“Develop an author platform” is one of the first pieces of book marketing advice that just about every new writer will hear.
When I first heard it, years ago, it put me in mind of someone standing on an upturned wooden crate at Speaker’s Corner in London, shouting to get their message across. In fact, that’s not too far from what it actually means: having a central spot on which to set out your wares, raising your head above the crowd, and an obvious place where people can find you if they’re looking for you. These days, the focal point of the author platform is likely to be your own website, with arms radiating out from it into social media and other online networking routes.
I’m delighted to welcome novelist Ali Bacon to Off The Shelf today to explain how she has grown her own author platform, at first almost without realising it, to the point that now, in some quarters, it seems like all roads lead to Ali Bacon. Here she is to answer my questions:
The writer now standing at platform …
Debbie: Now seven years old, your blog is one of the longest-standing WordPress websites that I know. How has your website evolved to reflect your changing status as an aspiring and then published author?
Ali: I started to blog back in 2007, partly for fun and also because of an instinct that in the increasingly digital world, it would be good to have an online presence. As an unpublished author it was also a way of finding an audience, and, if I’m honest, I’d also say that knowing I could publish a few paragraphs every week gave me a raison d’etre at times when the fiction-writing muse had gone totally AWOL.
It was only later that I ran into the concept of a platform and realised I had one! By then, I was aware of the need to extend my audience. In a ‘spare’ moment I also set up my St Andrews blog, again for my own satisfaction, but also because I had never tapped those connections.
For a year I was also a member of an online writers’ cooperative called Love A Happy Ending, whose aim was to promote our writing collaboratively, which was a big help. Meanwhile I had joined Twitter (hoorah!) and (more reluctantly) Facebook, which I use to network and also to promote blog posts.
In short, I don’t know that my own blog has changed very much, but I’ve tried to extend its reach through online networking and using other social media. Now I’m also developing the Bristol Women Writers website, a group project which I think is a good model for writers who haven’t quite made the big time but want to make an impact.
Debbie: Writing a blog is one thing, making sure people find it and read it is quite another. What are your top tips for attracting readers to yours and what have been your most popular posts or topics?
Ali: Good question! It’s quite a while since I checked my blog stats, but the results are interesting. Book reviews/discussions (which grew from a dearth of other ideas!) have gone down well and may explain why I now get sent review copies by some publishers. Guest bloggers are also popular (who have doubtless brought a following of their own), and occasionally I’ve engaged in a topical writerly debate (e.g. using Scrivener software, and a controversy surrounding the YouWriteOn website), with good results. Referring to a celebrity – especially an actor with a female following! – always gets a spike in hits, but, to be honest, I usually just choose what’s on my mind, rather than rating the likely popularity of a post.
My one main rule for blogging is always to reply to a comment. I think if someone has made the effort to respond, you should not be so rude as to ignore it. No point in gaining an audience only to lose it again! Rule number 2, by the way, is to avoid too many exalmation marks!
Debbie: You’ve done an amazing job to keep a blog going for seven years, but constantly adding new posts can be exhausting, as well as diverting the author from writing their next book. How often do you think an author ought to add a new post to their author blog to keep those visitors coming? Is there such a thing as too many/too frequent blog posts?
Ali: I once ran a golf blog for which I was paid to write two posts per week, and I used to regard that as the norm, but now I post weekly, if that. I do think there are limits, not just to my time but also that of readers. And I can now keep in contact with my audience via Twitter, which is of course, strictly speaking, a micro-blogging facility. In fact, considering what I’ve said about comments, these days the interactive part of blogging is moving, I think, to other media: I might comment on a post via the author’s Twitter or FB account rather than on the blog itself. (Same rule applies of course – always reply.)
Debbie: I’m a WordPress addict, and I evangelise about it to any friends who might be considering setting up a website, but you are much better qualified to judge than I am, as you have a background in IT training. Why do you think WordPress is a good system for authors?
Ali: I trained as a librarian and then got hooked on online stuff when so much of my work ‘went digital’. I’m not at all techie, but I did move to a job in IT support, which is where I learned about Blogger and WordPress. I saw straight away that even the free version of WordPress could be developed into something that looks and feels like a ‘real’ author website, without the expense and without involving a third party. I have learned it bit by bit and I think it’s easy, but I’ve heard lots of writers say they find it too complicated. I think it’s important that anyone creating a blog should be in their own comfort zone, or as close to it as possible, otherwise they won’t enjoy it. Blogger is probably easier to learn for a complete beginner.
