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Online Platform Do’s and Don’ts

Since I have an online platform — and since a lot of agents talk a lot about online platforms for their clients and for prospective clients (even though this is more important for non-fiction writers who hope to sell projects on proposal) — I get asked about it fairly often. And for fiction writers and children’s writers, it’s a difficult topic. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and have some thoughts to share. People seemed to like my do’s and don’ts for the “how to pitch” article, so here is another list for online platforms and online presence.

Basically, most authors and writers these days have an online presence, whether through Twitter or Facebook or a website. I think that every person trying to break into publishing should at least have a 3-page website (welcome page, About page where you talk about yourself and your writing, and a contact page or whatever other things you think might be interesting to throw up there). I don’t, however, suggest that everyone blogs or Twitters or Facebooks. The reason?

If you aren’t comfortable with social media and you don’t have any content that has value to it (other than hawking your own book or talking about yourself), then you won’t get an audience for your online efforts anyway. This blog, for example, offers value. You wouldn’t be reading it if I insisted on talking about MY clients or MY own writing or MY cat. I give you stuff YOU can use. A lot of writers who blog fall into the trap of only talking about their own stuff. While this might help other writers come together around one writer’s journey, or whatever, the appeal will be limited (and, I’ll add, all those aspiring writers who read the blogs of other aspiring writers could probably spend their time more wisely by, you know, writing).

So if you’re only Twittering or Facebooking or blogging to give information about yourself and to hawk your own projects, people will stop reading. Also, if you’re clearly uncomfortable with social media and you feel forced to do it, your efforts will clearly reflect that. There are enough bloggers and Twitterers out there already. We don’t need any reluctant Web 2.0 people joining the ranks… there’s too much other content to sift through already.

Finally, with kidlit especially, and with fiction writers, there’s the question of audience. Kids don’t really read blogs that much. Teens hang out online but they’re more interested in social networking with friends, so there’s little conclusive data on how they interact with blogs (unless some one has read a study and has a link on hand… I’d love to check it out). If you write for kids, your audience for your online presence won’t necessarily be… kids. You’ll hit other writers, book bloggers, parents, librarians, and, if you write for older kids, some of your teen readers.

So make sure your content is geared toward your audience. And make sure it’s good content. That’s at the heart of building an online presence. With that in mind, here are some more tips!

DO’S:

  • Create interesting content.
  • Leverage everything you do — blog about school visits, author events, books you’re reading, movies you see that have a good writing take-away, milestones of your book’s journey to publication if you’re that far along (check with your editor, though, to make sure you can post cover images and other production-related stuff), your agent search, etc.
  • If you’re an illustrator, share sketches and finishes, talk about your process, talk about the tools you use, show works in progress.
  • Use pictures or cover images to liven up your posts.
  • Tweet or Facebook or post interesting links you find, don’t just blah blah blah all by yourself.
  • Leverage other people to create content for you — host blog tours, have guest blogs, do interviews, bring added value by using your blog to spotlight fun and different people who fit in with the theme of your blog.
  • Write about things that interest a wider audience — like here, sometimes I write articles on writing craft that can apply to children’s writers but that can really benefit a broader audience, too.
  • Do contests and giveaways — remember, people are always asking “What’s in it for me?” when they read blogs.
  • If you write NF, use your blog as a place to talk about interesting things you’re learning about your subject matter, or research you’re doing  yourself, or articles and research that’s currently coming out. For example, if you’re writing about butterflies, post the latest news, or current migrations going on, etc. With non-fiction, whether you’re writing picture books or novels with certain real world elements, you can make a blog that will become a resource to teachers… who might then teach your book int he classroom!

