While sipping cappuccino at a Rome sidewalk café, my mother and I once bumped into a friend of hers, who lived nearby back home. My mother, relieved she was dressed nicely that day, whispered, "Always remember, it's a small world." Steph Auteri and I met about three years ago and worked together -- exclusively online -- when I was a contributing essayist, and she an editor, for YourTango. Then we discovered we lived about 3 miles from one another in northern New Jersey, and even haunted the same café (where no one cares how we dress!). Small world, indeed. Steph is a freelance writer and editor, whose work has appeared in Time Out New York and Inside Jersey. She also works as a career coach to, as she puts it, Word Nerds.
Please welcome Steph Auteri.
Well hello there writer-types on the path to publication. I assume that, much like me, you’ve been workshopping chapter drafts and researching lit agents, drawing up competitive analyses and organizing your annotated Table of Contents, considering your author photo and daydreaming about the book tour you will eventually embark upon. (Because who doesn’t want a book party at their favorite independent bookshop?)
This is all well and good but, in between zeroing in on your target word count and polishing up your book proposal, you may have caught wind of a rumor that the work doesn’t stop when you wrap up your manuscript and land that much-sought-after publishing contract. Authors are ignored, you probably heard. Publicity departments are kaput, you read. Want book sales? The marketing is all on you now.
To an extent, the rumors are true. While there are still publishers doing interesting and innovative things to promote their books (Sourcebooks, for example, once traded book purchases for proposal critiques in an effort to increase sales of Publish This Book), many publicity departments find themselves severely limited by miniscule budgets.
So when a publisher sees proof that an author is self-starting, resourceful, and marketing-savvy — when they see someone with a strong platform, and the knowledge of how best to use it — they’re more likely to take a chance. It means there is a greater probability the publisher will receive a return on their investment.
How can you build your own platform without a lick of publicity experience? Beyond blogs, Facebook pages, and social media, I suggest you focus on your strengths as a writer.
Freelance writers — those who make their money writing articles for glossy magazines, regional newspapers, and other print and online publications — already know this and are masters at platform-building. As their own bosses, they’re not just writers. They’re also business owners, responsible for marketing themselves to new editors/clients on a regular basis. A strong platform helps them bring in more work by spotlighting their experience and expertise. And the more clips they can add to their online portfolio, the stronger their platform.
It’s time you thought like a freelancer and built up your own collection of shorter-form pieces, stories that highlight your abilities as a writer. Luckily, your book project holds a lot of potential when it comes to brainstorming story ideas.
1. Pinpoint a major theme from your book that lends itself to shorter-form articles. This is easy enough when you are writing prescriptive nonfiction, but can be more challenging if you’re writing a novel, memoir, or book of short stories. Still, ask yourself: what is the common thread holding this book together?
2. Generate different types of story ideas. You may think your topic is fairly limited, but there’s a mental exercise I like to employ when I’m feeling stuck for ideas. I take one subject and try to apply it to several common story formats. Those writing prescriptive nonfiction, for example, may find that the subject of their book easily lends itself to service pieces. Those shopping around a full-fledged memoir, meanwhile, may find the personal essay a more natural fit. Some publications prefer listicles (articles comprised mostly of a list – like this one), while others prefer roundups of expert advice. In brainstorming your batch of story ideas, why not hit them all?
3. Do your homework. In the course of generating story ideas, you’ll also have to pinpoint the publications you’d like to target. And there are so many options. Take a field trip to your local bookstore and flip through the newspaper and magazine racks. Consider not only national magazines, but also regional publications, literary magazines, and trade magazines. Back home, check out Mediabistro’s How To Pitch series, or their series on personal essay markets. Or read through the good old Writer’s Market guide. And don’t neglect online publications! Head on over to your favorite web magazines and see who their content partners are. Basically, be open to the variety of possible markets for your work.
4. Query the hell out of a wide range of publications. Once I’ve drawn up a pretty sizable list of story ideas, and have matched them each to a different publication, I get into the querying groove. You can read a more in-depth post on the basics of querying right here.
5. Build a super-pretty portfolio. By this point, I’m sure you’ve followed everyone else’s advice and have already built yourself a basic website, or at least a blog. Once the assignments — and then the clips — start rolling in, throw them on up there! It will give you something to direct editors to in the future. And eventually, prospective publishers will eyeball it, too. At that point, they will see that you have established yourself as an expert in your subject area, or have at least built up a pretty sizable following. And they will be impressed.
6. Roll around in money and glory. And by glory, I mean pretty dresses, and perhaps a sexy new pair of boots.
Of course, if this post leaves you wanting even more information, I’ve got you covered. I’ll be revisiting this post over the next few days and answering any questions you care to ask, in the comments.
You can also snag a free copy of Freelance Awesome: A Starter Kit — an electronic workbook containing spreadsheets for idea generation, query letter development, and more — by signing up for my mailing list right here. Finally, if you feel you could benefit from even more, hands-on help, I’m giving one lucky commenter a free pass at one of my one-on-one coaching packages: One Hour to a Word Nerd Action Plan (you can read more about it here). Just answer this one question in the comment section below no later than midnight on Sunday, Feb. 19.
What topic can I write about that will best help me build my unique author platform?