Get A Clue(train) — Sustainable Digital Strategy for Author Platforms

The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, for authors even more so than publishers, and while there’s no one right way to publish, there are more ways than ever to do it wrong, especially when it comes to an author platform and digital marketing strategy. Whether you’re working with a Big 5 publisher, a small independent publisher, self-publishing, or some combination thereof—those paths all converge once that book is published.

Unless you’re a cash cow like Stephen King and James Patterson, or win the “A Title” lottery at a traditional publisher and get a big marketing push, there’s very little difference between a “traditionally published” and indie author beyond an advance once your book is out in the wild. And when it comes to the dreaded “author platform,” there’s not much difference before your book is published, either.

Authors who are able to think like entrepreneurs, diversify their income sources, and build effective support teams are the ones with the best shot at a long-term sustainable career. I had the pleasure of helping organize and participating in Writer’s Digest’s indieLAB conference in Cincinnati where this was the underlying theme of the entire program rather than a side track or handful of unconnected sessions as is usually the case at most writing conferences*.

Cluetrain

My session was entitled Get a Clue(train): Developing an Effective and Sustainable Digital Strategy, and was effectively a love letter to one of my favorite books, The Cluetrain Manifesto.

I believe all authors, regardless of who’s publishing their books, should have a fundamental understanding of marketing so they can make informed decisions about where to invest their time, and when/if necessary, their money when building their platform. Cluetrain is one of those books that connected the dots on ideas, experiences, and questions I had running around my head into a cohesive picture that helped solidify my understanding and philosophy about marketing in the digital age.

Written by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger in 2010, I first read it right before its 10th anniversary edition was published later that year. Despite it already being 10 years old at that point, and its 20th anniversary now on the horizon, it remains the most relevant book on marketing I’ve ever read and one I recommend to everyone as a must-read if they have any interest in marketing. Originally written and published online in March 1999—when AOL ruled the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg was 15 years old, and the first dot com bubble was still two years away from bursting—it was a list of 95 theses about the impact the internet was having on traditional marketing, and it seemed like an extremist reaction to some at the time.

The original manifesto and 95 Theses—as well as the entire first edition of the book—is available online at cluetrain.com for free, and the opening lines set the tone for what you can expect:

“If you only have time for one clue this year… we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings — and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.”

Their core argument was that corporations didn’t understand the true power of the internet and their traditional approach to marketing would fail online, primarily because “markets are conversations” which is an underlying thread running throughout the theses and the book. It’s a message that still holds up in 2018 as plenty of marketers, corporate and otherwise, are still misunderstanding and misusing the internet to engage with potential customers.

There’s a concept in marketing called last-click attribution which is too often used to measure the success of a marketing campaign, giving credit to the last touchpoint before a conversion happens. In that model, marketing efforts that don’t drive an easily measurable conversion—eg, attending a conference—can be devalued compared to efforts that do—eg, email marketing. As a result, decisions about where to invest time and resources get made based on incomplete data.

“Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.”

That’s one of Cluetrain’s central arguments, and my favorite line in the whole book.

Literal billions of dollars have been invested in tools and platforms that have attempted to automate the humanity out of marketing. If you’ve ever been sucked into a company’s marketing funnel, you’ve seen the series of “personal” emails typical of that hamfisted approach. Related, entire cottage industries have been built upon gaming Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s algorithms only to implode when those algorithms inevitably change. Too many marketers still believe there’s a magic bullet, though, that engagement can be mapped, measured, and automated, allowing them to inject their products into conversations that will magically translate to sales without ever truly immersing themselves in the communities they’re trying to sell things to.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
—William Bruce Cameron, 1963

Markets are Conversations

Markets consist of human beings

In reality, markets consist of human beings and the conversations they have with each other, and those conversations can be messy and involve multiple points of influence. For authors trying to develop an effective and sustainable digital strategy, that means you’re not just competing with similar authors and books for readers’ attention—hello, myopic comp titles!—you’re competing with readers themselves and the various channels they use to connect with each other.

With the right strategy, though, you’re not competing with anyone—you’re authentically engaging with and contributing to a dynamic community.

Deciding when, where, and how to engage with potential readers is a question with multiple answers that depend on your individual goals, resources, and personal preferences.

Simplify

The internet has been a blessing and a curse for marketers as it has enabled the gathering of niche communities of all types, for better and worse. When a publisher says “there’s no market for this” they almost always mean “that’s not a market we can profitably reach.” Sometimes, it’s the literal truth; some markets are too small for publishers to cost-effectively engage with—partly because most publishers simply feed markets they have established relationships with, but they’re not built to nurture and grow “new” markets; they leave that work to intermediaries like Amazon, bookstores, libraries, and too often, their authors.

If your platform’s big enough, they may believe there’s a market for your book, but if it’s that big, do you even need them?

While pretty much everything you might consider as part of an author platform—from blogs, podcasts, and online video to social media and email—has some way to measure its effectiveness, too much data can lead to paralysis or discouragement. Plus, not all data is created equal.

With so many ways to engage readers, deciding which conversations are worth having is critical to developing an effective and sustainable digital strategy. The absolute basics that should be part of every author’s platform are pretty simple and manageable for just about anyone:

  • A WEBSITE: Your own website, hosted on your own domain, with interesting information about yourself, your books, links to everything you’ve written elsewhere, and direct contact information. It should also have a simple way to capture email addresses that complies with privacy laws. I have always and still recommend self-hosted WordPress paired with a reliable hosting service that specifically supports WordPress sites.
  • A DEDICATED EMAIL ACCOUNT: Whether you’re using Gmail, Yahoo or an email account associated with your website domain, have one dedicated email account that’s specifically for your writing career. Keep it separate from the one you use to communicate with family or friends, and make it the primary email address for your contact information as well as any accounts explicitly related to your writing career.
  • A SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNT: Pick your personal favorite—not the one everyone tells you is the best one for authors—and make it a part of your daily routine. Don’t worry about its marketing potential, focus on your own engagement with it and make sure it’s a pleasure. For me, that’s still Twitter; for others, it’s Facebook or Tumblr or Reddit or LinkedIn. Whichever one you pick, if you don’t enjoy spending time engaging there, it’s the wrong one for you.

Be Yourself

For many authors, building a platform and marketing themselves and/or their books is a chore, largely because that’s how they approach it. It’s not an organic part of their online lives, it’s a compartmentalized task they begrudgingly carve out time for. Or, too often, don’t.

Remember, markets are conversations between humans, so the best way to make marketing a pleasure rather than is a chore it to Be Yourself—a human being with real interests, not a marketer looking for opportunities to slip in a mention of your book at every possible moment. Engage on your own terms—don’t try to be someone else or follow some guru’s marketing template. Play to your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and always find opportunities to challenge yourself and broaden your horizons.

PS: One of the most underrated aspects of a digital strategy may also seem counter-intuitive: GO ANALOG. From industry conferences and book festivals, to personal relationships with your local booksellers and/or librarians, never underestimate the value of the in-person experience. Attend readings, host readings, support your local bookstores and libraries, seek out fellow writers and publishing professionals, as well as communities of personal interest unrelated to writing.

Maintain a physical connection to the world around you, and share those experiences with your online community.

Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

[*Disclaimer: Writer’s Digest is the day job so my perspective on indieLAB is obviously super-biased, but check the #WDindieLAB hashtag for highlights and make your own judgments!]

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