Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Writers who published their first books in the 1980s to 1990s–even the early 2000s–tend to flip out when someone utters the word platform. They’ve never recovered from the sticker shock of seeing a list of what publishers expect of authors nowadays. I call the syndrome Promo Shock.
In this week’s Publishers Weekly an article appeared written by an author who wrote satirical essays and published a book in the 1980s. Then she wandered off into the sunset to write for films and television.
Recently she decided to return to her roots and seek a literary agent. “My reentry into the publishing world’s atmosphere was staggering,” Mollie Fermaglich recounted. “I was the 1950s airplane passenger–accustomed to flying in style–walking onto a flight today and being trampled by earbud-wearing passengers in velour running suits hogging the overhead bins with skateboards.”
The responses she received from agents put her into Promo Shock. They wanted to know what her platform was and pointed out that she needed followers on Facebook and Twitter.
“But getting followers is a job in itself. I’m a writer. That takes up my day,” she bemoaned. “Now I have to draw attention to myself with something other than writing in order to draw attention to my writing?”
Welcome to our world, right?
But then she thought of just the way to draw that attention:
“Maybe I’ll post pictures of my pug playing shuffleboard on the QE2. Then I’ll get a book deal. For my pig.”
Mollie pondered the sad state of the industry and then started a blog. Quit. Created a public Facebook page. Never checked it. Opened an Instagram account. Closed it. Pondered self-publishing. Couldn’t figure out where to start.
A Happy Ending?
And then her phone rang. An agent called to say her writing “was terrific.” She (pouting, I assume) told him that, when it came to social media, she pretty much wasn’t engaged with anyone. “It’s just me.”
“He paused. ‘”Me” is good,’ he says. ‘I’m willing to take a chance on “me.”‘
We don’t know if the agent manages to find a publisher for her. The article ended with her signing the agency papers.
Promo Shock and the Writer
It doesn’t require someone who started in this biz decades ago to experience Promo Shock. I’ve recently returned from a writers conference where I had 18 writers pitch their projects to me. They fell into two camps: complete novices with no idea what is required to obtain an agent let alone a publishing contract; self-pubbed authors who hadn’t bothered with traditional publishers but turned immediately to DIY. Only then they found out how hard it is to sell even a couple hundred copies of their books. Now they want to crack into the traditional world but are worried their failed publishing experience will tarnish them.
Sitting across from the starry-eyed newbies and the DIY-ers, reminded me of a few truths about publishing.
The Rocky Road
Every path to holding your book in your hands is rocky. Yes, traditional publishers have high platform expectations from anyone whose work they seriously consider. But self-publishing is hard work, too.
Mollie’s first response to discovering the importance of making connections with potential readers is one most writers have: Wait. It’s hard work to build a platform.
Indeed it is. But both directions require it, if you care about book sales. Just ask the self-pubbers I met at the conference who struggled to sell more than 500 copies of their books despite all of their hard work.
For the Love of a Book
Fortunately for all of us, rules are made to be broken. Not every manuscript finds a publishing home because the author brought a massive audience with him or her.
This week I read a published book that an editor had requested I take a look at. The editor told me, “This author is so special, not only as a writer but also as a person. She has other books in her. Would you consider representing her? I have to tell you that we published her book not because we thought it would sell lots of copies–it hasn’t–but because we felt compelled to get her story out to readers.”
A few weeks ago I sold a nonfiction project based on the concept rather than the author’s social media reach. She has a decent reach, but nothing jaw-dropping. Yet five publishing houses wanted to publish her book.
I’ve also had clients who managed to corral a gazillion potential readers, but whose books sold pitifully.
As in life, publishing is tricky to predict. And often unfair in whom it bestows its blessing.
My advice to writers–both experienced and brand new–is to get over their Promo Shock and get to work. There are readers to be found, if we’re prepared to look for them.
How do you motivate yourself to keep pressing forward in building your audience? What steps have you taken recently?
Writers, if you’re tired of the word “platform,” this blog is for you. Click to tweet.
