Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tune In For #Platformchat & Get Your Questions Answered!

Christina Katz, The Writer Mama and author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, hosts a regular Twitter interview series known as #Platformchat, and I and author Seth Harwood will be guests on Friday, 10/23. From Christina's site:

On Friday, October 23rd our #platformchat guests will be Seth Harwood & April Hamilton. Time is: 11:00 - noon PT (noon - 1:00 MT, 1:00 - 2:00 CT, & 2:00 - 3:00 ET).

Topic: Common sense podcasting & self-publishing strategies
Anyone with a Twitter account can participate. I recommend using and plugging in our hashtag, #platformchat, to follow and participate in the chat. Once you have a Twitter account, you can use your Twitter ID and password to get a Tweetchat account very quickly. I hope you will bring your questions on this topic and join the discussion!

Please note: #platformchat is monthly now. Stay tuned to this blog for updates. Thanks!

Here's a little more about our guests:

Seth Harwood (@SethHarwood) graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and can be found online at, where his podcasts of Jack Wakes Up and its sequels have drawn a devoted following. Jack Wakes Up debuted May 5th from Three Rivers Press (Random House) and is currently available everywhere books are sold. He lives in Berkeley, with his wife, Joelle, and teaches at Stanford University and the City College of San Francisco.

April L. Hamilton (@indieauthor) is an author, blogger, Technorati BlogCritic, leading advocate and speaker for the indie author movement, and founder and Editor in Chief of Publetariat, the premier online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints. She's a frequent conference speaker on subjects related to self-publishing, and judge for self-published book competitions. In her popular self-published reference book, The IndieAuthor Guide, she offers aspiring self-published authors a roadmap to success. She is also the author of novels available in both ebook and POD form.

#platformchat moderators are:
Christina Katz is the author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, Use Your Personal Strengths to Build an Author Platform and Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (both for Writer’s Digest Books). A platform development coach and consultant, she teaches writing career development, hosts the Northwest Author Series, and is the publisher of several e-zines including Writers on the Rise. Christina blogs at The Writer Mama Riffs and Get Known Before the Book Deal, and speaks at MFA programs, literary events, and conferences around the country. Follow Christina on Twitter at @thewritermama.

Meryl K. Evans is the author of Brilliant Outlook Pocketbook, co-author of Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites and contributor to many others. The long-time blogger and gamer has written and edited for a bunch of places online and off. A native Texan, she lives a heartbeat north of Dallas in Plano, Texas with her husband and three kiddos. Though born in silence, she tries to show that deaf people are just like everyone else. Follow Meryl on Twitter at @merylkevans.

If you missed our recent chats, you are welcome to peruse recent transcripts:
September11th #platformchat
August 7th #platformchat
July 24th #platformchat
July 14th #platformchat
June 26th #platformchat

I think this will be a great event, and I look forward to "tweeting" you there!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Don't Hate The Wait

It’s a cliché that so-called overnight successes are many years in the making, but it’s also true. As you plug away at your day job and your manuscripts, year in and out, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s hard not to feel nothing’s ever going to happen for you. And when you read about some hot new author du jour you’ve never heard of who got a six or seven figure offer, landed a spot on Oprah and got a full-page profile in The New York Times, it can seem impossible to be happy for her. In that moment of—let’s be honest—bitter resentment, it is impossible to imagine your dreams coming true. But if they ever do, it will be due in large part to all the time you spent waiting for it to happen, and how you spent that time.

I queried agents on a novel of mine for the first time about thirteen years ago. I was fortunate to land a great agent in that first round of queries, and I thought my writing career was well on its way. Thought is the operative word there. The novel didn’t sell. I wrote and submitted a second novel, which also didn’t sell. Most frustrating of all, the reasons for the rejections had nothing to do with the quality of my writing, which New York editors said was very strong. It came down to what those editors thought they could or could not sell up the chain. So I back-burnered my writing dreams for a while and got on with life: marriage, kids and jobs. It was just a few years ago that I became an advocate for the indie author movement, and I won’t have a book out from a trade publisher until next year. But looking back on it, I can honestly say all the time I had to wait, and how I spent it, were instrumental to my eventual success.

