Recently I did a couple of posts about self publishing.
There’s been a ton of good stuff lately on building a web platform. Right now, I suspect that for anybody who does anything remotely creative knowing how to create and build a presence on the web is going to be essential.
One fact of life is that the old ways that things used to be done are going to go away faster than anybody imagined. For instance big publishing. Five years ago I would never have questioned that that was where the action was in writing. Two years ago, you could start to see things collapsing, with all the bookstores taking themselves out of the business. Now, well this post from Nick Cole sort of says it all.
As a sanity check, pick a recent book from one of your favorite authors, go to the Barnes and Noble website and check “buy in store” for that book. Lately every book that I have done this for is not available. These are books printed last year by notable authors from several different publishers. Now it seems that the bookstores are turning themselves into bars.
At a Digital Book World panel called “Will Bars Save Bookstores?”, panelists, among them, American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher, bookseller Jessica Bagnulo and IPG CEO Joe Matthew, cracked jokes (“retailers turn to drink”) but used the opportunity to examine a wave of new strategies behind a resurgent independent bookselling sector.
Teicher called the booze in bookstores theme, “a euphemism for all things smart entrepreneurial spaces are doing to attract consumers.” And it’s not just beverages, Teicher said. Bookstores, he said, are running summer camps, offering dance classes, hosting travel events, “hundreds of innovative things that are helping stores thrive in a very competitive environment.”
Those new initiatives have led to more new bookstores being opened than closed, Teicher noted. And older viable bookstores are finding new and younger owners and expanding their size.
Bagnulo, co-owner of the Greenlight Bookstores in Brooklyn, which recently opened a second store, noted that the growth of independent bookstores is part of the “shop local” movement that has grown to support all kinds of local businesses, not just bookstores. There was also much discussion of B&N’s new concept stores which will include full restaurants that serve beer and wine.
Matthews said that the strategy of offering beer and wine is part of an ongoing trend of “disruption” that began with coffee in bookstores and is happening in other businesses. In an environment where e-books, online retailing and less time for reading is challenging business of physical bookstores, Matthews said, “we need experimentation. This is an effort to drive traffic and keep consumers in the store. You can’t download a cocktail.”
Amanda at Mad Genius Club has some good stuff on how the chains lost a big chunk of good will.
I’ve seen the same sort of thing. The problem comes from managing bookstores the same way you do groceries. But books are not groceries and how they are bought has a lot to do with being seen. The greater the diversity of books in a store the more likely a reader is to buy not just one book, but a stack. But when the book you want is not on the shelf all too frequently the readers won’t come back.
What does this mean for writers, illustrators and others who, heretofore have relied on the publishers to handle marketing and distribution? Well you can’t really rely on them anymore. In fact it’s been that way for some time now. The fact is that the business models that the publishers have been using have been failing for some time now. I’ve been listening for years at cons and other places at the language of decline.
The problems the publishers are having are systemic. Even if they embrace new technologies they are stuck in the business model that is failing both them, the writers and the readers. The sales in Ebooks by the big five tell the story. The story is the same as the bookstores.
As Dave Freer points out there are interesting times for writers.
It’s been interesting for me as an observer to see how aspects of EFR’s ‘Wasp’ have become true. We have had the Kaitempi out in full force for some time. Everyone believed they alone, helpless, and would suffer the consequences of any opposition. Then the wasps started putting up stickers and posters… Well, internet contacts, and then elections. According to the Kaitempi those who were not with the ruling power were few and weak and just waiting to die. They had no future. The future was a manifest destiny of the modern way.
And now that is less certain, it seems. I suspect we’re in for tit-for-tat – one side will protest, attack any of their members who are not displaying loyalty enough… the other cut funding and buying support in response… which could get messy in academia and the media, of which publishing is a part. Sense would suggest that there will be casualties. Interesting times, indeed, especially as many of my traditional publishing peers, failing to make a living at writing, have been going back to college to earn writing related degrees with fall-back plan of teaching others to write. I think I see the teeny tiny flaw in the idea of taking such a course in the first place, (to learn to be a writer from those who can’t make a living writing) but I suspect it’s going to get messier.
So as writers facing uncertain times what steps should you consider taking? My own guess is academia with the intent of teaching writing is probably not what I would do. I’ve read various comments from writers desperately unhappy about the outcome of the US election sneering at the ‘hoi polloi’ (yes really, they used that term) who they blame for not knowing what was good for them and saying: “well being called ‘elitist liberal’ will become a badge of honor because at least they can read.”
Hmm. I’m not the only one reading that. Methinks that attitude will not go down well with a lot of customers. Not for books, not for tuition, and certainly not for the funds for that tuition. It’s not actually supported by facts as an attitude either, but it is certainly deeply resented by ‘flyover’ country. My guess is colleges are going to take a sharp turn away from the arts and funding for courses in them, and will face a downturn in enrollment for such courses.
Nor would I bet the farm on anything coming out of traditional publishing: – it’s hitched its wagon very tightly to the left’s pet causes, to the point that it is being identified as one and the same, and very much part of the media – which is suffering a huge financial and credibility downturn. That bloodbath will affect traditional publishing too.
My advice hasn’t changed – no matter where you sit on the political spectrum.
- Write a LOT, as much as you are able. Writing improves writing. And it’s pretty hard to sell what you haven’t written.