“Publish or perish” has become “Platform or perish.” Click to tweet.
Right now, I’m just looking at what social media seems to be working better for me and which one do I enjoy the most? I love Instagram. It’s rewarding in so many ways. And I so enjoy giving back to it. It makes the most sense to me … because it’s about pictures, it’s right up my alley. And it’s about relationships. I really look forward to hearing from others there every day. I can be me, share my life, if that makes sense. I’d like to be more balanced in all social media, but some make me feel lost.
Shelli, I think that the “you” y’all are being is pretty terrific.
Thank you, Andrew. You know the feeling is mutual. 🙂
Instagram is my favorite form of social media, too! I’m right there with you about the relationships part of it. I feel like you actually get a glimpse into someone’s life, which makes it easier to form those connections. Plus it’s a great place to find book recommendations 😉
Yes, Amanda, you get to really know people … inside scoop. I really love it.
Damon J. Gray
And your photographs are beautiful.
Thank you, Damon. 🙂
I know when you post on Instagram before seeing your name. You’ve got a unique style that captures the eye. I even mentioned it/you to my husband last week.
Jackie! 🙂 You made me smile so big. That means so much. It’s often a family effort … my girls really help me a lot. They’ll run to me, telling me there is a good “story” opportunity, etc … 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I’m trying to love Instagram. I am!!
You do a fabulous job there!
Jennifer, thank you! 🙂 I’ve always loved taking pictures … my poor girls and cats and … 🙂
I agree with all that’s already been said about your presence on Instagram, Shelli. You do it beautifully! I always love your pictures.
*I’m beginning to have people comment on some of my posts. I’m trying to figure out what resonates with the people who see my offerings. It’s usually my nature shots that garner the most attention. 🙂
Thank you, Jeanne. I love your nature posts. 🙂 I really love watching people blossom on Instagram … finding their niche. It always seems to be their passion.
Janet, this is a terrific post, and for what it might be worth, may just be the single most important essay that the Books and Such blog has published. Methinks you have given heart and encouragement to a LOT of people today.
* Motivation is pretty easy for me. As my life becomes ever-more a dark and scary path through an eerie landscape marked by fell symptoms and humiliations large and small, I believe that life is still worth living. Even as circumstances become ugly and degrading, the sacred triad of faith, hope, and love burn all the brighter, and this three-lensed lamp must be mine to hold aloft. It is so easy to be frightened, and to try to keep the dragons at bay with superstitiously formulaic prayers and offerings to a capricious and mercurial deity. But there is a real God out there, standing in the wasteland and found only by fully embracing the horror and finding instead of corruption, Grace.
* And when you fall, as even the strong and brave must, He will pick you up and wipe the sewage and offal from your face with the sleeve of His bright robe, and that garment will shine all the whiter for the Love in its use.
* So, yeah, I got motivation. I’m dying slow and hard but I’m living the dream, the dream of being of some kind of use to the Almighty.
Damon J. Gray
I love your attitude and worldview. You inspire me!
Damon, thank you – your words mean so much.
Platform is scary, yes. But self-pub sounds even scarier. Like being alone in a kayak on the ocean.
* I did a personal inventory. What do I do well? I tell stories, I encourage, I pray. And I love to drop a new view of the Bible into other people’s routines–to make them say, “I never thought about it like that before.” Whatever I do in social media now has to fall into these categories, or I don’t do it.
* And I do it with simple words and short sentences. Almost half of American adults read at or below the 8th grade level. I don’t want to exclude them. I’ve added a weekly K.I.S.S. (keep it short and simple) feature to my blog. I’m working on an easy-reader Bible study series on prayer. I am rewriting my WIP, keeping it at a 4th-5th grade reading level. I’ve approached my denomination about the need. I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, but if nothing else, that makes me unique.
Shirlee, not, I think, a lone voice in the wilderness, but a tall and stalwart lighthouse marking the way to safe harbour for the weary and storm-tossed mariner.
Thank you, Andrew. First time someone called me “stalwart.” ?
