How do I start building a platform before my book comes out?
It’s the chicken-and-egg question of the publishing industry, and nearly every author has puzzled over it.
Novel Marketing listener Carol Magai asked:
“I’m an emerging author. I’ve almost completed a novel, and I’ve written 20 or more short stories, but I haven’t submitted them for publication. I understand it’s important to have an author’s platform, a website, a blog, and some kind of exposure. But if you aren’t yet published, what kinds of things should you upload to your website?
Should you upload a sample chapter from the book, sample short stories, or perhaps all your short stories to show your range? What should I put on that website while I’m submitting and hopefully getting a contract for that first novel?”
What NOT to do before your book comes out.
Don’t spend time building a platform on social media.
Thomas: Beginning authors often make the mistake of spending lots of time on social media under the impression that they are platform-building. But building a platform on social media does not work, and it doesn’t help you sell books.
That time is better spent working on your craft and writing.
Jim, what do you think?
Jim: Well, I think yes and no. A friend of mine has spent the last number of years engaged with several social media platforms. She’s now an administrator for different sites, and she could easily invite members of those groups to sign up for her newsletter when it’s ready to go.
And suddenly, she’d have 15,000 subscribers in a matter of days.
Thomas: Has she launched a book? Has she built the list?
Jim: No, she has not built the list yet because she is still in the process of writing that first novel.
Thomas: I’m willing to bet her social media following isn’t going to grow her list much. When she posts to invite people to join her email list, I think she will be disappointed at the number of people who actually sign up.
She’ll get some subscribers. But social media is different than it used to be. Nowadays, it’s an advertising platform. If you want to promote something, you have to pay to play. And all that time you spend on social media doesn’t make it cheaper to buy ads.
I’m not convinced that it works reliably.
Every once in a while, I hear success stories. A few authors have been successful using Twitter and Facebook before the algorithms changed.
But consider the opportunity cost. Compare what you’re doing with the next best alternative. And I bet you’ll get a better return on your time.
Jim: It will be curious to see what happens when she is ready to launch her website because she has about 30,000 people who regularly follow her posts. Maybe 50% of them will say, “Cool! You finally have a website and newsletter. I’ve liked you for the past seven years, and I want to be part of that.”
Thomas: But Facebook only shows your post to about 5% of your fans page. Of those, only a fraction will click. Five percent of 30,000 is 1500. Ten percent of those people will click to see what it’s about. If half of those sign up, that’s 75 new subscribers from a group of 30,000 people on Facebook.
Jim: Well, it will be interesting to see what happens down the road.
Novelists don’t have to blog.
Thomas: If you’re writing fiction, no one cares about your blog. If you don’t have a book published, there’s not much to write about.
However, it’s totally different for nonfiction. My nonfiction book started as a blog post. Half the chapters were blog posts before they were chapters.
But for fiction, no one wants to read a chapter out of context. Blogging is not a good use of your time. Other things we’re going to talk about are going to benefit you more than blogging.
Jim: I disagree a little bit. I agree that the main thing should be writing the book and honing your craft. However, if you can create compelling blog posts about the themes that run through your books and brand, blogging can be highly beneficial.
Thomas: I can see that working if you’re writing novels that educate readers. A business parable or a spiritual parable could work.
But if you’re writing Amish romance, I can’t see readers visiting your blog to learn about the themes in your book.
What should a novelist DO to build a platform?
#1 Write short stories.
Short stories are assets that you can use in terms of marketing. Start submitting them to publications that publish the kinds of short stories you’re writing.
It will be a great opportunity to get feedback. If your story is accepted, you’ll get some editing for free. You’ll also potentially get a little money, which can have positive tax implications once you start to get paid for your writing. Suddenly this is not a hobby, this is a business, and you can start picking your range of tax deductions for authors.
Don’t let those short stories gather dust on your hard drive unless they’re really bad. Only good short stories will help you in your marketing.
Jim: If your good short story gets an editor’s attention, and they give you feedback, you’ll improve your craft. Mold and shape the story according to their advice, then resubmit it. Even if they don’t pay you money, you’re getting free editing from a strong editor.
#2 Create a one-page website.
Thomas: Create a one-page WordPress website on yourname.com. Choose your pen name before your book comes out.
If you need to use three names to get your unique domain name, it’s better to be James Scott Bell than James S. Bell Because people drop the middle initial.
Jim: That’s for sure. I was honored to win the Christy award, but several times during the ceremony, they dropped the L in James L. Rubart. They announced, “The winner of the Visionary Christy Award is James Rubart!” Inside I’m screaming, “L! L! L! Please include the L!”
