Promote Yourself, Not the Books

Do “soul-searching” and “platform” go together? Maybe just as metaphors, but I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and it does have to do with what is loosely considered the author’s platform. I’ve seen plenty of one-book blogs and websites, so it isn’t surprising that I’m also seeing a fair number of posts about the problem. You set up a blog or site to promote your first book, and then you write a second book. Crunch time. Another blog or site? That’s going to get old very fast. How many blogs or sites do you expect your readers to click to? I didn’t make that mistake because I knew it would be a mistake, but I didn’t think about it in more specific terms. Until I ran across a couple of important statements — that if you’re going to be more than a one-book author, you have to focus on selling yourself, not your books.

That sounds gross, I know. Author as literary pimp? Not really. What have most of us learned in the process of becoming indie authors? That if we push our books, but have no interaction with readers and potential readers, we’re just spamming. But that means more than responding to readers, sharing our knowledge and experiences with other writers, and telling a bit about ourselves (but not our cats, please). So far, I haven’t found a suitable way to name this “extra” step, but in some ways it amounts to a philosophy or a raison d’etre, our reasons for writing in the particular way we do about the subjects that are most important to us. I don’t see that as being terribly important if you write erotic romance or zombie novels because there isn’t much you can say that’s any different from what hundreds of other writers would say. Or maybe that’s just my personal bias. If you disagree, I won’t argue with you.

So we’re going for what’s unique, what makes you and your books stand out from the crowd. And that may be more important for genre crossers and benders and for literary types than it is for the romance and zombie crowd. Your niche is smaller, your potential audience is smaller, and it’s harder for you and your readers to find each other. I do realize that if you write in a popular and crowded genre, even if it’s zombies, you have the  problem of standing out from the crowd.

But I think the problem isn’t quite the same. Zombie fans know what they’re looking for, and they can just follow the category listings and tags to find it. It’s difficult to find the right categories and tags for works that cross genres or don’t fit clearly into any genre at all. You can’t count on readers finding you that way. So it does make sense to promote yourself rather than your books. But it also means that promotion means something different than it normally does. You want to find the kind of readers who enjoy the kind of books you enjoy writing. The more they know about what kind of stories you tell, the more likely they’ll be to stick with you after they’ve read one of your books. They need to know, within limits, what to expect from you.

Here’s an example. I have a story about 2/3 written, about two adoptive brothers who are also lovers. When they’re defeated in a battle, their relationship is destroyed and they’re forced into becoming the winner’s concubines. What a setup, eh? Lots of non-consensual sex and various kinds of abuse. Except that there’s only implied sex, and very little violence. It’s a study of power and helplessness.

Or this one, which I’ve talked about before. Young man is sentenced to five years servitude to an older man. Slavery by any other name. Lots of tropes here. Slave falls in love with master. Master falls in love with slave. Or not. Master abuses slave. Or not. Happy ever after. Or not. Again, it’s a character study of two unhappy individuals in a situation not of their choosing. No sex. No romance, probably.

Both stories would royally piss off any readers who came to them expecting lots of hot male on male sex and a HEA ending. There are two ways to avoid that, though I suspect there will always be people stumbling in and rushing back out in a temper. First, avoid the tags and categories that will lead readers astray. Second, build your reputation as a writer who produces a certain kind of book. It will take longer than winning success as the best zombie creator out there, but everyone will be happier with the results.

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25 thoughts on “Promote Yourself, Not the Books

  1. I think that makes sense – I found myself ruminating along similar lines the other day, wondering how you build and keep an audience if you don’t want to write all your books and stories according to generically predictable criteria.
    Building up a distinctive personal brand so that readers want more of YOUR writing rather than yet another slave story or vampire story or whatever seems to offer the freedom to experiment without having to build up a new audience for every book.

    1. Right. It has the advantage that if your readers know you like to spread your wings and try new styles or genres, they’re not going to be upset because they locked on a specific book and genre and expect you to continue in exactly that way.

