s an incredible amount of noise around us, and there’s a lot of demands on everybody’s attention. So if someone just posts a link to their blog on Twitter or Facebook, I might not notice it, and I might notice one post one day, but it usually takes a consistent impression over a long period before it really starts to click “Oh, this person is blogging, and they’re regularly covering this topic.” I think that’s – so we can get this tunnel vision where we think “Oh, everybody knows I’m blogging because I posted about it,” but no. That’s not the case, and that’s why I think consistency is so important.”

What common issues or problems are authors facing today?

Maybe you are struggling with one of these as well:

“For the types of authors I encounter, people are asking what are the buttons that I press to make the marketing work? People are very either confused or frustrated that what they used to do doesn’t work anymore or that what they’re doing for the first time doesn’t work the way they thought it would, even though it’s been highly recommended by XYZ expert. So of course there are lots of reasons things may not work the way they used to, and I think a lot of it is just misunderstanding of how to apply the principles they’ve learned, and also just a lack of patience. I talked with one author last month, someone who’s very experienced – like, they are not new to the publishing industry – and they wanted to know why they weren’t seeing sales in like the hundreds of copies per day, and their book had only been out a week. It’s just like, you’ve got to give it time. You can’t expect results overnight. But unfortunately, that’s kind of – I don’t know how to explain this heightened expectation, but I think people need to just realize that, especially if you’re self-publishing, time is on your side. Things should gain momentum, not diminish, if you’re continuing to put out good work. Now, with traditional publishing, it’s a bit of a different conversation. But I’m talking mainly independent authors or hybrid authors who are looking for answers on how to market better.”

If you started as an author today, what would you do?

“If you were just starting out today, #1 is make sure you have your website in place and that you’ve got your call to action there. I would think about, assuming that you’re producing books for the long term, think very carefully about the branding that you have on those books and that it’s reflected in all of your touch points, whether that’s your website, your blog, your Facebook account, your Twitter account, your business cards. Try and get some unity in the message that you’re sending across all of your marketing collateral, because it just makes a really, really strong impression. And again, I keep talking about these marketing impressions or touch points; it’s just to reinforce and to make people aware, by the third, fourth, or fifth time, that “Oh, this is an author who does this.” And then for a third thing, I think content strategy, which we kind of touched on at the very, very beginning – content strategy is something that a lot of authors don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience about, but I think is really important for long-term platform building. And if it’s a term that you’re not familiar with, I think it’s worth reading up on either through a site like copyblogger.com, which I highly recommend to hone your marketing skills, or you can get books on it. Just to start getting your head in a different place when you’re looking at the books that you have and what you can do with them. Because people are usually underutilizing the resources they have right in front of them, and instead of using what they’ve got, they’re creating more when they don’t necessarily have to. They can get a lot more mileage out of the content that they have.”

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