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Free Ways To Grow An Author Platform, With Orna Ross And Dan Parsons: Beginner Self-Publishing Podcast

Free Ways to Grow an Author Platform, With Orna Ross and Dan Parsons: Beginner Self-Publishing Podcast

Today on the #AskALLi Beginner Self-Publishing podcast: Free ways to grow an author platform. What is an author platform? If you’re just setting out as an indie author, how do you build one? In this episode, ALLi Director Orna Ross and Content Production Manager Dan Parsons outline the fundamental pillars that uphold a good author platform—one that spreads your message and sells your books—without spending a fortune on advertising.

Dartfrog BooksThis podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Dartfrog Books. ALLi Partner Member DartFrog Books provides indie authors with opportunities for bookstore placement and promotion to more than 27,000 book clubs. Their self-publishing, hybrid,  traditional, and single-service publishing platforms are designed to engage authors of all types, at every stage of their journey. We'd like to thank Dartfrog for their support of this podcast.

And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

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Show Notes

About the Hosts

Orna Ross writes and publishes historical fiction, inspirational poetry, and nonfiction guides for authors. She is director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Dan Parsons writes the Creative Business series for authors, bestselling fantasy and horror novels (under Daniel Parsons), and a weekly blog for The Self-Publishing Formula. While pursuing his author career, he has worked for three traditional publishers, managed two bookstores, and listened to an unhealthy number of podcasts. Now he manages ALLi’s book production schedule.

Read the Transcripts: Free Ways to Grow an Author Platform

Orna Ross: Hello everyone, and welcome to our beginner's podcast. It's the Alliance of Independent Authors here, I'm Orna Ross and I'm with Dan Parsons. Hi, Dan.

Dan Parsons: Hi Orna. Hi, everyone.

Orna Ross: Hello there. Yes, and we are back this week to talk about another topic for our beginner self-publishers. This is the podcast where we focus on people who are just starting out, or just starting out with the particular topic that we're talking about, because you can of course be self-publishing for a while and find out that there are things that you didn't know about or hadn't had time to get to when you first went out there.

Today, our topic is going to be author platform, which is something that confuses a lot of people, a lot of people wonder what on earth is it, where do I get one, can I have one now, please? All of that kind of thing.

And we're specifically going to be talking about free ways to grow your author platform, because your author platform is growable in lots and lots of different ways, and we're always looking at, if we're just starting out, we're looking at setting it up, and then for the rest of our publishing days, we're always trying to grow it and scale it.

So, yes. I will begin by giving a definition. You will hear lots of different definitions of author platform, but for me, the most succinct one that I've come to, after lots of discussions and lots of thinking about it over the years, is that it is a structure that you use to sell your books; specifically, a structure that an author brand uses to sell books.

So, if you've got more than one author brand, you will have to construct probably more than one platform, and they will cross-reference and help each other a bit, but not hugely. So, essentially whatever you use goes into this kind of form that you have that creates an author platform.

Sometimes people think it's just about social media, so you'll very often hear people saying, author platform is your social media accounts. Well, yes, but not necessarily. So, social media is absolutely a component of the author platform for most people, but it is possible to construct and grow an author platform, and not be on social media. But you need, obviously, to know exactly what you're doing and what you're using instead. The reason so many indie authors use social media is because, again, to the topic of today's conversation, it's free, the organic growth is free anyway, though social media advertising is obviously a big part of things, too.

But yeah, what other components are there, or can there be, of an author platform, Dan?

Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, like you said, social media is easy and free, but it's not the only thing that's free that can be encapsulated within the umbrella of an author platform.

So, for example, it's basically all of the people that you can reach and influence. It doesn't have to be just on social media, it can be throughout the world in different, various forms.

So, politicians, is one example. So, they bring out books and their books often go into the best-seller charts, and they do very well, and their platform would encapsulate contacting the news where they can get themselves interviews. They've got different distribution contacts and business leaders that they know who can endorse them, and obviously they often know quite a lot of celebrities.

In the same way, there's TV chefs. They've got a slightly different form of a platform, because they've got reality TV shows where they do breakfast cooking shows and things like that, where they can talk about their book. They've also got social media, and they often write a news column on cooking in different newspapers, and things like that.

