Last week, we talked about some of the bricks you’ll need to build a rejection-proof platform. I also announced the release of my new course, Obscure No More (only 21 spots left!), where I’ll teach you how to use more platform-building bricks that will give you a solid publishing platform.

This week, I’ve addressed the most popular questions that webinar participants asked Steve Laube and me during the Q & A session after the webinar. If you attended or listened to the replay, this will not be new, but as always, I wanted to offer it in blog form for our blog readers.

Steve, do you agree with Thomas’s stance on not using social media?

Steve Laube: Thomas has taught me a lot. If you stand still on the freeway of this marketing environment, you will either get run over or left behind. If I had listened to Thomas earlier, I would have made fewer mistakes, and I would have adjusted. 

Thomas is on the forefront of the newest thinking regarding marketing. We’re not saying stop all social media. We’re asking you to examine why you’re doing social media. What’s your purpose for using social media?

When Thomas ran the marketing for Enclave Publishing, our focus was building our mailing list. It grew by 500% in six months. It’s still one of the largest, healthiest email lists in the industry for lovers of science fiction and fantasy from a Christian perspective.

At the same time, Enclave moved heavily and intentionally into the Bookstagram community, which is part of the Instagram community. Through Instagram, we found a new wave of interest and fervor, but we had a very intentional strategy when we were posting on Instagram.

So, Thomas isn’t saying, “Don’t participate in social media.” He’s saying, “Don’t build your platform on social media.”

Thomas: That’s right. Social media is a good place to visit, but it’s not a good place to live. You must measure what you do on social media.

Steve: It’s important to understand this is a business. It’s the business of changing the world and getting your ideas out into the world so they are visible. You are competing with people who already know how to do this.

I’ve been told by agents that if I can get 5,000 followers, that would be the magic number for a publisher to publish my book. Is that right?

Steve: That is old information and an old way of thinking. You can pay someone to get you 5,000 followers on social media, and none of them will be real humans. There’s not a magic number.

 If a publisher looks at your social media following, they want to see a level of engagement with the people who interact with you on your social media accounts. In other words, how are you influencing your reader so that they want to read more from you?

To get a publishing contract, you must have great writing, a great concept, and a great platform. I used to say you needed two of the three. You could get away with great writing and concept. For writers like Phillip Yancey, who is an amazing writer, that was the case. It still happens. But today, you can have a great book concept and writing, but people must be able to find you online.

I see great proposals with great writing all the time. But when I searched Google for the writer’s name, nothing came up. I searched Amazon, and I find nothing.

There are so many factors, and there is no magic formula. That’s why I appreciate Thomas’s course. He’s providing all these “bricks” for building your platform. In the course, he’ll be addressing more than 19 different elements of platform. While you can’t be an expert at everything, you can become knowledgeable and good at something.

Thomas: If you’re scared by the number of bricks, it’s important to realize you don’t have to use all of them. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s better to focus on the blog like Steve does. I actually do his podcast, and Steve focuses on doing the blogging.

The first session of the course will be on adapting a strategy to your specific strengths. Steve’s blog plays to his strengths because of his decades of experience in the publishing industry.

You have your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about turning your weaknesses into strengths. It’s about becoming who God has created you to be. He has given you everything you need in order to do everything he’s called you to do.

Steve: The key to success in the business world is to use your strengths and manage your weaknesses. If your strength is writing, constantly improve your writing.

One writer I know has been writing for 50 years, and he still reads one book per month on writing craft. You’d think he’d be writing that kind of book, but he says he’s a continual student. Don’t be intimidated. If you’re going to invest in a career as a writer and you want to compete with other writers, this is a factor you must figure out.

When the pandemic hit, and all the bookstores shut down, isn’t it interesting that books continued to sell? The only blip in sales was when Amazon didn’t consider books essential and wouldn’t ship books for three weeks. Book sales have bounced back while bookstores are still struggling. Books are going to sell. The question is whether readers will choose yours.

Is building a platform before publishing like putting the cart before the horse? How do you establish a meaningful platform before publishing?

The short answer is that you need to start building your platform right away. People always ask, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In your early days, you just have to find eggs wherever you can and try to grow some chickens.

Some people believe novelists can’t build their platform beforehand. But that’s not true. The way you build your platform is just different than how a nonfiction writer would do it.

If your book is on parenting, blogging on parenting is a good strategy. You can explore your ideas, connect with people, answer their questions, and become a better writer in the process.

If you’re a novelist, a blog on parenting won’t help you sell books. People may love your blog on parenting or your theological views, but it generally won’t help you sell your novel.

One technique for novelists is to write a lot of short stories and then build a platform where people can subscribe to receive your short stories. In fact, this is how it was done in the olden days. People wrote short stories, and they improved their craft.