And it won’t be the last time, Shirlee…count on that. Your words contain such faith and strength!
I’ve found that “platform” can take unexpected forms. I haven’t figured out how to attract thousands of friends and followers on Facebook or a 4-figure following on my author blog, and I really don’t expect to. None of my numbers would make an agent think that I have enough people eager to buy my books so a publisher would be interested. But the sales numbers for my historical novels are respectable because the history website that I created from my research draws enough teachers and homeschoolers, who buy lots of books, and international visitors, who buy many more than I would ever have predicted. So maybe the lesson learned from this is to consider whether your books lend themselves to unusual promo opportunities while you try to build up the ones that agents and publishers use as predictors of likely success.
*But maybe what I’ve been doing isn’t the reason the books sell. Maybe God just wants those stories about how our faithfulness can inspire someone to open his or her heart to God in the hands of the people who are buying them.
Carol, platforms come in all shapes and sizes. You have a platform that’s working already–your website. All publishers really care about is that you’re able to connect with potential readers in such a way that they’ll buy books. As a matter of fact, your platform has something going for it that few do: You can show results through book sales.
I hope that’s encouraging for you to hear from me.
Reading this today has me thinking, God isn’t giving up on me. No, He doesn’t quit.
I only got to accept platform as a necessity tool this year. Presently, I’m observing what works best for me. Instagram is rewarding. I love it and it loves me. Though, I’m wondering if it’s a safe play to focus on a medium for a particular time. I’m considering building my blog as well as Instagram.
Guide me Lord.
Also, I’ve been submitting to online magazines and papers, with response slow and sure. I’m learning, though, that whatever I love, efforts poured into it isn’t work, it’s seed.
Michael, you have settled on some important precepts when it comes to platform. You’re focusing on connecting points that you enjoy. That helps immensely in growing a following. And you’re working to branch out by building your blog readership. Building out from what you do best to other ventures is the best way to move forward.
I think Andrew was right when he said you’ve given lots of people encouragement through this post!
As a newer writer it’s easy to get overwhelmed/discouraged about building a “big enough” platform and forget to focus on what’s most important…my writing! I’ve had to learn to stop looking at what everyone else is doing and figure out what forms of social media work most naturally for me. Even if that means I only blog every other week instead of every other day.
Recently, I’ve been swapping blog posts with other writers. It gets me in front of a new audience and helps out a fellow writer in the process! win-win 🙂
Amanda, I applaud your plan to concentrate on what you do best instead of comparing yourself to what others are doing. Part of what you should ask yourself is if a particular online venue suits your schedule, too. For example, if you try to build your blog readership but only blog every other week, that will be a hard row to hoe. Readers want to know that they’ll find new material from you on a regular basis. I could see twice a week as being a schedule that would work, but every other week is too infrequent. Readers don’t develop the habit of reading your blog. So maybe blogging isn’t a good place to put your efforts. Most of us don’t notice how frequently someone posts on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We just learn to look forward to certain people’s posts.
I hope this perspective is helpful and not puzzling to you.
Thank you, Janet. That has definitely given me something to think about. Would you say that it is better to not have a blog at all as opposed to posting infrequently? Especially if you have other forms of social media? I just wanted to clarify and make sure I was understanding you correctly.
Damon J. Gray
Janet, I heaved a significant number of heavy sighs as I read through this, because everything you said is true – frustrating, but true. So, how do I stay motivated?
1) I recognize that all of this is in the hands of God, not me, my agent (or lack thereof), my editor, or my publisher.
2) Despite #1, I continue to put my left foot in front of my right foot (so to speak) and give due diligence to connecting with a readership.
3) With a nod to business author Jim Collins, I fire bullets before cannon-balls. I test every social media option I know of, and where I get hits with little inexpensive bullets, I begin firing my cannon-balls.
4) I am branching out with speaking opportunities.
