There are many times in my career as a writer (and yes, I say career even though it’s generated no income for me yet) when I have felt like a fraud. Writers write. It’s what they do. Anyone with an open word document or a notebook and pen can claim to be a writer. But writers also publish. They reach an audience. They connect to people through their writing. And while it’s all well and good to speak to you on my blog, what advice can an aspiring writer possibly hope to offer other writers? I don’t have an agent. I’m not published. I’m not even self-published. But I’ll let you in on a secret – being published doesn’t make you a good writer. Just as not being published doesn’t make you a bad writer.
Most publishers are for profit. They like making money and don’t like taking chances publishing books that might not sell. You could be an excellent writer and still be told by publishers that there is no market for your book. So what makes a writer marketable to publishers? Well, basically anything that shows the publisher that you already have an audience. Followers on social media, a successful self-publishing run, an email list, website traffic, a flourishing Patreon or a well-curated online presence.
How many times have you seen celebrities leveraging their fame to get a mediocre book onto the bestseller list? At first glance, publishing may seem like playing a game with a rigged deck, but it’s simply good business. People know Oprah, so they want to hear what she will have to say. If people don’t know you, why would they want to hear from you?
As a writer, you are your business. You are your brand. And yes, even aspiring writers can offer advice because they…well, write.
1. Create a website and domain name.
Nowadays, you don’t have to be a computer expert or a working knowledge of html to create a professional, attractive website. You can easily make one using WordPress, Wix or Foursquare. (I personally use WordPress.) These websites will walk you through the process step-by-step. That said, there is a learning curve and a little patience can go a long way.
Once you’ve set up your site and you’re relatively happy with how it looks, make sure to purchase a domain name. Your domain name is your website address and should be something along the lines of http://FirstnameLastname.com or http://FirstnameLastnameWrites.com
Bluehost, FastComet and Wix all offer domain hosting packages. It’s a small price to pay to have a website without .blogger or .wixsite in the address, as it will help you earn your readers’ trust and create a professional, credible image. It will also ensure that you have ownership over your content. Unlike websites like Tumblr, Instagram, and Patreon which can delete user accounts without warning if they violate terms of service, your website belongs to you!
When trying to build an audience, your primary focus as a writer should be your website and email list. By all means, post on other social media sites, but they should all link back to your website. Your website is your home base.
2. Create content & grow your audience.
This step seems obvious. If you’re a writer and you want people to read your writing, you have to put writing places for people to read. But for a long time, I held off posting content because I was waiting for my big project – my book – to come out. I was afraid of posting less-than-perfect writing under my name that was not representative of my true skill. Don’t be like me! Don’t miss connections because of your perfectionist tendencies!
The writing on your website doesn’t have to be the best stuff you’ve ever written. It just has to allow you to connect with your readers and grow your audience. And really, it should be fun! Getting to write, share and be yourself should be enjoyable. Your website is the perfect place to show your personality, your interests and your sense of humor. Don’t think of it as selling yourself. Think of it as chatting with a group of friends. And as with all good friendships, be sure to reciprocate! Follow back people who follow you, follow blogs that interest you, leave comments or likes on posts you’ve enjoyed and find people with similar interests by searching tags.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, try creating a word cloud of your interests. Don’t worry too much about having a narrow focus. If you write book reviews, you don’t only have to write book reviews. It’s fine to explore varied interests on your wite because it will increase your chance of attracting different types of followers and keep you from getting bored.
3. Build anticipation for larger projects (like novels).
Say what you want about the quality of some popular fiction, but many online writers have leveraged their following into successful careers. E.L. James’ book Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfiction. Anna Todd’s After was Harry Styles fanfiction. Lang Leav’s poetry became massively popular on Instagram and Tumblr, leading her self-published book Love & Misadventure to catch the attention of Writers House New York. The Martian got its start as chapter installments on Andy Weir’s blog. These writers all began as “amateurs”, but are now successful authors. And they did all that by having an audience before publication.
Wherever you are in the process of writing your book, the sooner you start building your online presence, the better your chances of traditional publishing will become. Try at least six months in advance, if not up to two years! You want to build anticipation among your followers. A five-sentence blurb might be great if you’re pitching to an agent, but it won’t do for building an audience as an amateur novelist. You need to get your readers invested in your characters and plot. You need to leave them wanting more.
