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I’ve had lots of conversations recently with emerging authors about promotion and marketing and how important it is to start building your platform within your communities of interest. Kassia Krozser over at  Booksquare says it much more eloquently than I could.

Here’s a quote:

All roles in entertainment media are changing, and authors, particularly, need to switch from a book-oriented focus to a career-oriented focus. This involves little things like updating your website betweenbooks (please, please, please don’t have two-year old content on your home page!). Blogging, if you’re so inclined. Writing articles that are read by your existing and future fan base. Using social media for good (as opposed to evil). Keeping your name in the game even when you’re not actively selling something, except your backlist.

This is the author as a business, as opposed to the writer as a creative being. Note the distinction. You’re wearing two hats. One might fit uncomfortably until you realize that marketing is your job. Marketing might be a distraction for a writer, but it’s essential if you’re an author.

Starting a blog is just a first step, and really if you’re not going to be committed to actually blogging, then there’s not much point in even doing that. What it’s really all about is immersing yourself in the overlapping social networks that swirl around your genre or chosen content or field of expertise. Thanks to the rise of online social media like Facebook, MySpace, wikis or, heck, even just ye olde message boards, this is both easy and cheap to do. What it requires is your time and interest in engaging with the people that are or will be your audience.

HogeTown is deflecting criticism for saying that it’s not a smart idea to have a book launch and not tell punters where and when it is. He mentions my post on author platform:

Also, I’m surprised to see one launch being promoted as a mystery, where we have to keep an eye out for clues as to when/where it will be.  Sometimes there are reasons these things aren’t known a week out from the con. Often they’re out of the control of the publisher. It happens. But if that’s the case tell us and let us know when we can find out. Otherwise it’s just as likely we won’t come because we won’t know when the bloody launch is on! As Kate would say on Electric Alphabet, it’s not good ‘platform.’

I thought I would make a few points here. Firstly, this is not quite what I meant when I talked about author platform. The book launch in question is for 2012, a small press anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne from Twelfth Planet Press.

Arguably, Alisa has excellent ‘platform’. She is deeply embedded in the Australian speculative fiction blogosphere. Her online review site, ASif!, attracts healthy patronage. She is a prolific publisher, critic and blog journalist. All these things add to her platform, that nebulous term which describes a combination of profile, reach or influence to particular audiences. Attempting to exploit that platform in order to promote her new publication is smart, and exactly what I hope more Australian authors will do, firstly by paying attention to how they can improve their platform, and then thinking about ways to use it to connect with readers and book buyers.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s a smart promotional strategy keeping the basic details of the launch (time, place etc) a secret, not for a small press book launch at a science fiction convention. This is a function of the kind of event a fan convention is. At any one time there are several program items competing for punters’ attention, not to mention the social pull of the bar, the traders room etc. It’s a content free-for-all. Being subtle and clever in this context doesn’t make sense. If you want people at your launch, you need to tell them where and when and give them compelling reasons to be there otherwise they’ll plan to be somewhere else. I understand that Alisa is trying something different and new, trying to get away from the boring old formula for book launches by using vague clues to create curiosity, buzz and anticipation. That’s to be applauded, and without that experimentation, we won’t know if a different approach could be more successful. But it needs to be coupled with clear information about how the mystery will be solved, what the pay off is, how tension will be resolved for the punter. This is not, after all, an episode of Lost. There’s a clear end game: to sell books.

I’m reminded of the time we were in Edinburgh during the Fringe and the basic method of promoting the dozens of shows going on across the city every night was for people from those shows to walk the Royal Mile with flyers and signs and comic performances to attract attention. This isn’t as chaotic and random as it may seem. The performances were designed to engage tourists and create desire to attend the show, much like Alisa’s mystery clues. But there was still a tangible item – the flyer, the sign – which said where to go, what time, how much.

At a convention, like a festival, there many things competing for attendees’ attention day and night. Why risk those people being distracted or captivated by something else before you can deliver the most important information – how to attend the launch, how to buy the book. And at the end of the day, number of people who showed up and number of books sold are going to be the measures of success.

