Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest Blogger Steph Auteri on Building an Author Platform when You Know Nothing About Publicity

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?


EF Slattery said...

Thanks, Steph (and Lisa)! These are great tips. :) I always get stuck at the querying stage, but I think I could generate some momentum from these.

In answer to the question, I'd probably say I could write about living in Prague and teaching at Univerzita Karlova (Charles University). Now the question is just whom to pitch... Oh, and how to write it. :)

Rachel Rinehart said...

This topic has found it's way into my life several times this week, which I think is a sign. In retrospect, I'm thinking I should have minored in marketing! :)

Thanks for the tips and great ideas. Narrowing that theme is difficult, but mostly, I need to prioritize time to build a public platform.

My topics...hmm...teaching writing and ESL, taking photographs, raising children as a single parent, surviving/healing/recovering from childhood issues and from divorce, moving away from everyone you know and starting over...

That's part of my problem...I always have tons of ideas and need the discipline to follow through on them. Thanks for helping me brainstorm these ideas.

Steph Auteri said...

EF: living and teaching in Prague sounds like such a fascinating topic! I actually have a few tactics for market research, but my favorite tactic is taking a field trip to the bookstore and browsing the magazine racks. I grab anything that catches my eye and then sit down to flip through, taking note of the types of stories they run, their sections, their masthead, etc. It's like a little artist date!

Rachel - I hear you on having too many ideas to follow through on. (story of my life... ) Every so often, I have to ask myself: Where do I want to be a year from now? Then I look at the items on my to-do list and eliminate the things that don't contribute to that goal.

I find it also helps to schedule out blocks of time for different items on my list. Otherwise, it can be tough to prioritize them amongst all the other crazymaking parts of life.

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

Steph, your article is perfect for me at this time. Lisa guided me to her blog (and your guest post)via an article I posted on "Marketing the Muse" What are you doing to build your author platform.
I am one of those who has focused heavily on social media, blogging, etc. rather than on writing articles for print magazines.
An editor from a small traditional press, wrote a one page letter in response to my FB question, "What stats are editors looking for as far as your blogging stats? Unique visitors? the sticky factor? etc.
She pointed out the articles and speaking engagements that mean just as much as social media stats. My travel memoir: Freeways to Flip-Flops: Our Year of Living Like the Swiss Family Robinson, is about my husband and I, fed up with our problems, chucking it all, and moving our family to Belize to reconnect. I can pull out so many themes, which the editor suggested, like speaking to parents, schools, detention centers, expats, people looking for adventure, Belize tourism, etc. My question is: What comes first? The book, and the buzz, writing the articles to create interest with editors before your book is out? It's a Catch 22. I'd love your input. My e-mail is:

Steph Auteri said...

Hey there Sonia - It's my feeling that if you're passionate enough about a topic to write an entire book about it, you have plenty of fodder for shorter-form pieces throughout the process.

Clips during the period in which you're shopping things around to an agent or editor can strengthen your proposal, showing that your topic has legs.

Additional clips later in the process, when you're nearing the pub date of your book, can work to build buzz.

Always be pitching. You can always think of new angles, and the more places your name pops up, the better. As you put these stories out into the world, you're gaining customers for your eventual book.

Does that answer your question?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz said...

Wow! What a great post. My book, Breaking the Code, just came out in November. So, in answer to your question, one thing I think I could do is to share more of my life. While my memoir is quite personal, there is a story behind the story that isn't told. I have Multiple Sclerosis and at times I was writing my book from bed. There were many struggles. After reading this post, it made me think that perhaps telling my story will encourage people with similar struggles. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! ~Karen Fisher-Alaniz


Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...


Thanks for your answer, however, it is easier to build buzz with the media, if you have a book out that you can tie in with something newsworthy. I mean, we were fed up with problems in Orange County, CA and uprooted our teenagers to live on an island in Belize hoping to reconnect our family. Speaking to groups of parents, adventure seekers, etc. makes sense with a book to sell, not before the book though.

Steph Auteri said...

Hey there Sonia - You're right. You can't build buzz about a book that doesn't exist, or that isn't contracted yet. Clips pre-book contract serve two very different purposes:

1. They build up an audience of readers who love your work and who trust your voice (and who connect and benefit from what you're writing). It's like you're warming them up before you have anything to sell.

2. They make it easier to land an agent and, later on, an editor. When agents and editors see that you already have clips related to the book you're pitching, they get a sense of your writing style, they see proof that there's a market for your topic, and they see that you can deliver on a deadline. It also shows them that you're most likely someone they can rely on to build buzz-worthy clips later on.

Later on, when publicity for your book is just getting started, such clips are often included in press kits.

That's why I feel it's so important to get started early on in the process.

Lisa Romeo said...

Congratulations - you are the winner of the free coaching session from Steph. Please send me your direct email so Steph can get in touch.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz said...

Yippee! I'm a winner. Maybe I'll buy a lottery ticket. I'll send you my contact information. Thank you so much! ~Karen