How To Sell More Books: Develop A Great Author Platform

Novelist Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon, author of “A Kettle of Fish”

“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 As an unpublished author it was also a way of finding an audience, and, if I’m honest, I’d also say that knowing I could publish a few paragraphs every week gave me a raison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?

Cover of A Kettle of Fish by Ali BaconAli: 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!

If you’d like to see my return match on Ali’s author blog, click here to read my guest post on her site. 

How to Sell More Books: Network! with Guest Author Chele Cooke

Photo of Chele Cooke, author of "Dead and Buryd"

Social networker extraordinaire, the author Chele Cooke

With social media now an established part of modern communications, self-published authors have at their disposal a huge armoury of networking weapons to raise the profile of themselves and their books. But which to choose?

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and GoodReads are currently the best known, but not every author feels comfortable with all or any of those. There is also the worry that if any social media currently in the ascendant may be be a bubble that is about to burst – who uses MySpace these days?

When most writers have day jobs and find it hard enough just to make time to write as much as they’d like to, it’s important to decide which of these – or of the many other networking choices – is right for you and your book.

I recently came across a debut fantasy writer – on a Facebook forum, as it happens – who impressed me with her particular approach to networking, including some routes that I confess I’d never heard of (showing my age here, perhaps!) She joins Off The Shelf today to talk about how she is using social networking not only to launch her debut sci-fi/fantasy novel, Dead and Buryd but also to foster her development as a writer.

Debbie: Hello and welcome, Chele Cooke! I first came across you and your book via ALLi’s private Facebook forum to which we both belong, and you immediately struck me as a natural networker. But you told me that you presence on Facebook is only the tip of your networking iceberg, and that you’re also very active in “RPing”. I had to ask you what that was! What exactly is RPing, how has it fostered your development as a writer and how is it now helping you spread the word about your writing?

Chele: It’s very nice to receive such a wonderful compliment right off the bat, as networking is something I’m usually quite worried about. As the new kid in school, so to speak, it can often be worrying that you’re coming off as pushy or asking too many questions.

RP (or Play-by-Post Roleplaying) has proved a massive influence in my writing. I started RPing as a young teenager, and it sparked my interest in writing and stories as a whole. Writing alongside others fosters a feeling of cooperation, as plots don’t always go the way you’d planned. I became used to changing ideas at the last minute and finding different directions to take things, which really helps me come up with a number of directions to take my writing now. If I feel that something isn’t working properly, I can change it.

The RP community is also incredibly enthusiastic about new ideas and when people decide to take their writing further. Different RP sites need to advertise themselves in order to gain members, and advertising my own writing is rather similar. I find that you have to be unafraid to catch people’s attention, but not too pushy as to annoy people. It’s a game of balances.

Debbie: In a way, RPing sounds similar to writing fan fiction, which is a great way of refining your writing and making new like-minded writer and reader friends. What part did fan fiction play in your development as a writer?

Chele: There is a well-known phrase that ‘you need to learn to walk before you can run’ and I am a big advocate for fan fiction for this reason. There are a lot of different aspects to learn when you start writing, from characterisation to setting, from grammar to plot timing. For a new writer, trying to take on all these things at the same time is, at best, tricky. By starting out in fan fiction, I took out some of those elements and focused on things like plot and sentence structure. The setting and characters (for the most part, I did have a few original characters in there) were already laid out, so I could focus on them less. Doing this meant that when I was ready to move on to my own original fiction, it was less to learn all at once.

Some of my fan fiction should probably be burned and never looked at again, but I have a number of stories that I’m incredibly proud of, and are still available online. In fact, I still get new notifications of people selecting them as a favourite, or leaving a review on pieces I posted years ago. I think they’re pretty good obscure advertisements for my new writing.

Debbie: Another social media that I’ve shied away from myself, and always wondered whether I’m missing something, is Pinterest, of which I gather you’re a big fan. How have you used Pinterest and what does it offer that other social media can’t?

Chele: I think RP and fan fiction have really bolstered my appreciation of a medium like Pinterest. These are often incredibly visual, with people creating graphics to advertise their work. As these are mostly non-profit, you get very used to searching the internet for images that represent part of your work. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with Pinterest, giving readers a visual insight into my writing.

There is a big similarity between Pinterest and Tumblr, in which they are both very image based, but I personally find Pinterest easier to use for an advertisement purpose. You can collect all the images in the same place, especially if you’re working with multiple books, where as Tumblr is completely chronologically organised.

I think the important part with any social media platform is that you enjoy doing it. If you don’t enjoy it and updating it becomes a chore, it isn’t going to be as enjoyable for readers either. I really enjoy using Pinterest, and I think that shows.