- Build your own brand and platform: I, like so many others made the mistake of believing all I had to do was write and my publishers would do the establishment of my name as a recognizable brand. Learn by my mistakes, don’t repeat them. Be more than just a string of book adverts, find communities you fit into and don’t over-push.
- Don’t spend money you don’t have: So many writers setting off spend, in the expectation of earning. They hire publicists, take out adverts, use precious resources (including time) and then discover the income is 1) nothing like as big as they hoped. 2) A lot slower than they believed possible (trad is usually bi-annual, and often months, and sometimes years late). You do need to speculate to accumulate, but it’s risky. Balance risk with reward using pessimism, and not resources that will leave you in trouble if it doesn’t work. The right place to start, if you have to prioritize… is with proof readers, then covers and designs, IMO.
- Be agile – more than I am – at new platforms. Remember facebook wasn’t very relevant not that long ago. Remember twitter was, but is dying.
- Only make enemies to purpose – Think of it as not your opinion that you’re expressing, but your brand. If you were a restaurant with a largely vegetarian clientele, you’d be an idiot to put a picture on facebook of you tucking into a steak, and on the inverse – if you have a generally omnivore clientele who like steaks – telling the world ‘meat is murder’ won’t help. You may think this obvious, but as the authors sounding off publicly during the last US election, particularly about how they loved Hillary and detested Trump, it plainly isn’t. On the other hand some were clearly trying to make enemies to purpose. That’s a way raising your profile with those who think like you do. But don’t just do it, think about what you do.
- Remember who you write for! (clue. It’s not you. Or the editor. Or in fact for most of us a little bubble of people in NYC). You want to be loved by those ‘hoi polloi’.
These are times of chaos and opportunities for writers. And for many other kinds of creators as well. The old working for a company one way or another is falling apart in those companies’ failure to deal with the changing economy. Having seen those failure from the inside, the end is probably closer than we know. It’s like the intact skin with the rotten apple underneath.
So what are authors to do? That’s the opportunity side of the equation. Now it’s possible for a writer, illustrator maker or anybody else to leverage the incredible communication technologies to create platforms that completely remove the need for the old style gatekeeping. It might not be the easy thing to do, but you might be more powerful than you think.
Sarah Hoyt has a good piece on building a web presence. The thing to remember is that everybody has a different path. Also, building a platform is not something that’s done in day. It’s also not done alone.
What worked for Sarah might not work for you but consider that yo may already be members of communities ready and willing to listen to what you write.
Consider perhaps the biggest “instant” success story of recent years, Andy Weir. Here’s his website.
This is about as crude as it gets. Yet it worked. Probably because Andy is such a good person and he built the community slowly. So the came about because of the effort that he put into the stories. It also helped that he wrote what he knew and that resonated with what people wanted.
Even the most crude platform can bring big benefits. Of course you don’t need to start with a blog or website. Here’s Larry Corriea about how his first story was put together. The fact that the story started as a thread on a forum gave it initiative. Larry was able to leverage this ready made market into an ebook, a book contract from Baen and becoming a best seller. In many ways he had it easier than Andy did but he used the influence he had to build his platform even before the first book was out.
In many ways Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator is working backwards as, in the beginning of his comic the only internet presence was email. Here’s how he explains how Dilbert was saved because of email, which was a new thing back in the early ninties for most people.
When Dilbert first appeared in newspapers in 1989 it was not a success. It appeared in fewer than a hundred newspapers and didn’t grow much for the first several years. With syndicated comic strips, that sort of slow uptake and modest demand almost always predicts a slow decline to failure. My syndication company at the time (United Media) moved their marketing focus to newer comics and left me to fend on my own.
And fend I did. I started running my email address between the panels of the comic. This was when email was still so new that most people didn’t even have it. My inbox exploded. The number of people sending me email was far beyond what made sense for a failing newspaper comic. The email response was unexpected, and it required physical action from the sender. As you probably know, Dilbert went on to be one of the biggest comic properties in history.
As Dilbert grew in popularity, people started emailing to say they were sorting my comics into themes and using photocopies and glue to create their own physical books with chapters for each topic. Literally dozens of people emailed to say they were doing this exact thing. They said they would love to buy a book of this type from me if I also added some text to go with the comics. This type of reaction was unexpected and it required physical action. I designed my first non-fiction book, The Dilbert Principle, exactly the way the fans asked me to do it. The book went on to become a number one New York Times best-seller.
One thing that Mr. Adams does is constantly experiment with new platforms. Here he describes how he is building his own podcast studio.
Which is another platform for Mr. Adams. Actually a podcast studio is not hard to set up. It’s just another platform. There are so many ways to build a web presence. For instance does you local SF con have a writing or art page on their website? Maybe you could volunteer to set one up. Social media is a powerful tool. There’s more to that than Facebook. You can post stuff on linked in too. Consider putting stuff on Deviant Art. They let you put stories up as well as art. Are you a member of any forums in your interests? Post stuff there. make stories up that are relevant to the community like Larry’s gun story. Find sites that want content like American thinker or the Huffington Post. Include links to your site. Start a YouTube channel and make up background videos.
A little work with all these platforms can help to teach you what works for you. The important thing to remember is that you aren’t just building you web presence for yourself, but to present yourself to a developing community. whatever you are doing, more likely the more you put into it the more you will get out of it.