author marketing

Wrangling Your Author Platform

Lately I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma. The more immersed I get in doing a high volume of high-quality, interesting work, the more I totally forget to come up for air and share the latest news with anyone else who might be interested.

I’ll look up and three weeks went by and not a peep from me. And I’ll realize I should make a blog post or a friendly note to my mailing list or…you know, a Facebook post or something.

I feel like I’m alone in this—I mean, who has to make a discipline of Facebook in this day and age?—but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you’re never the only person who has a certain problem.

I’m a systems guy, and this dilemma has been simmering in the back of my mind for a while, and I think I’ve finally developed a bit of a possible approach. I’ve been getting to the point where I feel an increasing need to wrangle or systematize my author platform a bit, given that I have presences all over the place and am intermittent on all of them and need to update several of them to, for example, indicate that I’ve published more than two things, or that Hubris Towers exists.

Here’s the approach that’s brewing for how to develop my author platform a little more strategically:

  1. Figure out all the places I communicate with readers. This includes my websites, mailing lists, author bios in various places, Wattpad, Patreon, social media, as well as things like calls to action (CTAs) in the backs of books.
  2. Decide what the point of each of them is and how often each one needs to get updated. For example:
    • Author bio in the back of a paperback probably never really needs to get updated. It’s clear it was written when the book came out.
    • Widgets on the side of my blog with links to buy my books should get updated when a new book comes out.
    • Facebook could use a couple updates a day, presumably.
    • Blog maybe every time I have something useful to say, though even that depends on what counts as ‘useful.’
      • Part of the question here too is whether blog is mainly for readers or mainly for authors or just for me and whatever I’m thinking about. Any of those could be valid, but as long as I’m not sure, I won’t be using it particularly well.
  3. Set up a quick schedule for when to touch each thing. This could get ridiculous really fast, so I think a light touch is important. But I have an (admittedly intermittent) system for tracking what I need to do and by when and such, so once I’ve figured out that I want to post to my blog once a week (or day or month or whatever), there’s no reason not to put that into the system. I’m a big fan of not having to remember stuff manually.
  4. (Optional ninja level) Make a list of topics to rotate through or provide inspiration and guidance for each thing. Speaking for myself, part of my real problem is that I don’t know what kinds of topics and scope are appropriate for each given platform. Do I tell my mailing list I’m having a baby? Do I spin out intriguing theories about the spirit world on my blog? Can I tell Facebook I’m feeling depressed and bad at writing, or do I need to keep on message? It may sound a little control-freakish, but I really think it would help me to be able to just look at a list of the 12 things I talk about on my blog/mailing list/Twitter and pick one, or (even better) have a few simple guidelines that help me pick through the thousand things on my mind and figure out which one(s) will be interesting and worthwhile to a given audience in the context of a given platform or medium.

What about the rest of you? For the authors and bloggers and brilliant social media-istas (?) out there, how do you keep track of what needs to be kept up to date? Do you keep lists of ideas for what to write about next? Do you write on a schedule or as your whimsy takes you?

Cheers!

—Ben

A Revolutionary New Kind of Online Communal-Story-Lovefest

Hi guys,

Man. So much cool stuff in progress that I’ve barely had a chance to look up. Sorry for dropping off the face of the earth a bit.

So the big theme these days is getting one-time infrastructure-y tasks of various sizes out of the way. I have a bunch of things looming/nagging, like finishing my newsletter’s welcome series or publishing The Dream World Collective or launching a website for Clickworks Press. Bad news is they’re each a ton of work. Good news is once they’re done, they’re done (unlike, say, Hubris Towers, which is running on a 6-week cycle so only gives me a little breathing room before it starts back up.)

I’ve realized these looming tasks take up almost as much brainspace as whatever I’m actively working on, so I’m really excited about the prospect of getting them resolved. I think life will feel free and easy (relatively speaking) when I can settle down to just working on the next story and building Clickworks Press with more focus on the business/community side than the web development side.

