PhotobucketI recently read this advice telling fiction writers not to worry (initially) about online presence or platform.

I run across this advice frequently—and I used to offer up some version of it, e.g., focus on perfecting your work first before you jump into submitting.

While I still believe that to some extent, this view can set up writers for disappointment and failure if/when they do get published. So let’s dispel some myths.

Myth: In fiction, craft is the most important thing.

Why this view is problematic: Most writers aspire to sell their work to a traditional publisher. While it’s important in fiction to have a wonderful and exceptional manuscript, sadly that doesn’t make your work salable or marketable.

(Writers, don’t you complain all the time about the crap that gets published by New York houses?)

Mediocre writers with sales & marketing savvy are more likely to succeed in commercial publishing than talented writers without sales & marketing skill.

Myth: Fiction writers need to focus on writing (or completing their first manuscript).

Why this view is problematic: Few writers—even the established ones—have the luxury of just writing, and frankly, it’s better not to set up an unrealistic idea that your valuable time should be spent only writing (while pushing off the undesirable online or marketing activities to a publisher).

Even while producing your first manuscript, you need to find ways to meaningfully interact with others online, consider how your stories can reach readers in new or dynamic ways, and develop some skill at soft marketing and promotion (or branding yourself), before those skills are called upon to ensure the success of your published work.

But perhaps most importantly, online interaction leads to deep developments in how you write, who you write for, and how many you write for. Every writer should be invested in audience development.

What is audience development?

Are you passionate about sharing your story with others? Do you want to find more readers to share your work with?

That’s audience development, and it’s NEVER too soon to start cultivating and growing your audience.

How does one develop an audience? Aside from writing and publishing your work, or being active in your community, you develop a following by:

    • Interacting with friends and other writers on Facebook (or your preferred social network)
    • Developing relationships with writers and potential readers on Twitter
    • Participating in forums that tie into your work’s genre, topic, or subject matter
    • Commenting on blogs of interest to you, and offering thoughtful feedback and questions
    • Having a site or blog that serves as a homebase and gives people a way to be notified when something new happens with you (via e-mail or RSS)

Social media is not just about socializing. It is NOT wasting your time. It’s part of your critical mission of spreading the word about what you do, building audience, and developing relationships that benefit you over a lifetime.

Audience development activities are so important that they should be integrated into your daily life and—lucky you!—you’re living in an age when the tools to reach your audience are free, easy to use, and pose no barriers to entry.

You want to wait to try Facebook or Twitter or blogging until a few months before your book is out?

That’s too late for most books.

You want to wait to establish your online presence until you have a book deal?

You’re likely to feel confused and unsure of yourself, and it’s going to be like summiting a 10,000-foot mountain in an hour.

Don’t tell me you’re leaving audience building to your publisher. Because I’m here to tell you: They rarely put in the investment that’s required.

If you think your publisher will deliver your book to your most desirable or target audience, you deeply misunderstand the capabilities and function of most traditional trade publishing houses. And you’re focusing too much on the publication of one book—which is only one format, one experience, one small piece of what you might potentially offer a readership.

Here’s the Big Secret
You want to have an audience connected to YOU over the lifespan of your writing career—far beyond the publication of a single title.

Repeat to yourself:
Getting a book published does NOT equate to readership.

You must cultivate a readership every day of your life, and you start TODAY. Your readers will not be interested in reading just one book; they will be interested in everything and anything you do—and that includes interacting with you online.

Audience development doesn’t happen overnight (or even in 6 months or a year)—and it’s a process that continues for as long as you want to have a readership.

It shouldn’t be delayed, postponed, or discounted for one minute.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s CarbonNYC

About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman is the co-founder and publisher of Scratch, a quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. She teaches digital publishing and media at the University of Virginia and is a full-time publishing consultant. Find out more at her website.