Posted in Book Marketing, New Author Series | Posted on 06-06-2013|
I get a lot of variations of this question from writers who are working on their first book and are planning to self-publish (or seek an agent and a traditional deal) in a few months. Since I didn’t have much of a master plan myself (it went like this: a) release first novel and b) try everything to sell it), but things eventually worked out for me, I usually say focus on writing more books and don’t worry much about the marketing for now.
Buuut, people don’t want to hear that. Go figure.
And I get it. When it’s your first book, it’s a big deal. If you’re anything like I was, it might have taken seven years to get that book to the point where you’re ready to share it. Who knows when the next one will be ready? Also, how will you know if it’s worth doing a series or a spinoff until enough people read the first that you have a gauge as to its commercial potential? Or, if you’re seeking an agent/publisher, how do you show that you have people who will buy that first book before you start querying it? (Yes, I understand that agents/publishers do check up on a potential author’s “platform” these days.)
So let me do a what-I’d-do-if-I-were-starting-today-knowing-what-I-know-now post. I’ll pretend I’m finishing up my first book and plan to publish it (or query it) in a few months.
Establishing a Fan Base Before You’re Ready to Publish/Query Your First Book
What I wouldn’t do
I’ll start out by talking about what many people do (I did too) and why that doesn’t work very well. A few months before the book is ready to go, they start a blog (usually on writing or the writing process), get on Twitter, and get on Facebook. They try to increase traffic/comments to their blog by commenting on all the other writing blogs out there. They try to increase Twitter followers by following the other writers out there (or maybe they’ll do a little better and realize they need readers who love their genre, and they’ll follow folks who mention books, science fiction, etc. in their Twitter bios). They’ll run contests or lobby other writers for likes to their Facebook page.
This is all largely ineffective (though it can make you appear popular, which may be enough for agents/publishers, but it won’t get you anywhere with sales). Why? Very few of these people will end up being your target readers, AKA people who love your writing style, your characters, and the type of story you weave.
It’s not that establishing connections with other writers and with readers in general can’t be useful (later on, after the launch, you may want to do some guest blog posts or interviews on their sites), but as far as building a fan base ahead of time goes, it’s a lot of work and not particularly effective.
What I would do
So there’s the “what not to do” side. What should you do? First off, realize that the people you really want subscribing to your blog, following you on Twitter, and liking your author page on Facebook are those who have read your work and LIKED it. Sure, it’s okay if you have other people (because I write about self-publishing and book promotion here, I get a lot of folks signing up for my newsletter who haven’t read my books), as you never know when someone might buy something to support you or might recommend you to others, but these shouldn’t be the people you target. You want readers who enjoy your work.
So, how do you find them when you haven’t released your book yet?
Ah, finally I get to the point! As I said, here’s what I would do if I were preparing for my first release today:
Start a website/blog and start posting samples of your work
Definitely grab your URL (yourname.com) early on. You can install WordPress (free) in a few minutes (most web hosts have a one-click install, or you can pay an internet-savvy friend to do it for a few bucks), and even if you’re not planning to blog, this can provide the framework for your site (more on finding a host, buying your URL, and setting up your site here), as you can create “pages” as well as “posts” with WordPress. All the free themes out there for WordPress mean you don’t need to pay anyone to design a special author site for you either (save that for later when you’re making money and need tax write-offs).
Once that’s set up, put a newsletter signup somewhere on the site (preferably on the front page or maybe on the menu so it shows up on every page). Let folks know what they’ll get if they sign up (coupons? free stories? access to early releases?)–it’s a good idea to provide an incentive.
Now post some of your work. Maybe it’s the first three chapters of your novel. Maybe you have some snippets from favorite scenes. Maybe you want to create some character interviews. Maybe you have lots of short stories that weren’t accepted for magazines/anthologies (or maybe they were and the rights have reverted back to you).
I think you’ll find you’ll get the most mileage here if these snippets tie in with your first novel. Some of my early sales success came from putting my Ice Cracker II short story out there everywhere I could. It features the two main characters from my Emperor’s Edge series (at the time, I only had the first EE book out), and it includes an excerpt of the novel at the end. I didn’t put it up on my website, because I was busy blogging about self-publishing then and trying to build an audience that way (remember, this is a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-did post), but I did put it everywhere else (more on that coming up).
Once you have some of your work up, you have something to tweet about on Twitter. I speak from experience here: people who will roll their eyes at yet another tweet advertising an ebook for sale will be more inclined to try something for free.