Marriage and becoming a parent have informed my work in authorship to an extent that can’t be overstated. This isn’t to say I think you’ll be a poor writer unless you get married and have kids, I’m just saying that the experiences I’ve had in those two areas have changed the person I am, caused me to abandon many of my formerly-cherished views, and caused me to look at people and the world differently. Others can get the same benefits from relationships with family and friends, romantic partners, travel, or any sort of life-changing experience.

My day jobs have all had their part to play as well. Working as a technical writer made ‘writing tight’ a reflex for me. Being a software engineer ingrained discipline and attention to detail, both of which are critical skills for any writer. Managing software projects taught me the value of organization, working to a plan, and prioritizing my time and effort. If I hadn’t learned those lessons, there’s no way I could’ve found the time, energy and will to pursue my goals in authorship with everything else I had going on in my life. Working as a web developer and database administrator paid huge dividends when it came to launching and growing my author platform. And continuing to work those day jobs exposed me to all manner of personalities and experiences I could draw upon later, whether in terms of creating a composite character for a story or working with peers and industry people on the business side of things.

What if that first novel had sold? I would’ve been thrilled at the time, but once the initial fanfare died down I think disappointment and failure would’ve settled in pretty quickly. The publisher wouldn’t have lavished a big offer and promotional budget on me, and I wouldn’t have had the money, skills, discipline or maturity to tackle promoting myself and my book on my own. I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to map out a project plan, assemble the necessary talents I lacked (if I even recognized that I lacked them in the first place), or network effectively. My novel most likely would’ve faded from store shelves pretty quickly, and I’d be damaged goods as far as publishers were concerned. Even if the story had been much brighter, if the book had been a surprise hit, I doubt I would’ve sustained a writing career for any length of time. How could I cope with this new, ubiquitous thing called the internet if I’d spent all my time holed up in my comfort zone with a word processor? Given my naiveté, relatively sheltered life to date and ordinary, suburban upbringing, what more could I draw from the well that would inform, entertain or inspire readers enough to keep them buying my books? How could I write about loss, the brow-beating yoke of responsibility, or the push and pull of adult relationships with any authority?

Some of you may already be protesting that there have been plenty of young, breakout writers. But ask yourself this: how many of them have had solid careers that spanned decades, and how many had a hit book or a single hit series, then never struck gold again? There are probably so few exceptions to this that you could count them on one hand, and in every one of those cases the author in question was most likely a true prodigy. For the rest of us, being made to wait till we’ve lived a little longer and experienced a little more of what life has to offer isn’t a bad thing.

Having to work a day job while you’re doing all this living and experiencing isn’t a bad thing, either. If you’re a cashier, bar tender, waitress, salesman or customer service rep, you’re learning how to comfortably interact with strangers and that will serve you well when you’ve got a book to promote. If you’re a worker bee in a tech field, author platform is going to be a walk in the park for you. If your job is the type that isn’t terribly interesting or intellectually demanding, such as assembly line work, driving a bus or working a fast food grill, be glad you have all that mental freedom to ruminate over your ideas and characters for hours a day; just keep a notebook and pen close at hand so you’ll be ready when inspiration strikes. If you’re a teacher or a caregiver of some sort, your daily interactions with the people you serve will enrich your characters and strengthen your dialog in a way no amount of creative writing seminars ever could. No matter what your day job is, it’s keeping you solvent and improving your writing. It, and the wait, are helping to ensure you’ll be ready when opportunity comes knocking.

