In a recent article I wrote that detailed the various lessons I learned from publishing my book Necromancer Awakening (now an Amazon Bestselling fantasy), I stated that having a platform is every bit as important as you’ve heard it is. Since that article was written, I’ve received countless questions asking me how I did it.
Because ziggurats are cool, and I like to say “Chichen Itza”.
In this article, I’ll show you some basic steps you can take to get started on building your own platform.
Let’s get this out in the open as quickly as possible. There are no shortcuts to building a writing platform. If you don’t have a platform today, you won’t have a platform tomorrow. If, however, you start building a platform today, and you follow some of the advice in this primer, your platform will grow over time, and you will eventually reap the benefits of all your hard work.
Yeah, but how much time are we talking about, wise guy?
Are you sitting down? It took me about two years to build a substantial following that could drive initial book sales when I finally published. I’m not going to downplay the effort it took. I built my platform aggressively, and in the beginning it took several hours per day…most of my free time. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but I didn’t see an alternative.
Then I got smart.
As a software engineer, I follow the principle of “never repeat yourself” when I’m writing code. It occurred to me that much of what I was doing during those “several hours per day” could easily be automated!
I wasn’t wrong. Other software engineers had realized the same thing, and they had already developed some wonderful automated solutions that turned “several hours per day” into 15 minutes per day.
The Power of Automation
One of my first jobs for my current employer was developing an automated testing system. Not to get too “meta”, but an automated testing system is code that tests code—a program (or set of programs) that tests another program or set of programs. Once I had immersed myself in the subject of automation, I began to develop an automation mindset that made my colleagues laugh. Anything that could be automated, I would automate.
Within 6 months I didn’t even have to show up. I could literally send text messages to my automation system to do the lion’s share of my day-to-day tasks: generating a new software “build”, retrieving build numbers for interested parties, kicking off tests and retrieving test results, and a host of other tasks including file transfer and reporting/messaging.
I tell this story for a reason. As much as automation freed up my time in my day job, it also freed up my time for writing when I used it to assist in building my platform.
The key word here is “assist”. Again, there are no shortcuts. There’s no program I could write that would build my platform for me. But I know enough about computers to know what they’re best at: handling mundane, repetitive, time-consuming tasks.
I approached social media automation in much the same way I approached my day job. I asked myself “what, exactly, do I do most often?”
- Tweet #writetips
- Tweet links to my blog
- Follow new people
- Unfollow people who aren’t following me (after a certain period of time)
- Chat with folks on Facebook and Twitter
- Post things of interest to writers on Facebook.
- Promote any works-in-progress and published works
As I looked over the list, there was one that jumped out at me: “Chat with folks…” Clearly that isn’t a candidate for automation! (I hope you see it this way too!)
I discovered 3 tools that could help with all of the rest.
The first two tools allow me to establish a “queue” of tweets that go out whenever I schedule them. I use HootSuite to handle my #writetip and #HorribleWriteTip tweets, as well as a small handful of blog posts. I use Buffer to handle the lion’s share of my blog links.
I think I could probably forgo the use of Buffer and use HootSuite exclusively, except for one limitation of HootSuite: it only allows me to queue up 350 tweets at a time. That’s not enough for a week’s worth of tweets when I want to share 2 blog links per hour with my followers, in addition to the #writetips and #HorribleWriteTips.
Both HootSuite and Buffer allow you to automate posts to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and several other social media outlets. Both allow bulk uploads, and this is very important. You don’t want to be typing in that many tweets manually. This is about working smarter, remember?
JustUnfollow is a great tool to manage your followers/followings. Managing these numbers effectively is crucial
when you have under 2000 followers (for the details on why this is the case, see my Using Twitter Effectively
series). In this early stage of your platform-building process, you do NOT want to follow people who are not following you back. Not yet. Those “slots” are invaluable, and you need to make sure that they’re reciprocal as much as possible, until you reach a certain threshold. JustUnfollow will allow you to identify anyone you are following who is not also following you back. This way you can easily unfollow those folks so that they’re not stopping you from achieving the numbers you need to be effective.
Social media is going to be a vital part of your platform. But it’s only one part. Social media is not going to sell your books. Social media is going to drive people to your content.
Where is your content?
Blogging / Content
If you’ve followed me long enough, you’ve probably heard me shout “Be a content provider first and foremost!” from the rooftops of Twitter and Facebook. In this new age of publishing, you’re not trying to sell books. Not directly. You’re trying to establish a relationship with your potential fan base. The way you’re going to do this is by providing content that they find engaging, entertaining, and perhaps even informative.
But how do you know what is engaging, entertaining, and perhaps informative? My best advice is find a niche that you’re already an expert in or can become an expert in over time.
That last part applies directly to me. I wasn’t a grammar or writing expert when I started blogging. I started blogging for no other reason than to document my journey as I completed a work-in-progress. Over time, I developed an expertise in the key areas that were important to me during my writing process. I could speak with authority in these areas because I had put in the time and done my research. Moreover, I had examples from my own work that I could cite as references.
I’m not suggesting that you blog about writing. But whatever you blog about, let it be something you have unadulterated passion for, because it’s that passion that’s going to make your posts interesting, lively, informative, and consistent.