Debbie: Coming back to the more commonly used social media, Facebook and Twitter, how do you use those two to promote your work?

Chele: Currently, I’m using Facebook and Twitter a little differently than I usually would because Dead and Buryd has only just been released, so much of my social media has been geared toward that. However, on a day-to-day basis, I use social media to let people know about me far more than I broadcast my writing.

I find, and this goes for face-to-face networking as well as online-based relationships, that if you go into it with the intention of making a sale, people will quickly lose interest. Nobody wants to hear ‘buy my book’ screamed into a vacuum thirty times a day. I tend to focus my tweets and statuses more to my life. Sometimes this involves writing and where I am on a project, but mostly it’s things that I find interesting or amusing, little tit bits from my day. I find that if people are interested in me, they’ll be more likely to be interested in taking a look at my writing.

Cover of "Dead and Buryd" by Chele Cooke

Now on tour: Chele Cooke’s debut sci-fi/fantasy novel

Debbie: This post is appearing as part of a blog tour celebrating the launch of your debut novel. How did you go about setting up your blog tour and how is it going so far?

Chele: I’m finding blog touring very interesting, but I’ll admit, for a first-time author, it has been a little difficult. Blog touring, it seems, relies on connections, which I haven’t had all that long to create within the author and book blogging community. I think I probably would do better next time, when I have more of a background to my writing.

In general though, mainly I contacted friends and people I know through ALLi. There is a great feeling of cooperation, especially in groups such as ALLi, so I spent a lot of September hosting guest posts on my own blog, helping others the way they planned to help me. There have been a few hiccups with missing days, but I’m not letting it get to me. Hope for the best but plan for the worst, I guess.

Debbie: Of all the networking facilities that we’ve discussed here – the various social media and the blog tour – if you had to choose only one to promote your book, which would it be and why?

Chele: That’s a very tough question, because I use all of them for different aspects. I think that if I had to choose only one, I’d have to go with Facebook. There are so many little communities that you can become a part of, not simply for advertising, but because I find the conversations genuinely interesting. Plus, Facebook has the added bonus of being able to post a variety of different content, whether it’s texts, links, or images. Everything you post is right there, instead of linking you away to something else.

Of course, I’d rather have my selection of mediums going on. It’s far more interesting.

Debbie: Thank you so much, Chele, for that fascinating insight into how you’re using the combination of social media that suits you best. I really enjoyed your book, by the way! Good luck with the rest of your blog tour – I’m sure it will be a great success!

  • For more information about Chele Cooke, visit her website, where you’ll also find her many social media links!
  • To read  my review of Dead and Buryd, click here.
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors, to which I also belong and whose blog of self-publishing advice I edit), click here.

How to Sell More Self-Published Books by Creating Online Events

I’ve blogged before about how running author events can help you sell your books (and how attending other people’s events can give you ideas for your own), but this week I’m focusing on events based online. One of the great things about online events is that people can join in from all over the world – and if you make them sufficiently inspiring, they will!

The author Satya Robyn, Fiona

The writer formerly known as Fiona (as Prince might say)

A great example of an online author event is Satya Robyn‘s recent “What I Live For” online event. She staged it to draw attention to the change in her author name. Formerly known as Fiona Robyn , she changed her first name to Satya when she became a Buddhist priest.

In these days of search engines, changing your name is a brave decision, because by doing so you discard the visibility you’ve built up from searches on your previous name. In her blog, Satya referred to her name change as “the worst commercial decision I ever made” – yet she needed to adopt her new name for writing in order to feel true to herself. My respect for Fiona’s decision was one of the many reasons that I decided to take part in Satya’s online event – and I’m very glad I did. For me, as a writer, it was an enriching, heartwarming experience. For Satya – well, it made me (and many others) buy her book and take notice of her full back catalogue. I also helped her spread the word by telling other friends about her event and linking to it from a “What I Live For” post on my personal blog. I also read, reviewed and recommended her book Thaw (at the heart of the event) to friends.

I’m therefore very pleased that Satya has agreed to join me at Off The Shelf today to answer my questions about her event. I’m sure it will inspire you to create your own.

Debbie: Welcome to Off The Shelf, Satya! To set the scene for our conversation, can you please describe exactly what your What I Live For event was?

Satya: I invited people to write about what they lived for on a specific date (May 10, 2013) on their blogs, or on Facebook or on Twitter or wherever they wanted to. I compiled a list of links to participants on my blog, but many more people took part than I had a record of.

Debbie: What I Live For was the first of your online events that I’ve taken part in, but was it the first you’ve ever done?

