In Data-mining the SF Writers Conference schedule I wrote, a week before the conference began, that I was "a bit disappointed" to see only a few scheduled sessions that touched directly on the topics of "e-books, the changing landscape of self-publishing options, and What That All Means to writers."
In the actual event, I was glad to partake of an abundance of sessions focused on giving authors and prospective authors guidance on What Is To Be Done to put any book in the hands of readers, whether the book is brought out by a New York publisher or self-published, whether it is distributed in paper or digital form.
The bottom line across all of these means of book packaging and distribution was this message: it doesn't much matter who publishes your book or how. In an age of savaged marketing budgets even for books brought out by the Six Sisters, promoting a book is largely an author's responsibility. Even a novelist needs a platform to succeed.
What does that mean?
As Christina Katz explains in her book Get Known Before the Book Deal, excerpted from Chuck Sambuchino's blog, "The wo[rd] platform simply describes all the ways you are visible and appealing to your future, potential or actual readership. Platform development is important not only for authors; it's also crucial for aspiring and soon-to-be authors. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you've established, the articles you've published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership."
The first session I attended at SFWC, titled "Get a grip: be your own best promoter," was given by Teresa LeYung Ryan and Elisa Southard. I wasn't crazy about the style of this session, but I did find value in the core exercise.
Teresa and Elisa led the room through initial development of a "talking tagline": a way of stating concisely what an author claims s/he delivers to a reader. For a non-fiction author peddling an area of her/his expertise, the focus of such a statement is relatively easy to find: it's all about rock climbing, or building birdhouses, or paying lower taxes, or making a relationship work. For novelists, a "talking tagline" might be more elusive. The YA author sitting next to me agreed that it was easier for a novelist to describe what s/he is delivering in a particular book than over the course of many fiction projects. Nonetheless, the attempt to frame what a reader of Consequence would get out of my current novel kept running through my head as I attended other sessions and readied myself to pitch to agents on Sunday morning.
If LeYung Ryan and Southard focused on the message -- what that "viable readership" needs to hear -- sessions I attended that were led by Tee Morris, Rusty Shelton, and Stephanie Chandler focused on the means of getting that message out into the world. In a self-actuated, digitally linked 21st century, they all insisted that the means is social media.
Tee Morris and Rusty Shelton talked up Twitter in a session called "Finding Your Tweet Spot." I know, I know. I went anyway.
I've never quite gotten Twitter. I've also heard about a zillion others say the same thing -- though it's worth a nod to yesterday's blog post from literary agent and "query shark" Janet Reid, who tore into authors who make excuses for avoiding social media. At the conference, Tee and Rusty made a credible case that the ability to rapidly connect with others through a medium that encourages linking out to other social media (videos, blogs, music, any content you can imagine) provides a powerful platform for networking with potential readers and fellow-writers. Rusty offered an interesting pair of similes: if Twitter is a cocktail party, Facebook is a family reunion. If you're aim is to connect with people you know, Facebook's the place. If you're aiming to extend your circle, try Twitter.
I'm giving it a try. Tee Morris's book Teach Yourself Twitter in 10 Minutes is one way to get savvy about the platform; or check out the platform's on-line support and Emlyn's 10-tip guide to Twitter posted last week on Novel Publicity's blog (also follow the links she provides to past posts) ... thanks again to Janet Reid for pointing me to Emlyn.
(It was interesting to read a few days after hearing Rusty and Tee speak that Nearly Half of Americans use Facebook; Only 7% Use Twitter. The article, on Mashable.com, noted that "Twitter [...] is driven largely by so-called power users, and only 21% of registered users are actually active on the site. Another interesting and related Twitter usage stat: 22.5% of users are responsible for 90% of all tweets." This is not necessarily inconsistent with the message I heard at SFWC. If authors, agents, editors, book bloggers, and especially people others trust & like to hear from are the people tweeting, those are the people with whom an author looking for readers wants to connect.)
Stephanie Chandler gave a presentation at SFWC titled "Storming Cyberspace" ... and a lot of what she had to say is outlined in her 22 February Authority Publishing post, Elements of an Online Marketing Plan for Authors -- a great 'consolation prize' for those who didn't have the chance to hear her speak. She echoed something Rusty said in the "Tweet Spot" session and emphasized again in another, titled "Digital Publicity": professional journalists and editors comb the web for stories & topical expertise, and you'll be glad if what they find is you ... because taking a ride in an established media vehicle, whether it's a popular blog or a well-circulated magazine or newspaper is another excellent way to get on readers' radar.
It was interesting to recognize something that happened to me late last year as proof of the fact that established, mainstream media editors are keeping a close eye on the intertubes. In November an old friend who works as an editor for a top-shelf magazine based in New York serendipitously found one of my blogs cross-posted on Daily Kos. He liked what I'd written, and jotted a quick e-mail to tell me so. This was during the middle of a weekday, East Coast time: he was working, not idly surfing. I didn't know you blogged, he wrote. I sent him a link to One Finger Typing. If my editor friend is combing the blogosphere in search of the zeitgeist, so are his peers.
[Of course -- keeping atop latest breaking trends -- the (somewhat silly) question whether blogging is over is in the air. Nathan Bransford asked it the week before last, in his post "You Tell Me: Have Blogs Peaked?" A few days later the NY Times was chewing over the same topic -- Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter -- which may or may not prove that the Grey Lady is following Nathan's blog. But take the NYT's conclusions with a grain of that Mashable.com article I linked to a few paragraphs back: "only 7% use Twitter." And then there's the damper thrown on rushes to judgment by Mathew Ingram, in his post "Blogging Is Dead Just Like the Web is Dead" (thanks to Nathan for that link).]
The self-promotion, the tracking of which channels are viable in a quickly evolving mediascape, the networking as if your literary future depends on it -- none of this is the sort of stuff I thought I was signing up for when I decided to write long-form fiction. But in a world of socially networked content, people turn more and more regularly (and exclusively!) to the internet for things to read, learn, and do. An author trying to attract a readership would be missing the boat if s/he failed to build an on-line presence.
As Janet Reid wrote yesterday, "There isn't any other option."
Thanks to GustavoG for the image of Flickr represented as a network of people sharing photos, circa 2005.
CORRECTION: This post originally misattributed Christina Katz's definition of platform to Chuck Sambuchino (who excerpted from Ms. Katz's book on his blog). Apologies for the error, which has been corrected as of 9 Mar 2011.