My brain is a very busy place these days. Here are some of the top things on my mind.

Hubris Towers Episode 5

Hubris Towers Season 1, Episode 4: Ominous Undertones

In case I forgot to tell you, this exists now.

Bill and I have completed half a season of Hubris Towers. (Woo!) But Episode 5 is starting to loom, with a target release date of 10/20/15.

Bill has been awesome and finished the plan in record time. Usually we work concurrently, with him a few scenes ahead of me at any given time. This time he was diligent and I was on vacation, so (pending a final conversation and maybe some tweaking) it’s all on me to just sit down and write it at this point. Yup. Three weeks left to get from zero words to holding a published copy. So…no pressure.

That said, my lovely wife and daughter are going to be out of town for a week, so I’m going to have a lot of quiet free time, and my crazy goal is to see if I can just sit down and bang out the whole rough draft in a day. Or two. That would be amazing.

Newsletter Welcome Series

I want people who sign up for my newsletters to get a proper welcome. The trickiest part, setting up an optional weekly delivery of free Dream World Collective chapters, is basically done. Huge relief. Now I’m working on a few final pieces and I’ll be ready to kick this off.

I want to add an email that gives a little cool background on The Stone and the Song, but I’m having trouble figuring out an interesting angle that hasn’t been done to death already.

I also set up a fun little reader quiz, which was way too long to start with, so I’ve decided to break it up, with a few fun easy questions for starters and a button at the end to take the reader to the next level if they’re interested. Only problem is that means turning one email into about 3-4 that trigger each other when a person clicks the button. I’ve got the method down, so at this point it’s just busywork, but still adds probably several hours of work.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to launch this welcome series. It’s so much fun. It’s got Han Solo and secret tips on [REDACTED] and a sandcastle story and free access to a novel I haven’t even released yet. And no creepy tentacles. I think it’s going to be one of the best ways I’ve invented yet to make friends with strangers. So I’m also in the back of my mind trying to figure out how to let people who are already signed up for the newsletter try it out, both for testing purposes and because it’s awesome.

Clickworks Press Website

This one is crazy cool, though a little complicated behind the scenes. My vision is to build a website that will draw out what we love about stories, characters, authors, and each other, with specific and interesting prompts that go beyond star ratings or generic reviews.

Like, what if you got to talk about your favorite setting in a book, or your favorite food scene, or pick colors that go with characters, or rage against the villains, or whatever, and a bunch of other people were doing that too, and all of that got aggregated on the book page and made one big story of our collective experience with this book? And then what if you could do that with characters, too, and see all the main characters in a book, or all the stories a character shows up in, or all the stories an author has written, or read, and all the cool little things readers like about the authors, too, and about each other, and—anyway. Run-on paragraph.

And there’s more beyond that, but we’ll start there. Of course, building a website from scratch would be a big enough job even if it were a simple little e-commerce site, not a revolutionary new kind of online communal-story-lovefest. And I don’t want to wait until I’ve invented and built a whole story-love platform before I launch any of this publicly. So I’ve got this thing divided into phases, viz.:

Phase 1 – Visible, attractive front page. Links (if any) work.

Phase 2 – Full hierarchical catalog of Clickworks books and author pages.

Phase 3 – Readers can create accounts and log in and leave a basic snippet.

Phase 4 – First side game and more snippets.

Right now I’m almost done with Phase 2, and I think once that’s solid I’ll do at least a soft launch. At the moment I still routinely break the site as I make little tweaks and teach myself…wow, come to think of it, two or three programming languages plus a framework or two. Like I said, complicated.

But the super-cool part (at this stage) is that all the effort I’m putting in on the front end—(I mean…in advance. I think it’s more like the back end, in web development terms. Or the middle end. Anyway.) All this effort up front is creating the coolest setup. I’ve nearly got it to the point where I can just fill out a new book’s information once in a pretty, user-friendly form, and the right stuff will show up everywhere it needs to throughout the site.