Again, with a nod to Jim Collins, the most difficult part of this process is getting the flywheel going. It takes a great deal of energy and effort. It is exhausting. But once the flywheel is going, we can get it going faster and faster with less effort. It still requires effort, but to a large extent, the flywheel feeds off its own momentum. Our task, as unknown writers, is to get that flywheel going so that it has some momentum to sustain.
I love the flywheel analogy. It’s so apt! Thanks for sharing it and your other points of how you decide to engage via social media.
Janet, thanks for this–it gives hope to those of us who wish someone would throw us a life preserver as we drown in the ever-rising sea of “platform,” social media posts and “have-to” activities while wondering what ever happened to writing the best book we can. I appreciate it.
Many times I’ve considered giving up my blog, but because we’re encouraged to have a platform I keep blogging. Twitter and Instagram are my favorite forms of social media though.
Thanks for this great post on platform!
I know what you mean, Jackie. Blogging can get discouraging. And I moved my blog … even more discouraging. I posted on my old blog that I’d moved, and I received a comment from someone I’d never heard of before, never seen their name, nothing … they said how they always read my blog and that they were glad I’d given my new location. When you see those higher numbers of views, but you don’t receive many comments … you wonder if the numbers are wrong … but this was someone who’d never commented. The person really blessed me. Gave me hope.
Shelli, bigger numbers with fewer comments may indicate your audience is reaching new types of readers. We writers are quick to comment. There are tons of readers who would never put up a comment where everybody could see it.
I love your way of thinking, Shirlee 🙂
Shelli and Shirlee, I often have people text me instead of comment on my blog. Let’s hope Shirlee is right.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
One thing I’m doing in September is a radio interview on a Navajo Christian station. I was asked to do this last year, on 12 hours notice, and didn’t have the time.
Yes, I’m already nervous. Yes, I know to be myself. I’ll be fine
I really don’t think they’ve had an Anglo Canadian female Christian writer on there before. Uhh, yeah, I can almost guarantee it.
Anyway, I’ve always had Native American readers in my thoughts as I write, simply because I’ve immersed myself in that culture and know too much not to reach out as much as possible.
Once I’ve done the radio interview, I do see things getting more interesting in terms of platform. Word of mouth is HUGE in their culture, as is friendship based networking. Many people who live on reservations don’t even have clean water, so internet access is out too. But radio is free.
So, when someone tells someone… which is exactly how I was approached for the radio interview.
I’ll start the networking wheels in motion for my upcoming trip and hopefully I can arrange a couple more engagements. But I always leave room and time for surprises. Just not 12 hours’ notice for a 7am interview in a town an hour away.
And I can’t forget my rather expansive network of hockey moms. We’ve had boys in hockey for 18 years. Do you know what parents do at the rink for hours on end?? Not much, other than reading and talking.
I’m loving following your progess … watching the doors open … 🙂
Oh wow, this is awesome Jennifer. So happy you are getting to do this!
Thank you, Janet. One of the things I do to keep motivated is to read blogs like this. The pressure to give up is so strong some days. It helps when I remember that readers are not a platform to stand upon. They are people to love and serve. I keep specific readers in mind as I plan social media or advertising campaigns.
Kathy, thank you for reminding all of us that “platform” translates to people, not a thing to stand on. When we are mindful of that wonderful reality, it changes our whole perspective on platform.
I love your perspective, Kathy!
Thank you. It isn’t original, but I confess I’ve forgotten which webinar I learned it from. My apologies if the speaker is listening.
Great point, Kathy! It’s so easy to become focused on the “numbers” publishers seem to require of us, but it’s more important to focus on making real connections with the people who make up those numbers. I love that idea of picturing certain readers when planning your marketing moves. I’ll have to remember that!
It really works for me, Jerusha. I hope it helps you, too.
I’ve got a great platform, but if I could just write a book… (ha ha!)
(I can’t complain, though, since I get paid to freelance.)
Janet, this is such a great post. As writers, we need to deal with the reality that we need to build a platform. Your perspective, though, is encouraging.