Oh yeah, smarty pants? Well what if I don’t want to blog?
Blogging was my choice, but it may not be yours. The key is not the word blog. It’s the word content. My content just so happens to be delivered through blog articles aimed at new or up-and-coming writers. I have a passion for mentoring in general, and not just in the area of writing. I also mentor junior software engineers (when given the chance). I’ve been a Tang Soo Do instructor since the late 80’s. I’ve taught Math and English at a private boarding school in Wisconsin. I’ve done countless ministries for my church. And I haven’t even started talking about my work with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Blogging works for me because blogging is my way of mentoring writers, and I have a passion for mentoring. Notice I didn’t say I have a passion for blogging? Blogging is the vehicle. The medium. It’s not my content.
Discover your content, then choose a vehicle to deliver that content in a way that will keep you engaged with your audience and leave them coming back for more.
So now you’ve got Social Media, and you’ve discovered your Content and how to deliver it.
That’s not enough.
You may have some followers on social media, and you may have a decent number of visits to your blog, but how engaged is that following really? Let’s say you have 10000 followers on Twitter. How many of those 10000 followers are going to click the “Buy Now” button on Amazon when you publish your book? My educated guess tells me it’s somewhere around 150, and that’s the high end of lucky.
Sobering, isn’t it? I can’t offer you statistical evidence, but I can offer you anecdotal evidence based on my own sales. On the day I published Necromancer Awakening, I had 65000 Twitter followers. Approximately 1.5% of that number purchased books, and it took them a month to do so. The actual number is probably less than 1.5%, as I’ve undoubtedly sold some books to people who found me on Amazon through the various bestseller and popularity lists I’ve been on.
I had 200 subscribers to my email list. The overwhelming majority of them bought the book, and they did so in the first two weeks. I know this through personal messages from subscribers, as well as tracking click-through performance and conversion rates.
In other words, my relatively small email list accounted for approximately 25-30% of my total sales in the first month.
Why is this? Think about the concept of an email list for a moment. Someone came to you, handed you their email address on a platter, and said “Please send me information about you and what you’re working on!”
That’s engagement. These folks are your core audience. They’re tuned in. They want to know what you’re up to, and they don’t mind getting an email from you. This represents a lot
of trust, and you need to respect it. My personal rule of thumb is one newsletter per month. It’s short and sweet, and usually includes a few links to articles I may have written since the last newsletter, any promotions I’m running at the time, and early information on works-in-progress, launch dates, tour dates, signings, etc. Whatever I do, my newsletter subscribers are the first to hear about it (you can see a sample of my newsletter here
There are many different services you can use. The most popular are MailChimp, AWeber, and MadMimi (among others). I currently use MadMimi, but I’m thinking about switching to MailChimp because I like their templates a little more. Most of these services offer free options up to somewhere around 500 subscribers. After that, they scale up a bit. But don’t worry…if your current problem is that you have to start paying your mailing list provider, then you’re having rich people problems anyway.
So now you’ve conquered social media, you’re dialed in to your content and people are eating it up, and they like you enough to trust you with their email address.
But that’s still not enough.
Book Sales Page
The ultimate goal behind everything you’re doing is eventually to sell a book or two, right?
There are 2 things you absolutely must do on your sales page. These 2 things are non-negotiable. Failure to comply will result in… You get the idea.
1. Polish your book’s description until it squeaks.
You only get one shot at this. You’ve gone to all this trouble to get a potential reader one step away from a “buy” button. The last thing you want to do is present them with horrible copy that screams amateur. You’ll lose them. Maybe forever at that point.
2. Show them a professionally designed cover.
Check out this article I wrote on cover design. No. Seriously. Check it out. If you’re doing it yourself, you’re probably doing it wrong. Not definitely. But probably. Only you can be certain whether you’re definitely doing it wrong, or just probably doing it wrong. See what I’m getting at?
Putting It All Together
Whether you’re selling through Amazon, Smashwords, other mainstream distributors, or off your own web site, the concept is the same:
- Use social media to drive traffic to your content.
- Use your content to engage an audience enough to subscribe to your newsletter.
- Use your newsletter (and content) to drive traffic to your book sales page.
- Use your book’s well-written description, and professionally designed cover to sell.
This, my friends, is your platform. Nurture it, and it will take care of you and provide a foundation for your writing career.
Can you sell books without a platform? You sure can. But if you’ve been struggling to sell books without one, you won’t be any worse off for trying.
Yes, there are naysayers. You’ll find articles out there that will tell you you’re wasting your time. And I’ll tell you right now, if platform-building is taking away from your writing, then they’re absolutely right! But if you’re already doing everything right, and you just can’t break through to the sales you know you can achieve, give it a try. You just might discover a new passion in the process.
For those of you who have yet to publish a book, now is the time to get started. You’re in the perfect position to build an audience that will be waiting for you when you release your book.
Think about your book as if it’s a Broadway show. Do you start the show, then open the doors to let people in, hoping they’ll hear you from the street and buy a ticket? Or do you open the doors first and start the show to a packed house?
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenage son, and mischievous beagle.