Like, once I’ve loaded in a book’s information, it will automatically generate (as appropriate given the rules I’m setting up) a preview on the front page and on the summary Books page, link the book on the author’s page, and, with only one simple line of code (really a shortcode), generate a full book page complete with buy links to any platforms the book is available on, author bio(s), etc., with customized bits based on the book’s publication date and whether it’s available for purchase. (For example, if it’s available for purchase but future pub date, it gets listed as Coming Soon and shows pre-order links.) It’s a little like magic.

(For the curious techies among you, I’m building it with WordPress, making extensive use of the Pods plugin, which makes it easy to define and use custom post types and taxonomies, as well as providing pretty powerful templating tools. Let me know if you’re interested in hearing more. It’s super-sweet.)

I’m using Gumroad for direct sales and payment processing, and it’s quite elegant but not as powerful as I’d really like. Basically Gumroad has a super-sweet setup if you’re just selling items, but I want to be able to do cool micro-patronage stuff it’s not really built for and display information it doesn’t really make available in the ways I need, so I’m on the bubble. Stripe (and maybe Braintree) could do what I need, but I’d need to be a way better programmer before I’d feel comfortable using them. As I read the situation, Gumroad is a super-safe, simple way to get your products online and sell them, and it’s beautiful, but it’s able to be that simple and beautiful because it’s carefully focused on a specific task.

Things like Stripe have a powerful API (basically a way to program interactions with a site/app/service) that would let me do pretty much whatever I want, like make a charge to a credit card when some event triggers (say, we hit a support goal for a project a la Kickstarter), except I totally am not at a level where I’m comfortable just telling my website when it can go ahead and charge peoples’ cards. I make little mistakes from time to time, and I want to make sure that when I do, it results in things like a broken link or a page not displaying quite right, not someone getting double-charged or an author not getting paid.

So for now I’m sticking with the simple, secure, beautiful Gumroad, and dreaming of the day I can hire a proper developer, dig into the Stripe-or-similar API and really kick things up to the next level.

First 1,000 Copies!

I started consolidating my book sales numbers the other day and discovered something cool. Looking across platforms and counting free promos, I recently distributed my 1,000th book!

Thanks so much to all of my lovely readers for buying, reading, reviewing, spreading the word, and sending your love and support and encouragement. I say it all the time, but you are truly the best!

Cheers,

—Ben

PS – For the curious, here’s a breakdown:

  • About 75% of those copies were free to the readers, either as free promos or downloads of Hubris Towers Episode 1, which is perma-free. The rest have been paid sales.
  • The Stone and the Song accounted for about 70% of the sales and 55% of the free promos. This surprised me a bit since there are three HT books and only one S&S. Some factors:
    • S&S generated a big surge of interest pre-launch and got nearly 100 pre-orders.
    • The first free promo for S&S got over 300 downloads with almost no publicity from me. Still not sure why.
    • S&S has been available twice as long as the average HT episode.
  • In-person sales of Hubris Towers pocket editions have provided just under a third of HT’s sales and just over half of HT’s profits. This makes sense because most online sales are ebooks, and all in-person sales are paperback sales where CreateSpace doesn’t take a cut.
  • Excluding free copies of HT Ep1, we have about a 74% read-through rate from Ep1 to Ep2 and 31% from Ep1 to Ep3 (so far – one thing I’ve realized is that readers often take a few months to get to a book they bought.)
    • If we include free copies of Ep1, rates drop to about 9% Ep1 to Ep2 and 4% Ep1 to Ep3.
    • Currently we have about 42% read-through from Ep2 to Ep3.
  • The land speed of an unladen (European) swallow appears to be 24 mph.1

Catching Your Reader’s Eye. Also Tapirs!