DON’T:

  • Rant or talk endlessly about yourself — make your blog a place that other people will want to visit. Besides, if you rant about how hard it is to get published or what scum publishing professionals are, it’ll come back to bite you. The agent who clicks on your blog link in your query will think you’re a negative and difficult person… not a positive business partner who will be a joy to work with.
  • Force it. Again, there are too many blogs online to try and add yours to the heap if you’re not committed. You’re better off not having one instead of doing a bad or unenthusiastic job.
  • Leave your blog hanging. Blogs are a huge time commitment and endlessly hungry little monsters. By the very virtue of a blog, your most recent post will be the first thing visitors see. If it’s from eight months ago, you’ll look outdated. If you can’t update at least once a week, you should think of a static website like the one I mentioned above.
  • Promote via Facebook. Use Facebook to get in touch with friends and fans and writing buddies. Don’t use your Facebook as a platform, just set up a simple profile and use it to connect.
  • Exist in isolation. When you’re staring to blog, reach out. Respond to comments on Twitter. Post comments on the blogs of people who comment on your blog. Read other blogs. You can’t expect the “social” part of social media to be a one way street. (Note, readers… I am a total hypocrite because I am too swamped to do this part… Forgiveness, please.)

This should at least get you thinking about how much social media you really need and how much to get involved in. It’s a slippery slope. Some people start and can’t stop, others start and can’t wait to stop, leaving their blog skeletons up for the whole world to see. Find your own style. Concerns of online platform are more pressing for non-fiction writers, so the pressure is less for fiction writers, but you should still have SOME kind of online face. We do look for one, even for fiction folks.

If your book is picked up by a publisher, they’ll expect you to do some online marketing. It’s better to have at least a small website and some presence than none at all.

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  1. Thomas’s avatar

    An excellent list. I think the point about giving more than you take is very well made.

  2. Fleur’s avatar

    When I started my blog, I expected for teens to read it. But in reality, it’s librarians, YA writers, older YA fans etc.–which is fine, since they’re most interested in the news I post anyway.

    I do think that, although it shouldn’t be me,me,me, it’s good to add some personal details to your blog. That way your readers can make a connection.

  3. Kara’s avatar

    This post was a godsend today, Mary!

    I had just read a few weeks ago a blog by Janet Reid that said that every aspiring writer should have a blog or website. That threw me into a panic, and after looking around, some of those blogs are so comprehensive–your post was a good reminder of what is important–being visible and getting your name out there. Thanks.

  4. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Mary,

    I love this post, as I believe it is timely and informative. I firmly believe that people need to know WHY they do something. On line presence is no different.

    While I am a juvenile lit writer, I know that my blog does not cater to the kids who will read my books. However, I have a strong following of parents, teachers, librarians and professionals in the child centric arena. Facebook is a place for friends (many with kids), while Twitter is an information exchange with other writers.

    Reading your list made me rush back to my blog to assess how I present myself to kids who may come across my name in conjunction with a potential book, agents and editors who may be checking out what kind of person I am and the risk that comes with me, as well as parents who may be the first purchasers of my books.

    It is tough to apply criteria to yourself, but nice when someone takes the time to tell you what to look for!

    Thanks for that.

  5. Don Cummer’s avatar

    Okay, okay, okay… I’ve been putting off and putting off building my own website. I guess I long for a simpler time when Marketing was simply a case of hanging out in Harry’s New York Bar with Papa, or having lunch at the Algonquin Hotel with Dorothy, or hanging around City Lights bookshop with Lawrence.

    Time to go talk to my computer guy and build the online presence.
    d.

  6. Sharon Kirk Clifton’s avatar

    You said:

    •If you write NF, use your blog as a place to talk about interesting things you’re learning about your subject matter, or research you’re doing yourself, or articles and research that’s currently coming out.

    Most of us who write fiction also do considerable research for our projects. For my middle-grade wip, I travel to the general area of the setting, peruse original documents in the archives of museums and libraries, read volumes about the subject, interview “experts,” and scour the Internet. I’m about to embark on an odyssey to learn about modern-day child slavery. Undoubtedly, I’ll blog about some of my findings.

    I really enjoy your blog and read it regularly. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  7. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    YES! Thank you for saying this.

    Here’s the thing we tend to forget–sure we’re writing all day every day, so it’s natural that we want to write about that process. But, other writers aren’t necessarily our target audience.