One of the most common mistakes of beginning writers is that they decided to write a book, and then they write it. It’s kind of like deciding to run a marathon without training. If you want to run a marathon, you first train by running a 5K and then a 10K.

It is easier to build a platform after you have a book published, and it’s easier after you’ve written 20, but you must start with what you have and be faithful with that.

How can I increase the open rate of my email list?

Thomas: When you send an email through Outlook or Gmail, you don’t know if people open it. It’s also potentially illegal to use those tools to promote your book.

Instead, authors use programs like MailerLite, ConvertKit, or MailChimp. Those email service providers track the number of people who open the emails you send. If you send an email to 1,000 people and 500 people open it, you have a 50% open rate. If 20 people open it, your open rate is 2%.

Steve: Here’s an actual statistic from the webinar. Of all the people who received an email from us announcing this webinar, 31% clicked to open it. You saw it because your email program showed it to you. That’s a reasonable open rate. I’d prefer it to be around 40%. But of that 31%, a large percentage of the people who saw and opened the email attended the webinar, and that’s called conversion.

An open rate means someone opened your email. Enclave publishing averages 47% open rate, which is unheard of for most companies with a product. We only email once a month, and we are very specific and programmed about how we do it.

Thomas: There are three important elements of email. The “from” name, the subject line, and the body of the email. The most important element when you send email is the “from” name.

If your husband or wife sends you an email, you’ll open their email regardless of what the subject line says.

Steve: Today, I made a mistake when I sent an email about this webinar. I chose the wrong button, so the email “from” name said “Administrator.” People either deleted it or unsubscribed.

You make the “from” name meaningful by making it a culmination of the value and quality of all your previous emails. For Enclave, people know we only email when there’s a significant discount or something exciting. People know an email from Enclave will be important to open based on previous emails.

Believe it or not, the subject line is the least important element of an open rate. If the content of your past emails was good, they will open your emails. The subject line matters, and you can set up split tests to see which subject lines get a better open rate. But you’ll find the difference is usually just a few percentage points.

Sometimes the short and more human subject lines get the best results. The mindset you want, and what I’ll be teaching in the course, is how to approach email with the attitude of a scientist to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Steve: To run an A/B test on a list of 5,000 email addresses, you’d send one email to 100 people with the A-test-subject-line, and a second email to another 100 people with the B-test-subject-line. After several hours, the subject line with the higher open rate is the one you send to the rest of your list. Most email service providers offer this as an automated feature.

This is what the pros do, and you can do it from home with your email service provider. It’s quite extraordinary. One subject line says, “Free stuff. Get it now,” and the second subject says, “come see the lovely things we have.” You can see which subject line is more likely to be opened.

How crucial is it for a fiction author to have a platform and an email list? What content would I put out there since I only publish books once or twice a year?

Thomas: We will cover this in the course. First, it’s very important to have a platform and an email list. During my short time as a literary agent, I used the size of an author’s email list to determine how valid their social following was. I don’t care how many fans you have on Facebook. If you can’t convince them to give you their email address, they won’t give you their money for a book.

In the course, we will cover the kinds of content you can create, but here are a few ideas. You don’t need to email every week. In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t. It’s a lot of work, but it does work for some authors who write fast. Monthly is best for most authors.

You might announce your new book covers, so that’s two different emails per year. Your two preorder announcements and your two announcements about your book being available are four more emails. That is half your emails for a year. You might also announce if you hit a bestseller list. If you’re doing a book launch, you’ll send more emails around the launch because it’s a special time.

Steve: Many of my clients who are novelists find a fascinating piece of research and share it with their email list. It builds anticipation for the book in which the author uses that information. Don’t send a picture of your hamburger, but you can send a picture of something you did with your grandchildren so that your readers get to know you. Sometimes authors show a picture of the workspace where they write. Help your readers get to know you.

Mike Hyatt used to review things his readers would love. He reviewed luggage for business travelers and software business people would use. He built a following quickly because he was smart and great at expressing those kinds of things. In fact, when I travel, I use the luggage he recommended, and he probably made an affiliate commission when I bought it.

Thomas: Hyatt knew who his audience was, and he focused on thrilling them. You can review and recommend books. If your list wants to read one book each month, and you’re only releasing two a year, they want to read more books like yours. They like you and care about your opinion. If you send them recommendations, they will be thankful. Don’t view it as competition. You alone will not be able to satisfy the reading appetites of voracious readers.

At the same time, you’ll be building relationships and goodwill with authors in your genre with whom you can partner in the future.

What are the best practices for retaining subscribers? 

Thomas: Thrill them with every email. Don’t talk about your workspace or chair unless you can do it in an interesting way. If you can write a little flash fiction story about your grandchildren, your readers will love it. If you can’t, don’t. You must write interesting emails.