*For me, getting motivated sometimes means taking a break. This past month had a lot of “real life” (versus writing life) commitments, so I took a break from blogging. Not having the stress of keeping up with everything that goes into blogging has given me a chance to breathe in the middle of crazy-summer schedules. That being said, I’m looking forward to jumping back into blogging next week. I have seen slow, but steady, growth in this area.
*I confess, I’ve been more haphazard with all my other attempts at building relationships with potential readers. I really enjoy Instagram, and I’m beginning to study which of my posts seem to gain the most attention. I’ve also discovered that those on Twitter notice different types of posts than those on Instagram or Facebook. So, as my boys prepare to head back to school in a couple of weeks, I want to work on a plan that can encourage connection with others in the social media realm.
Jeanne, Twitter has me so baffled. 🙂
Thanks for this encouraging post, Janet! What a wonderful reminder that we needn’t stress, whatever our situation, because ultimately WE are not the ones in control of the final outcome. Thankfully, the One Who controls the results is much smarter and wiser than I am. 🙂 All I need to do is keep working as He’s called me to do, and wait on Him for the happy ending He’s planned.
At present, I’m doing nothing to promote myself beyond maintaining a twice-a-week blog and a few Facebook announcements. I’m just writing and publishing, up to 25 items now. At some point I’ll probably pay for some ads. I’m looking at what some other writers are doing for newsletters, and might launch one within the next year.
Well said, Bill.
Mary Kay Moody
Remembering how and why I began writing nudges me to continue looking at the “rest of the business” that needs doing. If God urged me to write, there IS a reason and I doubt it was a decade-long meander with the purpose to keep me busy (or distract me from cleaning the house!).
I’m beginning to develop a newsletter and list of subscribers that will likely replace some blogging. Also evaluating the various social media platforms to choose where to invest most of my time.
Thanks for the nudge, Janet. Your tweetables are spot on.
I appreciate your view that God unlikely set you onto this path just to avoid housecleaning. Concentrating on building a newsletter list is a sound marketing strategy; I’m glad the blog was a helpful nudge.
What motivates me to keep pressing forward in building my audience is relationships with them! I’m actually getting to know my readers via my newsletter and my Facebook Group, and that makes all the difference.
Recently, I revamped my email list to include my subscribers’ first names instead of just an email address. I had over 3,000 subscribers, so this was a HUGE undertaking. I had to go through every subscriber and add their name. I’m actually still working through the list, but now I’m down to the “xhdyso123@gmail” emails that are probably spam. But you never know, so I will add them back with a generic name (Blossomy Girl 🙂 ).
I’ve also heard — from James L. Rubart — that word-of-mouth is the best way to sell your books. But you have to have an awesome book, first!
I had Promo Shock too when I came back from time away from the publishing world. Then I took an online class (through an RWA chapter) on using social media as a marketing platform, which was marvelously helpful. One of the things they stressed was to get to know all the platforms, but pick 2-3 max to actually establish yourself as a continual presence. What surprised me the most is how motivating I found Twitter… because of the built-in character limitations, I couldn’t follow my baseline instinct to write “long” … so in fact, far from taking away from my writing, I can dash off a Tweet, get back to my store, and check later and find out it’s been liked, or re-Tweeted.. which makes me feel “heard” and then I get back to writing… and sometimes so that I have more to Tweet about! I kid you not!
It does still stress me a bit when I read articles and blogs about scheduling posts and “have to” do this and that… I even read one that if I did everything they said “had” to be done, I wouldn’t even have time for a life at all, much less writing! But then I haul myself back, remind myself that I have A Plan that seems to be working for me so far, and let the anxiety go.
This is so true. I have the platform and now am spending time working to get them the right book! Regarding facebook, I have found that a little promo money goes a long way. A post with 100 views becomes a post with 5,000 views with a $10.00 promo investment. Worth the investment if the content is excellent and engaging….
As an author who has had quite a bit of success in publishing and is now a writing coach, I’m finding that everything has changed since I entered the industry. All of what you say is true. If we want our messages to get out there we have to think beyond traditional ways and traditional publishing.