So, they're very different business models to the average indie, but that is a route that you can take as an indie, is you can sort of cherry pick bits and pieces from different people's platforms and encapsulate it within yours.

So, we typically go for social media just because it's easy, but you've also got to remember that there's the email list that you can tap into because, again, once you're hosting it, and the hosting cost is very, very small, and that's just a part of your business that packs a lot of power because you can reach the people on your email list with quite a potent connection. So, a lot of those people will convert into sales, and you can mobilize them in different ways, which we'll get onto in a little bit.

And then you've also got to think about the contacts that you can have with influencers. So, right now, we've got different contacts in the influencer sphere within the book trade, and they don't necessarily have to be mainstream celebrities. They can just be people with podcasts or people with blogs, or, you know, all these different types of personalities. And all of these people that you can reach, whether they're influencers or not, all come under the author platform umbrella.

Orna Ross: Exactly. So, it's a cross really between who you reach as a writer and who you reach as a publisher.

So, if you went to a trade publisher, you know, if a trade publisher buys your book, the first thing they will do when it comes around to marketing time is, you will sit down with a publicist and they will ask you all sorts of questions which add up to, who do you know, and who can you get access to, and how can we let as many people as possible know about this book so that they can tell their people? And that's essentially what your platform is, it's your impact crossed by your publisher's reach, you know, what your publisher brings to it and what you as a writer bring to it. And in a sense, you are both the writer and the publisher, so you're putting those two together in order to grow your platform.

And with each book, as you work more, and as you add to your social media presence, or your email list, or your media list of influences, or whatever it is, with each book and with the more work you do on your first book and with each book that you add to it, you're growing and strengthening your platform all the time. So that, by the time you get to book three or four, you actually have a platform that you can stand on and reach a lot more people than right now, when you're at the beginning and you're starting off, and it all seems very daunting.

So, right now at the beginning, every person you bring into your orbit, every person who hears about you that didn't know about you before, everybody is adding to that platform, be it a reader, be it a blogger, whoever it might be. You just take every opportunity to let more people know that you exist. And this is something that a lot of beginner authors find challenging, but if you think of it in terms of building your author platform for your books, rather than, I'm megaphoning myself as a writer, as a person, it can be easier.

So, author platform can be a useful concept to kind of hold in your mind as you go out there, does this action/activity that I'm contemplating grow my platform? How does it grow my platform? If I spent the same amount of time doing something else, would I get more benefit from it?

So, today we're concentrating on time. We're not looking at anything where you invest money, because money can be a shortcut on time, but today we're going to look exclusively at time.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, that's not to say that money can fast-track everything in every way that you want, because a lot of it will be dependent on time anyway.

So, for example, to get people really invested in your author platform so that you can reach them and the message gets through so they will do things that are favourable for your career, often, readers in particular need to have read your book, or media contacts will need to know that you've got a history of success behind you before they consider you a serious contact that they'll manufacture into a position where you can broadcast yourself.

So often, that just takes time for lots of readers to read your book and word of mouth. And yeah, over time, the way I look at it, and Orna will tell anyone that I'm a big advocate for spreadsheets.

Orna Ross: Oh yeah, Mr. Spreadsheet. You are looking at Mr. Spreadsheet.

Dan Parsons: So yeah, you can very easily quantify your author platform over time by, every time you go to a networking event, or every time you add some people on social media, you can put them all into spreadsheets in different columns and then organize, you know, you can chart the size of your platform over time.

Orna Ross: Great. And I like to think of it conceptually as having four pillars holding up this platform of yours.

In one corner, you've got your branding and your marketing, and that's a general sort of promise to the reader, as it were, so that when they look at your branding; they look at your books, they look at your website, they understand what kind of book you are putting out there, and they know immediately, this is for me/this isn't for me. And that applies to media, it applies to influencers, as well as straightforward readers. So, branding and marketing is one of your pillars.

Your own personal influence and authority. Lots of people come to writing later on in life, or they have day jobs, or they have friends in high places, or whatever, you know, in your life you will have some influence and some authority. If that crosses over with your author brand, then that becomes part of your author platform.

