Elements of a Successful Fiction Platform

For most fiction writers, the true definition of that buzzword “platform” has always seemed a bit fuzzy. While writers of nonfiction can draw upon their subject matter in seeking opportunities for their work, theories on how aspiring novelists should promote themselves abound. Many fiction writers have a vague understanding of the need to network online, but are unsure of the specific and tangible benefits of doing so. Can time invested in platform development up front really help sell more novels later? Does offering craft tips or glimpses of your personal life succeed in leading people to your fiction?

Without having a clear idea of which methods of promoting yourself and your work are really worth the investment of time and money, you might be tempted to avoid the subject entirely. After all, you’ve got a novel to write! But in today’s publishing world, neglecting your platform—even before you have a book deal—can be a big mistake. Simply put, writers need readers. It’s an undisputable fact that many of today’s most successful fiction writers are those who’ve developed ways of creating lasting fans—and of reaching out to new ones every day. And aspiring writers who’ve developed budding fan bases have an advantage when it comes time to appeal to publishers and agents.

So as much as you might want to, you can’t afford to wait to create an online identity. The kinds of connections that translate into devoted readers of your work take time to build. “First and foremost, I try to remember the brand is me, not my latest book,” romance novelist Gwyn Cready says. “My efforts go into building a connection between the reader and Gwyn Cready, the writer.”

The key is to get your name known early on and then work at continually increasing your visibility as your career progresses. But knowing you need a platform and knowing the best way to go about building one are two entirely different matters. The good news is that when developing a strategy for beginning—or strengthening—your own presence and outreach, you don’t have to spend valuable hours starting from scratch with your own trial and error. Many notable novelists have succeeded in building large networks of fans over time—and are willing to share what they’ve learned along the way.

What does a successful platform really look like for a fiction writer? Read on to find out.

Your Website & Blog
Creating a website is a given—but making sure it remains content-rich, fun, reader-friendly and up to date requires a lasting commitment. Meg Cabot, who has written more than 50 titles for teens and adults, started her website back in 1998 to let readers know a bit more about herself and her books. Over time, the site has grown and evolved to include a blog she updates a few times a week; a message board for readers to discuss her books, other people’s books and even their own works-in-progress; a tour schedule; a list of upcoming releases; links to where her books can be purchased; a page where a monthly book contest is held; links to Twitter and Facebook pages for Cabot, her books and even some of her characters; excerpts from her work; links to her Café Press shop; a place for readers to sign up to receive e-mail newsletters; and a contact page.

“Having a website that is static seems to disappoint readers who want to see what their favorite writer is up to,” Cabot says. “At the same time, posting too much about craft or how many foreign sales you made last week can be a bit boring if that’s all you post.” Consider your fans’ point of view, and then aim to provide as much of what interests them as possible.

An integral part of most websites, of course, is a blog, and for good reason. Whether you blog alone or with a team of other writers who share your passion or niche, it’s a time-tested way to build a fan base. Author Allison Winn Scotch launched her blog, Ask Allison, almost a full year before her debut novel, The Department of Lost & Found, came out in 2007. “The first step I took was to establish a blog that would build some kind of brand loyalty,” she says. “I created Ask Allison, which gives advice to aspiring writers. I can’t impart how helpful this has been.”

Mystery novelist J.A. Konrath agrees, and has the statistics to prove that blogging can be a powerful part of a fiction writer’s platform. “My blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, lists everything I know about the writing biz, and gets about 5,000 hits per day,” he says.

But your blog doesn’t have to focus on writing, publishing or a topic related to your fiction. It can also start with your work itself (though there’s much debate in the fiction community about how wise it is to publicly post your writing), and then grow from there. This has worked for thriller writer Scott Sigler, who offers free podcasts of his novels. “Without a doubt, keeping fresh content in the feed every week is the biggest factor [to my blog’s success],” Sigler says. “If I’m cranking out stories that the fans want to hear, they are also willing to hear my other messages: what to buy when, how they can help, when I’m on tour, etc.”

Before you jump into blogging, consider how to best position yourself for future success. Every blog needs to strike its own note and sound it consistently to attract readers, and to keep their attention over time. At the end of the day, your brand and your blog are “about” what you write best.

