Amanda Hocking. J.A. Konrath. Cory Doctorow. David Wellington. The list of authors who have “made it” online is impressive, but also misleading. Why?
Well, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
When you’re an author, the assumption is that by the time you get to the point where you’re promoting yourself, you already know how to write a good story or a novel. The challenge for new authors, is that you don’t have the experience. Writing a short story or a novel isn’t something everyone can just learn or pick up on overnight. It takes time, practice and hard work.
For a new writer in this age of immediacy, what I just said is probably uncomfortable for you to hear. Self-publishing success stories make it look so easy and glamorous. They’ve written a story, they publish one after the other, they use social media, they make a lot of money.
But what about all the things you’re not seeing? How many years do you think these authors spent honing their craft? How many hours have they spent online researching markets, learning how to use the tools, interacting with other people? How many bad stories did they write before publishing a gem?
I’ll be the first person to say that as an author, your path is your own. You need to decide what works best for you in a way that’s manageable, comfortable, and easily maintainable. However, I would also like to suggest that you focus on your craft before spending a lot of time on your online presence.
People use the web for different reasons, and it’s not always to buy an author’s book. In this age of social media, the time spent on any given website is decreasing, not increasing. The sheer volume of information is staggering. Many new authors are worried about being seen, but visits don’t always translate into sales. Why? Visitors and readers aren’t synonymous with one another. In order to get readers, an author needs to not only tell a story they want to read, but one they want to buy. To get a visit to a website, you either need to tell someone about your link or draw them in through something funny, snarky or informative. It doesn’t cost anything for them to take ten seconds and scan a website. Do you see the difference?
Anyone can throw up a page and get website traffic if they know what they’re doing. Seriously. I’ve watched fellow authors (both new and experienced) make it happen. In the world of online retail, though, which is what you’re dipping into when you self-publish, not everyone is going to convert into a paying customer. Here the old adage, You can drive a horse to water, but you can’t get them to drink, is completely accurate.
To get back to my original observation about the successful authors who have gone the route of self-publishing, I’d like to point out that these folks knew how to spin a tale. They put the time into promote themselves because they had the chops to back it up. They could deliver to their readers, not just their website visitors.
So when should you start promoting online? And what should you start with?
Well, I think the answer is up to you. There are benefits and drawbacks to jumping in to online promotion when you don’t have the resume to back it up. However, you have more flexibility to experiment because you have nothing to lose. Many people want to be a writer because, on the surface, it appears glamorous. No set schedule, work from home, make a ton of money, etc. But there’s a lot that goes on in the industry outside of writing that eventually you’ll need to pick up on. To survive, you need to be flexible, disciplined, determined and thick-skinned. Not everyone is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like books, there are many different types of writers out there. I know some who are perfectly happy writing for a few small presses; others want their books in retail stores like Target, Wal-Mart, etc. As a result, their online promotional efforts reflect their goals and life as a writer.
If I was starting out all over again, though, I wouldn’t worry about developing your online presence right off the bat. Yes, I understand others are advocating that you do, but I would not leap to this conclusion. Here, perspective is key to uncovering whether or not it’s a good idea. Find people with similar experiences to you rather than take the advice of a well-known author. Remember, the popularity of an author online directly translates into keyword searches. In other words, more people are looking for Steven King because they’ve heard of him. The opposite is true of authors that are just starting out. So if someone popular says: “Yeah, being on the internet is great!” Of course she’d say that! Readers already want to engage and she provided a website to help them do that.
So if I was brand new to writing, what would I do? I would get a website together and I’d use it to experiment and learn the web. You have, after all, nothing to lose but time. Online marketing has a steep learning curve that you can’t just gleam from books or websites. It’s something you learn by doing, testing, analyzing and adapting. Then, I would focus on writing what you want to write, not what you think is going to sell. Learn your craft. Attend online workshops. Go to offline workshops. Take classes. Find critique groups, mentors, peers. Read. Read a lot. Review.
Maybe you blog about your experiences; maybe you don’t. The benefit to having a website is that you can develop that history of content so when you do have something to promote, you have a presence. Personally? I wouldn’t do much beyond that because you don’t need the added stress of learning marketing when you’re figuring out what you want to write, whether or not you’re in it for the long haul, etc. It can be a positive part of your journey, I just wouldn’t make it the primary destination until you’re comfortable doing it.
After all, if you want to be a writer, your primary focus should be on writing–not selling.