Debbie: You’ve said you fell in love instantly with Twitter, and you now have over 1,000 followers and 10,000 tweets for @AliBacon. What do you think of Facebook, and what does that offer that Twitter can’t? Are you adding any other social media to your armoury, such as Pinterest or Google+?
Ali: As a confirmed Tweeter, I didn’t like Facebook at first, which I saw it as rambling, gossipy and visually messy. However, as time goes on, I find that I often get more of a response from posting on Facebook (and you know how that massages the ego!) than on Twitter, and I am perhaps reaching more readers than writers. They both offer great ways of communicating one-to-one via messaging without resorting to email which might feel like intrusion. I also like the Facebook groups: interacting in different communities via one interface – brilliant! As for other social media, I am on LinkedIn but don’t use it actively. I have also joined Pinterest which I suspect has huge potential but I simply don’t think I can afford the time to get hooked, which I almost certainly would – unless I give up something else. Finally the LAHE community advised me that Goodreads was a must – so I have joined, but find I just can’t give it much attention. (Here’s a link to Ali’s Facebook page.)
Debbie: Many new authors are anxious because they cannot master all the tools that might help them build their author platform. What would you advise a debut author adrift on the ether, wondering where to prioritise?
Ali: I think right now for a complete beginner, I might suggest Facebook and Blogger as a good start. Where they go from there would depend on their interest and aptitude. In fact I see some authors using Facebook for what I think of as a ‘full’ blogpost. I don’t really like this approach as I expect a Facebook status to be brief, but it is an option. There is also a generational thing. For younger people, Facebook is a given and needs no introduction. Many older writers are very nervous of social media because of all the adverse press re privacy and might be more comfortable in the more solitary confines of a blog.
Debbie: It’s too easy these days to focus on the internet for building your author platform and forget more traditional routes, such as print media, physical events and meeting people in person (as we did recently for coffee – and how refreshing that was!) What are your favourite offline alternatives for raising awareness of your work – or are those a thing of the past?
Ali: Having spent so much of my writing life online, I really have to kick myself into the real world where I find it much harder to push myself forward. An object lesson was a feature article in a local paper, which got a great response from all kinds of people, including my hairdresser who had no idea I was a writer. I find straight promotional events can be a bit of an ordeal and prefer to be engaged in some kind of activity. I recently ran a writing workshop in a local library and will also be at a Bristol Literature Festival event for new writers this Saturday along with the Southville Writers group. I’m happy to talk about subjects that interest me rather than just about me, and think I need to spread my wings a bit in that area. I’ve just been offered a regular column in a local community magazine, delivered free to the neighbourhood, which I think is a great way to get known.
Debbie: And finally… you’ve clearly been working extremely hard for the seven years – gosh, that sounds positively Biblical! But your writing activity started even earlier. You’ve had a terrific novel published, A Kettle of Fish (see my review here), set in your native Scotland, and also many short stories and articles. To me, that sounds like the very definition of success – is that how it feels to you? And what are your next writing ambitions?
Ali: Yes, I have achieved a lot of what I set out to do , even if it did take what seemed like a long time, and I have to stop and remind myself of that. But it’s funny how our ideas of success change over time. Ironically, I remember years ago thinking how wonderful it would be to be asked to read my work in public, and now I find it’s something I don’t particularly enjoy. Maybe now I’d like to hear it read by a famous actor or actress (now let me think which one!)
Someone said recently that success is incremental, which I think is very true. Few of us will leap suddenly on to the big literary stage, but I feel I am now on a small local one and that feels quite gratifying for now. Of course, I still have long-term ambitions, of which the principal one is still to finish my next novel and have it picked up by one of the big boys of the publishing world. Of course, by the time that happens the whole publishing world (and my own aspirations) may have changed beyond all recognition …
Thanks Debbie for such thought-provoking questions. Very much looking forward to our next meeting – in the real or virtual worlds!
Debbie: My pleasure, Ali – and as it happens, that next meeting will be tonight, as I’m coming along to the launch of a new anthology produced by the Bristol Women Writers group called Writers Unchained, written to mark the 400th anniversary of Bristol’s public library service. Full report on that event to follow shortly!