Should An Unpublished Author Maintain a Writer Blog?

Should an unpublished author maintain a writer blog? This is a fraught topic for many writers. Some seem forced into blogging. Others love it.  If you’re happy to blog, please do it. This post is geared mostly to people who are on the fence and who are feeling pressure to start a writer blog because they hear that’s what they’re supposed to do. The tone of this question is usually, “Do I have to blog?”

writer blog, unpublished author, blogging before publication, should unpublished writers blog, do i need to start a blog to get a literary agent
If you’re not already maintaining a writer blog, should you start?

The Unpublished Author Quest for a Platform

This is a question that comes up a lot at conferences and from people who email me. It’s the familiar scenario: You’re an unpublished author chasing publication. You don’t have a book or a deal to blog about yet, but you’ve heard that you need an author platform and Internet presence, and you’ve heard that writer blogs get you friends and traffic and riches and unicorns, and you’ve also heard about this Twitter thing. Yet it sounds overwhelming. And you wonder if you have enough to blog about. You wonder if you have the time to keep up with all these things.

But the online writing community you see other unpublished writers enjoying keeps bugging you — You have to blog! You have to Tweet! You have to Facebook!

What’s an unpublished author to do?

Your Time Is Better Invested Writing

I’m going to say, probably, the exact opposite of what you’d expect. See, I’m a person who blogs. And I have a Twitter. And I’m on Facebook. I also grew up in the Silicon Valley and worked for a bunch of Internet start-ups before I got involved in publishing. You think I’d be totally into unpublished authors blogging, Tweeting, flickring, Buzzing, Facebooking, and all that. Right?

Wrong.

I never look at the writer blogs of people who query me unless they can give me some kind of impressive fact, like “30,000 people visit this blog per month” or “I draw a daily web cartoon and have a following” or “I’ve created an interactive game that you can play” or whatever.

The Worst Thing You Can Do Is Blog Halfheartedly

If you’re iffy on blogging and worry, already, that you’ll run out of material, I say don’t do it. There are too many bad blogs, blogs about people’s cats (I swore I would never blog about my cat…then she got sick and I freaked out and I blogged…at every conference I attend, people still ask me about my cat!), blogs about their word count for the day and what book they’re reading, blogs by people who think they need a blog. Don’t add one more to the pile. Blogs without good, useful information or blogs by a clearly reluctant author are the worst.

The thing about blogs is that they’re a living thing. Blogs take your most recent entry and post it first. For the savvy, content-rich blog, that’s great. For the reluctant blog, that’s bad. Readers can log on and see the exact date when you lost your zest for blogging or ran out of content. And I’d say that a blog last updated in September 2009 is worse than no blog at all. It makes you seem out-of-date, irrelevant…maybe even dead. (Old blogs frozen in time are almost creepy.)

Being Practical About Platform

Fiction writers don’t need to pay attention to that whole “You have to have a platform” myth as much as nonfiction writers do. If you’re writing a novel or a picture book…what is your platform? That you like writing and you’re writing a novel or a picture book. Just like all the other writers out there. Unless you happen to be an expert in a subject matter that plays into your fiction, or you’re some other kind of professional writer who is crossing over, you’re not going to have any more platform than that.

The reason why I’m so negative about unpublished authors blogging and Tweeting is that it’s usually not good content. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Internet from actually working for it for all those years, it’s that users come to the Internet to see, “What’s in it for me?” They want valuable content that speaks to them. They Google: “How do I get this stain out of my white carpet?” “Is it okay that my baby is turning sort of purple?” (It’s probably not.) “How do I stop the hiccups?” “What’s a great summer BBQ recipe?”

A Writer Blog Works Best When The Content Helps Others…Not You

Most writer blogs — and most blogs in general — are about the writer of the blog, not about the user. I have a blog, but you’ll notice that I try to keep myself and my life out of it (and I was doing a dang good job until my cat got sick!). I want to use this space to give you valuable content, because I know that’s what people want from me. At the end of the day, they have their own cats to worry about, but they would like some writing and publishing advice.

The Benefit of Blogging Before Publication

Unpublished author blogs do one positive thing, usually: they foster community among other unpublished writers. You can come gripe about rejections, brag about word count, share your successes and frustrations and make friends.

While that’s nice for you, it has little value to an agent or editor (and not all of us feel this way, so please take this as my opinion) who comes to visit. Unpublished authors also write about writing in their blog, and that may attract other unpublished writers, but it does have a limited reach. Published writers who write about writing usually attract a wider audience, as they have perceived authority.

If you have a writer blog where you can give people really valuable content, tips, and things to make their lives better (or at least to give them good cocktail party conversation), do it. If you are just thinking of blogging because everyone else does it or you heard that agents won’t consider you unless you have a writer blog, don’t.

Spend Your Time Writing

Plus, Web 2.0 (social networking) is a time suck. You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with Tweets and Facebook updates. Then you lose sight of the thing that’s really going to get you published: writing.

Focus on your writing. And if you feel the need to be online, which you should, at least in some small way, put up a simple three page site: main landing page with info about your work, about you page, contact page. That’s it, and it should be cheap to make a page that actually looks good and professional.

