This is the fifth post in my continuing series INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS, a step-by-step guide to getting your stories into (digital) print. I’ll be doing each step with you, learning as you do, because I’ve never done this before either.
Step 5: Market Your Story Part 1, Websites & Blogs
So you have written your story, added your cover design, had your work edited, gone through the pain of formatting for the first time, and now everything is uploaded and available on all the various sales channels. Only problem is, nobody’s buying it.
Don’t worry, you haven’t told anybody about it yet. And, it takes time to build an audience. Even the runaway success stories took around six months to see some decent sales.
I am going to give you an overview of your marketing options. While spending money in this area is optional, and can bring you great results if done right, most of these marketing ideas will cost you nothing but time.
Today, I will deal with websites and blogs. Next time, Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Goodreads. After that, we will talk about review websites, giveaways, coupons, and mailing lists.
There are two kind of websites: static and interactive.
A static website is like this one, which was designed for me by my friends at Ambient Project. I asked them to set it up in 2009 before I started querying agents for my South American historical novel A Storm Hits Valparaiso, and it hasn’t changed much since then.
The idea was that it would act as a kind of calling card, make me look professional, and help agents visualise my manuscript as a real novel for sale.
It has a brief description of my novel, kind of like something you would see on the back of a book, it has thumbnail sketches of the various characters, some historical context, contact information, and you can download the first chapter of my book for free.
It costs money to create websites like this (a few hundred dollars for a basic one), and can be a useful tool. However, I would suggest only going down this road if you have a little extra budgeted for marketing. You can achieve many of the same effects with a free page.
A webpage like that is a static page. There is no interaction between the writer and the audience. Readers can’t post comments, and you can’t post updates without getting in touch with your web designer.
While a lot of people visited this page – and complimented me on it (including agents) – the content never changes so there is no real reason for them ever to return. I have no opportunity to build a connection with my audience, and in the fast-moving world of the internet, a static page – however pretty – is soon forgotten.
A blog is an interactive page, and can be a great way to connect with potential readers. If there is new content appearing all the time, they have reason to keep coming back. And best of all, it costs nothing. I recommend that every writer set up a blog.
I use WordPress, some prefer Blogger (or Typepad or LiveJournal); pick the one you are most comfortable with. I think WordPress looks the most professional, but Blogger has its plus points too, especially if you are overwhelmed with all the functionality of WordPress.
One thing you should consider purchasing is your own domain name. It only costs around $12 a year (from sites like GoDaddy), and you can use that as the name for your blog instead of the generic WordPress name like I have right now. If your domain name is taken, play with a few variations on your initials, your middle name, or by adding “writer” at the end – anything as long as it looks professional.
And while we are on the subject, if your email address is something like email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, get a new one for business.
Your blog should be clean and easy-to-read. Light text on a dark background can look good, but it’s bad for extended reading. Keep garish colours to a minimum, and make sure any graphics you use are of good quality.
First-time visitors to your blog should be able to find the information they want quickly. You should also have tabs where they can share articles they like, and subscribe to your blog.
Make a note of other, popular blogs you enjoy. Try and replicate their layout.
Building an Audience
While there are over 2 billion web-users worldwide, there are a trillion unique URLs out there, and the number of individual webpages increases by several billion every day.
You should update your blog regularly (every day or two if you can); this will give people a reason to return. However, they won’t come back if they don’t like what they see in the first place. You must have something interesting to say because you are using up people’s most valuable resource: time.
So what do you write about? Well, whatever interests you, but do try and carve out some kind of niche. If you do it right, and people are coming back to your blog on a regular basis, then you have a captive audience you can sell your work to. Don’t underestimate the importance of this.
I was interested in all the fast-moving changes in the publishing industry, and I also wanted to document my own first steps into digital publishing, so doing this seemed like a natural fit.
However, if I was to be ultra self-critical, I would say that I am not really reaching out to my potential book-buying audience, i.e. readers.
A blog like this is great for interacting with other writers and self-publishers (and enjoyable), and I am learning a lot from it, but I don’t think it’s going to boost my sales that much.
This means that I will have to compensate for that in my other marketing efforts, but that’s fine. It’s far better to blog about something you are interested in than to fake it to try and make it. Readers are smart, they will see through you.
For you, I would recommend trying to reach out to your readers. If you write cozy mysteries, you could have a fan site dissecting the classics, or a review of the latest releases. If you are writing a non-fiction book on baseball, you could host a discussion on the greatest players and the latest scandals.