The third pillar that kind of upholds things are your keen readers, and again, this takes a bit of time. If you're just at the very beginning, you probably feel like that's something you won't have. But you will find, as you put your books out there, that you will reach some readers who love everything you do, really, really get your work, and really want to tell people about it. And they are actually, over time, that is the group of people that are the most influential. Everybody in trade publishing talks about the famous “word of mouth” as the only thing that really sells books and, you know, real enthusiasm where a reader recommends to their reader friend, you are going to love this, and kind of shoves it into their hand. Sometimes your keen readers buy your books and pass them on to people. So, they are number three.

And then your own promotion work, every promotion you do, every time you put the book out there, every time you're actually doing any kind of promotional activity. As opposed to the marketing, which is there and static all the way along, promotions are time-based and short spurts, where you put energy behind a particular book, then that is kind of the fourth pillar.

So, if you're constantly aware of those four pillars, and keeping your attention on one of the four, then you are building your platform. And as one grows, they all tend to be uplifted.

Dan Parsons: Yeah. What you've got to be careful of though is actually juggling back and forth, because if you neglect one for too long then it can have a hazardous effect on the others long-term, because you may hamstring yourself in your ability to reach certain people by not tending to a certain part of your platform.

So yeah, we've got some actionable tips that we can use to nurture all four different pillars. So, I'll just start with branding and marketing for now.

So, the best way to brand and market yourself is to produce good, consistent, and congruent content. So, that's basically content that has the same colour palette and the same tone all the way through everything. And it's obviously got to be consistently high-quality, otherwise people who started off as fans will assume that you've dropped your standards and then fallen off the wagon, and they may disappear.

So, the only way to keep them engaged is to keep producing good content. Now, in terms of the personal influence and the authority, you need to maintain the same vital activities that are intrinsic to your identity. So, with a celebrity that writes books on medicine and medical health, they may be a practicing doctor, and then in order to stay relevant and to prove that they've got the credentials to keep writing their books and to attract the right audience, they will need to continue to be a practicing doctor, or continue to be in a position that shows them as having a hand in medicine, you know, they could be on a chat show where they're constantly doing research in that area and providing expertise. And then obviously they'll promote themselves on social media, just to reaffirm the fact that they are an expert in their field so they're maintaining this personal influence and sense of authority.

In terms of the fan activities, you said the keen readers, then you want to engage and mobilize them often. So yeah, you'll be showing them the content that you're producing over time. But on top of that, you occasionally want to put an ask into the equation, and ask them to do things, because your fans collectively have a lot more reach than you do, and that extends your author platform out to new fans and brings them in.

So yeah, often that will be something like, every time you release a book, you may ask your fans if they can leave reviews, because the more reviews you've got, the more it attracts new readers. Or you may want them to buy into a Kickstarter to invest in your career or something, and as we all know from Brandon Sanderson recently, that has done wonders for his word-of-mouth virality. He's been on every major newspaper, and things like that. So, he's done very well out of mobilizing his keen fans.

And then when it comes to book promotions, this is not so much always on the front list. So yes, you will be promoting new books as they come out, but the promos tend to be on backlist titles. So, you'll be doing short 99 cent promotions on the eBooks, and then possibly organizing newsletter swaps with different authors so that you're constantly in front of the eyes of readers that have possibly been around for a long time and noticed your books, but they haven't had enough of the seven touches, to use a marketing term, to realize that actually, they like your books and they recognize you as a brand. So that all of these four different pillars together, if you keep nurturing them and just doing those core activities, then it will grow your author platform overtime.

Orna Ross: At the beginning, this can sound really daunting, and particularly when we're talking about backlist titles, and lots of keen readers, and Kickstarters, and all this kind of thing. What we're talking about here is, these are some examples of what will unfold and develop as you grow. So, it's not like you have to turn around and do all of this at once. Absolutely not. The point is though that you are keeping the author platform in mind, and you're keeping those four pillars in mind, and you're keeping the balance there.

