How to Build Your Platform without Hammer and Nails (or blood, sweat, and tears)

file0001300134269I was at PubSmart last week and got into a debate with Hugh Howey about how we as writers sometimes shy away from business words and should we embrace them because we all are business people (yes, we are—we’re each CEOs of our own Global Media Empires, remember?) or is it okay to develop our own language?

 

We were on a panel together and the discussion turned to platform building. As the moderator said the word “platform” I could see at least half of the audience cringe.

 

I understand their discomfort with equating our readers, our family, the people who let us live this incredible life, with a slab of plywood hammered and nailed together.

 

So here’s my approach to platform building. And yes, you have one (even if you’re just starting out) and yes, you need to keep growing and building it with each new book.

 

I promise, no hammer or nails required!

 

Start with knowing yourself. What are your strengths? How do you enjoy interacting with people in real life and on line?

 

Are you someone who is energized by engaging with folks on social media? Then make sure you incorporate time to do that in your work schedule.

 

Are you someone who is better chatting in person? Then focus on getting out there in real life to book clubs, conferences, civic organizations.

 

Platform = the people who want to hear from you and who you can reach.

 

Always own your platform. If you use social media, make sure you have a way to also send folks to your online real estate: your website and mailing list. If you use live, in person events, collect email addresses and make sure your audience knows where to find you on line.

 

Personally, I hate the term platform (every time I hear it, I see a soap box in my head). I prefer to think of the people who make up my platform as part of my family.

 

Words are important and yes, it’s important that people see use as business people. So I totally respect Hugh for saying that he believes as writers we need to embrace marketing terms and not shy away from them as if they are beneath us.

 

Yet, we are also wordsmiths, storytellers. We use words to evoke emotion and change hearts and minds.

 

Bottom line: whatever you’re comfortable calling it, you need a platform—you have a platform—so embrace it, don’t put up artificial barriers between yourself and your platform (your peeps, if that’s more palatable).

 

Be genuine. Be authentic. Be yourself.

 

And as always, have fun with it! Your joy and passion will shine through in everything you do.
 

Ready to share your stories with the world as a ProWriter? Check out the courses created by myself and Joanna Penn on The Secrets of a ProWriter, Breaking into Publishing , Secrets of Indy Publishing, and How to Reach Readers and Market Your Novel.

Top 101 Blog!

2014_101BestSitesI’m so honored that No Rules, Just Write!, has been selected as a 101 Best Website for Writers as honored by Writer’s Digest magazine.

You can find the complete list HERE It’s a fantastic group and I’m proud to be part of it.

Should I? Would I? Conferences

Copper_question_mark_3dNOTE from CJ: Almost daily, I get requests for advice from people. When I have time, I try to answer, especially if it will provide insight helpful to others who follow NoRulesJustWRITE. If you have a question, feel free to email it to me—your answer may appear here in the future!

 

Question: Hi C.J.! I hope you’re well. I have a question about conferences. First off, here’s where I am at with my publishing career:

 

I just released the third book in my trilogy, and I am getting the rights back to my first book and will be re-releasing in May. I have audio books in the works for the summer, and then I am launching a new thriller series in the late summer/fall. Lack of visibility and exposure is the toughest part for me, and it’s a hurdle I don’t know how to cross. I am doing a BookBub ad at the end of the month, and I will probably make the first book in trilogy free in May.

 

I network with a lot of authors online, but most of them tend to be romance authors. An author mentioned to me that I needed to go to a conference to network with other mystery/thriller writers and get them to become interested in my career. That whole idea makes me feel smarmy, but I do wonder if I will never see big sales until I go to a conference. Right now, I h ave been putting my time and money into writing and editing. I have a great developmental editor and a great copy editor, but that eats up a lot of my budget. As a stay at home mom, I can only do so much. But in your honest opinion, am I hurting my sales chances but not going to conferences? Or should I just keep putting out content?

 

Thanks so much!

 

Answer from CJ: It’s your career, you need to decide what you’ll gain from anything you spend time and energy on.

 

I will give you my opinion (just my opinion–there are some folks who do the exact opposite of this, focusing on sales, sales, sales, and it works brilliantly for them) and that is if you ever are thinking of doing ANYTHING “just to sell some books” then you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

 

Getting books into hands of readers is a way to connect with PEOPLE…going to conferences and meeting your peers, hearing their stories, sharing yours, learning from those who’ve been there, done that, is another way to connect with PEOPLE…heck, doing a book signing in a bookstore has nothing to do with selling books, it’s about connecting with the people there (and being helpful by telling passerbys where the restrooms are <g>)

 

Writing a book is about you expressing yourself. Deciding to publish that book is about connecting with people.

 

Even if you’re a total misanthrope who hates being around people, telling a great story that affects your audience is still about forming a connection with them.

