Platform vs. online presence = one and the same?

I hate all the emphasis in the publishing world on “platform.” I even hate the word itself. I think it takes away from what writers should be focusing on: writing.

But the reality is, platform is important. I get that. I get that platform is vital to selling books.

Yet I wonder if we’re all confused about what platform really is. Or maybe I’m the one who’s confused. Whenever I hear writers talking about platform, they’re saying how many followers they have on Twitter or how many comments they get on their blog or how many friends they have on Facebook. All of the emphasis is on social networking. And we seem to be striving for quantity, rather than quality… but that’s another post.

I see platform as more than cultivating an online presence. In my mind, platform requires branding yourself as an expert in something and having a means through which to reach potential readers to share that expertise. Creating a platform is far more difficult than creating an online presence.

But maybe I’m overlooking something here. What do y’all think? How much of platform is online presence? Are platform and online presence one and the same? Is it possible to have a platform nowadays without an online presence?

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Because publicity IS your job: social media for authors

This lady knows her stuff.

That was obvious to me the first time  I “met” Marian Schembari on Twitter (she’s @marianschembari). She knows what she’s talking about. Whenever I have an idea about social media, I bounce it off Marian.

Marian Schembari, who helps authors sell boatloads of books.

And the cool things for readers of this blog? Marian specializes in social media for authors. That’s right, she focuses on helping writers sell books. And she’s here today to tell us how she does it.

Thanks for joining us, Marian! How’d you get into social media consulting? What makes you qualified to work with authors?

My background is in book publicity, and the way I landed that job is where the social media part comes in. I left college wanting to get into publishing, but getting my foot in the door was way more difficult than I had thought. After three months of sending out resumes and cover letters and hearing nothing back, I decided to take a “guerrilla marketing” approach. I used Facebook ads, Twitter, LinkedIn and a blog to get my name out there, and two weeks later I had a job as a book publicist. It was that easy. And that hard because no one taught me how powerful social media could be!

After three months of book PR, I realized a) I really enjoyed working for myself and b) most publicists still don’t really have a handle on social media, and traditional publicity is fading fast. Print and TV opportunities are limited, and having a review in The New York Times just doesn’t have the effect it used to. Readers want a personal connection, not some unrelatable opinion from a faceless reviewer. Readers want recommendations tailored to their interests, friendly neighborhood book bloggers and fan pages where the author actually participates in discussions.

Today, what can help sell books are relationships. Make it easy for readers to engage. Connect directly with book clubs on Twitter. Update fans on your writing/tours/signings/readings. Fiction or nonfiction, it doesn’t matter. There are incredible communities online – covering everything from knitting to politics to cooking to rock climbing.

You teach authors to use social networking rather than doing it for them. Why does that work better?

For a million reasons, the most important one being that no one knows a book better than the author. The second being that it’s more authentic. Like I said, readers want a personal connection with an author and if that author is going to make the effort to be online, it’s silly to have someone else do it for them.

Social media is not one of those things you can outsource. I show authors how to create a real presence online based on their interests and goals. I do a little tutorial work for those who are brand-spanking new, but when it comes to the actual tweeting, blogging, etc… well, that’s where they have to put the work in. There are ways to approach social media so it doesn’t consume your life, and I give my authors a daily, weekly and monthly schedule so they actually have time for writing and aren’t just sitting at their computers tweeting all day. This makes all the difference.

What are two of the top mistakes you see authors make when it comes to social media?

Only two? Sigh. Well, the first is attitude and this definitely comes across through their profiles. So many authors think it’s “not their job” to take care of the marketing and publicity of their book. But as much as I love publishing houses and their employees, here’s a little word to all you authors out there: your publisher’s not going to do sh*t for you.

While unfortunate, it’s the truth. And this isn’t the publisher’s fault! With the economy in bad shape and the interwebs making it harder and harder to sell books, their staff is spread incredibly thin. So if you want to make sure you actually sell your book, take some of the easy marketing into your own hands. Get on Twitter. I’ll help you find that community of readers who’s going to fall in love with your book. Create a Facebook fan page and spread the word. But don’t sit at your desk whining that it’s not your responsibility. The incredible power of social media is that you don’t need to be a marketing expert, you just need to have a passion for your book, be willing to learn the basics and have fun with it! [Note from Alexis: Love this tough love approach. Marian’s so right.]