Steve: Our agency is a bit of an outlier these days, but when our blog is posted, it’s automatically sent to our email list. Most people read our blog via email in their inbox. Some come natively to the website every day. Others see the link on Facebook or Twitter because we automatically post it there as well.

We’re giving people a lot of content, so much so that people have let me know they unsubscribed because they felt they couldn’t keep up. There are many topics and issues that arise regularly that are perennial questions. We continue to make the material available for free to anyone who wants to subscribe, and that builds credibility and a platform. If I were to recommend a book on the blog, I’d guess 50-100 people would probably buy it because they’ve learned to trust my opinion.

What are the best practices for building an email list?

Thomas: Many things may work, and we’ll get into tailored specifics for you during the course.

In general, you would create a reader magnet. If you’re a novelist, your reader magnet would be a short story. Nonfiction writers have more options, such as a guide or tip-sheet built around their topic. Then you create a landing page for the reader magnet and promote that landing page. You can promote it by buying ads or by guesting on podcasts and offering it to the podcast audience. People sign up via email to receive the reader magnet. The course will cover all those steps. I’ve also covered how to build a landing page and reader magnet on my podcast.

I’m thinking about getting into audio and doing a podcast. Will you cover that in the course?

Thomas: We’ll have a section on podcasting in the course. My first talk at a writer’s conference in 2010 was about podcasting, and no one was listening. No one was podcasting back them.

 Steve: Podcasting is neither easy nor cheap. One author I know kept the rights to their novel and recorded their own audio version. Amazon rejected it and wouldn’t put it on Audible because the audio quality wasn’t acceptable. You can’t record at your desk with your iPhone. Thomas has talked extensively on his podcast about podcasting.

Thomas: The course won’t cover creating an audiobook, but I do have podcast episodes on how to turn your book into an audiobook, how to narrate your audiobook, and how to produce and market your audiobook. You’ll need the right equipment and some post-production knowledge in order to be accepted at Audible. I have a list of recommended gear for podcasting.

How do you build a platform without feeling like you’re pridefully promoting yourself?

Thomas: You must believe that what you’ve written benefits people. You must believe in your work. You’re not promoting yourself. You are trying to help people with what you’ve created. If you feel weird, it may be that what you’ve written isn’t ready yet. 

If you believe in your work and see it as a way of blessing others, you won’t feel like you’re promoting yourself. You’ll feel like you’re helping people.

Steve: I have a course called Marketing Versus Ministry, where I talk about the real tension that should be there. The Scriptures are full of statements about not being full of yourself.

And yet, if the Apostle Paul didn’t have a message worth sharing, then he would never have traveled the world and gone to jail for what he had to say. If you had a message from God and you felt people needed to hear it, but you just didn’t feel like you were the one who should share it, then you would be Aaron, not Moses.

If you feel like you’re a nobody with nothing to say, maybe you need to rethink the journey and the nature of your writing.

It may be your audience is not as vast as other audiences. If your writing only ministers to the people in your church or your family, you are still being faithful.

A woman called me bemoaning the fact that her self-published book didn’t sell. She figured she just needed a literary agent to fix things. We might be good at what we do, but we can’t fix what’s broken.

I was telling her the difficulty of it. The book was a personal story of her life, and she wasn’t well known outside of her family, work, and church. Finally, she said, “The one good thing was that my 15-year-old niece came to Christ after reading my story.”

And I said, “Oh my goodness! Ma’am, if you knew ten years ago that your niece would become a Christian after reading your book, would you have spent the time, money, and effort to get to this point?”

She said, “Absolutely!”

I said, “You did! You were faithful to the calling to create a product, self-publish, and if only one person was changed, then it was worth it.”

She started tearing up and said, “I never thought of it that way before.”

Be faithful with what you have and take the intentional steps to move forward, and God will bless it how he chooses.

Thomas: If you approach platform with an attitude of service, then the act of building the platform is ministry. If you think you need to publish in order to minister, that’s not true. You can help people right now. If you think you need a book to help people, your book will not help because you’re not being faithful in the little things. You need to start blessing people now.

Steve: Ministry isn’t relegated to books. Magazines and online outlets also help people.

Many years ago, we were struggling with an issue with parenting one of our teens. I read an article in a magazine that focused on this one thing, and I realized if we just did that one thing in our parenting, we could make a new step in the right direction.

Someone had been faithful to write an article, not knowing it would end up in my house and that it would be exactly what I needed. They were faithful to the calling without any idea where it would land. I don’t even remember the author, and I don’t have the article. But I can tell you that person’s effort made a difference in my life.

How often should I send out an email newsletter? Should I send once a month with links to my weekly blog posts?

Thomas: A monthly newsletter with an opening paragraph and then a paragraph from each blog and a link to read more is a solid strategy. Some people send an email announcing each blog post.

Steve: Thomas and I have discussed this option with the agency blog. Should we send once a week with five links, or should we continue to send one article five days a week? If people get fatigued by the daily email, then maybe we’ll make the switch.