 

Up to you to decide if it’s worth your time and effort to forge those connections in person (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t–no right or wrong here!) or to do it long distance via the “telepathy” (as Stephen King puts it) of your stories.

 

Hope that helps,
CJ
Ready to share your stories with the world as a ProWriter? Check out the courses created by myself and Joanna Penn on The Secrets of a ProWriter, Breaking into Publishing , Secrets of Indy Publishing, and How to Reach Readers and Market Your Novel.

 

Click HERE for more info.

What Makes a Bestseller?

nyt copyNext month I’ll be part of the Foundations of a Bestseller panel at PubSmart (haven’t signed up yet? learn more HERE) along with Hugh Howey, Julia Coblentz, Cindy Ratzlaff, and Amy Quale

 

As part of our preparing to give attendees the best damn panel of the conference we had a discussion about where to focus our attention during our 45 minutes.

 

(because, if you’re going to give up time away from family and writing to attend a conference, you want YOUR panel to be the one attendees can’t stop talking about, otherwise it’s just not worth doing…although if you take a look at the roster of speakers for PubSmart, it’s pretty clear the bar is set awfully high)

 

Tons of brilliant ideas flew back and forth…but then we took a step back and realized we needed to first define: What is a bestseller?

 

There are many kinds of bestsellers, including:

 

#1: an author who hits a nation-wide, multi-venue bestseller list such as the USA Today or New York Times

 

#2: an author who hits venue-specific bestseller lists such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble

 

#3: an author who sells enough books that they remain perenially in the minds of readers anxious for more

 

Many writers are focused on #1 or #2. They study strategies that will allow them to achieve these goals, not realizing that you can reach #1 or #2 without achieving #3

 

Yes, #1 gives you a title of Bestselling Author that you will own forever—that makes it an excellent goal to reach for. But it doesn’t guarantee long term success.

 

The third type of bestseller is much more difficult to achieve. Instead of creating momentum timed to move a significant number of books during a specific week, you must build a body of work that builds its own momentum.

 

You must build a body of readers who add to that momentum as you delight and excite them with each new work.

 

You must hone your craft, never stop learning, never stop stretching your limits—and accepting that you will fail, because unless our reach exceeds our grasp, then we’re setting our sights too low.

 

In other words, to become the third kind of bestseller—the kind of bestseller not reliant on lists or strategies or proprietary algorithms—it takes time, hard work, and dedication to your readers.

 

I’m lucky enough to have achieved all three. I did it backwards, starting with #3 and building to #1 thanks to my readers’ support.

 

Since that first appearance on the major bestseller lists, most of my books have also appeared, but not all of them…and, interestingly enough (if you’re into numbers) two of the books that haven’t hit a major list, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and continue to generate more sales than others that have appeared on major bestseller lists.

 

Why? Because these hundreds of thousands of sales have not been timed to fit the narrow parameters required by the list makers. Instead, they’ve been build by word of mouth.

 

I guess the bottom line and major difference between #1 and #3 is that to become the first kind of bestseller, you are labeled a bestseller by a third party, usually a corporation who had no idea who you are.

 

To become the third kind of bestseller, you are embraced by a body of readers who declare you as one of their beloved authors and who will buy everything you publish.

 

Which would you prefer?

 

What to learn more? Join us in Charleston at PubSmart. More info HERE

Know Your Options: Two Bestsellers Discuss Publishing

coversNOTE FROM CJ: I’m delighted to have two friends with international publishing experience discussing both traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Who are they and why should you pay attention to what they say?

REBECCA CANTRELL is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel; the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke; and her Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin.

SEAN BLACK writes the bestselling Ryan Lock series of thrillers. To research them, he trained as a bodyguard in the UK and Eastern Europe, spent time inside America’s most dangerous Supermax prison, Pelican Bay in California, completed desert survival training in Arizona, and ventured into the tunnels under Las Vegas.

 

Take it away, Sean and Rebecca!

 

Sean: We first met at Thrillerfest in 2009 where we were both fresh-faced debut authors. Tor were publishing the first in your Hannah Vogel series, A Trace of Smoke, and Transworld in the UK had just published the first in my Ryan Lock series, Lockdown, which I now self publish in the US. Now here we are in 2014, and we have both recently self-published a new title that will likely be part of a new series. It’s less than five years, but it feels like an age. As the old Chinese curse goes, we have both lived in interesting times, and my sense is that far from settling down the real upheavals in publishing are only really starting.

 

To kick us off, what have been the highlights of being traditionally published for you? It’s easy for authors to dwell on the negative things, such as a bad review, but pick three highlights from your traditionally published experience, and then I’ll give you mine.

 

Becky:

  1. When I first saw a book with my name on it in the local bookstore.
  2. When I won the Bruce Alexander Award for A TRACE OF SMOKE and walked speechless to the stage.
  3. When I saw my name on the New York Times bestseller list.

