Back in the golden, olden days, authors shut themselves away from the world and starved in a garret while writing their masterpiece. They’d make a brief appearance on the public stage, launch their book into the world (to great acclaim – obvs) then scuttle back to obscurity and start all over again.
No longer! Established writers might still be able to hide in the shadows and release new novels on the strength of reputation and back catalogue but (with a few exceptions) debut writers need an author platform, especially on social media. Word of mouth publicity plays a huge part in launching a book these days but, as the clamour for attention grows louder, how can debut authors hope to be heard above the hubbub?
For me, self-publicity is excruciating and it's been a huge learning curve. With only six weeks to go till my book ‘After Leaving the Village’ is published, my author platform is propped up on shaky scaffolding and I’m still building the foundations. My late, lovely parents thought self-deprecation was a virtue. They didn’t believe in over-praising their children’s achievements and were adept at ‘taking you down a peg or two’. This upbringing took a while to shrug off. When being interviewed for a promotion at work, I’d be asked why I merited a more senior job, I’d sit mute because I’d been conditioned never to boast about my achievements. I did get over myself in the end and built a successful career, but I still found it hard to ask for anything. When my kids were taking part in sponsored runs or swims, I’d pay up the whole amount myself rather than go through the excruciating process of asking friends or colleagues to sponsor them.
What’s a social media platform?
It’s never too early for a writer to start building a social media platform. Cynics might say, your social media should be up and running now if you’re hoping to publish a novel in 2020. But it’s never too late and the best place to start from is where you are now.
Twitter, Facebook, a blog, your author website and Instagram are the best platforms for writers but there are many others, including LinkedIn, Goodreads and – once your book goes on sale – an Amazon writer page.
On Twitter, you can follow and interact with publishers, agents, other writers and readers; send pithy aphorisms out into the world; promote your blog and share news of forthcoming publications. Twitter is where book bloggers hang out and where blog tours are publicised.
What’s a blog tour? It’s a virtual version of a book tour and, if you or your publicist are lucky enough to set one up, close to publication date, different bloggers take timetabled slots to share their review of your novel. Book bloggers are the most altruistic people I’ve encountered online. I’ve seen bloggers share photos of gigantic towers of books, waiting to be read and reviewed; heard their stories of sleepless nights, uneaten meals and neglected families – all in the cause of getting word about new books out into the world. In return for a free advance copy, or a Netgalley proof. It’s up to you, or your publicist, to check your book is right for the genre that a specific blogger reads.
I’ve been on Twitter for a few years and building a following has been a slow grind (my fault, not Twitter’s). When I announced my book deal with Hashtag Press, my followers leapt by around 100 in one week. It’s good to have something positive to share. My profile remains a mere dot on the Twittersphere but I know it works as a place for discovering new books because I’ve followed recommendations myself. Twitter is where I first heard about the amazing Eleanor Ferrante, and I was deep into her second novel long before I saw her books in the shops.
Facebook is like a familiar friend. Most of us already have a personal page where we interact with people we know and join groups that share our interests. There are communities for writers and for readers. One I’ve recently discovered is The Fiction Café – Book Club – search the keywords to find it - where an active and engaged community exchanges thoughtful recommendations.
Did you know you can also set up a professional writer page on Facebook? You set this up from your personal page to keep your writer and personal lives separate. Go to your personal page, scroll down the left-hand menu and find ‘Create’. Click on the option ‘Page’ then you’ll be presented with six tiles to choose from. Select ‘Artist, Band or Public Figure’ and the writer or author option will appear. Once you’ve set up your page, you can start sharing news about your book and upcoming events. It’s also a handy place to promote your blog. You start by asking friends to like your page and hope they’ll share it with others. Naively, I thought this meant people, who’d liked or followed my page would see my future posts so it wouldn’t feel like I was constantly pestering my friends. Not so. Often, I have to re-share on my personal page to get visibility at all. Meanwhile, Facebook sends teaser messages, promising they’ll boost my post to 3,800 more people if I pay them £4. I gather this is how Facebook pages work and other writers have told me it can be worthwhile. I’ve not let them mug me for £4 yet, but I don’t rule it out.
Author website and blog
I’m bracketing these together because you don’t necessarily need a website; a blog platform could be fine. I started mine on Weebly and many writers use WordPress. I moved away from Weebly to build an online shop where people can, if they wish, pre-order my novel. I didn’t feel comfortable doing the ecommerce side myself and wanted a professional to hold my hand.
Many authors blog about aspects of writing. They are sensible and perhaps I’m not. When it comes to blogging, my true love is travel writing. On my website, you’ll find blogs about Cuba, India, Thailand and Albania. But there’s method in my madness. My novel ‘After Leaving the Village’ opens in Albania and I’ve posted four blogs on my website about this fascinating and under-discovered country. If it doesn’t encourage people to read my novel, perhaps it will intrigue them to travel to Albania – that’s fine with me.
I’d no experience of Instagram - the photo-sharing social media site - when my publisher recommended it. Words are my currency and, even with good equipment, my photos are rubbish. But it’s been a joy. Writers, readers, book bloggers and other fascinating people hang out on Instagram. Posting photos is quick and easy and careful use of hashtags can put you in touch with people who may be interested in your content. But as with all social media, it’s a two-way street. If you don’t share you’ll remain invisible.
So now I’m on the platform - what’s next? I need to get on the train and find out where it takes me. Check back in a while and I’ll share how I got on.
The Modern Slavery Helpline run by the charity Unseen UK is at risk of closing if new funding can't be raised. I'm re-sharing a blog I wrote recently for Unseen that explains why I support their work. If you want to help the appeal, the link to their website is below.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of The Rule Breaker's Guide to Step Up and Stand Out by saxophonist, poet, speaker and performer, Georgia Varjas. Here is my review.
This article first appeared as a guest post as part of my blog tour for Lies Behind the Ruin. I'm grateful to Books, Life and Everything for hosting me and have included the link to the website.