    My audience is teens, I write YA so I want teens to be interested in what I have to say so they will buy my book and tell their friends. That means it’s my job to make my blog for THEM. The problem that arises is, well I am not a teen–so to keep it fresh and interesting involves a bit of thinking.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned talking about other books, tv shows, etc. While I don’t think this is the only things we should mention on our blogs, we should bring them up.

    The thing is, your brand is YOU if you’re a writer, and you have to learn how to leverage that the right way–on your blog, your facebook, your twitter, whatever.

    The other thing people need to remember is while twitter, facebook, etc. are popular NOW, they could just as easily be replaced by something new (think myspace and friendster)–and then all the followers and friends you have don’t amount to squat.

    But, if you have your own blog… then you own the content, and you control how it changes with the trends in social networking. So, a blog or website, while conceivably the MOST work is the most valuable because it’s the most static.

    Whoa… I feel really strongly about this topic. :)

  8. Diana Murray’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I kept waiting to have some big, amazing news to announce, but now you’ve motivated me to go ahead and get started on my web site and facebook page. There’s no time like the present. I think I’ll stay away from blogging for now though. Thanks for making the choice so clear.

  9. Pam’s avatar

    Great post! My participation in my own blog has been waning, but I’m trying to get back on track and post at least once a week. It’s funny because the last post I wrote was kind of about, well, me–and you made me realize that this is not always sa good idea.

    I used to do a book review every week, but then I panicked that I might offend someone (since I have yet to be published), and I didn’t want to make enemies already.

    I think having contests are a great idea. I’m a little strapped for cash, so while I would love to give out books, my wallet says no. Does anyone have any good ideas for contests? What are some things that others have offered on their own blogs?

  10. Heather Kelly’s avatar

    Good things to consider and remember. I like to blog about the writing journey, and interview other writers about their journey, but I imagine that a website is the way to go to reach fans once published. I like these posts that feel like they take the stress off of writers–there is so much talking right now about how authors have to do all their publicity for themselves. A website seems doable. Thanks.

  11. Jeni Bell’s avatar

    I would probably read about your cat at this point. :)
    Seriously, these are great suggestions. Thank you for taking the time to put this list together! Jeni

  12. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Pam,

    I’ve seen bloggers give a “boxed set” of gently used books to the winner. All this costs is postage and can help recycle books.

    Inverviews or links to another blogger’s site can be motivating enough to promote participation for some bloggers. I have also seen a fun personal short fiction prize where the blogger wrote a short fiction for the winner of the contest.

    Silly? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Unique to the blogger and her readership? It was right on target.

    In other words, contests don’t have to be expensive to be effective or fun.

  13. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Regarding “Post comments on the blogs of people who comment on your blog.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I think a lot of people come to blogging thinking two thoughts: (1) If I build a blog, all these people will come and comment there, and I’ll have a Platform! (2) Blogging won’t take up any time at all.

    What I discovered early on is that blogging is a bit like having friends. If you never call your friends, eventually they’ll stop calling you. If you never visit other blogs and comment, eventually people will stop visiting yours. (Unless, of course, you’re a superstar with a strong fan base that will attract readers anyway.) When I realized that, I decided I needed to comment nearly EVERY time I read someone’s blog post. (Nearly. Not always.) Why? Because if I bothered to come over and read what you wrote, I wanted to get credit for it, gosh darnit. No one knows you visited their blog if you don’t comment.

    The trick of course is to try to write something other than “great post!” in the comment. Which means you have to think a bit with each blog post you read.

    The other reason to comment is that most blogs have a lot of lurkers that don’t comment. But if you comment well, some of them will click through and start following you. That’s how I found most of my current online writer friends.

  14. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Great food for thought. Thanks Mary!

  15. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Three things you highlighted really hit home for me, Mary:

    1. Leverage your assets and use your strengths.

    For example, Jamie has an awesome presence and awesome blog. She’s incredibly funny and has developed some fabulous connections. That’s her brand, and it works brilliantly.