 

 

Sean: Pretty impressive. That sounds like many authors’ dream right there. Seeing your book in stores, winning an award, and hitting the NYT list. Mine wouldn’t be that different. Seeing a whole front window display in stores, the whole auction experience of having publishers battle it out with six figure offers over my debut, and hitting the bestseller list in the UK were all pretty exciting for me.

 

But of course it begs a very obvious question, which is why turn to self publishing? My three reasons would be:

1. Higher royalties

2. Control (especially over pricing and promotions)

3. Time to market

 

You don’t have to do a top three, but apart from my nagging you, why did you decide to self publish The World Beneath? What was the impetus? And what has the experience been like?

 

Becky: Your nagging did play a big role, as did CJ’s (and Joanna Penn’s—it takes a village!). I’d say my big three are actually the same as yours.

1)    I was tired of waiting months and years for my books to be accepted and published. I wanted them in my readers’ hands faster. (Time to market)

2)    I wanted to know what was going on with my books. What actions really connect with readers and drive sales? What cover do readers like? If something went wrong, I wanted to know it right away, and to be able to fix it myself. (Control)

3)    I wanted to be paid for my work, fairly and quickly. I don’t live on art and air–I need food and shelter and money to pay for them. (Higher royalties)

 

The experience has been wonderful. Since we’re doing top 3s, here are my top three highlights:

 

1) Happy readers. The World Beneath is connecting with readers at a much higher rate. I’ve sold more ebooks of that title in six weeks than I did of my previous solo series in four years. I’m getting more Amazon reviews, and they’re more positive. I’ve had more sign ups for my newsletter to find out about new works than ever before, too.

 

2) Happy author. I loved the experience of putting the book out. I was able to shop around until I found an editor and a cover designer I love to work with, people who work hard to make my books better.

 

3) Happy bank account. I get paid monthly, instead of twice a year. This makes budgeting a lot easier. I always feel guilty when I talk about trying to make a living as a writer, because it’s been drummed into me a thousand times that it should be all about the art. I work hard to write the very best books I can, to be true to the art of writing, but I also need to eat to write. And I don’t think writers, or any other artists, should be ashamed about wanting to earn a living from their work.

 

Sean: And, of course, being indie means we can sell our books for peanuts. I mean we only sell because we price so low, right? That seems to be one of the recurring themes recently, so putting aside my sarcasm, can we put that one to bed. How have your priced your new book and what have sales been like?

 

Becky: I priced it at $4.99. I did a three day $0.99 sale combined with a BookBub promotion to help the book take off, and I did a three day $3.99 sale as a special favor for the subscribers of CJ Lyons’ newsletter. Other than that, the book has been sitting at $4.99 and doing quite well there.

 

Sean: I’ve gone for a similar pricing model of $4.99 with my new thriller POST, although my biggest earning title in the US, where I also self-publish the Ryan Lock series, sells best at $7.99. Go figure.

 

In the UK I’m being a lot more aggressive and selling it at £0.99. If you look at the UK Kindle bestseller chart you’ll see that regular publishers are giving key authors a huge push by bargain basement pricing. It’s a clever strategy.

 

So now we have dealt with pricing, how does the actual experience differ? In terms of the writing, it doesn’t, does it? It’s still the same slog and then you have edits. I still use the exact same brilliant copy editor that I worked with before when I was trad published. She’s old school and awesome. Have you noticed a big change editorially?

 

Becky: The process of putting words on the page and tinkering with them until they are just right hasn’t changed. Most of my developmental editing has always come from my brilliant and ruthless writing group. I’ve had various copy editors, and the one I use for the self pubbed stuff has also worked for the Big 5, so that quality is there.

 

One thing I love is that if something slips by the various levels of quality control (which happens for both my traditionally published and my self published books), I can fix the error in my source files and re-release the book the next day. I’m a stickler for accuracy, so this matters a great deal to me.

 

Sean: That’s a good point because we’re both also releasing our books in print and you have just released yours in audio, which hasn’t always been the case for your work. You used ACX. How was that experience?

 

Becky: Loved ACX. Loved it. I put up a book description and sample pages on their site and had several audition tapes within a few days. My author heart loved hearing the book performed by some very talented producers. I picked Jeffrey Kafer because his voice is very similar to the voice that Joe Tesla has in my head and Kafer had very good credits. About a month and a half later I have a fantastic audio version up at Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. It was simple, straightforward, and a helluva lot of fun.

 

Sean: That’s great to hear. I have done eight titles through ACX, including a couple of foreign editions, and it really is an amazing company. The other thing I love about this new world is that with the push of a button I can reach readers around the world. That’s amazing to me. I have a kid’s book called Extolziby Gruff and the 39th College that is free to kids in developing countries via a charity called Worldreader who have a reading app for phones. How cool is that? And because it’s self-published there is no agonizing negotiation about making it available. I own all the rights it’s my call. Again, control of rights is something powerful that goes beyond dollars and cents.

