Sunday, September 02, 2007

Ants and Grasshoppers

Last week I got eighty-five emails from people I've never corresponded with before. Strangers to me. However, I wasn't a stranger to them.

These people found me. They found me, and thought enough of me to write to me. Some wrote to say thanks for my website and blog, which has a lot of info for writers. Some wrote to say they like my books. Some wrote to say they appreciated an article I recently did for Writer's Digest. Some wrote to ask for advice. Some wrote to exchange links, or to tell me they've already linked to me. Some wrote to ask me to be their friends on MySpace, Quechup, or Crimespace.

They found me by searching online, by reading my books or short stories or articles, by following links from other sites, or by having people tell them about me. Google Alerts has also informed me that 27 sites have mentioned me and/or linked to me in the past week, and my website and blog have had over 5000 unique hits since last Sunday.

And what have I done in the past week to garner all of this attention?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Buttkiss. I sat on my ass and reorganized my iTunes library. ID4 tags suck.

Of course, the lesson to be learned here isn't that doing nothing will make people seek you out.

The lesson is that if you work hard establishing a brand and spreading name-recognition, then you don't have to work 24/7, because the machinery is already in place to do it for you.

Consider the old parable of the ant and the grasshopper.

The grasshopper believed that all he had to do was write a good book, and his future was assured.

The ant knew that writing a good book was only the beginning, and he had to make sure people knew about his book by building a brand and spreading name-recognition.

Smart ant.

ESTABLISHING A BRAND

Naturally, your writing is a big part of your brand. What you write is going to attract a certain audience. You should know this audience. You should like this audience. You should be a part of this audience.

But your brand is more than just your writing. It's your personality. Your expertise. Your persona. It's what makes you special, and what makes others want to seek you out.

Remember that no one can look for you if they don't know you exist. So a large part of your brand is aligning yourself with something that people do seek out, so when they look for it they will find you.

What about you and your work is interesting? Unique? Similar? Important to others?

Think about it. Think long and hard. Anyone can find you by Googling you. You need to make them find you when they're looking for something else.

But before you go searching for people, you have to create something that they want.

If all you have to offer is a book, which costs money, it's doubtful you'll ever have a big web presence. A certain number of people on the Internet may be looking for books, but the majority of them are looking for two things: Information and Entertainment.

If your blog is only relevant to a few close friends, and your website is only a big advertisement for your writing, why should strangers bother visiting either, let alone link to you?

Your main goal, if you want people to discover you, is to entertain and inform them.

Your Internet presence isn't about what you have to sell. It's what you have to offer, usually for free.

What are you offering? What on your website will make a surfer stay for longer than ten minutes? What on your blog will make it relevant in five years?

Just being a published writer isn't enough. Nobody cares that you're published. Nobody cares that you have a book for sale.

What do they care about?

Camaraderie. Offer people a place where they can be in touch with you, and with others. There have been close to 300 posts on A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. But there have been almost 10,000 comments. If the users generate the content, they'll return.

Expertise. By consistently putting relevant information on your sites, the search engines will keep ranking you higher and linking to more of your pages. People will also link to you, and recommend you to others. They'll also seek you out for real life appearances, speeches, and signings.

Entertainment. Guess what? Your three sample chapters and two paragraph author bio aren't enough to keep the average surfer interested for more than a few minutes, if they even find your site. And I don't believe that Flash animation, cool music, or games and videos will either.

Give surfers enough information about you and your work, presented in a fun way, to make them like you as well as your writing. Your website isn't an ad. It's not an appetizer either. It should be a fun place to go even if you weren't pimping your books.

This is also important when speaking in front of people. When you are giving a speech, doing a panel, or attending a signing, you are an entertainer. That means you must be entertaining. That means learn how.

Freshness. Make sure you add, update, and change your sites often, so people come back. Make sure you stay in touch with those who get in touch with you. Reward those that keep coming back.

Real Life Relevance. You're a writer, so chances are you're on the Internet constantly. The average person isn't, and doesn't put as much value or importance on it as you do. Give people something they can use offline. A free short story or book they can print up. Audio or podcasts they can download and take with them. Contests to participate in and newsletters to sign up for that result in stuff sent snail mail. An email from an author is nice. A real life handshake and a smile is even better.

SPREADING BRAND-RECOGNITION

Once you've established your brand, the hard part begins. No one is going to magically discover you just because you've got a cool website or a great novel. Sure, some writers get lucky with a huge marketing campaign. The rest of us have to seek out readers in order to make them aware that we exist.

On the Internet

You already know your demographic, and who your readers are, because you've spent a long time thinking about it. Now you need to go out and draw them to you. Here's how.