    For me, I use my library background. My book contacts and experience as a reviewer are my strength. I can give away autographed stuff, host interviews, ask advice from other more experienced authors, and post reviews.

    I just a li’l ole nobody, but darn it, I’m working to hone my skills.

    Everybody’s got a niche. Find it and go with it! :)

    2. Don’t make your presence all about yourself.

    Nobody cares. At least if you’re me! :) Tweeters who only hawk their stuff really turn me off.

    3. Reach out.

    The more genuine support you show for others, the better off you’ll be. We’re all in thing in this together, right?

  16. KrysteyBelle’s avatar

    Thank you so much for your post. When I am between manuscripts, or simply want to try out something new or expand on an idea, I write short stories. These inevitably end up on my blog. But when I am in the middle of a manuscript, I often take a break from the short stories. You have given me some excellent ideas on what to blog about during those “dry times”. =)

  17. Kristi’s avatar

    I agree you should do what you’re comfortable with — because it shows. I’m just not into Twitter but I LOVE to blog about writing. It also helps to be in a group – we take turns and so each of us blogs only once a week but there are new posts almost every day. It works well that way and being part of a group is also a great way to connect with other writers (of course, you’ll want a solo website as well at some point). Happy Friday!

  18. Marc’s avatar

    Mary – valuable post, thank you. I have found two additional advantages to blogging that didn’t occur to me when I began.

    1 – An easy-to-share “portfolio.” If I am talking with a school about about a potential school visit, I can email them a link to my posts with the label “school visit.” It can be more persuasive for them to scroll through (even if they just skim the photos) than me describing what I do. Same with a potential publisher: I can email a link to my posts with the label “book promotion” so the editor can see I take marketing seriously.

    2 – A way to increase Google-abilty. It just adds more and more search terms that can bring you new readers, even if accidentally. And related to that: I wrote a book for the Scholastic Book Club. The ONLY place it is sold to start is via the SBC (those wispy catalogs sent home with schoolkids). So no info for it on Amazon or even Scholastic.com. And like all books in the SBC catalog, it gets only one line of copy to sell it. BUT….thanks to my blog posts about the book, now when parents Google it for more info, they don’t come up empty, and I, hopefully, will sell more books.

    I fully agree that a blog, no matter how entertaining the voice, should be about more than just the blogger. I balance my posts between the above (my books, my research, my appearances) with more general and by extension practical observations about publishing (how biographies are shelved in libraries, what to do if a conference doesn’t order enough of your books to sell, how to handle an interviewee who wants to be paid for participation).

    And as you noted, the three keys are consistency (post regularly), content (that readers can’t get anywhere else, like original interviews), and something else I always forget. :)

  19. Kim’s avatar

    This pretty much craps on my own page, but I completely agree with it. Thanks for the info.

  20. Merry’s avatar

    Great post. I think a lot of writers who are new to blogs and social networking really get lost in trying to map out what they need and what will actually benefit them. And blogging is way more time consuming than people think it will be.

    I’ve met most of my writing friends and crit partners through blogging, so it’s definitely been worth the time for me. But I’m keenly aware that my blog is really more of interest to writers than it would be to my ideal audience for mg and ya. I don’t want to give up the blog, because it’s my best connection with other writers and I love the discussions that non-writers would totally not be interested in. So I’m thinking I might want to take my name off the blog and keep it as my writers blog. Then put up a simple website that’s more geared for things of interest to readers.

    Still really thinking on it and taking notes when I see things that I think work for other writers.

    Great post. Thanks for giving me some other thoughts to noodle.

  21. Vonna’s avatar

    I spent months as a lurker on several blogs before I finally got the nerve to comment. Now I have my own blog and have found it to be a wonderful way to connect with my writing community. Though I write a lot about reading and writing in general, I have begun to focus on writers and writerly events in my own neck of the woods. It’s lovely when people comment, and like Peter Dudley in the comments above, I make sure to always visit and comment on the blogs of those who take the time to visit me.