So don’t hate the wait, and don’t resent your day job. Embrace them, and welcome all they have to offer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don’t Be Part of the 5%: Master The 5 Crucial Author Platform Skills

For the past several months, I’ve been working on the Publetariat Vault. Among the hundreds of authors who’ve registered for Vault membership, about 5% are completely overwhelmed by the listing form. They refuse to read or follow the instructions on the form, or think 17 required fields are too much to ask, or don’t know how to create a synopsis or excerpt in pdf, rtf or txt format, or don’t know how to upload files to the site using the typical “Browse” + “Upload” button combo. And they’re kind of pissed off that we’re asking them to do all of this in the first place, they’re walking away from up to 5 months’ free listing time on account of tech frustration. A couple of years ago I would’ve said the 5% are absolutely right, such a form is too demanding and no author should be expected to have that level of tech savvy. But the bar has been raised, and nowadays any author with a strong platform has all the skills necessary to easily complete the Vault form. The rest can no longer afford to be part of the 5%. It's not fair, and it has nothing to do with quality writing, but it is the reality.

Any author who’s not yet heard the term “author platform” could only have been lost at sea or living in Amish country, but even among those who know it, I’m finding the term is often not fully understood. Many authors, both aspiring and published, indie and mainstream, think succeeding with author platform means having a blog or author website. And maybe they Twitter a little, or have a Facebook or MySpace page. They also often think author platform is something that’s very difficult and/or expensive, and only applicable to published authors.

They are wrong, on all counts.

Author platform encompasses everything you do both to promote your work and to establish yourself as a “brand” in the marketplace, and ideally, it begins long before you have a book to sell. Even if you intend to go the totally mainstream route of writing the best damned manuscript you can and then querying agents and publishers, you can no longer expect to get a pass on author platform. I’m currently working with Writers Digest on the publication of a revised and updated edition of my book, The IndieAuthor Guide, and when our talks began the very first questions they had for me were all about my author platform. What websites do I have, and how much traffic do they get? How many pageviews, how many unique visitors? How frequently do I blog? How frequently do I have public speaking engagements, and where and for whom have I done such engagements? Do I maintain an email newsletter or membership list, and if so, how large is it?

If you’re lucky enough to get a request for the full manuscript from an agent or publisher, are you prepared to answer all these questions? Because if you’re not, you’re not ready to have your full ms requested. And if you’re intending to self-publish, you should be asking these questions of yourself already.

Lucky for all of us, the minimum skills needed to do a pretty decent job with online author platform are few, and easy to master. The way it works is, with each new skill you acquire, new online promotion and publication options are opened to you. And when it comes to author platform, you want every available option at your disposal.

You must know how to use webforms to comment on articles or blog posts online, create and maintain your own blog, create and maintain a fill-in-the-blanks sort of author website, or have a Facebook or MySpace page.

If you also want to provide an online cover image of your book, or an author photo, you must either know how to create digital images (pictures a computer can read because they’re stored as a computer file; if you use a digital camera and know how to get the pictures off your camera and onto your computer, you already know how to create digital images) or have the images supplied by someone who does know how to create them, you must know how to use a graphics editor program to resize the images as needed to meet the file size and dimension requirements of the various sites on which you intend to share them, and you must know how upload files to a web server using a “Browse” + “Upload” button combo.

All the skills mentioned thus far are also needed to self-publish your work in hard copy formats via an online print service provider such as Createspace or Lulu, and to self-publish in various ebook formats via online ebook conversion services such as Smashwords or Scribd.

If you want to make excerpts of your work available for free viewing on your blog or website (which is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of growing readership), on top of everything else you must also know how to create an excerpt of the full work and output that excerpt to pdf format.

Let’s stop and take inventory. If you know how to use webforms, how to create and resize digital images, how to upload files to a web server and how to output your work in pdf format, you’ve got most of your self-publishing and online author platform options covered with just five basic tech skills. You can have a blog and a fill-in-the-blanks type of author website. You can comment on blogs and articles all over the ‘net. You can publish your work in multiple formats and make it available for sale online through various outlets. You can make excerpts of your work available online. You can Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn to your heart’s content---and you can do all of these things for the cost of nothing more than your time and the price of a single author copy (in cases where you're self-pubbing in hard copy)! You'd be a fool to turn your back on such an embarrassment of author platform riches, but that's what the 5% do every day.