 

Okay, so being indie, or rather hybrid has been a positive experience for both of us. You also write the Order of the Sanguines series with James Rollins, which I know you have enjoyed tremendously, so it’s not a question of either or anymore. I wouldn’t rule out working a publisher again, in fact I plan on it, but there are tensions right now because of this huge upheaval.

 

If you could see traditional publishers make three changes to improve or build upon their relationship with authors what would they be?

 

Becky: Right now I’m happy writing in lots of worlds: traditionally, with other authors, and self publishing.

 

Three bits of advice for publishers?

 

  1. Pay regularly. Most industries pay monthly, not twice a year. And certainly not twice a year, six months in arrears with many of the sales held back as reserves against returns.
  2. Regularly tell your authors how their books are doing. Now that I can get daily sales figures from Amazon, I’d like something similar on my other books (maybe monthly?). This isn’t just for my ego. This is so I can see what I can do to sell my books so we can all make more money. We need to know which of my efforts (and yours) work.
  3. Don’t expect me to sign any non-compete clauses. The best way for all of us to sell more of my books is for me to write more books. All of my books do better when I release a new book–books in every series, not just whatever series the new book is in. My books don’t compete against each other. They help each other.

 

Sean: Those are three great pieces of advice. Thanks, Becky. I would add that holding rights in perpetuity by using a reversion of rights model that was about paper and not e-book has to change. We absolutely need to move to fixed term licensing as we already do with foreign editions. A publishing deal should not be about surrendering rights for all time.

 

Want to learn more about Rebecca and Sean? You can find them at: http://www.rebeccacantrell.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/sean.black.1848

The End in Sight

end-139849_640NOTE from CJ: this is a guest post from Nikolas Baron of Grammarly I enjoyed his take on this because this is basically how I write–out of order, often no idea of what happens but a firm idea of where the story ends up.

 

In 1846, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his “Philosophy of Composition”, an essay which expanded upon the idea of writing the ending of a story first, and then writing the events that led up to the climax. His vision calls for the writer to be in complete control, from beginning to end, with a clear understanding of where the story is going as it is being written. Poe believed in carrying a map on the writing journey, with the destination marked in red, and a sensible route laid out for following.

A tightrope walker never looks at the rope. He or she chooses a point at the end of the walk, and focuses his or her eyes on that point.

Many modern writers eschew the idea of knowing how their book will end, preferring to discover both the development of characterization and the ending as the story unfolds. The idea of knowing how the story ends may take the sense of discovery out of writing for some, but for others, it creates a guide to be followed as the story unfolds. An ending can become the focal point, helping the writer remain balanced as they walk the tightrope between maintaining an exciting plot and keeping the story on track.

Having a fully-developed plot arc in mind from the start helps make the hard work of editing simpler later on. A thorough check for spelling, grammar, and sentence structure can be simplified with an online proofreading checker, but consistency and continuity are also important.
Loose ends that leave the reader with questions like “Wait, what ever happened to that secondary character in chapter two who appeared with a mysterious question that was never answered?” are frustrating. When the hero’s destination is known, it’s easier for the writer to stay on track and get their protagonist from point A to point B with a minimum of diversions from the plot.

The secret to success, when writing with the end in sight, is to remember that, although the writer knows the ending, the reader doesn’t. While the path from the beginning to the end should be clear, it should not be a straight line.

Conflict is an important part of keeping the reader interested. There may, and even should, be times that the reader will wonder about the resolution of the story. A story in which the reader wonders if there’s a way for the hero to get out of trouble, or even survive, is a page turner.

Even the author at times, without a firm end in sight, will wonder how he’s going to get the character out of the situation he’s written him or her into in the story. Writing oneself “into a corner” is a common problem, especially for writers of action and mystery genres. When the ending is known before the writing begins, the path out of the hero’s trouble may become clearer.

Beginning with the end may be an option for writers who prefer not to follow a formal outline. While the structure of an outline can help keep the writing on track and prevent stalling due to writer’s block, it can feel stifling to some creative types. Having the ending, and perhaps a few crucial scenes in mind, or even written out, may give the less-structured writer the guideposts that help keep the story on track without creating a feeling of being imprisoned by an outline or other formal structure.

Whether a writer prefers to outline, or to write entirely unfettered, having an idea of an ending in mind gives the main character a destination. The ending may change in the writing as the journey takes the twists and turns that surprise even the writer. Having an ending in mind, whether it’s a fully-fleshed out scene, or simply a few notes jotted on paper, creates a sense of purpose. Knowing how the story will end will help the author guide the character’s development throughout the journey.

About Nikolas:
Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Anyone else take this approach? Let us know in the comments!

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