A writer wants to express how amazing her books are, but she can’t seem to pin down which details are the ones that will catch a new reader’s attention. Will she be able to overcome her misleading instincts, or will years of effort and emotion be wasted as her stories gather dust in endless obscurity?

Ok, so that was a prototype.

I just read a book by Libbie Hawker called Gotta Read It! – Five Simple Steps to a Fiction Pitch That Sells. I recommend it. It’s an inexpensive purchase and a quick read, and gave me good insight into what I currently find one of the trickiest parts of my job as an author: writing compelling product descriptions.

Baby tapir!

A couple quick takeaways (one of which is from her recent appearance on the Self Publishing Podcast, which also includes tapirs):

– Authors tend to write about what’s unique about their books, while it’s often more effective to show a reader how the book is like other books they’ve loved.

– Authors often try to summarize the plot and/or describe the awesome story world, which can do more to dilute the story than to promote it.

While the main substance is fairly familiar territory if you’re at all acquainted with how stories work, I found a lot of value in the simple and effective way it gets applied to writing product descriptions and the extremely practical, actionable steps. Plus Ms. Hawker just seems very fun and smart (in fact, she’d probably want me to call her Libbie), and she also writes historical fiction, much of it set in ancient Egypt. Can’t argue with that.

Through all this I also discovered Libbie Hawker’s blog, which has some great posts on the writing life and the publishing industry, from the perspective of a smart, frank, and funny successful full-time novelist.

Link: Gotta Read It! by Libbie Hawker

Cheers!

—Ben

Book Launch: Detailed Breakdown + Debrief

Kara Jorgensen, author of The Earl of Brass and The Winter Garden, asked about how I marketed The Stone and the Song during its recent launch. (For those just joining, this was my debut launch and hit the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings, selling nearly 100 copies in the first ten days with no budget and no pre-existing mailing list.)

My reply got way too long for comments, and I’ve been wanting to share this anyway in case it’s helpful to any other authors out there, so here it is.

Results

  • Nearly 100 sales in first 10 days
  • 4 days on the Top 20 Amazon Best Seller list in Fairy Tales
  • Broke the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings
  • Multiple five-star reviews on Amazon within first few days of release. (It appears a couple have since disappeared. I’m looking into this.)

Wave 1: The Big Facebook Bonanza

For this launch the announcements went in two waves. I announced the pre-order on Facebook, and a bunch of friends were really excited and shared the announcements and/or made announcements of their own. I probably had around 10-12 friends who shared/announced at least once, including 3-5 friends who went crazy and put it up once or twice a day or more for the first few days.

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

I’ve lived in multiple cities and have always been working to become a professional author, so I had a pretty wide base of friends excited for me. I think the great cover and professional presentation helped push a lot of people into taking the book seriously and being genuinely intrigued or excited about it, not just casually happy for me, and the pre-order discount (99 cents) made it pretty low-commitment.

So people started ordering, which gave me an early surge in rankings and Hot New Releases, and I shared screenshots (on FB) to keep the excitement going and help legitimize the book as a serious endeavor, not just a “cool thing my friend did.” Then my crazy-cool friends shared those, etc. This first burst lasted 2-3 days, during which I got 50-60 pre-orders.

Wave 2: Building A Mailing List

A few days later, I launched my mailing list (more details here) with a broadcast to 420+ old friends and acquaintances. Of these about 60 bounced, and of the rest about half opened the note and 30-40 signed up for my mailing list. During the day or two after that email my total pre-orders went a little above 80, with a few more trickling in since then. By then I’d fallen far off in rankings, but this second The Stone & the Song hits Amazon Hot New Releases!surge pushed me back up into the Top 12k-15k in Amazon Paid (and top 15-25 in Fairy Tales, and Hot New Releases again) for a couple days.

Note: I’m not keeping the huge list. I may send one reminder, but otherwise I’m only emailing the people who actually opted in.