Thomas: If your website is James L Rubart.com, and you don’t own JamesRubart.com, people will land on the wrong website, which harms your marketing.
It’s better to use three names in your domain. Choose your author name, buy the .com, and then set up the world’s simplest website.
A website builds a history with Google.
You want a simple website so your website will rank on Google when your book comes out.
Google tracks how old your website is. Brand-new websites have a hard time ranking because Google is suspicious of brand-new websites. It takes time to build that reputation and history, so you might as well start that timer now. If it takes two years to finish your book, you’ll launch your book with two years of Google history attached to your website. You can’t get that time back. You can’t cheat time or pay money to escalate time. You’ve just got to launch that website.
Jim: Years ago, I read that when you purchase that domain name, Google and SEO likes the fact that you’ve bought a domain name for five years instead of one. It signals you’re committed to it, and it gives you some more Google juice. Is that true?
Thomas: I’ve heard that that’s true. Buying your name years in advance is advantageous in that it keeps your name from expiring.
We host lots of websites, and when a website goes down, it’s usually because the domain expired. Authors buy a domain name for one year, but when they get the email telling them to renew, they might be on vacation, or they have a new credit card, and now they’ve lost their domain.
Your webmaster can’t help you because you own your domain name. One client let her domain expire, and somebody else bought it and won’t sell it back to her for anything less than $1,000. If she had spent a little more to register it for ten years (which was money she was going to spend anyway), she would still have her domain.
Even when you’re able to recover it, your site goes down. When your site goes down, that hurts your Google juice.
Some hosting companies offer a free domain name, but I don’t recommend that. Get your domain from a third party, and you’ll have more control over the relationship. You don’t want the company that hosts your website also to be your registrar for your domain. Too many eggs in one basket.
A website shows you’re serious.
Thomas: If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, being Google-able helps you exist in the real world. If you don’t exist on LinkedIn or Google, it’s hard for publishers to believe you’re serious about your writing career.
It doesn’t cost a lot to set up a one-page website.
A website helps you build your email list.
Thomas: Having a website allows you to start building your email list right away. Even if you’re growing it slowly, you’re still getting something.
Jim, if your friend, who’s spent so much time on social media, had a one-page website with a signup form, she could be growing her list and seeing if what she’s doing on social media is effective or not.
She could be testing and gathering subscribers right now.
That time spent on social media is a huge gamble. She won’t know if it’s paying off if she’s not actively asking for email signups. If it’s not working, she could redirect her energies and efforts somewhere else.
What should I include on my website?
Your one-page website should include the following:
- Signup form
- Your author photo
- Book blurb
- Writing progress bar like MyBookProgress.
- What I’m Reading section
Since this website doesn’t have a blog, you can leave it alone once it’s set up. You can spend your time on the most important aspect of marketing yourself before your book comes out, and that is honing your craft. If your novel isn’t good, none of the rest will matter.
Jim: Thomas and I recommend using WordPress. If you want to add a blog down the road, it’s simple.
Thomas: You can purchase hosting through Bluehost.com, and you can get an inexpensive WordPress website with one click.
#3 Print business cards.
Create a business card for yourself that says “Author.” It’s handy to have when telling people about your website, and it’s also an important psychological step.
If you’re at a Christmas party and someone asks what you do, you can say, “I’m working on a book. Here’s my card.” In that way, you start bringing people to your website. They may sign up for your newsletter. It’s a great way to start building that platform before your book comes out and start viewing yourself as an author.
#4 Choose an email service provider.
Thomas: Start building your email list before your book comes out. Depending on your situation, I recommend using ConvertKit (Affiliate Link) or MailerLite (Affiliate Link). Discover which one will be best for you (and why I no longer recommend MailChimp) by listening to our episode about how to pick the right email service for you.
Building an email list is a slow process. Passing out business cards is not the fastest way to grow an email list– but at least you’re making contacts.
#5 Invest in your craft.
Jim: It’s the best thing you can do for your marketing. Eighty percent of your sales will come from word of mouth. That 400-page book is the best brochure to advertise your next book.
If it’s well-written and readers enjoy it, they’re going to tell other people, who will tell more people. Consequently, you need to invest most of your time honing your craft. If you’ve been published, multi-published, award-winning, you probably know better than anybody that the best thing you can do to market your books is to become a better writer.
Thomas: You should be spending most of your time, and arguable most of your money, investing in your craft.
We don’t recommend an expensive website, so you can spend that money improving your craft. You can take courses, getting coaching, and making your book as good as it can be. You can send out a free short story to your email subscribers periodically.