And some of these activities, particularly around your email list and, you know, the promotions of backlist titles and so on, are ideally set up to be sort of evergreen. So, once a quarter or once a month, you do such and such, and you know, that is a task for you. And I think it's really important, as you build your author platform, that you're choosing, we're throwing out all kinds of examples here, and not in any way to say you have to do all these things, these are just to give you lots and lots of ideas around the different things that you can do. When you come to making the choice, it's really key and important that you choose things that you enjoy and forget about the rest.

So, you won't and can't do everything that it's possible to do as an indie author to build your platform. So, the problem for most authors is not that they don't know that certain things are good to do, it's that there are so many things they don't know which one to do. And in that, it can be really helpful to just filter it through two core things that you want to have as an indie author.

One, is your passion, that you actually enjoy it and it's part of what furthers your whole reason for writing in the first place. And the other is profit, you know, it's most likely to be successful and to bring you what you're looking for in terms of outcome for your books. And so, when you consider a particular platform-building activity to just run it through those two filters, and wherever those two meet most strongly, in other words, whatever gives you most satisfaction and most income, that's the one to go with.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, I think at the start of your career, what you've got to remember is that you don't know a lot and you don't know what you don't know. So, all of these examples that we've given earlier on, they are just examples, and they're coming from prominent figures, so they're obviously at an advanced position in their career. So, what you'll often find is that when you first start out, you can just cherry pick some of the simpler things that you could do, and then once you've learned those early skills and you're able to do them on a sort of routine basis, then you can stack on top of those skills with slightly more advanced things, and you'll understand different terms and things when you're reading articles to learn a bit in your career to take it to the next level.

So, it's something that is a learning curve on top of a learning curve, and it's a long-term mindset. You don't need to do it all in the first month. As long as you get it in the first 10 years, you're probably fine.

Orna Ross: Definitely, and to begin, think about your covers and your website, I think. If you have nothing else at the moment, if you're on your first book or you've just finished your first book, begin there. Obviously, we don't talk in these sessions about writing, that's a whole other podcast. Making sure the book is good enough, that's a whole other series of podcasts, and that's absolutely essential, but we're always going on the basis that you've done that core writing work.

So, then you begin with the next stage. So, the writing and the editorial, after that comes the design. And so, having a brand deck so that wherever you appear across the internet, and your book cover, and the card that you hand somebody if you meet them in the street, and if you have a brochure, or a bookmark, or any of these things, your website, that your colours are consistent, that your language and tone that you use on your website matches what's on your books.

It sounds obvious but look at some author websites and you'll see where that so often just doesn't happen. Having a consistent bio, a one liner and a paragraph bio, that explains who you are and where your books come from and where you're going. Perhaps a logo, any graphics that you're using to promote your book; all of this should be consistent so that people, Dan spoke about the seven touches earlier, this marketing term. Us as authors, we can get sick of ourselves and our book pretty quickly, we're creatives, we like to move on to the next thing, but in marketing terms, people have to see you quite a bit before you land, before they begin to recall your brand name, what your books are about, all of that. It takes time for it to sink in. So, the more consistent you can be in creating your brand and in creating your platform, the better.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, so it's actually a brand deck. So, if anyone's not really familiar with that term, that's a marketing term that design teams use. You can collect everything in one place. So, you've got your package of your bio's, and your core colours for your brand, and the font you use, and things like that. And if you use that across everything then, even if you’re outsourcing to different designers and things, because you want help creating these materials, then you've got the core information that you can just give to a new designer, and they will run with it and keep everything consistent.

That's a lot better than, like you said, Orna, some examples of authors, and I've been a culprit myself, where you've started a book series, and you've got one cover designer and the book looks great, and then you've decided to change your cover further down the line and you haven't changed all of the covers in the series consistently. And you haven't updated your website in a few years, and you've got a different bio there to somewhere else, and at some point in your career, you may have been focusing on a different aspect of your professional life when promoting yourself.

So yeah, if you keep everything consistent then the people that have followed you from one social media platform or something to another will feel that it's the same person, and you're actually speaking to them still and not to a completely different audience.