    Mary, your posts are so informative that forgiveness is readily given for not commenting on the blogs of all those who comment on yours. Thanks for sharing your time and expertise with us.

  22. Greg Pincus’s avatar

    Mary – you are correct about teens and blog reading, and no one’s going to have a link to refute you. Teens do come to sites like Readergirlz (http://www.readergirlz.com) that create a community of peers around a shared interest, but that is not what most blogs are. There are authors whose success has enabled them to connect with readers (Ellen Hopkins on MySpace is a great example), but again, it’s hard for most to do that. Your tips are great to keep writers/illustrators focused on using their time online effectively – no one can do it all, but if you focus on some best practices, it makes the time spent that much more effective.

  23. Stina’s avatar

    One thing you forgot to mention. If someone want to blog about their writing, DO NOT MENTION THE REJECTIONS! Unless you want the agents who were thinking of requesting your ms to know. ;)

  24. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Recently, Jane Friedman (There are No Rules) had a post about blogs as platforms. Then Chuck Sambuchino (Guide to Literary Agents) had a guest post about how to set up a blog. Now you have this Do’s and Don’ts post. Any writer who is thinking about setting up a blog should read all three, and s/he will be ready to go.

    I finally understand platform after reading Jane’s post and comments. Since I have mostly writer and teacher followers, when I do get a book published, I hope they’ll help me promote it.

    You’re right that blogging can take away from actual writing time. We bloggers have to be careful about that.

    There are a lot of writers who do writing advice on their blogs, so when I began my blog, I didn’t think I could do the subject justice. Most of my posts touch on writing, but they’re also about my muses/students (I’m a substitute teacher who writes MG and YA books). I’m hoping my blog is not just about me or just about me or bemoaning not being an unpublished writer (There are a lot of those blogs too). Hopefully my bumbling journey is everyone else’s journey. Isn’t that what good writing is all about?

  25. Christina Bell’s avatar

    I have to say, your article gave me pause. I had to take a minute to look at my own situation and decide whether or not it was smart. I do have a blog that’s mostly about me. But after thinking about it, I realized that it’s not a marketing tool. I live in Japan and maintain a blog that has simple anecdotes and pictures from life here. It’s a way of maintaining contact and sharing information with my friends who are scattered around the world. (I’m actually quite stunned anytime I get a new fan who I don’t know! Apparently, I’m big in Turkey.) To be honest, I only do it for my own amusement. I have my own small, somewhat demented following, and I don’t need more than that. So, on the off chance that I ever actually published a book, I guess I would need to consider an additional blog- one that was service-oriented and less self-indulgent. But if that were to transpire, would it be smarter to design a web page or a blog? What meets the publisher’s requirements more closely?

  26. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for your helpful post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I don’t blog or am not on twitter. I work full time and it’s hard having time to write and read all the helpful blogs out there like yours. I don’t want to clog up the Internet with another blog unless I have something useful to say. Thanks for saying it’s okay to decide how to have a web presence. And great advise on what to do and not do if you choose to blog.

  27. Paul Greci’s avatar

    Thanks for such a helpful post. My blog is only a few months old. And it is way more fun than I thought it would be. I’m really enjoying connecting with other writers, discovering their blogs, making some friends. I didn’t realized how rich of an experience it would be. I was very focused on my writing before I accepted an offer of representation. I had basically a zero online presence but that focused time gave me the space to write. Now, I’m looking for a balance.

    I hope my blog is an interesting mix of life in Alaska and writing related stuff. Thanks again.

  28. Gail Goetz’s avatar

    Mary, you’ve probably already thought about this, but if you put your blog entries together, they would make a great reference book for writers. I’ve learned things here that I’ve never seen before or even thought about. It would be easy. You’ve already done the hard part . . . writing pertinent chapters on topical subjects.