I was also fairly shameless about telling relevant friends and coworkers about my book, but (hopefully) without being too weird about it. It’s tricky riding the line between helping people find it if they’d be interested but not making them feel obligated or awkward if they’re not. Main thing there is to think from their perspective. I try not to spew my announcements to everyone, but to think about who might genuinely enjoy what I’ve got and let them know it exists.

Initial Follow-Up

My real goal from this launch is to get 25 Amazon reviews by March 7, two weeks after release. With over 85 sales, a ghost army of amazing supporters appearing from nowhere, and consistent messaging that this is the best way for readers to help me, I think that’s realistic. These reviews will harness the goodwill and momentum of the launch and put it in a lasting form that (I hope) will drive Amazon to start putting the book in also-bought lists and recommendation emails and convince new readers to buy it.

I contacted my shiny new mailing list with a last-chance reminder on the final day of pre-orders. Going forward I’m going to send an intro email describing some exciting upcoming projects and ideas, but mostly the goal is to figure out cool new ways to delight my list. I’ve got them preliminarily self-segmented into readers, writers, adventurers, enigmas, etc., along with asking who’s interested in what (updates, collaboration, friendly notes, experiments), and my philosophy is that the list is more for them than for me. More to come on that. Sign up here if you’re interested in joining in.

The book itself has an unobtrusive sign-up link on the copyright page and some pretty carefully-thought-out calls to action in the back, inviting people to sign up for my mailing list, support me on Patreon, or email me. It also has a sample of my next novel followed by links to where you can read it free for now and a reminder to sign up for the mailing list. The goal is to find those who liked my story enough to read it to the end, give them a taste of what else is available, provide an overabundance of fun and value, and get a way to stay in touch. I’m excited to see how this develops over the next couple weeks as my 80+ initial buyers get time to read and finish the story.

Lessons Learned

This was a test run and I’ve learned a lot. Knowing what I know now, I would have done it a little differently.

1. I’d just release directly (with a limited-time discount) instead of making a pre-order. I could have had readers leaving reviews on Amazon or sharing their thoughts about the story on social media throughout the launch week rather than just going on hearsay and product description.

2. I’d have been ready to send out the email as soon as momentum started dying down. I was still figuring out mailing lists and refining my contact list, and ended up having about a 2-3 day delay between the two big surges, and my sales rank dipped to 100k (and even, briefly, close to 200k). I think if I’d timed it better I could have had a sustained 10-20 sales/day for 5-6 days in a row. I don’t have details, but I get the impression that’s getting close to where Amazon’s algorithms would start picking it up a little more seriously and it might have started getting some organic sales and building on itself a bit.

3. I’d have contrived a way to keep up the engagement on FB through the day. I have a day job (and no smart phone) so wasn’t able to respond to peoples’ shares, encouragement, questions, etc. during the day. My bitlinks and my friends who were watching corroborrated that the action fell off around 11am. My wife and I have since realized that she can help keep things going from home while I’m at work :]

4. I’d have proofread a little more carefully. I ended up getting a little impatient and loading the final compile at 2am a day or two before deadline. It turned out there were still a few typos. Luckily I was able to fix some of these early on and upload the fix during the pre-order period. A hard lesson was that Amazon freezes the design 2-3 days before launch. I had a couple final adjustments to the manuscript that unfortunately didn’t make it to the pre-order customers even though I uploaded the changed version within minutes after Amazon unfroze the book. Not critical, and they can set their accounts to get the updated version, but it bothered the perfectionist in me.

5. I wish I had figured out a way to get a list of people who bought the book. It would make it really easy to express gratitude, remind people to leave reviews, check for interest in future releases, notify buyers about the changes in 4 above, etc. Anybody have a good way to do this?

It was all a ton of work and a ton of fun. I’m trying to mostly put it behind me and get back to work on actual writing now. This has more than ever driven home for me how good it will be to have a catalog of other books I can direct eager parties to.

Any ideas on things I could have done better? Questions or experiences of your own you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Cheers!