Once you’re under contract with a publisher, of course, everything changes. You’ll have stuff to say. You’ll have a book to sell. You’ll have events to publicize. You’ll have readers who want to know more about you. For now, though, don’t bow to the peer pressure if you really don’t feel comfortable blogging or Tweeting or Facebooking.

Do you have strategy questions about how to best use your valuable time? Need writing career advice? I’m happy to be your writing and publishing consultant, and we can come up with a road map together.

Self Publishing Considerations and How to Self Publish

I have never talked about self-publishing on this blog. Of course, I have many thoughts on how to self publish, but they’ve largely been hidden. Why? Because some people who self-publish usually use gatekeepers like agents and editors as an excuse, like we’ve literally driven them to Lulu.com with our cruelty. We are The Man. We keep literary geniuses down. So they circumvent The Man and self-publish. Since I’m The Man, what do you really expect me to say?

self publishing, how to self publish
Ready to forge your own path to publication and self publish? Some thoughts on how to self publish and if it’s right for you.

Self Publishing Considerations: Is It Right for You?

What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. This is the closest I’ve come to reading my own thoughts about self publishing.

The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion — having read what most people call their polished work — that most self published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.

Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” (Learn about at types of agent rejection here.) The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions is “no,” I reject. If the answer to both is “yes,” I’ll pursue the project. It’s really no more complicated than that.

I do have to say one thing in defense of self publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. These are the types of writers who should be learning how to self publish. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list, for example … you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.

Looking to Self Publish for the Wrong Reasons

But most people wondering how to self publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience — casual readers — when you self publish a mainstream fiction project is very difficult.

From now on, I’ll be talking about these people self publishing. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut and a loophole exist, doesn’t mean you need to use them. And just because you use them, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores … readers for your work … reviews … sales … any kind of profit).

The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Lulu or Amazon or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their browser. It’s just like trying to get your band discovered by putting up an mp3 on MySpace. Every other band is putting up their mp3, too. (Not that MySpace is relevant anymore, of course.)

The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, and I certainly would never pay money to try random self published wares.

How to Self Publish the Smart Way

But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self publish. All the people who want to self publish, should. We clearly disagree on a few key issues and I, as The Man, have better things to do than argue. When folks actually self-publish, they’ll figure out firsthand how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut. But if you’re wondering how to self publish and your book is a good candidate, you should check out the Self Publishing Blueprint, a very comprehensive course full of great information.

The decision, in my opinion, is this: do you work through the rejection, finesse your writing craft, earn traditional publication and make the dream come true in a big way, or do you find a loophole and “publish” your work to a very limited audience? It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. I’m a writer in my spare (ha!) time. And I want to target the mass market. I would never, personally, self-publish. To me, a self-published version of my work wouldn’t be an achievement. It would just be a printout of my manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as my pile of scratch paper. Blogger Christoper Keelty goes as far as calling self publishing, “selling your failures.” (Thanks to Colleen Lindsay for the link.) There are agents who will consider self published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But very few literary agents and publishers will look at self published projects. They prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.

Sure, there are exceptions. Joe Konrath’s success with bringing his existing readers to a new format has been noteworthy. And there are self published books for the mass market that have sold huge. Christopher Paolini started out self publishing, and Fifty Shades of Grey is everyone’s prime example.

And you know why I know about these exceptions? Because they’re news. They’re rare. The other hundreds of thousands of self published books? They’re unvisited websites and unopened boxes in somebody’s garage that I don’t really need to know about. I’d rather work with the writers who are approaching me to pursue traditional publishers, and focus my attentions there. There is a lot of talent in the world that’s worth being found and developed. I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t think so.

But like I said, I’m The Man. You’re either with me, or you wish you were with me. 🙂 (And I’m a cheeky Man, at that.)

For a client’s firsthand experience with how to self publish, check out this self publishing case study.

Many of my clients either want to self publish or have self published in the past. No matter your goals, I’ll work with you as a self publishing editor to help you arrive at the strongest possible project for any market.

 

Writer Online Platform Do’s and Don’ts

Since I have an online platform — and since a lot of agents talk a lot about writer online platforms for their clients and for prospective clients (even though this is more important for nonfiction 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 book pitch article, so here is another list for the writer online platform and online presence topic.

writer online platform
You should have SOME kind of online presence, but remember that your primary audience is kids — who, if they’re young enough, won’t have access to social media.

You Need Some Kind of Writer Online Platform

Basically, most authors and writers these days need a writer online platform, 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?

Should You Have A Social Media Presence?

If you aren’t comfortable with social media and you don’t have any content that has value to it, you shouldn’t use it as your writer online platform. If you aren’t invested in it, 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.

Remember Your Audience

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 writer online platform 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!

Writer Online Platform 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 nonfiction, 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 in the classroom!

Writer Online Platform DON’TS

  • 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 writer online 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.)

Find An Online Presence That Works for You

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 writer online platform are more pressing for nonfiction 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.

The first step in having a writer online platform is having a book to showcase. Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you polish your project before you show it to the world.