The second mistake? Blatant self-promotion. While people will start following you on Twitter or become your fan on Facebook because they want to hear more about you, they don’t want to hear you shouting “Me! Me! Me!” from the social media rooftops. They want to hear where your next reading will be or get a link to your latest review, but they also want to hear about your favorite authors. Writing tips you can provide. Extra tidbits about your book. And, of course, you need to give love to get love. So retweet (that’s Twitter lingo) and engage others in conversation to get the most out of your online presence.

You offer solid tips on your site about how job seekers should use LinkedIn. Do you think LinkedIn is also valuable for authors?

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Why your biz or book needs a Facebook page, not a group

I don’t want to give away all my social media hints — I want people to pay me for this, remember? — but here’s a common mistake I’m seeing clients (and small businesses who should become my clients) make: creating a Facebook group or profile for a business, product or public figure when they should create a page.

Say your first book comes out, and you want to build relationships with readers. Or you’ve got an awesome freelance writing business you’re looking to promote. Or you run a travel company and want more clients. Or you’re looking to draw more customers into your coffee shop.

Lots of business owners — including writers who need to sell books or services — know they should use Facebook. It’s a good place to start building your social media relationships for lots of reasons, including 1. you might already know how to use it if you have a personal profile and 2. millions of people network there. But too many people make the mistake of creating a group or profile (that’s what you’d have for your personal account) when it would be far more beneficial to have a fan page.

Here’s why it’s better to have a fan page than a group:

  • It’s less of a commitment to become a fan of a page than to join a group. Yes, either way all your followers have to do is click a button. But this is a big difference in the minds of regular Facebookers. A group is more like an exclusive club, while anyone with minor appreciation for a certain brand might be willing to say they like it. That means followers are more likely to like a brand than join its group page.
  • Page updates appear in fans’ news feeds, while group updates do not. That means group members have to visit the group to be reminded of your services. Since you’re essentially advertising here, you want to be able to put your product in front of potential buyers without making them come to you.
  • The content on a page is expected to come from you, while the content in a group depends more on group members. Either way, you’re aiming to build a community, and interaction by followers in a group or on a page is always encouraged. But it’s easier to maintain a page’s momentum because you’re in charge. Groups can wither if there’s not enough participation.
  • Anyone can see a fan page. Groups tend to be more private; you might have to become a member to see all the content. You determine your own privacy settings, of course. But to promote your business, you want the most open option available.
  • Pages are more customizable than groups.
  • Pages allow an unlimited number of followers. Groups have a 5,000-person limit. Right now that might not seem like a big deal. But when your biz or book becomes super popular — like this author, who accidentally got 700,000 fans on his page — you’re going to want to have room for more than 5K fans.

Want more reasons? Mashable and Squidoo have posts on the differences between Facebook pages and groups.

Half of using Facebook to market your business is about not annoying your followers. Get in front of them, let them see what you offer, but don’t annoy them. The hard part about this is you have to be well-versed in the culture of Facebook to know how to avoid annoying people. And let’s face it, even some regular users annoy us. You don’t want your business to be like the friend who’s always throwing FarmVille pigs at you or has linked their Twitter account to Facebook so their updates take over your feed.

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

Creating a page, not a group, is a step toward using Facebook effectively. And since it’s impossible to turn a group into a fan page, this is one thing that’s worth getting right from the beginning.

If you liked this post, you might want to read: How to use Facebook to — shhh — promote your book.

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The challenge: build community around your blog

I probably should have titled this post, How to drive traffic to your blog. That would have gotten more clicks, right? But the truth is, while we sometimes use hits to measure the success of our Web sites and blogs, the reason for that success is community.

One common mistake new bloggers make is thinking that all they have to do is put information out there — and readers will come. But to create a successful blog or Web site or organization, you’ve got to turn that information into conversation, into community, into a place people want to visit again and again.

Several writers have approached me recently, asking how they can attract readers to their blog. What they really need to know is, how do you go about building a community?

Here’s what I tell them:

Provide awesome content. This sounds obvious, but it’s the basis of any successful blog. If you don’t have good content, the other strategies I’m about to suggest are useless. Ask yourself: Is my content unique? Useful? Inspiring? What can I give readers that they won’t get anywhere else?