Speaking of viral platforms for promoting and selling books, at the expensive end of the scale HarperCollins is going all out on a promotional campagin for Prince Caspian in a “Read the book before you see the movie” push. Tools of Change for Publishing blog notes:

The Facebook and widget components are notable because they represent a clear effort to engage the target audience (kids) on familiar ground (social networks, blogs, etc.). Back in the day, a program like this would have been relegated to a microsite and maybe a few text ads. Now, the openness of Web 2.0 creates all sorts of new engagement opportunities — both for companies and the audiences they seek.

Given the extent of Alisa’s ‘platform’ which I mentioned above, and which is largely based in online social media, I wonder if a well-constructed social network campaign wouldn’t give a better payoff for her time and energy in promoting 2012. I’m not talking having someone program her own widgets of course, but as this Guy Kawasaki article notes, you don’t necessarily need the bells and whistles to make word-of-mouth networks work harder for you.

Richard Herley, in his first post on Teleread, is discussing why savvy literary agents will have new opportunities in the e-publishing market. It’s a fantastic post and you should read it and think about what he says.

However, one little aside he made caught my eye:

Let me digress a little. The reason that hardback houses hold such sway in the publishing world is that they largely control—or did control—the entry to the market. Of course, they also promote the books they publish, but, as any publisher will privately admit, even a big promotion budget is wasted on a third-rate book. Books succeed only if readers like them. Once readers know of its existence, a book is promoted principally by word of mouth.

One of the things I’m often telling emerging writers is to moderate their expectations of how many marketing dollars are invested by publishers in their books. New authors often have unrealistic ideas about how much promotional support they will receive, especially for a debut. They have visions of national publicity tours, signings, launches, displays and printed collateral. In reality, it’s more likely to be distribution of review copies, some targeted media releases and inclusion in the catalogue. Don’t get me wrong – done well, a thoughtful publicity campaign will yield just as much exposure for far smaller spend than a lavish marketing program.

But Richard’s observation has me wondering whether, secretly, one of the reasons publishers don’t bother to spend much on the marketing of (most) books is, not that they don’t have budget for it, but that they know it doesn’t really matter. In the end, reviews, interviews and ads don’t really prompt people to buy books and read them. People do. Friends and peers do. Social networks do.

Of course, if that were the case, I’d expect to see more effort (in Australia) in doing the things that might impact on word of mouth, rather than traditional above the line publicity and advertising? I’d expect to see every publisher pooling their marketing spend into building vibrant online communities. Some are – I think the social media components of HarperCollins Voyager Online have attract a really strong, if small, community. I guess I’m surprised not to see more of it, in a whole range of genres.

And since we were talking last week about authors promoting themselves better on the internet I was all geekgrrl delight when ReadWriteWeb alerted me to Traackr.

The nutshell version: Traackr is a service that enables you to keep track your content on the web and measure its popularity and influence. The platform gathers together your content living in other social media accounts including MySpace, Flickr, Last.fm, YouTube and more. It then provides graphs and stats about your content such as number of view, comments and ratings. It also has a Campaign tool which enables you to bundle up your content in different configurations.

I absolutely love this. My early professional experience was actually in marketing and I have a bit of an obsession with being able to track and measure campaign success. Since authors are distributing more and more content on the web, often not in a planned way, it would be an invaluable tool to be able to assess how it’s being received and used.

Imagine an author who has a new book out – the Campaign tool would be an invaluable way to package together content about the book and assess how web users are responding to it. Several authors I know, such as Ian Irvine and Marianne de Pierres are experimenting with their own book trailers, distributing them via YouTube. Traackr could give them a more complete picture about how the book trailer has been distributed and consumed, instead of only knowing how many views it has received on YouTube.

Traackr is still in beta version and has a few kinks to be ironed out. I haven’t finished playing with it yet, but I look forward to its evolution and more services just like it.

Contact Kate Eltham

kate.eltham {at} gmail.com

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