Give Wattpad a try
Trying to get readers to visit your website isn’t a bad idea (it’s the one place that your newsletter signup can be displayed right next to the work, so it’s ideal), but it’s a bit like having a garage sale versus putting something up on eBay. You have to work hard to drive traffic to your site, but the traffic is already there on eBay, and it’s already searching for the types of stories you write.
Wattpad has grown quite popular, and I started posting my own work there a few months ago. I’ve heard the site is more skewed toward the YA audience, especially young folks reading the stories via their smartphones, but I’ve still had some readers find EE and enjoy it (hey, even if the heroes aren’t teenagers, it’s the sort of thing I would have liked as a teen, when I wasn’t busy reading those Forgotten Realms books over and over). Within the last month or so, I’ve started hearing from Wattpad users who said they bought others in my series after finding me there, so it works.
Now, in my case, I had a whole novel I was willing to put up there. If you’re getting ready to launch your first book, you may not be ready to release it anywhere for free (though I’ve heard of authors putting a moderately-clean-but-not-yet-polished-and-professionally-edited version up on Wattpad, doing well, and having lots of folks ready to buy the final version when it was released). As with your website, you could try short stories or sample chapters. I’m sure you’ll do better if you post the whole book (I started getting a lot more readers for EE once it was marked “complete”), but that’s up to you.
Here are a couple of interviews I’ve done with authors who found some success on Wattpad:
There are other sites like this, where readers are waiting for new stories to try, but Wattpad seems to be the big dog right now. You can also look into Scribd, Authonomy, and, if you have some Harry Potter or Star Trek fics buried on your hard drive, the various fan fiction sites. (As you’ve probably heard, there are quite a few authors doing extremely well now who got their starts and built their “tribes” on fan fiction sites.)
Even though I came late to Wattpad (I’m planning to start releasing the first book of my next series there, starting a few weeks before I publish the novel), I like these sites because you can reach a lot of people who aren’t the same folks hitting Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. and browsing for books. Don’t make the mistake of looking down upon readers who don’t do a lot of book buying. Lots of these folks are young people without a regular source of income yet — a few years down the line they could be devoted buyers of your books, and in the meantime they can do more than you can imagine to share your work with others, some of whom will buy now.
Publish something free on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple
You’re probably sensing a theme here… give away some of your work for free so people can try it at no risk. For these sites, it’s the garage-sale-versus-eBay analogy again. The readers are already there. You need to have something out there where they’re looking.
These sites generally want completed fiction (Smashwords, in particular, works this way), so here’s where a short story can work.
When I was getting started and making next to nothing from sales yet, I invested $200 in the cover art for that Ice Cracker II story I mentioned. I wasn’t rich and really debated on this, because it was only a 6,000-word short story. But, within a month, I’d sold enough copies of EE1 (then priced at $2.99) at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords (I didn’t know how to get Amazon to make an ebook free at the time) to pay for that cover art. It was absolutely worth the investment (you’ll want a custom cover for posting your work on Wattpad too).
You can also follow the route fellow indie Moses Siregar III took and turn the first chunk of the book you’re working on into a novella. He published that several months before the novel was ready, worked on promoting it, and had a lot of fans ready to buy the whole novel when he released it.
Later on, if you’re doing a series, you may want to try making your first book free, but I didn’t do that until I had three novels out (plus a stand-alone set in the same world).
Turning these readers into fans who are ready to buy when you finally release your book
All right, you’ve got some short stories or excerpts out there and people are reading them. Mission accomplished, right? Well, you’re half way there. The last thing you need to do is find a way to keep in contact with these folks. You want to be able to tell them when the book is ready to go, or it’s all been for naught.
I’ve already mentioned mailing lists, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and blog subscriptions. These are the primary ways you’re going to be able to get in touch with folks, with the mailing list being ideal (people forget to check blogs, and it’s easy to get lost among the other people they follow on Twitter/Facebook, but everyone checks their email). Wherever you’re publishing these samples of your work, make sure to post your blog and social media links at the end. Don’t be afraid to ask people to follow you. Otherwise chances are they’ll forget about you, especially if you were using a short story — a novel may stick in their heads better, but some readers devour several novels a week. They might have to read three or four of your full-length books before you become an author that they remember to check up on now and then. Make things easy on yourself and encourage them to follow you right after they finish your story.
All right, gang, thank you for reading what’s become another monster post. If you’re trying any of these methods, or have others you’d like to share, please comment below. What did you do that worked to build a fan base before you launched your first book?