Now, if you also want to Twitter, you’ll want to bone up on web abbreviations, emoticons and hashtags. If you want to be able to add cool little widgets (e.g., hit counters, ‘my Goodreads bookshelf’, BookBuzzr, etc.) to your blog, author website, Facebook, MySpace or other online pages, you’ll need to be comfortable copying and pasting snippets of HTML or script code from the widget provider into the desired location, but even then, someone else is providing the code and all you’re doing is copying and pasting it the same as you’d do with any ordinary text. The best part is, most such widgets are available for free! If you don't know how to use them, you're missing a huge opportunity to jazz up your platform at no cost.

When you’re ready to graduate to the master class, you can learn about RSS syndication and how to set up a simple web form on your site or blog to allow your readers to subscribe to your email newsletter, but this is nothing you need to think about right away.

For now, just focus on mastering the 5 crucial author platform skills and get yourself out of that doomed 5%.

Addendum: Regarding the Vault form, I'm the first to admit it's a lengthy form. Authors will need to spend half an hour or so pulling together all the information they need to create a listing, and an additional 5-10 minutes to complete the form. However, the form includes very detailed instructions for every section and field, required fields are limited to those items publishers have said are most important in making acquisitions decisions, and authors participating in the Vault's current promotions are getting several months' free listing time. I'm sure those who go on to strike deals with publishers or producers will feel it was well worth filling out the form.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Responsible Aggregation Is Not Only NOT Evil, But A GOOD Thing

There’s a lot of hue and cry against online aggregation circulating around the interwebs these days, and I really don’t get it.

Aggregator sites reprint excerpts from other sites’ articles and blog posts, along with a ‘keep reading’ or ‘read the rest’ link to the source article/blog post. The more responsible aggregators also include the name of the author, and the most considerate ones also include links to the author’s website or blog and a link to the home page of the site where the article or post originally appeared.

If an aggregator site prints an entire article or blog post, or 50% or greater of the article/post without the author’s permission, well that’s just theft. If the ‘read the rest’ link opens the source web page in a window controlled by the aggregator, that’s tantamount to theft since it appears to the viewer as if he or she hasn’t left the aggregator site; worse yet, most such windowing systems don’t make it easy for the viewer to escape from the aggregator’s window. They may click links on the source site, but the linked pages still open up in the aggregator’s window. As a web consumer, I find those aggregator windows incredibly annoying and have come to avoid following links provided by such aggregators.

If an aggregator fails to credit the author when printing an excerpt and ‘read the rest’ link, it’s depriving the author of his or her due and that’s wrong, too. If an aggregator surrounds aggregated material with lots of paid advertising, particularly advertising with which the authors of aggregated material might take issue, that’s also an abuse of the authors’ material. But if the excerpt is brief, the author is credited, a ‘read the rest’ link is provided back to the source article without wrapping it in the aggregator’s window, links are provided to the author’s website (where available) and the home page of the site where the aggregated material originally appeared, and advertising surrounding aggregated material is minimal and non-offensive, with very few exceptions (e.g., aggregation of material the author is offering for sale) I really don’t understand why authors or anyone else should have a problem with it.

Publetariat, a site I founded and for which I’m Editor in Chief, has a mix of both original and aggregated material. The site focuses on content for indie authors and small imprints, and operates on a ‘we scour the web for relevant articles so you don’t have to’ sort of paradigm while also providing a discussion board area and member profiles with blogging capability. Every weekday at about 11am PST, I tweet a link to the site with the titles of articles posted to the site for that day. My tweet is often retweeted by my Twitter followers, but I’ve noticed another phenomenon going on: some people retweet, but only after changing the link to point directly to the source article. They seem to be making a pointed, if somewhat passive, statement against Publetariat’s aggregation, but I don’t know why they feel the need to do so since Publetariat is providing a service to both the author and readers.

