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Adventures in Platform Building

 

Photo by JD Hancock
Photo by JD Hancock

I just launched my first self-published novel in January. Prior to this, I’d been a traditionally published author in a handful of different genres… always making midlist with decent numbers, but never capitalizing on my audience because I have ADHD that would put a hyperactive retriever puppy to shame.  (Oooh! Squirrel!)

Beyond that, I took a two-year hiatus from fiction writing altogether. I haven’t had a new book on the shelf since 2013.  Tumbleweeds blew through my Facebook author page.  Twitter was still a crowded bar that I occasionally frequented, feeling horribly uncomfortable and generally staying silent.

And did I mention I didn’t email my newsletter once during that time?

For a writing coach who also helps with marketing strategy, this is akin to me standing here in my undies, guys.

Appalling. I know better.  The cobbler’s kids are barefoot, alas.

Still, it’s been a useful exercise. First of all, because that two-year hiatus was just what I needed to get my financial foundation in order, so I wasn’t writing from a place of desperation. Nothing puts my creativity in a chokehold like the thought that “if this doesn’t take off, goodbye mortgage.”

Secondly, this gives me a chance to start from a relative ground zero. I am not coasting off of previous momentum from a series or previous releases.  Heck, I’d chosen to wade into the pond of self-publishing with the skill set that kick started my career, romantic comedy.  I haven’t written category-length rom com in well over a decade. There was no guarantee any of my audience from that time period would remember me, nor would they be following me or watching me.

How, then, to promote a new series, in a crowded marketplace, in my first time at bat?

It started with a game plan.

Even when I wasn’t writing, I was noodling with the idea of this series.  I knew it would be romantic comedy, because that’s where my voice naturally lives. Of course, three years ago, you couldn’t get arrested in NY writing romantic comedy. Survivors from the Chick Lit era were skulking around, trying to pass ourselves off as “humorous women’s fiction”.

It was a grim time.

Still, I knew that there were signs of hope for rom com. You could see it in the popular subgenres – hidden in urban fantasy and paranormal, peeking out of cozy mystery.  Besides, after over a decade, I knew that the publishing industry was cyclic.  Comedy was coming back. I was determined not to miss my chance.

Age of the geek.

I also knew that I wanted to write about fandoms. (For the uninitiated, “fandom” is a slang term for people who are interested in the same thing – like a kingdom of fans.) I have always been geeky, nerdy, what have you.  Based on the people I was getting to know across social media, I saw that there was definitely an overlap between romance, comedy, and geekery.

I had found my people. Or, in other words, my target audience.

Rebuilding the platform: first steps.

I knew what I was writing. And I knew who I was writing for.  The trick: how to build the ephemeral “platform”?

First, let’s define platform.  (Or rather, let’s let Jane Friedman define platform [1].)  She says author platform consists of the following:

Technically, I did have the authority built on several releases. I had written romantic comedy back in the early 2000’s. However, that didn’t do me a bit of good if the new audience had no knowledge of those previous releases, so I was essentially back at square one.

The number one element to building your platform.

That would be your book.

Seems like a cheat, doesn’t it?  But all marketing begins with your book.  How it’s written, how it’s presented. That means cover, description, sample… the whole nine yards.

Your book cannot and should not be “all things to all readers.”  You’re not looking for people who could be interested in your book. You’re looking for an audience that desperately wants your book right now, please and thank you! 

Your book is the answer to their desires. 

My book’s title is LEVEL UP [2]. If you know video games, you’re familiar with the term. That’s qualifying my audience.  I also called the series Fandom Hearts, loosely based on another video game, Kingdom Hearts.  The term Fandom was to help that segment self-identify.

If you see my title and the series in a text line up, and you’re in my target audience, you’ll feel a tug of recognition. It encourages you to find out more.

The cover is an illustration. I paid a comic book artist to create the artwork, partially because I feel that this audience would love graphic novels like I do, and partially because in the last cycle, Avon was noted for its “cartoon covers” for its highly successful romantic comedies.

Attracted by the title and the cover, intrigued by the blurb, the reader can then try the sample, and the voice and the references will cement all of the above – fandoms, geekery, comedy.

Ding!  We now have authority.  All in the time it takes to scroll through the “Look Inside” feature.

What next?

You want as many targeted audience members as humanly possible to read your book.  Spread the word.  This means reviews, for a number of reasons.  This also means social media.

But how do you find the right people to read your book?

Get some comps.

If you tell me that there are absolutely no books out there that are remotely similar to your book, and you simply “have no comps”, I will shake my head at you slowly.  And if I have time, I will go and hunt down at least three titles that are comparable for your target audience.

Note: that doesn’t mean that they necessarily deal with the same kind of book.  If you’ve written a book about a sentient mushroom that is trying to take over a government lab, that’s pretty original. However, you’ve got genre (presumably sci-fi, thriller and/or horror), you’ve got voice (is it funny? Scary?), and you’ve got interests (government conspiracy, monsters, with a very narrow subset of mushroom lovers.)  Right there, you should be able to find at least three successful authors who are writing in that same wheelhouse.

