Your books don’t sell themselves

(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

My third session at the Writers Digest Conference was a panel on publicity. The moderator was Susan Shapiro, and the panelists were Ryan Harbage, Victoria Chow Renee Watson, Naomi Rosenblatt, Joseph Alexiou, and Jill Bialosky.

The publishing game has changed, and writers are much more responsible for promoting their work. When I was first published, my editor invited me to a couple of publishing expos and set up some book talks for me at local chain bookstores. We did have social media – AOL and CompuServe – but they were mainly new, shiny ways of socializing and discussing common interests. That was only twenty years ago.

These days, publishing houses are trying to sell books in a glutted market, and everyone is an author. The convenience and accessibility of social media have, paradoxically, loaded even more work on the shoulders of the individual writer; these days, authors are expected, before they sell their books or pitch them to an agent, to have social media presence. The word “platform” was ubiquitous. Platform is what makes you salable. It’s your public exposure. It’s your tribe. Your fame. Your connections. You don’t submit to a publisher all by yourself. You arrive with a small country attached to you, if you have done your job right, and then the publisher heaves a sigh of relief and commits some of their limited resources to help you get even more readers.

How do you develop that country? You have to know who your readership is, and be part of their community. You go to conferences and network. You create publications, TV shows, podcasts, presentations, blog, website, Twitter posts, Facebook posts, courses, and every possible other way of building an audience and a community, and then you’re a good candidate for selling your book to a publisher.

The panel members gave plenty of personal examples of ways they built platform. One writer who wrote a nonfiction book lectures on the subject and gives tours. Others wrote essays for sites like Medium and Huffington Post, as well as Litpub, LA Review of Books, and Electric Lit They talked about writing “splash” pieces for the New York Times, which sounded outside my scope and made me discouraged for a little bit. Writers also build community in person. They talk online and in person about other people’s books and about common interests in social media, and they go to conferences.

All of this, they agreed, didn’t mean success was guaranteed. Your book might be purchased and published, but that doesn’t mean it will sell. You still have work to do. You can hire social media consultants and publicists, and I get the feeling that has mixed results depending on whom you hire. You will still have to sell and promote, no matter what.

But put your Facebook page and your Twitter handle (and whatever other social media identifiers you want to stress, such as your website) on your card, follow other writers, and invite potential readers to follow you. Write your alumni magazine to tell them the book is coming out. Give your friends pre-written announcements to post on Twitter and Facebook. Do author interviews.

Given how much work you have to do up front already, I can see why the idea of self-publishing has become appealing to people. If you are expected to do all the preliminary work, why not do all the rest, too? The problem is, publishers still have access to better cover designers and distribution networks, and they have more credibility with retailers.

My takeaways:

Have a really good book first. That’s what matters.
Leverage my blog, Facebook account, and Twitter account.
Fix my website pronto.
Get someone with a clue to take my picture. A picture that looks strong, accessible, powerful, friendly, and staggeringly attractive. And ten years younger. And ten pounds thinner. Or maybe I’ll settle for sprightly and erratic. Note to self: Buy some purple reading glasses with tiny animals on the frame, and get my hair dyed blue. Note to self: Stop that.
Order some business cards with my Twitter, Facebook, and website addresses on them instead of my telephone and address.

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