  2. This is an important subject, Catana. I have been mulling this over before I wrote a blog post on the subject too. You bring up several considerations for the unknown writer trying to develop a following. I started my blog for the purpose of writing on subjects that would give potential readers some idea of my attitudes and interests as well as providing some information about the books I have written. Readers would also be exposed to how I write. The hope was that I would draw some readers to browse my book descriptions. Your point about choosing the right tags is very pertinent. This may be difficult with the broad categories that may be a catch-all or there are just too many books in that category for a browser to find your book at all. My husband who writes science fiction has had greater success in drawing readers. The selection of search key words is crucial for getting hits, but how to determine the right ones for your book? We are exploring the possibility of developing a better web site to direct browsers to our books. The blog is only one tool, probably one that should be in an arsenal, of helping potential readers find your books. Self-promotion is not my forte, and not one that many writers have, or even wish to cultivate if they don’t have it. Agents are supposed to do that, but many of us have abandoned trying to get one, and the advent of e-books have certainly reduced the urgency to have one. Thanks for a good post.

    1. I’m not a big fan of self-promotion either, and I really don’t do very much of it. But in this context, I think that maybe my reviews on Good Reads have become part of that. They’re one way to let people know what works for me in other people’s writing, and what doesn’t. I’ve found that people respect honest, well thought out opinions, and now that I’m looking at it from that perspective, I can see my GR bookshelf as an extension of my blogging. Advocates of heavy self-promotion stress the importance of being in a lot of places online. But the only places worth being, to my mind, are those that interest me and give me a chance to extend my relationship with readers. That doesn’t have to be the big social sites like Facebook and G+. Those simply don’t work for me.

      Good luck with the website. If you find a better way to let people know how to find you, we’d all love to hear about it.

  3. I think I’m promoting both my books and myself by having two websites (I also have a third, but it’s of interest only to conlangers). I just restructured my second blog to cover the series I’m about to launch, “The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head.” The blog entitled “Ruminations of a Remembrancer” will in the future deal with the “Termite Queen” and other writings, including my first publication, “Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” and occasional extracts from unpublished material. It will also cover my own views and philosophy, which I intend to get into in more depth very soon.
    But I think that the Ki’shto’ba books are significant enough to merit a home of their own. Nobody had been looking at that website because it was essentially empty, but since I’ve begun to add material, viewership has picked up. The post I put up yesterday and advertised on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ garnered 18 page views in 24 hours. I mean to post a chapter from the first volume soon, and maybe attempt a slide show of illustrations if I can figure out how to do it. I’m happy with the way things are going and I don’t plan any immediate change of strategy, except maybe to get a Facebook fan page. And I keep slowly increasing my contacts, mostly through Twitter and through my conlang contacts.
    As for tags and searches, the most productive Google searches I’ve had involve my posts on how to format text and covers for CreateSpace! Those posts have been surprisingly popular! I’ve had 49 and 31 page views respectively on those, all time! Hope people have found them useful!

    1. The conlang interest puts you in an excellent position to attract readers. It’s an unusual approach for science fiction, and that, plus the subject (termites) certainly puts your books in a class of their own. But yes, sometimes posts that you think will be of passing interest strike a spark.

  4. Speaking to the first part of this post, yes! Creating a site for each book you write is not only a waste of time, but it dilutes your ability to reach an audience. A blog is a good way to advertise who you are, and a static website is a good way to showcase your books and stories. Links on each pointing to the other help increase traffic and visibility.

    1. I’ve done that cross linking between Tracking the Words and Dark Boundaries, but I’m still thinking about a static website somewhere. For one thing, I’m reading about selling books on your own site, and even though people do it on WordPress, I think it’s frowned on. I’d rather not take the chance of being called on a TOS violation.