Satya: I’ve done plenty! I did my first blogsplash in 2009 when hundreds of bloggers published the first page of Ruth’s diary (from my novel Thaw) on the same day. I also organised an online event for Small Kindnesses and The Most Beautiful Thing. With my husband Kaspa we’ve also curated three ‘Mindful Writing Challenges’ where people have written a small stone (a short observational piece) every day for the month of January.

Cover of Thaw by Satya RobynDebbie: Why did you choose Thaw as the focus of the event rather than any of your other books?

Satya: I thought that, of the books in my back catalogue, Thaw was the most likely to stick in people’s minds – to be the one that readers were most likely to recommend to someone else.

Debbie: How many people took part, and, of those, how many were writers?

Satya: I think around 40 people took part – maybe a quarter to a half were writers.

Debbie: How many countries did your campaign reach?

Satya: Mostly the US, UK and Canada, and a sprinkling from Europe and elsewhere.

Debbie: How much time went into preparing for the event and running it on the day?

Satya: Maybe 30 hours.

Debbie: That sounds like an extremely effective investment of time. I suspect the effect was much more long-lasting than the day itself – do you agree?

Satya: It’s hard to know. On the internet these days, things seem to be ‘now or never’. When we post a blog, we’ll get a lot of clicks in that moment, but then that dramatically goes down. But I’m also sure that the event will live on in people’s minds too.

Debbie: Although the event was created to promote your name change rather than to sell books, any author is going to welcome extra sales! How did the event affect your sales of Thaw? Did the effect radiate to your other books?

Satya: I did see an increase in sales, but not dramatic – maybe sold 100 extra copies. There was a negligible effect on my other books.

Cover of Small Kindnesses by Satya RobynDebbie: I suspect there will continue to be positive ripples from the event for a long time to come (e.g. this interview!)  What mechanism was the main driver of the event – your website, Facebook, Twitter, any other social media, or was it a mixture of all of these?

Satya: A mixture of Facebook and Twitter as usual – combined with our newsletter.

Debbie: Did the event achieve all that you hoped for?

Satya: The results felt mixed. There was some beautiful writing on the day which moved me greatly, and people got a lot out of it. This was a success. The event had less effect on my sales than I hoped for, and I think this is because I didn’t tie in the event closely enough with the book.

Debbie: I really enjoyed writing my response to What I Live For and I had many lovely comments about my post from readers. I was also very affected by some of other participants’ posts. It seemed a shame that the event was over so quickly and we all went our separate ways again. Did you consider compiling the many contributions into something more lasting e.g. an e-book, or would that have broken the spell? (And I think spell is the right word, because it was a very magical event.)

Satya: Thank you, Debbie. It would have been a nice idea to do an e-book – but my time is very tight and I need to make sure I get my current novel finished…

Debbie: The event impressed me as a wonderfully innovative and generous way of promoting your new name, because it spread so much warmth and allowed  others to share your stage and the glory. Is that approach a product of your Buddhist faith and way of life?

Satya: I think my Buddhist faith helps to point me in the direction of this kind of offering-to-the-world. I’ve also been influenced by many teachers and writers over my lifetime. Spreading warmth always feels good!

Debbie: Dropping into my inbox just the other day was an invitation to another of your events – a 31 Days of Joy email campaign. Is this kind of collaborative programme the way forward for your writing now, or will you continue to write conventional(ish!) books and publish them as before?

Satya: I have two (well, at least three!) separate lines of work – as a writer (writing novels and non-fiction), as co-owner of the Mindful Writing company Writing Our Way Home (which runs mindful writing courses, including the new one on Joy) and as a psychotherapist in private practice.

Debbie: Writing on your blog before the event, you referred to changing your name as “making a terrible commercial decision (and being glad)”. I have an inkling that actually it’s been a great opportunity for you to raise awareness of a book whose launch had already come and gone. It also made people examine who you are – and admire your courage and commitment, both as a writer and a buddhist. So – are you still glad, or has it proven to be a terrible commercial decision?

Cover of The Most Beautiful Thing by Satya Robyn Satya: Thanks Debbie! I don’t think the decision has meant that I’ve lost out financially – my best selling novel The Most Beautiful Thing is still selling just as many as it was. We just uploaded a new cover onto the current slot on Amazon. Most people who knew me as Fiona now know me as Satya, and new readers don’t need to know!

Debbie: Apart from your 31 Days of Joy programme, what else is coming up in your writing life this year that we should look out for?

Satya: I’ll finish my new novel at some point this year – yet to be named. We run two e-courses every month, details here. And we’ll have another Mindful Writing Day on November 11th this year.

Debbie: Thank you, Satya, for that fascinating insight into the process of setting up a promotional online event – and I look forward to reading your new novel when it’s ready!

Further Reading