Most writers are aware that, nowadays, building a following is part and parcel of the business of writing. But to what extent? After all, if cultivating a following detracts from time spent writing, then surely it’s simply time wasted?
Well, yes and no.
You see, like many a small press publisher I have various roles – editor, typesetter, designer, marketer, accountant and administrator. But, I only have a limited amount of time to give to each of these roles. Book promotion, being one of the tasks I perform with my marketer’s hat on, will be assigned a certain amount of time to it. But not very much. Simply because there are not enough hours in my working day. So, having an author help me to promote (and drive sales of) their book is a very welcome bonus.
So I see prospective authors through two different sets of lenses. First, and foremost, I consider the writer’s work. With my editorial glasses on I read submissions with the view to finding excellent writing and compelling storytelling that fits the remit of the press. But once the editorial glasses come off I put on my business glasses (or evil genius monocle, if you will) and I consider how the author can help me to increase the sales of their books.
This last consideration is similar to the kind of analysis that the marketing department will undertake in the offices of a large publishing house. But for me, being part of only a tiny team, it’s not so much about spreadsheets and marketing angles, as it is about experience and gut instinct.
Let’s assume that the first hurdle – you know, that small matter of writing a wonderful book – has already been surmounted, and that I love the manuscript the prospective author has sent me. Now it’s time for me to consider the author herself. So what exactly do I do when I consider how the author can help me to increase the sales of their books? Well, there are two main things that I’m on the lookout for: professionalism and a following.
First, I do what many people instinctively do when they’re searching for something nowadays – I use Google to hunt down the writer. I type in her/his name into the search engine box and within microseconds I have what I’m looking for – an initial impression of their online presence. If literally nothing comes up, then that tells me something very important: that the writer hasn’t, as yet, invested in their writing CV or building a following. You see, even writers who have decided to shun the internet completely and build a real-life following through, say, performance poetry, or writing workshops, or visiting schools with their children’s book, or publication of their short stories in literary magazines, will leave some impression on the internet. Even if it’s only that their name is in the list of contributors to an anthology being sold on Amazon. Or perhaps mentioned in tweets, by others, as being an amazing performance poet.
But, hopefully, the writer’s name will come up. Preferably, right at the top of the search. It could be that it’s associated with their own website/blog or Twitter account; maybe they’re on Wikipedia. First, I go to their personal website or blog. I can see instantly if they have their own domain name and whether or not the site is well-designed and attractive. Professional-looking. Then I roam about the site and have a good nose. I look out for how often they blog, how much engagement their posts get, and what their publication history is. Another thing I look for is a professional-looking image of the writer, with an engaging ‘About’ page. A series of interesting posts may make me stay for a fair while, reading to my heart’s content, but if there’s not very much blogging action I’ll head to their social media account/s, which should be easy to find from their website. I’d expect to see the writer either on Twitter or Facebook. Or perhaps both. Or maybe on Instagram. For me it’s not about quantity, but rather, quality.
The writer’s social media presence will give me an idea of: 1) how big their following is, 2) their personality, and 3) how well they engage with their followers. Do they come across as friendly, supportive and inspiring, i.e. professional? Or are they aggressive and ranty, or dull (either through over-sharing or through lacking authenticity), i.e. unprofessional?
The amount and kind of engagement they have with their readers/fans/followers, will very much give me an idea of how much potential interest there could be in the writer’s book.
This brief foray into the prospective author’s online presence will give me some pretty useful insights into: a) how professional and, hence, easy to work with, the writer is, and b) how much they can drive sales of their book.
For me, a writer who has written an outstanding book and has invested in building their following – learning how to act in a professional manner along the way – is an impressive writer. They are, in fact, my ideal writer. And when faced with a sea of submissions, some of which will be of an equally high quality, then, for me it’s a no-brainer. I’d publish the ideal writer every time.
So, again, my tips for impressing a publisher are relatively straightforward: be an outstanding writer, be a professional writer, and have some kind of following, be it in real life or online. (Or at the very least, be prepared to build a following.) What’s not so straightforward is the years of hard graft that it takes to become an outstanding writer. But, learning to act in a professional manner, and learning how to build a following are eminently – even, easily – achievable. They are, nowadays, both part and parcel of the business of writing. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, but that’s for us to explore in more detail another time.