Book Marketing: How to Build a Platform before You Finish Your Book

By Randy Ross

(Portions of this piece originally published on Randy's blog, The Loneliest Planet.)
Here are some plain-English book-marketing tips that have worked for me during the last nine months. My platform is large enough that an agent would probably look at it and think: "OK, this guy is on the ball." Also, if I were to self-publish, I could probably sell a few hundred copies doing what I'm doing.

However, my platform is not large enough that an agent is going to say, "Holy crap! Let's sign this guy now."

Defining Book-Marketing Success

After nine months of trial and error, here are my stats:

- Blog Page Views: 2,700/month (up from 1,000 a year ago)

- Blog subscribers: 165 (up from 10 a year ago.)

- Twitter Followers: 1,200 (up from 200 a year ago)

- Facebook Fans: 2,200 (up from 1,800 a year ago)

- Linked In Connections: 1,200 (up from 800 a year ago)

- E-mail addresses: 1,000 (up from 800 a year ago.)*

*Includes blog subscribers, plus addresses of friends, former co-workers, and other people who are interested in my writing.

Holy crap! Platform numbers, according to one agent. (No, I'm not even close.)

Before you get flipped out by the numbers, remember that most agents agree that the key thing, especially for fiction writers, is to write a great book. Also, it is common knowledge that in today's oversaturated Web and social media environment, the average writer is never going to achieve "Holy crap" numbers.

Book Marketing in Plain English

A key goal of book marketing is to drive people to your blog or Web site, and then get them to leave an e-mail address. Here's why this is important: Remember all those Facebook friends and likes, Twitter followers, and Linked In connections you've spent hours cultivating? They're not your friends, they are Facebook's friends.

If a social media platform -- for example Facebook -- changes its rules and want to charge you to reach your hard-earned connections, you're screwed. If the social media company closes its doors, you're screwed. More on why Facebook in not your friend and social media is mostly bullshit.

What Works: Blogging

1) Choosing a platform

For most people the choice boils down to WordPress or Blogger.

- Blogger is simpler.

- WordPress is more powerful, meaning there are more cool things you can do with it.

Both platforms will allow you to create a blog that looks, feels, and behaves like a Web site. My Loneliest Planet blog was created with Blogger. This Grub Street Daily blog was created with Wordpress.

2) Content, Frequency, Length
a) Content:

- For Non-fiction writers this is easier: Discuss current events or offer tips related to your topic.

- For Fiction writers: Pick themes and topics mentioned in your book and treat them the same way a non-fiction writer does. If your book involves an exotic location, write about that location. If your characters are single, write about single life.

- Should writers blog about writing? Some experts claim you'll be diluting your audience and that writers don't buy books. Other experts, say that's hogwash. Try it and see if you get any clicks.
*Include a piece of art at the top of your blogs! Posts will look more professional and be more attractive when you promote your links on Facebook, Linked In, and other sites. A good place to find free art: Creative Commons. More on art for blogs.

*Be sure the first paragraph or your blog summarizes the content: When you post links to your blog, some social media sites will include the first graph. If that graph is cutesy, clever, and confusing, you'll lose readership.

b) Frequency

I was blogging weekly and it was too much work. Now, I'm blogging three times a month, which feels about right -- and my traffic has remained about the same. 

c) Length

Some experts recommend no more than 250 words. I've been doing up to 750. Length doesn't seem to affect my traffic.

3) Capturing E-Mails

You want people who like your blog to sign up or subscribe. Suggestions for increasing sign ups:

a) Use a tool such as Feedburner, which does the following:
- Creates a sign-up box that lets readers add their e-mail or subscribe via RSS feed.
- Many people hate Feedburner because, like many free tools from Google, it doesn't offer any tech support. (For tech support, I always search on the problem I'm having. Often other people have had similar problems and come up with answers. For example, I recently searched on: "Why does my Feedburner count fluctuate?" and found reams of answers.)

b) Post a sign-up box at the end of each blog post. Here's how I do it:

*NOTE: There are rumors that Google may shut down Feedburner. Here's what you can do to move your subscribers to alternatives to FeedBurner. More on blogging.

What Works: SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves several steps:
- Determining the best Google-friendly keyword phrases that will make your blog posts easy to find.
- Inserting them into your headlines and first paragraph of your posts.
- Including those keywords in your blog description. (Blogger provides a Search Description box that you can fill out for each post.)

Humorous, useful pieces on Keyword phrases and SEO. More than you need to know about SEO

What Works: Driving Traffic by Posting Links

This is a key reason you are bothering with social media: To post links that drive people to your blog. Facebook and Linked In have groups of people with similar interests.

*Before signing up for a group, consider the number of members, then visit the group to see how active those members are: If there are only a few posts from the same person or the posts are two weeks old, skip it.
*Linked In limits the number of groups you can join to 50. Posting links to 50 groups takes me about a 1.5 hours, but it generates 75% of my traffic.

What Works: Managing E-Mails

You have lists of people in your personal and business e-mail. Any of them interested in your writing? If you have more than 50, you won't be able to e-mail them all at once from a typical e-mail program, like say, Yahoo! Mail.

For managing large groups of e-mails and for creating periodic e-mail blasts and e-mail newsletters use an e-mail management service. I've been using Mailchimp and, so far, have no complaints. More on managing e-mail addresses and newsletters.

What Works: Offline Book Marketing

1) Public Readings

You don't have to be a big name author -- or even have a book -- to do public readings. I've been reading from my as-yet unfinished book at poetry slams (my book isn't poetry), story slams (I won one), a smut slam (don't ask), and public libraries (libraries in Boston pay readers.).

The key to giving public readings: Make sure you collect e-mail addresses from people at the reading. Add these people manually to Mailchimp or your e-mail management program.

Note: I'm an idiot, I've given more than 50 readings and didn't bother collecting e-mails until last month. Don't make the same mistake! Tips on reading your work in public.

 2) More on Public Readings

 I once gave a reading at a store that sells travel gear (My novel includes a lot of travel scenes.) I am going to approach other stores related to other themes in my book:

- Humorous erotica: I'm going to pitch readings to lingerie shops and stores that sell sex toys.

- Dating and single life: I have a lot of dating scenes in my book, so I'm going to approach businesses that cater to singles: wine stores, health clubs, and singles organizations.

3) A-B-C: Always Be Closing

If someone asks you what you do, mention your book. If they seem interested ask if they want to be on your mailing list. If they hand you a business card, be sure to ask: "Is this the best e-mail for personal e-mail or information on my book?"

Randy Ross is a book marketing blogger, SEO consultant, and former executive editor for PC World magazine and His fiction has appeared, or will appear, in The Drum, Black Heart Magazine, Side B Magazine, For the Girls, and Calliope. He is completing a novel with working title, The Loneliest Planet: A Novel for the Chronically Single, which he plans to circulate to agents in 2013. His one-man show The Chronic Single's Handbook, based on the novel, was selected for ArtBeat, a Boston-area performance festival.

About the Author

GrubWrites is a space for the writing and reading community to share ideas and seek advice, a place where writers at the very beginning of their careers publish alongside established authors. Book lovers, we bring you reviews, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to keep you up to speed on all things lit. Writers, this is your one stop shop for expert craft talk, opinions on how we learn and teach writing, and essential advice about the publishing industry.

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