—Ben

Building Your Author Mailing List From Scratch

In all my research about how to market your books, the consensus I keep finding is that the real foundation for an effective strategy comes down to two things: your next book and your mailing list.

This makes sense. Each book boosts all the rest, and there’s no point in finding ways to drive traffic if there’s no high-quality catalog of books for people to find. And for all the social media and book promotions and algorithm hacking, I can’t imagine a more stable and consistent way to make sales than to have a list of people who like what you do and have asked you to contact them directly when you have new work available. So while I’m constantly experimenting and researching to find and harness good ways to get the word out, my fundamental strategy rests on writing more books and maintaining a strong mailing list.

Except I don’t have a mailing list yet.

This sets up an interesting situation. I’ve already been a bit noisy about my book launch (speaking of which – get your copy before the price goes up on Saturday!) And while I don’t mind a bit of justifiable self-promotion, I really don’t want to be that friend who’s constantly trying to get you to buy my book, so I’m not going to just put all my friends on my mailing list (which is poor practice and borderline unethical anyway), and I’m a little hesitant to even broadcast a lot of invites.

But I also have some amazing friends who will do everything in their power to help me get the word out, who eagerly want updates, and who will be all the more effective if I can give some clear goals and unified direction. I want them on my list. And across years, cities, and continents, I’ve built up wonderful circles of friends and acquaintances who, though we may have fallen out of touch, might be very excited to read my books and get in on the fun.

Or possibly some of them have forgotten who I am.

So how do you start a list that has everyone who should be on it but nobody who shouldn’t?

Here’s the solution I’ve come up with. I’d love to hear what you guys have done. I’ve gone through my entire contact list (including some very old and diverse acquaintances) and narrowed it to just the people I remember and I think might remember me and be interested in the fact that I’m publishing books now.

I’m getting set up with a mailing list service—still testing things out, but probably MailChimp—and I’m going to make a burner list out of those contacts. I’ll send out one email letting them know about the launch and upcoming cool stuff and give them a link to sign up if they want updates. I’ll probably send a reminder or two in a few days, just because sometimes people miss emails. And then I’ll delete that list. Anyone who signs up for more will get it, and I won’t bother the others any further.

The fun thing is that since I’m a geek and game-obsessed and process-oriented and (let’s admit it) unnecessarily complicated about stuff, I’m already finding some really fun possibilities for segmenting the lists. I’m playing with interesting sign-up forms that will help me find which of my people are big readers or aspiring writers, who’s a socialite and who’s an enigma, who wants to spread the word and who likes missions and experiments.

But more on that later. Or you can sign up here and get in on the ground floor. I’ll warn you now, it’s all experimental and subject to change. But I think it’s going to get pretty sweet.

Early Forays Into Audiobooks

Exciting developments! I’m starting work on the audiobook version of The Stone and the Song. It’s been part of my plans to have audio versions of my books available at some point, but I was a little intimidated about the process and didn’t have specific plans yet about when and how to get S & S into audio.

But I looked into it, and it turns out it’s a lot simpler than I thought. I’m mainly looking at Audible for now and I expected all kinds of complicated specs and formatting stuff, but it’s actually not bad. There are a few specifications in terms of audio quality, volume variations, etc., but the requirements for structure, credits, and so on basically come down to stating the title, author, and narrator; having a bit of dead air at the beginning and end of each file; and keeping the file sizes and lengths reasonable.

So that’s exciting. My big Christmas present was a Blue Yeti microphone and, while I’m not a qualified audio tech, I am loving it. Still experimenting with the best setup to get a really crisp, professional-sounding audiobook, but it’s a really promising start. And I’m really excited about the project. The Stone and the Song is made to be read aloud—very intentional use of rhythm and rhyme and timing.

My friend Bill is starting to make early forays into podcasting and audio narration as well, and he’s starting to record The Dream World Collective for Podiobooks and/or Audible. Exciting times – updates to follow!