Encourage conversation. Write in a way that encourages dialogue and follow-ups. Ask questions at the bottom of your posts. Not yes or no questions, but open-ended ones that give readers the chance to weigh in. If your content is awesome, they may think about commenting or linking to your post on their blog. But they take that leap unless they feel welcome, inspired, encouraged.

One person who does this really well: soon-to-be author Jody Hedlund. There are thousands of writing blogs out there, yet writers go back to hers because she engages readers, asks great questions, joins the conversation in the comments and visits the blogs of her readers. She starts dialogue. (For example, check out her recent post about blogging.) On that note…

Join the conversation. Respond to comments on your posts. Visit the sites of the people who left them, and leave comments on their sites. When you do, make sure your name offers a link to your site. Not only will the blogger come back to visit you, but her other readers might, too.

Link within your posts. When you link to other bloggers’ posts within your posts, you’re helping your reader by providing additional information. But you’re also creating a conversation with those bloggers because their blog will tell them you linked to them, and maybe they’ll visit your blog.

This is how I connected with author Mary Morris. I mentioned her book and linked to her Web site so readers could find out more about the book. She noticed my link — either her site told her or Google alerts let her know — and visited my site, left a comment, I responded — and boom! We’re friends. That’s one of the main benefits of having a blog: connecting with people who have accomplished what you’re working toward.

Link to descriptive words like my travel blog or Inkslinging in Africa, not instructions like click here. This helps Google send people to your blog. Which brings us to…

Search Engine Optimization. You only need to understand the basics of SEO to make it work for you. The most important rule is to write good headlines, using words you’d type into Google if you were searching for whatever you’re writing about. An example of a good headline: How to find and apply to writers’ colonies. It has lots of words you’d type into Google if you were looking for a colony: colony, writers, find, apply. A bad headline: Does this count as productive? It doesn’t tell you what the post is about, doesn’t contain any keywords that would help Google guide readers to the post. Yeah, I knew that when I wrote it and I did it anyway. Sometimes we break our own rules.

Use images. They do more than make your blog interesting and fun to look at. Just like Google uses your text and links to determine whether to send people to your site, it also looks through your images. One map I included on my travel blog still drives significant traffic there a year after I stopped posting.

Get involved online. Participating in Facebook and Twitter will lead people to your blog. But make sure you’re using those tools properly, promoting yourself in a way that attracts, not annoys, potential readers.

What other forums can you join to lure people into your community? I created a Ning group for writers of travel memoir. I did it because I wanted to connect with writers in my genre, but as an added benefit it brings people to my blog. Another example: I’m active at Matador Network, a community of travelers. I leave comments on stories and occasionally write for the site. All of this participation online helps me strengthen my own community. (Need more ideas? Check out this post at Chip McGregor’s blog.)

Network in person. No matter how much we try to create relationships through our blogs, those connections are still virtual. Turn them into in-person connections. Go to conferences or round tables or Meetups — anywhere that helps you physically meet people who share your interests. At the very least, put a photo of yourself in your blog sidebar. Readers are more likely to feel like they know you if they can picture your face.

Be likable. Show us your personality — if only the nice parts. You are your own community liaison. You are your brand. You are the face of your blog. Make us want to hang out with you and get to know you better. Be interesting and helpful, but also be a friend. When I like the person behind a blog or Web site, I go back for more.

~ Yes, all of this stuff is time consuming. It’s also necessary if you want your blog to succeed. Don’t let it overwhelm you. You don’t have to introduce all of this at once. Focus on one or two of these suggestions each week, and eventually they’ll work in your favor.

Do these ideas help? What have I missed? How do you build community around your blog, and what do you struggle with?

Is it time to launch your personal Web site?

Everyone’s always talking about personal branding. And a large part of creating your own brand, or self-packaging, involves the Web.

I started blogging in June 2008 when I left my job at the Houston Chronicle to travel in Africa. When I returned to the States and began writing a book, and I decided having a blog wasn’t good enough. I wanted my own Web site.

Why? Because without a desk in a newsroom, without an organization backing my work, I felt like I needed a virtual cubicle, a place where people could find me. Since I’m a journalist, there’s a lot of information about me on the Web, from stories with my byline to readers praising or complaining about my work. I wanted to control what Google told the world about me. When people go looking for information about me, I want them to find accurate, positive words, like clips I’m proud of. And I want them to find my contact information easily.