Publetariat is a heavily-trafficked and well-respected site in the publishing world, and it gets several thousand unique visitors every week. It also gets thousands of RSS feed hits every month. The site has a traffic rank in the top 2% of all sites worldwide, and a Technorati blog rank in the top .2%. In other words, getting your material on the front page of the Publetariat site gets you a LOT of exposure to a highly targeted audience of authors and publishers. Let’s look at a specific example.

My blog post entitled “Self-Publishing: Future Prerequisite” was published on my blog on 9/22/09 and cross-posted to the Publetariat site the same day. To date, the post on my blog has received 221 hits. Not too shabby. But the same post on Publetariat has received 709 hits: over three times as many reads. In the current climate, in which authors are supposed to be doing everything they can to attract readership and attention, why wouldn’t they want three times as many readers for their content? And if you’re an author services provider, such as an editor, book doctor or promotional consultant, why wouldn’t you want three times as many authors to know about you and your site?

To date, there have only been two authors/webmasters who’ve asked to have their aggregated material removed from the Publetariat site, and both times, Publetariat has complied with the request. But I will never understand why those authors/webmasters are turning down an opportunity for such highly-targeted, free exposure from a responsible aggregator.

When Publetariat aggregates, we credit the author, provide a ‘read the rest’ link that isn’t wrapped in a Publetariat window, provide a link to the author’s own website where available, provide a link to the home page of the site on which the aggregated material originally appeared, and sometimes even provide links to buy the author’s books or other merchandise---and these are not affiliate links, Publetariat isn’t making any money on those click-throughs. We do everything we can to ensure both the author and the site where the article originally appeared will benefit from being aggregated on Publetariat.

What about advertising? Isn’t Publetariat profiting from aggregation through its site advertising, and not sharing that profit with the bloggers and authors who’ve made it possible? While Publetariat does carry paid advertising, from the day the site launched to today, despite our impressive traffic stats we’ve received a grand total of about US$65 in ad revenue. All the rest of the advertising on the site consists of public service announcements and traded links. Advertising revenue isn’t even enough to cover our hosting expense.

So, it’s clear that Publetariat is a responsible aggregator. You can also see what Publetariat has to offer an author of aggregated material, and that Publetariat isn’t profiting financially from aggregation. But there’s one more facet to explore here: why it’s better for a reader to discover a given blog post or article aggregated on Publetariat instead of on the source site or blog.

When a reader visits my blog, they’re getting my content only. That’s great for me, but somewhat limiting for them. If they come across my blog posts on Publetariat, they’re also getting exposure to lots of articles and blog posts from my fellow authors, author service providers, publishers and more. Sometimes, they’re seeing material relevant to writers that originated from a site they weren’t at all likely to discover on their own because it’s not a site geared specifically to writers. It’s like going to a great party that’s filled with fascinating people and discussions, any of which you’d love to know more about, and having introductions to those people and discussions made on your behalf by the host of the party.

People who retweet links to Publetariat’s aggregated material only after editing the link to point directly to the source site are leading their Twitter followers away from the party, and depriving them of everything else Publetariat has to offer.

A last objection that’s sometimes raised is the matter of click-throughs. Some will argue that the click-through rate on ‘read the rest’ links is low, that many visitors to the aggregator site will only read the posted excerpt. This is true, but every reader who does click through is a reader you didn’t have before your piece was aggregated.

So if Publetariat or any other site wants to aggregate your material, so long as the aggregator site is higher-profile than your own site/blog and they intend to aggregate responsibly (with proper credit and links, no wrapper window, no offensive advertising), it’s not evil. It’s the easiest free promotion you can get.

And if you’d like your site or blog to be on Publetariat’s list of available sources for aggregated or reprinted material, post your name and a link in the comments section, below, along with your preference for having your material merely excerpted with a ‘read the rest’ link, or reprinted in full on the site.