  5. This is a great post Catana, and one that I think is much needed. One of the reasons I bought the domain name for my author name was because I foresaw a problem of having to create a website for each book. Surely, as you mention, it should be about branding ourselves as authors….even though selling myself makes me shudder with horror.

    I also agree with the statement about non-genre conformity. OK, my novel is paranormal mystery, but there aren’t vampires, werewolves, fairies or anything even slightly like it. At it’s heart it’s a story about the tragic loss of life and how people continue life – paranormal is just the background.

    Hopefully we’ll be able to find a way in which we can promote ourselves and not just our books without feeling like we’re touting for trade!

    1. That makes me much more interested in taking a look at your book, Geoff. Normally, if it says paranormal mystery, it’s an automatic pass, for me.

  6. I focus on “selling myself” at my blog, mainly because the shocking fact is that people who meet me are so startled I write horror, they feel compelled to buy my book. The dichotomy between my personality and my genre is intriguing. There are lots of excellent horror books, but only one me… gotta work with what I’ve got!

    Also, I did toy with putting up a blog for my debut book. Sanity did not prevail. Lack of time saved me; I never did get around to setting up that book-specific site, and I’m glad.

    As for as the static site, I am not sure what that provides consumers of an author’s work if the same information is available in both places, or if the static site is simply a subset of the blog content. I know it’s what all the cool indie kids are doing. I just can’t see what value it adds for readers, at least not in my case at this time.

    1. I’m with you in not being sure about setting up a static site. I’m also not sure “static” is right for what I’m thinking about. Dark Boundaries is for the listings for my published work, samples and excerpts of new work, and also a blog. But I’m not sure whether the blog is appropriate. So what I might do is keep the blog, and move the rest to a website, leaving links behind. I don’t know if it’s worth the effort, though. I still have to give it more thought.

      I think it’s funny that people expect a certain type of person to write horror.

      1. I guess static is not exactly correct, just less slowly changing than a traditional blog. I was thinking more about this and realize that perhaps the division is not so much in the content, but in the intended audience. The majority of visitors to my blog are writers, whereas perhaps the more-static site could be geared more towards readers. Of course, I could just make a more-static page on my site entitled, “For Readers” and accomplish the same.

        Back to square one!

        Good luck with whatever you decide!

  7. Oh, dear, has the “HEA rules OK!” crowd been slamming you?

    I’m not really as concerned as you are about writings not fitting readers’ prior genre expectations. I figure that, if I have a story that’s a mixture of SF/F, romance, darkfic, GLBT stuff, and slashy stuff – without fully fitting into the conventions any of these genres – then this just means that I can promote my work to SF/F readers, romance readers, dark fiction readers, GLBT readers, and slash readers.

    That’s what I’ve done for a decade, and this technique has never seemed to backfire on me. Of course, there will be the occasional reader who says, “I was expecting X, and I got Z,” but this doesn’t seem so much to be connected with genre expectations as with expectations based on my blurbs. So that just gives me the opportunity to expand my blurb to give a better sense of the nature of that particular story. Or as you put it, “Avoid the tags and categories that will lead readers astray.”

    Based on what readers have told me, most of my readers don’t find me because they’ve heard “Dusk Peterson writes these type of stories.” Most of them find me because they stumbled upon a particular story of mine, liked its blurb, and read it. Mind you, once they’ve read me, I direct them back to my website, which is set up in such a way as to encourage them to try out all my series. So I guess that, in that respect, I agree with you when you say, “The more [your readers] know about what kind of stories you tell, the more likely they’ll be to stick with you after they’ve read one of your books.”

    1. “…has the “HEA rules OK!” crowd been slamming you?” No, not at all. I’ve just been trying to find my own sense of balance and contrasting it with the usual expectations. Sometimes, working through it publicly seems to resonate with other writers who may be trying to pull away from what they perceive as readers’ expectations.

      You have some big advantages over me in dealing with all that — a huge oeuvre, for one thing, which gives you something very solid to point readers back to. I don’t have that yet. And you also have the confidence of having found your own niche and becoming comfortable in it.