Try Googling yourself. What comes up? For a long time, when I Googled “Alexis Grant,” another woman with middle initial D popped up at the top of the page. Now that I’ve got a Web site, I’m the top link. And that’s what readers will click on first — the information I’ve put out there for them to find.

Jared Novack at Upstatement helped me create alexisgrant.com. (Well, I told him what I envisioned, and he created it.) Not only does it provide information about me, it gives the reader an idea of my personality. The photos at the top of me reporting from various locations, the overall look of the site — it’s a reflection of my character.

(Lucky for you, Jared recently left his job at The Boston Globe to design Web sites full time. If it’s time for you to launch your own Web site — and it probably is — you should hire him.)

Even if you’re not quite ready to build your own site, think about buying your domain name so you’ll have it when the time comes. The longer you wait to buy yourname.com, the less likely it will be available. (Once a name starts becoming more prevalent on the Web, smart techies buy those names so they can resell them at a higher price. I bought alexiskgrant.com for next to nothing, but I really wanted alexisgrant.com, which had already been picked up by one of these second parties. I ended up paying $400 for it.) Not sure whether yourname.com is available? Check at http://godaddy.com.

Do you have your own Web site? Leave the link here so we can check it out.

You’re not an aspiring writer. You’re a writer.

I can’t stand when people tell me they’re aspiring writers.

I know what they mean. They mean they’re aspiring to become a paid writer, or a published writer, or even a respected writer. But aspiring means you haven’t put your pen to paper or typed a story on your laptop. Aspiring means you’re thinking about writing, that you haven’t yet actually done it.

If you were training for a marathon, would you say you were an aspiring runner? No. You’d be running every day — maybe very slowly, maybe with walk breaks, maybe short distances — but you’d be running. That makes you a runner. An aspiring marathoner, yes, but also a runner.

The same goes for writing. If you write every day, you’re a writer. So stop saying you aspire to be a writer! Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a writer.

Think I’m being too picky? Maybe. I’m a grammar freak, a nerd when it comes to using words properly. (Do you laugh — not a little giggle, but an all-out, hearty cackle — when you read The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks? If so, you may be a grammar freak, too.)

When I started this blog under the title Aspiring Author, several readers told me (graciously) that they didn’t like the name, that it didn’t do me justice. I was already an author, they said. But here’s where the grammar freak in me comes in. The truth is, I’m not an author — yet. I’m a journalist. I’m a writer, one who has been published in newspapers and magazines. But to become an author, I need to be published. When my first book is on store shelves, that’s when I’ll call myself an author. Until then, I’m aspiring.

But you, yes YOU, since you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer. Maybe you’re already an author. Maybe you’re an aspiring author like me. But if you’ve already begun writing your memoir, your novel, your self-help book or some other project, then you’re no  longer aspiring to put words to paper — you’re a writer.

Your newest reality TV: A writer’s life

While browsing my @alexisgrant replies on Twitter recently, I noticed a message from a follower I didn’t even know I had: @jtlongandco, or JT Long, author of The Writer’s Secret: MasterMind Your Way to Publishing Success.

“I love your blog,” she wrote. “It is like reality TV for writers.”

“Guess I should consider adding more hair pulling and sex?” I wrote back.

I’m not a huge fan of reality television (although I’m admittedly addicted to The Biggest Loser — Helen wins this season? What?!), but her comment made my day. Something I’m writing here must be resonating with other writers, and that’s what I hoped for when I started this blog, to share as a means of learning, inspiring and occasionally entertaining.

But the short exchange also got me thinking about what I could do better, how I could liven up this blog. Readers return to certain blogs not only for the information they find there, but for the personality behind the words. It’s the same reason people buy books.

That’s why blogs like Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist are so popular, right? Because they offer insight into their specialty and their personal lives, details that make readers laugh and think, Wow, I can relate to that. (That reminds me: Check out Penelope’s recent post about how to write a blog post people love.)

Of course, there’s a fine line between sharing enough about yourself to interest readers and offering TMI. I’ve already posted embarrassing tidbits about myself, both on writing and my personal life. But unlike Penelope, I will not be delving into the bedroom behavior of the men I date nor will I offer details about my partying habits. (For that, you’ll have to read my book!)

If this blog is going to meet the standards of drama-laden reality TV, I’m going to have to step it up a notch or two!