Orna Ross: Yes, and people get confused very easily. So, this is why, if you have more than one series, and we're talking to beginners here, so you're unlikely to be at that point yet. But if you do end up with different books and things, separating things out as much as possible makes a lot of sense.

And then, once you have that brand deck in place and that consistent look and feel, and you are clear about the value that your books offer, and the kind of readers that you're looking for, then produce content that shows your work on your website and draws people into your email funnel.

This is the single most important thing you'll do to build your platform over years. And at the beginning it can feel a little daunting when you are trying to build your email list and you're getting very few signups and then, you know, unsubscribes and you're finding it difficult to find the tone of your newsletter and make sure it matches your books and your website. And you can just switch off and decide not to go any further, and it is a challenge, and it's a publishing challenge that needs to be overcome. Because, honestly, as an indie author, without this in place, you need, if people come to your website, that you give them something to do. They need to know what you want them to do next, and whatever you want them to do next should be a platform building, obviously, activity.

And so, for most of us, the sensible thing to do is to give them some content in return for their email address, and then begin that process of engaging them, and satisfying them, and in time, completely delighting them. That's essentially what you're aiming for so that they stick around because they enjoy and look forward to getting a newsletter from you each month, or each quarter, or however often you decide you want to be in touch with them.

Dan Parsons: If this actually sounds like a less savoury activity for you, because I know some people don't like the marketing aspects of sending out newsletters and social media and things. Then, if you're quite a personable extroverted person, then you can obviously go down different routes.

So, one thing that a lot of people do, even starting out fresh, you can network with other authors and book trade professionals. So, this is one way to build your platform is to actually make contacts, in the same way that we talked about politicians having high-profile contacts earlier on. So yeah, you could just go to a local writers’ groups, or you could go to the big international trade publisher fairs, like the London Book Fair, or the Hong Kong Book Fair, or Frankfurt, or wherever you want to go, wherever you are in the world.

And then with that, A, you will learn from other people in the industry, so you'll get better at the marketing aspect of it because of the immersion of talking to other people who are good at it. And obviously you'll also have your own personal contacts that you can keep in touch with and then call upon when you need to mobilize them to help you with launches and things, which is all part of your platform.

Orna Ross: And another way to practice when you're starting out is to go local. Call in to the local indie bookstore, have a conversation with them and so on. Any way that you can kind of practice building your platform and getting comfortable with the activities that are necessary for platform building, just take it, dive in and do it.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, you don't have to be talking on stage in front of thousands of people to attract them all at once. If you turn up to an event or you go to a book shop and you get one bookstore manager's name and contact details, that's already growing your platform beyond where it was before. So, yeah, it's just a one step at a time, and it exponentially builds the power of your launches as your platform grows.

Orna Ross: Great. So, to finish, we have a few resources for you on the ALLi blog, and we will add these to the show notes on the podcast. The podcast post comes out on selfpublishingadvice.org every Friday, and it has the show notes that accompany this.

So, we have the ultimate guide to building a solid author platform. Also, a post on, how do I grow my email list? That was a question that was asked recently on our Member Q&A, and answered by myself and Michael La Ronn, which might be useful to you. And then we have a whole guide to building mailing lists, which we would see really as the core author platform activity. So, it's the ultimate guide to mailing lists for authors – parts one, two and three, because there's a lot to it, there's a lot to getting it right. Those posts break it down into its constituent parts, and literally, if you just follow that advice, if you haven't started yet, if you follow that advice step-by-step or if you have started and it's not working for you, the steps will show you where things have perhaps broken down for you and how you can fix them.

So, that is it for this week. As ever, send your questions through to us [email protected] If we can help you in any way, we will be delighted to do that.

So, next time, Dan. Have we got a plan for what we're talking about next time for our beginners?

Dan Parsons: We probably do, but not off the top of my head.

Orna Ross: I have put you on the spot. So, my apologies. Okay. No worries. We will be back next time on the second Tuesday of the month. We're having a swap around this month because Joanna Penn is in Arizona, so we're here in the usual Advanced Authors slot this month. So, next month, June, we'll be back on the second Tuesday of the month for our beginners.

But until then, happy writing and publishing. Bye, bye.

Dan Parsons: Bye, everyone.

Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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