      You’re probably right that most readers may find you by stumbling over one of your stories, but I wouldn’t discount the admirers who keep pointing people in your direction because of the particular way you write.

  8. “And you also have the confidence of having found your own niche and becoming comfortable in it.”

    Also, I had the good luck to initially start with (and to a large extent, retain) a fanfic/originalfic audience. Except for the fact that I mix gen and slash more than is usually common, my stories are square in the darkfic genre within the fanfic/originalfic tradition. It’s only been since I’ve gone pro that I’ve had to deal with the issue of not fitting neatly into genre boundaries. And that’s only bothered me because it makes it difficult for me to send out copies to book reviewers. As far as readers are concerned, the typical feedback I get is: “This isn’t at all what I expected – HOW WONDERFUL!” I think readers are more flexible than reviewers give them credit for.

    “I wouldn’t discount the admirers who keep pointing people in your direction”

    You wouldn’t be thinking of anyone in particular, would you? 🙂

    I depend heavily on you readers to pass on the word, yes. But you were talking, I thought, about how a writer gets noticed in the first place. And in the first place, all I did was plop my stories down on e-mail lists where a zillion other stories were being posted. Absolutely zero promotion – I just threw my stories out there.

    In April 2002, I made my first big splash – well, relatively speaking; I think five people sent immediate feedback to me, which was big at the time. (For that matter, five people sending me immediate feedback is still a big thing for me.) At any rate, though I’d been taking part in some list discussions, as a story writer I was a total unknown, with only one previous story – O Most Unthankful – to point readers back to (that story went practically unnoticed at first), and with no website till the following month.

    The story I posted in April 2002 did its own work. It was Life Prison.

    So I seriously feel that my sole job as marketer is to get people to the point where they begin reading one of my stories. I trust my stories to do all the marketing I need from that point on.

  9. Plopping the stories out there where they’ll be seen is, I think, something that helped my first two novels get off the ground. Picking the right sites is important, and my slacking off on the LJ communities lately hasn’t been a good idea. I’m also thinking of using AO3, if they ever get the site problems worked out. What I’ve noticed is that authors who’ve put out free work feel that it’s worthwhile, but writers who’ve never done that generally think it’s too risky. They’ll put samples or chapters on their own blog or site, but that’s useful only if they’re already getting substantial traffic. Like you, I don’t want to be pinned down to a genre, but I haven’t had enough experience yet not to worry about it. In the end, there’s probably some synergy between promoting yourself as a kind of “brand” and just making sure that people have plenty of ways to stumble over your stories.

  10. You write such good sense, Catana. (Back online after a hiatus of one week, caused by delays in the switch from dial up to Broadband, plus a ‘new’ computer.) Penny Power, co founder of Ecademy, put what you’re saying into a book she wrote called KNOW ME, LIKE ME, FOLLOW ME, which I think is great reading for anyone interested in marketing anything on the web. The Follow me function, in our case, is buying the book. It’s definitely worth a look for anyone new to this whole caboodle. Best to you, Danielle

    1. Congratulations on moving to broadband. It’s going to be a revelation, I’m sure. I did take a look at the book. I couldn’t help but note that even though it’s been out since 2009, my own obscure novels have a much higher ranking. Apparently, Power is a UK phenomenon. For myself, I really don’t regard writing as a business, and when someone starts talking about heart and soul and warm feelings, I turn right off. I’m sure she’s helpful for people who respond to her particular approach, but that’s not me. I had the same response when your tweets made me curious about Ecademy. Different personal tastes, is all.

      1. Thanks, Catana, I understand exactly what you’re saying re the book AND (is there no way to get italics in here?) and philosophy. No use to you. It was a great help to me though, when just starting out, to help me understand the workings of the web. Beginners, I think could benefit, particularly as many of them seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that KNOW ME is all it takes to sell books. If only …

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