  29. Laura Diamond’s avatar

    This is a fantastic post! Thank you!!!! For sure, I’ve found that posts with information, tips, as well as thought provoking topics are what draw the most people. Fantastic point. :)

  30. Danyelle Leafty’s avatar

    Great topic. It’s one I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’ve been trying to focus on doing things that get my readers excited and participating. Much more fun than rambling about myself. ;)

  31. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Wow, another top-rate post, Mary. Just when I think you can’t get any better, up pops this article. Thank you, AGAIN! :P

  32. Don Cummer’s avatar

    I’m becoming more puzzled by all of this. If you’re writing your own blog, reading the blogs of others, and commenting on most of the blogs you read, when do you find time to work on your book? What other aspects of your life must you set aside so that you have time to keep up with all this social networking?
    d.

  33. Ken McDaniel’s avatar

    I was chatting with a friend on their blog. It never occurred to them that in order to entice people to visit their site, they would have to commit a little traffic-time to others’. Your list of do’s and dont’s is fabulous. I would always recommend blogger to go out and actively swap links with their friends. If no one links back to your site, it doesn’t do you any good.

  34. Mary’s avatar

    Don — As I was saying, if you find it uncomfortable or too much pressure or a waste of time, don’t get into social networking. If you want to participate, do. If you don’t want to, do only what you’re comfortable with or don’t do it at all.

  35. Don Cummer’s avatar

    You know, Mary, the challenge for me is that I love doing this. I can imagine myself blogging and commenting all the time. It’s so much more fun and sociable than actually slogging through some research or rewriting a chapter. It’s more enticing and probably a lot more healthy than gaming — and probably it’s as time-consuming too, if you really get into it. And this form of marketing is certainly more healthy than hanging out with Hemingway or Dorothy Parker!

    But I really am curious: what time and energies do we put into social networking that might otherwise go into the actual work? You’ve attracted so many highly accomplished and hard working people who comment on this blog. I’m really looking forward to reading their contest entries. I’m just a little amazed when I see that, in addition to writing the paying gigs, so many of us here are so connected to the blogosphere.

  36. Christina Bell’s avatar

    Don- I totally sympathize. Right now I’m supposed to be revising pages of my novel, doing a blog entry, parenting my kids, teaching a class full of fourth graders, and writing an article on Japanese men who use love dolls as life companions. And that’s just today. We just have to do the best we can every day, right?

  37. Don Cummer’s avatar

    Grace under pressure, Christina…

  38. Anne’s avatar

    Wow! Now you got me thinking… Although I like blogging, it does take up time and I often wonder why I’m doing it since I’m not a published author and no-one knows me, so why would they want to read about anything I write? The static website might be more my-speed.
    Don’t websites cost money though and places like blogger and Livejournal are free?

  39. Lydia Kang’s avatar

    I posted on my blog about this! Couldn’t decide to start a blog or give up the idea. I definitely helped clarify a few things. And made me realize I wanted to do it after all. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  40. Crystal Roget’s avatar

    Late commenting here, but just wanted to commend you, Mary, on another great, great post! Your wisdom and insight on these topics are truly invaluable. I LOVE blogging and perusing the blogosphere but it does definitely take time away from actual (novel) writing. And I know I must soon find a balance between the two because I don’t want to give either up! :)

  41. Marice Kraal’s avatar

    Your advice here is really timely. There is a lot of pressure on aspiring authors to blog, tweet, facebook, join a thousand forums, and contribute meaningfully to all of them! I’m new to online networking and I’m trying some of these at the moment to figure out what I’m comfortable with, and above all, have the time to make meaningful. My day job right now is my kids, but if I were back in my old career there is no way I would have time to do any of this.

    I really appreciated your advice about just having a simple website if we simply aren’t able to have an awesome blog. After all, it’s the book that really counts!

  42. SevenNBlue’s avatar

    This is so helpful! I just started blogging a couple of months ago. I had to go down to three times per week (versus five). It is key to add value and write interesting stuff. I feel blogging is the writer’s part time job!

  43. Michael Broadway’s avatar

    Thanks for posting this, Mary. Very insightful. I just wrote a similar post and linked to yours for your great additional info.

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