At that cocktail party, when people ask what you do, you can say, “I’m an author. If you want to see some of my writing, go to my website. I release a short story every few months, and you can take a look.”
That way, you’re actually being read, and your readers are starting to engage with your writing. You’re also very focused on the craft while you’re promoting your work.
Jim: You may get feedback from people saying they liked it or didn’t like something about it.
We talked about submitting short stories to editors to get feedback. In this case, you’ll be submitting it to readers, the ultimate audience. You’ll start receiving feedback from them as well, which can be incredibly valuable.
A lot of times, we’re so close to our stories that we’re not sure if it’s going to resonate or not. Some of my novels that I thought were fantastic didn’t resonate with readers as much as others. That’s just part of the art form.
#6 Attend a writers conference.
Thomas: At a writers conference, you will learn how to improve your writing and marketing. As you get closer to your release date, you want to start studying marketing and doing some of the more active things we talk about in other Novel Marketing episodes.
You can network with other writers at a conference. Whether you’re going indie or traditional, knowing various authors and other industry professionals is helpful. I recommend starting at local conferences. They tend to be cheaper, and you don’t have to pay for travel and lodging. But after a while, you’ll want to attend national conferences that may involve leaving your hometown. If there’s a national conference coming to your hometown, go to it! It’s so much cheaper to attend a conference in your town than it is to travel to one on the other side of the country.
Jim: Business ultimately comes down to relationships, and conferences are among the best places to build relationships with editors, agents, and other authors! That can be a huge boost to your career.
#7 Write your book.
Thomas: To summarize what we’ve been saying in answer to Carol’s question: “Carol, you need to be spending most of your energy writing your book, not on marketing your book.”
Teaching marketing techniques for fiction and nonfiction writers at the same time does a disservice to novelists. For nonfiction authors, it’s all about the platform.
You can write a terrible nonfiction book, and if your platform is big enough, you will sell a lot of copies. Even if no one reads the book, you’ll still sell a lot of copies because they heard you speak in person, on the radio, or on a podcast. Maybe they’re subscribed to your newsletter, and you’re your blog. Readers will buy your book, and everyone is happy because they buy for the experience of buying your book and feeling good about owning it.
If you’re a diet expert and people buy your book, even if they don’t read it, they still feel healthier because they have a diet book on their shelf. Financially speaking, you still win.
But for fiction, it’s really not about the platform, especially for your first book. It’s about how good your book is. If your book is no good, it doesn’t matter how big your platform is.
When people buy a novel, they intend to read it.
Look at your bookshelf. The unfinished books are mostly nonfiction.
Typically, that is not the case with the novels you buy. The most important thing you can do is write a good book.
Jim: While platform matters less for fiction, there is one caveat. If an agent or an editor is trying to decide between two novelists, and both books are good, they will choose the author who has a better platform. In that sense, you need to be thinking about platform.
But novelists must realize that if you have a great platform and a poor book, it’s never going to get to this stage. First thing’s first: write a great book.
Thomas: Right. For fiction, at best, your platform is a tiebreaker.
I was just on the phone with a major publishing house, and I asked how they evaluate platform. They were looking at the number of Twitter and Facebook followers you have. But that’s a poor indicator because people can buy 30,000 followers for $50.
I ran marketing for a publishing company. We did tons of experiments with social media, and we did not find it to be as effective as anything else that we did. Sure, we sold books through social media, but we could sell more books through every other effort. On a per-dollar basis, social media was not an effective tool.
The exception was Goodreads, but I see Goodreads as a separate category when it comes to social media.
If you’re not on Goodreads, you should be. Create a profile and start reviewing the books you’re reading. Be active on Goodreads as a reader, and you’ll build your following. People will follow your reviews, and then when you post a book, Goodreads will notify them. People on Goodreads are looking for book recommendations, and those recommendations convert.
It doesn’t take much time. I would give Goodreads the Thomas Umstattd Stamp of Approval as far as being worth your time.
Jim: Social Media is like a big cocktail party with people from all walks of life. Goodreads is a sub-party where everyone who loves to read gathers in one room to talk about books and reading. That’s the room authors want to be in.
Thomas: You don’t want to be in the room where everyone is arguing about politics. That is not where people will be giving book reviews. Sadly, that’s what the social networks are turning into, and it’s not a good environment to talk about a novel you’re writing.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. Rubart to be a step-by-step guide through the first five years of your writing career, and it’s designed for novelists. It’s about becoming the best writer at the conference. You’ll learn what to do in each quarter of each year to succeed and avoid the mistakes that hijack most authors’ success. Learn more at AuthorMedia.com/courses.