Nobody is going to care if you tell them you wrote a book and leave a link to buy it. Consumers, like publishers, want to know what they’re buying and why they need it.
How you build anticipation is up to you. Posting short snippets of your work, full chapters, fan-art, cover art, character profiles. Get creative! You can even link to Spotify playlists for your characters or chapters. Or post links to Pinterest mood boards.
It’s a common misconception that you need millions of followers to make a career out of writing. All you truly need is 1,000 True Fans, (as proposed by Kevin Kelly in this 2008 article). So set yourself a goal of getting 1,000 followers. And get writing!
4. Build an email list.
Content creators tend to struggle with two things: algorithms and dying platforms. For example, Instagram’s algorithm makes it so that if someone doesn’t hit ‘like’ on your content for a while, your content gets pushed all the way to the bottom of their feed. And dying or dead platforms – like Myspace, Livejournal or Tumblr – may experience a mass exodus of the followers you’re trying to reach.
Email is fantastic for both of these reasons: There are no algorithms so people see your email based on the time you sent it and people do not change their email as much as they do other social media. Also – email is seven times more likely to convert someone into a customer than social media! That’s huge!
The sooner you start your email list, the better. It will take some work, but in the long run, it’s definitely worth it.
So what exactly should you use email for? Well, it’s most important function is to build a relationship with your followers, increasing their investment in your writing. Not everyone checks all their social media accounts every day, but most people check their email. It’s a quick, easy way to remind people of your writing or to make a quick stop at your blog.
What sort of things should you include in your email? Updates on your WIP (work in progress), occasional updates on your life and any bonus material are all good. Also, if you do any giveaways (related to your writing), have any short stories or poems published, or have a discount to offer on your book.
When it comes time to promote your email list beyond the links to your website on social media, the best place to start is your existing followers. Copy and paste a message asking your followers if they want to subscribe. Be sure to remind them who you are and what kind of content you create. Whenever possible, make it personal.
For sending automized batch emails, MailChimp is unparalleled. It’s one of the most frequently used and easiest ways to set up email blasts. Start by sending one or two emails a month and increase up to four. This is more than enough to maintain your readership and keep people’s interest piqued, without overwhelming them with content. Also, it’s free to use MailChimp for up to 1,200 email subscribers.
Don’t rely on being discovered or going viral. Take your writing into your own hands by creating and attracting a following. Above all, be patient. You won’t get 1,000 email subscribers overnight and there may weeks or months where you don’t get any. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep creating and posting content and emailing the subscribers you have. And the sooner you start, the better!
4. Create a recognizable social media brand and post across as many platforms as possible.
Your social media handle should be the same across all social media platforms and reflect the name of your website (and you!). If your website is JohnSmith.com, your Instagram handle should be JohnSmith. Same for Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. This will strengthen your brand and increase the odds of name recognition.
It’s easy to repost content from your website to social media. You can even link them so every time you post on your website, it will get posted to your other accounts. But when you can, try to personalize your posts to each account. Post a call to action. Ask your readers a question, thus inviting them to participate. Write a personal caption on Instagram. Include tags or a ‘Read More’ on Tumblr.
Above all, post your content everywhere! It can’t hurt and increases your odds of being seen. Posts tweets on Twitter, writing on Wattpad, photos and personal captions on Instagram and engaging updates on Facebook. And always link back to your website! All your social media must link to your website. This is the key to building your email list. When creating a brand across platforms, strive for high engagement and email collection.
5. Know when to publish or self-publish.
Once you’ve set up your website and built your brand and have a healthy email list, you may start attracting attention. If a publisher contacts you, always be sure to ask if you can self-publish first. Publishers are banking on using your existing followers to sell your book and give you around 20% of the profits. Self-publishing will give you around 70% and more creative control. Established publishers will help with editing, but depending on your reach, you might just want to hire an editor yourself and self-publish.
If you plan on writing a series, it might be in your best interest to self-publish your first book and then negotiate with a publisher for subsequent books. You’ve done the work of marketing yourself and attracting a loyal fanbase, so you should reap the rewards!
Be sure to consider all angles. Talk to some self-published and traditionally published writers and decide what’s best for you.
If you’re a writer, what step are you on in your journey? What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?