If you’re too overwhelmed with the prospect of maintaining your own blog, consider teaming up with like-minded writers for a joint venture. Suspense author James Scott Bell focuses his online writing on contributing to a group blog called Kill Zone. “A solo blog is very draining if it is to be done well and draw enough people to justify the time,” he says. “I found it took too much away from the most important thing: my actual writing.” Besides, from the reader’s perspective, the only thing better than a blog by one bestselling writer is a blog by nine of “today’s hottest thriller and mystery writers,” where readers who are fans of one of the authors’ books might find they like the others’, too.

If you can’t decide whether to blog solo or in collaboration, perhaps, like Winn Scotch, who blogs at both Ask Allison and Writer Unboxed, you should try both and then track your “return on investment,” something Bell suggests every author should keep in mind.

E-mail Lists & Newsletters
Build an e-mail list, and give readers every opportunity to join it. “I bring a guestbook to every appearance and ask if people would like to be on my e-mailing list,” children’s book author and illustrator Katie Davis says. “Same goes for anyone who gives me a business card. Then at pub time, I am prepared to announce the book to people who have requested info.”

Even if you don’t have any publications to announce yet, start collecting contacts early in your networking process (on your website or blog, and however else you can), so you’ll have them ready when big news rolls around. Be sure to acquire appropriate permission. “About once every three months, I take all the personal notes and contacts and send them a personal invitation to join the newsletter list with an opt-in link,” romance author Susan May Warren says. “I also offer them a free, short read for joining, something that gives them a taste of what they get in the newsletter.”

Davis says that crucial step of asking permission is not only common courtesy, but it builds a better list. “The worst possible thing is to add people to your mailing list without asking them first. A list of 1,000 strangers is not as strong as a list of 100 dedicated followers,” she says. “It will make people angry if you send them promotional materials they haven’t asked for.”

So what do you do with the list once you have it? Mystery author Dana Stabenow successfully uses an e-newsletter to stay connected to, and inspire, her readers. At its launch she ran a contest for fans she was already in touch with to name it. They selected “The Roadhouse Report,” named for a bar in her Kate Shugak series. Stabenow sends out a newsletter each month for the four months prior to a new book’s publication, and then a newsletter on the day of the release. Each bulletin lists upcoming signings (complete with links to buy the books at those venues), announces the winners of advance reader copy giveaways, and includes a link to the book’s page on Amazon.com.

Chances are good that if you’ve reached out and been generous with your time in the past, fans won’t mind a slight uptick in communications come publication time.

Multimedia
Don’t just make audio or video so you can say you have them. Create infectious, informative or funny tracks that will be likely to get passed along or recommended. “Making a book trailer for the sake of having a book trailer is a waste of time, unless you think it’s fun to make book trailers,” children’s novelist and poet Laurel Snyder says. “If it isn’t funny or beautiful or thought-provoking, it will only be watched by your mother. People forget that these things need to be content.” When you come across an audio or video promo that stands out, bookmark the link for future reference, when you might be tempted to produce something less than remarkable.

Sigler takes a more direct multimedia approach by podcasting his fiction in unabridged, serialized weekly installments—a strategy he feels is key to inviting new fans into his fold and reaching out beyond his existing audience. He makes his podcasts free and available widely on iTunes, the Zune store and all over the Web, hoping that listeners will become book buyers. Likewise, readers who discover his work in bookstores are pointed to his online efforts: Sigler’s contact information and social media profiles are listed in all of his books.

Traditional PR Channels
The doom of the mainstream media has long been rumored. But make no mistake, media attention can not only bring your name and work to potential new fans, it can grant you increased authority and trust in an increasingly noisy marketplace. After appearing as a guest on the regional TV show Good Morning Connecticut, Davis offered to recommend great books for kids, and now appears monthly on the program. Suspense novelist and nonfiction author Hallie Ephron says reviewing crime books for her monthly On Crime column in The Boston Globe has been an effective strategy for increasing respect for her own fiction. And when Cready’s time-travel romance Flirting With Forever came out, she successfully pitched a related idea to USA Today. As a result, her article “10 Great Places to Defy Time and Space” coincided with the release.