Thomas: You can experiment with different formats. One nice thing about digital content, unlike a book where you’ve printed 100,000 copies of your book with a typo, the digital content can be changed immediately.

Is it possible to build a nonfiction platform without blogging and without a social media presence?

Thomas: Yes. You don’t have to do social media or blogging, but you do have to do something. Maybe YouTube is the way to go. You can build a very strong platform on YouTube. The truth is, you don’t have to touch social media or blogging.

Steve: I had a client who got a book contract based on a YouTube video he created on the crucifixion that got 1.5 million views. The publisher realized there was a lot of interest in that particular aspect of it. He went into the history of Roman crucifixion, and it was a fascinating book published by Our Daily Bread Ministries, but it all started with a YouTube video on the topic.

Other people have an entire ministry and platform based on speaking. You don’t have to touch a computer to have a platform.

I know one author who had 100 events canceled this year because of COVID-19. Imagine the blow to his revenue because speaking is how he makes his income. He’s known more for speaking than his blogging or social media. Speaking is his strength. A speaking ministry can be built in concentric circles. You start in your church, then your community, then your county, then your state, then your tri-state area, and before long, people start hearing about you. It takes time, but I have seen it done many times.

Why do publishers favor authors with large social media followings?

Thomas: Editors at major publishing houses say they don’t value social media like they used to. They want to know how many people are on your email list. If you want to publish with Anchor Distributors, their first question is, “How big is your email list?” It’s so easy to have a fake social following. It’s less common for people to fake a large email list, and there are ways of validating it with open rates. It can be faked, but it’s far less common.

Can a person’s platform make or break their book deal?

Steve: Yes. If I have two equally wonderful books on parenting and one author has a following of 1,500 and the other has a following of 15,000, the one with the larger following will have the advantage. If everything else is equal and they’re both debut authors, the publisher will choose the author with a larger following.

A publisher wants the easiest way to sell the most books. How can you make it easier for the publisher to sell their print runs and a bunch of ebooks? How do you make yourself attractive to the cynical publisher who has heard 25 pitches from famous people that week?

What is the best way to find a coauthor?

Thomas: I covered this in episode 100 of the Christian Publishing Show, which hasn’t been released yet. I interviewed Jerry Jenkins about working with coauthors. Cec Murphy and Jerry Jenkins have worked with many coauthors. What he said surprised even me. Subscribe to the Christian Publishing Show to get the episode automatically delivered to your phone. If you’re on Apple, just search for the show in your purple podcast app. For Android, there is an extra step. You can also listen natively on the website or subscribe to the Steve Laube Agency Blog and have it delivered to your inbox.

Steve: Ted Dekker first coauthored with Bill Bright. Karen Kingsbury was on the CBA bestseller list as a novelist, but her sales were modest and weren’t going to break any records. Then she coauthored with Gary Smalley and went into the stratosphere and never came down. Now, she’s a household name.

You want to say, “These are all celebrities,” but they weren’t born celebrities, and many of them were working with a publisher when the publisher suggested the partnership. I’ve represented clients who were inside the publishing company when the publisher said Famous Author needs a coauthor because he doesn’t have time to gather the materials in his head and on his desk. They called me and asked if Less-Famous Author could coauthor. Next thing you know, the coauthor has a whole list of his own books because the Famous Author told everyone to pay attention to that guy.

This may sound circumstantial. There is no simple way, but I think the key is that coauthoring is one of the bricks. It’s not the only brick. Coauthoring is one way to launch your career. I have many clients who started as coauthors.

How long will the beta course be available? 

Thomas: Until the spots are filled. There are 21 spots left.

The advantage to Obscure No More is that you get the entire cookbook with all the recipes. You can decide which recipe is right for you. As a student of the Beta version of Obscure No More, you get it all at a deep discount. Register for Obscure No More while there are still spots available.

Featured Patron

Jess Lederman author of Hearts Set Free (Affiliate Link)

Yura sets out with her son Luke on an epic cross-country quest to win back her husband—and destroy the woman who stole his heart.  

You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.

If you can’t afford to become a patron, but still want to help the show, you can! Just share this episode with one stressed-out writer who you think would find it helpful. 

Patreon has a new feature. You can pay for the entire year and receive a discount. You get all the same perks that you normally get, like a featured bonus episode, the podcast directory, or at the higher tiers, having your book featured on the podcast or being a member of one of the mastermind groups.

If that’s interesting to you, visit our Novel Marketing Patreon Page.

If you can’t afford to become a patron, you can still support the podcast by leaving a review on iTunes or Apple podcasts.

Liked it? Take a second to support Thomas Umstattd Jr. on Patreon!

Want more?

Get a weekly email with tips on building a platform, selling more books, and changing the world with writing worth talking about. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!