Find Websites. Look for websites, bulletin boards, Yahoo groups, blogs, listservs, message boards, and forums where people who like your books would visit.

Offer Links. Exchange links with those sites. Or link to them and write about them, so when people are searching for that site they'll find your site.

Participate. Be a human being, not a salesperson. I never seek out MySpace Friends by saying "I'm an author, read my books." I send them invitations and a message saying that I looked at their page and enjoy the same authors they do. After a few back and forth exchanges, 95% of them figure out I'm an author too, and many of them go on to read my books and are glad I contacted them, rather than annoyed at me spamming them.

Remember what people care about: Camaraderie, Entertainment, Expertise, Freshness, and Real Life Relevance. When dealing with people, low key flattery works better than bragging, listening is more attractive than talking, and being likable will sell more books than actively trying to sell books.

Revisit, Revamp, Repeat. Too many writers quit their blog after a year. They don't update their sites. They don't check in with their old web haunts. They don't seek out new haunts. They reach a point and simply stop.

You shouldn't ever stop making your Internet presence larger. And I don't mean commenting on the same six blogs you do every day. I mean searching for new sites and new people, going back to sites you haven't been to in a while, and making sure your sites are worthy of the hits they're getting.

In Real Life

If the Internet is where you're doing all or most of your promotion, you're going to fail. The majority of your readers aren't on the net, and they've never visited your website.

At first, many of your readers will find you accidentally. While browsing in a bookstore, or at the library, or a garage sale. They're looking for a book, and they find yours. You have little control over this. Yet, this is how a lot of books are sold.

Others will find you through articles or reviews written about you in the newspaper. You can spend big bucks on a publicist to get more reviews, or some local radio or TV spots, but I'm not convinced that those are cost-effective for new authors. The same goes with advertising. Does it work? Maybe. Is it worth the cost? For midlist authors, I don't believe so. Spending hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands on media attention and ads isn't as cost-effective as traveling and actually meeting the people you want to reach. Which leads us to:

Meet Your Publisher. The best money you'll ever spend is flying to NY and meeting your editor and the many folks at your publishing house and being charming. We do more for people that we like. Get them to like you.

Meet Fans. At the beginning of your writing career, meet as many readers as possible. This means going to conventions, book fairs, and conferences. Do book signings. Speak at libraries. Shake those hands. It's time consuming, and costly, but a smile and a kind word will get people to pick up your books.

Meet Booksellers. Real life is better than online. Booksellers have influence and power. They can handsell you. They help spread the almighty word-of-mouth that all authors need to succeed.

Sell Stories and Articles. I've got a few hundred thousand books in print. But my name has been in print several million times, thanks to short stories and essays and articles I've sold to magazines and anthologies. By publishing your writing, you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time than anything you can do online. Plus, there's no greater advertisement for an author than a sample of their writing.

Enlist the Media. You don't need a publicist to get you featured in the local paper. You just need to write a press release, making sure it has a hook and enough spin to interest them. You can contact reviewers, and radio stations, and local TV, and do it for free.

Enlist Your Peers. We're not in competition with each other. Someone can buy both my book and your book. So it makes sense to help your fellow writers. Pool information and resources. Trade contacts. Rather than sing your own praises, sing their praises, and they'll probably sing yours in return. I've been invited into many anthologies because I've had a beer with a fellow writer at a conference. When I'm interviewed, I mention their names. Sometimes I interview them. Sometimes they interview me. The more friends you have in this biz, the better off you are.

Of course, in both real life and online, be generous, grateful, amusing, and loyal. You are not a salesperson. You're an ambassador, representing your writing.

ANTS AND GRASSHOPPERS

Going back to the parable, the ant worked hard building a brand and establishing name-recognition, and several things happened.

1. The ant passed a tipping point. In the beginning, he sought out fans, speaking engagements, and media attention. But after a while those things came to him, in greater frequency than he could have imagined.

2. The ant realized the past continued to work for him. Booksellers he met years ago, stories he wrote for old magazines, and blog posts he penned in 2004 continued to send new fans his way.

3. The ant reached a lot of people, and those people talked about him with many others, spreading word-of-mouth and expanding his audience much further than his personal efforts.

4. The ant became a bestseller, then had a three-way with Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

And what of the blissfully ignorant grasshopper who disliked public speaking and believed that all he had to do was write good books?

He attended a single writing convention and complained the whole time, did two booksignings in his home town, and was cut by his publisher for poor sales. Then he died of cancer.

CONCLUSION

1. Figure out who your readers are.
2. Figure out what your readers want.
3. Reach out to your readers.

This will not only help you sell more books than you would otherwise, but keep this up long enough and you'll find that the longer you last, the easier it gets.

Or you can do nothing and die of Kaposi's sarcoma.

The choice is yours.