How to Sell Books with a Marketing Platform for Writers
Self Publishing Blog
Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
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Forget everything you've ever heard or read about web design, it doesn't apply to authors building a platform to promote themselves or their books. If somebody starts telling you about web 2.0, focus on the "zero", for the relevance it has to what you're trying to accomplish. Don't look to the websites of your favorite authors for inspiration unless you never heard of them before you found their websites and bought their books. The websites of famous authors like Stephen King and Dan Brown, are not platforms for those writers, they are appendages. Don't try to imitate the websites of well known publishers, their websites are just a convenient place to publish press releases and display their frontlist titles. Most important of all, don't pay a website designer thousands of dollars to build you a website. You wouldn't pay $30 for a gallon of milk, so don't pay a website designer ten times what they're worth. Building a book marketing website isn't about technology or aesthetics, it's about content, and the only person who can create that content is you.
When publishers and agents ask about an author's platform, they don't mean a place where you can stand and talk. That's a podium. A platform is the thing the podium rests on, and in today's media drenched world, you can't get a place at the podium until you're a somebody in the eyes of the gatekeepers. If you're famous in your own right for some accomplishment or crime, you don't need to read this, but if you're an author who's hoping to break into publishing or sell more books, creating a book marketing website is likely the best investment of time you'll ever make. It doesn't take long to start, it need never be "finished" and you can work on it when you have the spare time. Websites actually benefit from aging, so the sooner you start the better. But don't expect the overnight success that often goes hand-in-hand with stories of the online world. What you can expect is an incremental and measurable rise in your public profile, where you get back in proportion to what you put in. The idea isn't to compete with Wikipedia but to create a resource that goes much deeper their encyclopedic approach and offers something value added to your readers.
The publishing insiders in New York City have a buzz word they like throwing around in reference to author websites. That buzz word is "interactive". As usual when it comes to the Internet, they don't know what they're talking about. Not too long ago, I had a nice conversation with a gatekeeper on the literary fiction scene, and the subject came around to the need for authors to have their own website. The main point, she was quick to point out, it has to be interactive. I asked her what she meant by interactive, then grew sympathetic as she struggled to come up with any clarification. After all, I'd already told her I had a website that drew well over 5,000 unique visitors a day, so according to her lights, it must be interactive and I must already know what it meant. So I prompted her, "Do you mean something with forms to fill out? A blog with comments? A storefront to sell books?" She wasn't really sure, but though it was important that the content should always be changing. To borrow a phrase, that's exactly wrong.
The Weather Channel needs front page content that's constantly changing (unless you live in Seattle) as do newspapers and fan sites. Author websites need content that is well written and remains the same. The idea here is to build a platform, which establishes and promotes the author as a somebody in their field of endeavor. If your field of endeavor is journalism of the newsy sort, and you want to spend all of your time updating your website, then establishing your own news outlet may be the way to go. But what most authors have to offer is their writing style, their knowledge and their unique way of combining the two, commonly refered to as their "voice". When an author with a unique voice gets stuck revisiting the same story or subject over and over again, that's called a "rut". Most authors I know outside of academia prefer not to get stuck in ruts, even if they can make a living at it. So getting up every morning and writing about the same subject every day just isn't an attractive proposition. Fortunately, it's not a good strategy for a website either.
I've heard from aspiring authors who tell me they haven't bothered with a website yet because they don't have a book to sell. When they get a book published, they tell me, there will be plenty of time to build a website. But they have it backwards. You don't need a website in order to sell published books, there are plenty of bookstores willing to fill that function for you, including Amazon. Unpublished authors need a website to help sell their manuscript so it can get published, and then to help market the book so the publisher will oblige them with royalty checks and new contract offers. A good portion of my book sales are generated by my website, especially for my self published books which I'm free to promote with large excerpts. But there are plenty of other ways to market books online that don't involve owning a website. If your goal is to self publish and sell books primarily through Amazon, then I would strongly recommend you read Aaron Shepard's "Aiming at Amazon" and if you want to promote your trade published book through social networking, the required text is Steve Weber's "Plug Your Book." While increasing book sales is a principal concern of this book, the main goal is platform building, and the website platform need not be tied to a single title or field of endeavor, as book promotion techniques are by definition.
The strategy behind building an author website is not about selling more books today, or next month. It's about having your own strategic marketing asset for years to come. Most professional authors lead a hand-to-mouth existence, living from advance to advance, always trying to line up the next book contract, and the one after that, even before they finish grinding out the title they're working on at the present. One of the original reasons I started writing commercial nonfiction back in the mid-90's was that I was looking for a way to make living while remaining independent. What I found was that working as a trade author is just like having a job, except there aren't any employee benefits. Sure, the hours are flexible - sometimes you get to work twelve or more of them a day! You don't have to drag into an office every morning, instead you get to have your work staring you in the face 24x7. And if you start turning down new jobs or looking to improve contract terms, they stop calling, because there's always a new batch of innocent new authors willing to take your place.
But most authors, if they want to keep writing for a living, have limited choices. They never create an independent marketing platform so their main professional qualification as an author is the books they have in print. When those books disappear from the shelves, the authors become yesterday's news. A well conceived website platform doesn't have an expiration date. Unlike online stores and social networking sites which live in fear of the next big thing to come along and destroy their business model, websites based on content retain their value as long as the content remains relevant. When I first started posting my writing to the web in 1995, I was sure that there was a ticking clock on the window of opportunity, that within a couple years, every college student and entrepreneur with a little Internet savvy would be creating wonderful websites for everything under the sun. As the years went by and it didn't happen, I came to realize that most people spend their online time as consumers, not as creators. Google became one of the world's biggest companies not because they do great search, but because they figured out that human beings are always shopping!
More than a decade later, it's become clear that the incredible growth of Internet content is concentrated around entertainment and socializing. There are literally millions of people with professional skills, from auto mechanics to brain surgeons, who answer questions for complete strangers in online forums every day. And those forums are very popular websites, as long as the questions and the answers continue. But very few people invest months or years of their time writing a book that comprehensively addresses all of the questions they are happy to answer in forums. Writing a book or building a website requires a long term commitment, with no guarantee of reward. Unlike being a forum participant, where you can pick and choose the questions you want to respond to, creating a genuine resource takes the sort of commitment to research that most people won't make, unless somebody is paying them a salary. And that's the whole secret of why building an online platform today is no more difficult than it was a decade ago. There's not nearly as much competition as you'd think.
I recently updated my book "Internet Book Marketing" and put it on Kindle for $2.99. It's free if you have Prime and haven't used up your borrow for the month yet. I don't sell the book any other way now since I'm using it as a Kindle Select experiment.