But it doesn’t have to be that direct. If you have a blog on Italian recipes, your audience are going to be interested in the romance you’ve set in Sicily. If you write about celebrity gossip, chances are your readers will like that chick-lit book you’ve written.
And even if the subject of your blog is not related to your book in any way, if your readers enjoy your writing, they will check it out anyway.
One of the keys to building an audience is engagement. People don’t want someone to talk at them; if they wanted that they would turn on the radio or watch television. They want someone to talk with them.
Make sure the comments are open on all your posts, and that you respond to all comments promptly. Try and poise a question or two in your articles and invite discussion. It must be an interactive experience because that’s the advantage the web has.
If you look at the most popular blogs, the real action is in the comments, and that’s what will keep people coming back.
Sommer Leigh has a handy online guide for those taking their first blog-steps. But if all of this is overwhelming, or if you have simply no interest in doing it, don’t worry, it’s not essential to success.
John Locke didn’t update his blog for four months, but that didn’t stop him going from selling very few books in November to shipping almost 700,000 by the end of March. It just means that you will have to compensate in other marketing areas. It’s your call.
But if you set up your blog right, you can combine interactive and static pages. This, for example is a static page on my blog, it rarely changes and acts as an anchor for the dynamic content (the occasional haikus that I write). But there is no reason why I can’t incorporate more and more static pages, and make them look nicer too.
Eventually, I envisage this blog having static pages for each e-book as it gets released. If you want to get really fancy, you can have a domain name for each book, so that if someone types in that web address it will automatically go to the static page in your blog that you have set up for that book.
Driving Traffic To Your Blog
It’s all very well having the best content in the world, but if no-one sees it in the first place, it’s kind of pointless. So how do you get people to come to your blog?
Get your name out there, but be tasteful. Find other writing blogs or blogs on your subject and engage with the readers through the comments. If someone sees something thoughtful or interesting, then they might check out your blog or even buy your book.
I set up a Gravatar/Open ID through WordPress, so on most blogs my picture is beside the comment and my name is a clickable link to the blog.
However, if you can’t interact in a genuine way, you will be just like the guy at the party trying to sell insurance. There could be ten people in the room looking for a quote, but if all you talk about is insurance, they will quickly move on.
But, if you seem interesting or knowledgeable, and the subject comes up naturally, they will be far more likely to consider using your services. Be tactful. Nobody likes the hard sell. Nobody likes a spammer.
I get a lot of traffic from various writing forums that I frequent. But be warned: while no-one read more than a writer, nothing pisses a writer off more than spam.
Be courteous, respectful, and restrict your marketing efforts to the appropriate sections of the forum. I’ve never checked out a writer’s work who was in my face, constantly pushing their book, but I’ve checked out plenty from people I met on the site.
A tasteful link in your signature and genuine interaction will bring you far better results. The forum I frequent most – Absolute Write – is filled with writers of all levels, from beginners to old pros. I’ve learned more there than from any workshop or book about writing. And it’s fun passing along the little bits you learn too.
Most forums have an area where you can post brief updates from your blog. However, most of the clicks I get are when I am engaging on another topic altogether. Again, if people consider your contributions useful, they are far more likely to visit your blog.
If you are just at the party to blanket the place with business cards, you will be a turn-off. Be a good forum citizen, nobody likes the man with the megaphone.
I am getting a growing amount of traffic from Google.
It takes a while for their search engine bots to find you and map your entire site, but there you can nudge them along by registering your blog with them.
One of the main factors in how high a site appears in the search results is linkage. If you link to popular sites and they link back, it can have a huge boost on your ranking.
The first step you should take is too put a sidebar on your site (like I have on the right), with links to the big sites/blogs in your subject area.
Then, when you comment on their site (and your name is an automatic link back to your site if you have set it up right), this creates pathways between your site and theirs. Google loves these pathways.
Once more, don’t be spammy. If you are going on to high traffic sites just to spread links around, it will backfire. Make thoughtful, genuine contributions. It will increase your Google rankings, and you could bring some readers back to your place.
Another huge way to drive traffic both to your blogs and your Amazon listings is by clever use of Social Media. This post is already a lot longer than intended, so we will save that for next time. As always, please feel free to share any tips or tricks you have below, or to ask any questions you may have.
It’s easy to get distracted by all this stuff, but never forget the golden rule: keep writing! The most effective marketing tool – by far – is new work.