Note: if you’re self-published, you find a successful self-published author.  There are still more gates when it comes to reviewing self-published novels, so your best bet is to follow the trail broken by someone else.  It’s simply more efficient.

In my case, I used Penny Reid as a comp. She is a successful self-published author who showcases intelligent heroines. Her first book featured a heroine who was brilliant but socially awkward. She also has a strong humorous voice, rom com just this side of chick lit.  Finally, I read and really enjoyed her work, devouring a whole series in a week. (Don’t pick a comp that you hate.)

A quick Google search for “Penny Reid”+”review”+”blog” got me several pages of likely targets for review requests.  It’s a numbers game, but this gave me targeted information… people more primed to like what I have to offer. I also got to see who was mentioning her in social media, discovering whole new pockets of potential readers.

Find your unique points.

One of the biggest boosts to my book so far has come from something I hadn’t considered a big deal.  My heroine is Latina, a video game programmer.  The book deals with her trying to get ahead, dealing with some of the sexism that is rampant in that particular industry.

I didn’t mean for it to be particularly political. I also never emphasized my heroine’s race in any of the copy, except for her full name.  As a woman of color living in a fairly diverse place, I didn’t think of it as particularly noteworthy. I thought of it as a rom com, first and foremost.  Still, I knew that like me, there were diverse women who would enjoy this kind of story.  So I reached out to the Women of Color In Romance Twitter feed. They announce book releases.

From there, word spread out in circles.  I’d covered three different groups – romantic comedy fans, geeky/gamer fans, and diversity fans.  Everywhere they converged, there was an echo chamber effect.

(Best of all, I finally got the hang of Twitter, making new friends, discovering how to follow conversations, and pitching in.)

Free is a strategy.

This only applies to self-publishing, obviously.  I have chosen to make the first book in the series free, as well as a novella, offered as a “bribe to subscribe” on signing up for my newsletter list.

Why?

Because I know my audience, and I know myself.  On a limited budget, I still devour books like they’re being banned tomorrow. I simply can’t afford to throw money away on books that will disappoint me.

That said, when I find a keeper author, I will throw money at her all day long.  Most readers I know, especially my target audience of series-happy constant readers, will do the same.  A writer whose work you love is a treasure, and passionate readers treat them as such.

But readers need to trust you.

You want to give away something so good it pains you to do so.  Something that you could easily get money for.  Why?

Because you are building your platform.  This is your excellent customer service.  This is how you set yourself apart with the work itself.  Remember? Your book is the number one marketing tool you have.

But what about social media? 

A lot of people think that “building a platform” means pointing to the number of your Twitter followers or Facebook fans. Sure, that’s a component, but it’s not the whole shebang. Actually, from a platform standpoint, I personally feel that newsletter subscribers (or “announcement list” subscribers if you’re just shooting stuff out when there are new releases) are a better vehicle to measure platform, for a number of reasons.

But the bottom line is, size doesn’t matter. What matters is engagement and conversion.  I’d rather have 200 fans at 40% conversion than 1000 fans at 2%.  And what’s the point of doing a giveaway to gain hundreds of Facebook likes, if your page itself remains a ghost town and your sales stay flat?

The best way to build your social media following, in my experience, is the following:

  1. Know your target audience. Who are you trying to connect with?
  2. Find out where they hang out.
  3. Offer them things they will find useful, entertaining, and relevant.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Social media should be 80% social – providing connection and value.  Only 20% should ever be you talking about your books. And even then, you should be able to show them that your books themselves provide connection and value.  See?

So far, so good.

Just so you can get a sense of performance, here’s how it’s going since I launched the book January 1st. I paid for one 20 stop blog tour, just to jump start social media and get some reviews on Amazon from sources with a track record. This includes no advertising, and only a handful of announcements on my social media.

Downloads:  2,756

New subscribers:  150

Amazon reviews:  16

This is all in a period of just over 30 days. That means I’ve got a conversion rate of about 5%.  In the scheme of things, that’s not too bad, although I will definitely play with strategies moving forward.   The key will be to test deliberately, not throwing a bunch of stuff out to see if it sticks.  Each month, I’ll be testing a new strategy or tweaking existing.

The best part.

Since I’ve been treating this as an experiment, the best part of all of this has been discovering new reading communities. Granted, I have blown my book budget sky high, but I’ve also discovered and supported new-to-me authors, financially and through reviews and social media.

Success in writing isn’t a zero-sum game.  The best way to build your platform?  Explore your writing ecosystem, and help others authors grow.

 

All right, that was RIDICULOUSLY long.  If you’re still reading, thanks!  I’m happy to answer any questions I can, about self-publishing, marketing, or geekery.  What’s on your mind?

 

 

About Cathy Yardley [3]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [4] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [4]