Bottom line: Don’t overlook traditional media outlets to expand your reach and up your credibility. Any time you spy opportunities to get your name in the public eye, even if you have yet to pitch your novel, go for it.

Social Media & Reader Outreach
Down the road, as an established author, you will reach out to fans via social networks, so a smart strategy in the meantime is to offer support to the authors in your genre whom you already admire. Begin by using social media to build yourself into a strong network of like-minded writers, both published and unpublished. Don’t stalk them, but reach out and keep in touch. When the day comes that you need a favor, they’ll be more likely to oblige if they’re already familiar with you and your online efforts.

The authors most successfully using Facebook and Twitter work to expand their reach “over the long haul,” in the words of YA novelist Lisa McMann. “I spend time online every day,” she says. “Three years ago MySpace was the place to be. Now it’s Facebook and Twitter. You have to be flexible and willing to change when social media changes if you want to stay current [especially] with the teen audience.”

Sigler also tries to be as responsive as possible on every social media channel. “Every new friend on Facebook or Twitter gets a personal, hand-typed-by-me reply,” he says.

It’s worth noting that of the 13 novelists interviewed for this piece, no two had the exact same approach—so it’s up to you to figure out which kinds of social media work best for you and your work.

Although several authors felt that Twitter was the least intuitive of all the online networks, Snyder says it can be great for meeting new people. “One of the best ways to pick up followers is through a tweet chat, like #kidlitchat or #ScribeChat,” she explains. “These events can be dizzying, but you’ll get introduced to a huge number of new people all at once.” Snyder also says publishing your writing in an online magazine is a good strategy because it can then be linked to your social media profiles. So if you write something people like, they can follow you back to Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Old-fashioned face-to-face time with fans is also crucial when it comes to reader outreach. “I spend a lot of time with my fans as a way of continuing to build my platform, but that’s not the only reason why I do it,” McMann says. “I like spending time with my readers in order to stay in touch with their vibe, and to be a more authentic writer for teens.” When you aim to connect in person, stick to events where new-to-you folks are most likely to show up.

For a different kind of face time, Skype conferencing can be an easy way to traverse the country without leaving your home office. Young adult author Heather Vogel Frederick says chatting with mother-daughter book clubs both live and via Skype has been the single most successful strategy at this point in her career. She says, “I have numerous clubs now that have invited me back two and three times, as each of my new novels is released. A time commitment is involved, but frankly, why would I deny myself the pleasure of interacting with enthusiastic readers who have already read the book and are eager to ask questions about it? It’s something I thoroughly enjoy, and find invigorating and inspiring.”

Strategic Giveaways
For the best return on your investment, consider targeting book giveaways first and foremost to potential reviewers in your network. “I make lists of my online community members who review books, or own bookstores, or work for magazines or libraries, and I try to reach out to them (one-on-one, not in a blast) to ask if they’d like review copies,” Snyder says.

McMann favors a different approach: She says rather than giving books to booksellers, whose nightstands are already towering with “must-reads,” she looks for potential fans. “I’ve developed quite a large local following by handing out free signed copies of Wake to actors at the local youth theater where I volunteer. This theater group is made up of teens from several area high schools, and the actors change each season. Teen actors tend to be readers, and they also tend to be fairly outgoing and vocal about what they like—at least my local group is. So they have spread the word about my books to their classmates all around the Phoenix metro area.”

When it comes to sponsoring your own giveaways, a smart way to become familiar with the best strategies is simply to participate in a few similar contests by authors you admire. Paying attention to what feels good for you as a fan is a helpful way to train yourself to take good care of your own future devotees.

Balance
A solid fiction platform combines all of the above with one key ingredient you can’t do without: good writing. “The writing comes first,” Konrath says. “It has to. The true secret to success is repeat business. Getting someone to try you is hard, but if they try you and never buy another book, your efforts were wasted.”

Bell echoes this sentiment. “You can market your way to an introduction, but if the reader doesn’t like the book, nothing of lasting value is gained.”

So be careful not to let an overemphasis on self-promotion hurt your writing—because writing well is still the most important job for any novelist. Then, explore all the ways you can keep those readers coming back for more.

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