How to find your best influencers

Jan and Ron vertThe longer I’m in the writing business, the more I appreciate the importance of influencers in helping me build my audience and increase sales. What’s tricky for many writers, however, is figuring out just who and where those influencers can be found.

Unfortunately, after eight years and eight books of being a published author, I still don’t have a magic formula for identifying and recruiting those valuable assets for my marketing efforts. All I can offer you is my own experience and insights, so here goes:

  1. It’s great to have known experts or writers give you an endorsement for your book, but unless they are truly excited about your book and independently give it exposure in their own networks, the endorsement is just nice copy for your back cover, and won’t produce momentum in sales. Those experts are busy with their own marketing and projects, and the truth is, they give endorsements widely as a courtesy, rather than out of commitment to your publicity goals.
  2. The best influencers have a stake in your sales. Although my books sell around the world, my strongest sales come from a local gift shop because the store owner enjoys my books so much, she talks them up to customers and regularly features them in store promotional materials. Because of her enthusiasm, I’ve had more press coverage in local media than I could procure by my own efforts and a consistently growing word-of-mouth readership. As an influencer, she’s one of my best!
  3. You need to continually cultivate relationships with potential influencers. This means reaching out via social networking and/or physically traveling to meet people in your field of interest who might find your books of value in their own professional goals. To market my girl-meets-dog memoir, I make a point of connecting with animal rescue groups/animal humane societies online, and when possible, I attend their conferences/events as a vendor. I often give free copies to keynote speakers or other passionate animal lovers I meet, in hopes they will read and enjoy the book so much, they will mention it to others. Yes, this is basically a hit-or-miss method, but so far, I’ve always made a few excellent contacts and found one or two awesome influencers at such events. It’s well worth my time and money to break into a new group of potential reader-buyers.
  4. Connect with bloggers with big audiences in your target market and ask to send them a copy of your book in return for a review. Offer them additional copies to use as giveaways when they publish a review of your book, or whenever they might have a contest going on. Doing this gives you a reach well beyond your own social networks and local geographic area. I’ve met several significant influencers in this way, and they continue to give me promotional value with each new book.

What tips do you have for identifying and recruiting influencers for your marketing efforts?

Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

How to Make Offers They Can’t Refuse

clapping peopleI’ve learned a terrific lesson about social networking this summer.

If you offer, you receive.

Recently, I’ve turned my LinkedIn contact list into a fertile field of opportunity for spreading my brand by offering help to others. Sometimes, the offer is to write a guest post for a contact’s blog, or to be a last-minute guest for a radio show, or to send a free copy of one of my books because of a mutual interest. I don’t make the offer until a person I’ve invited to connect with me accepts the invitation, and then, instead of just filing their acceptance email away, I take the time to compose a personal note making my offer as a service to them.

That means I only look to connect with people who share an interest of mine, and if they accept my invitation, I then think of a personal way I might contribute to their goals. By asking first how I can help, it reminds me that my writing is my ministry, my God-given gift, and that when others succeed with my help, I’ve made a difference for them. It helps make writing not quite the solitary endeavor it tends to be, and it allows me an avenue to actually build relationships with my contacts. In an age of electronically linking up with people all over the country and the globe, any personal interaction stands out; suddenly that contact in my address book has a personality and we have a tiny bit of shared history. That’s good for people and good for business.

But the big surprise I discovered was how easy it is to offer help, and how grateful people can be. Thanks to my offers, I’ve found new ways to reach larger audiences:

  1. Though I stopped writing my own blog years ago for lack of time, I’m now providing occasional guest posts for three bloggers in the pet dog category. Each time I guest, my host includes links to my website and mentions my best-selling girl-meets-dog memoir Saved by Gracie. I interact with blog readers and expand my brand as they in turn learn more about me. Sweet!
  2. I tell every radio host I connect with that I am happy to fill in last minute if they need a guest. I’ve gotten two interviews that way – with only a day’s notice! Both programs were recorded and played to large markets. I publicized air dates on my social networks, and since they were podcasts, my – and the hosts’ – audience can continue to access them. Score!
  3. Likewise, I offer to speak at any service group’s weekly gathering (think Rotary Club) about my new project to encourage people to #getoutsidehappy! While my message promotes getting outside for greater health and happiness, it also heightens awareness of my books. I make a few sales at the gathering, but what means even more to me is spreading useful information to help people improve their lives. Win-win!

Do you use social networking to offer help?

All Things Come to She Who. . .

gray coneflowerCome this September, I will have been a published author for nine years.

I’m still not a household name, and I don’t expect to ever be one.

But, I can say with complete assurance, my writing career is beginning to bloom into what I had once only imagined.

In the last two months, I received my first Kirkus review, which is, according to my agent, a “big deal.” Not only that, but it was a positive review, and it’s already generating advance word of mouth among readers thanks to shares on social media. I also finally landed a review with a major magazine in my (fiction) subject area of birdwatching, which will generate the nationwide publicity for me that I’ve yearned for since my first Birder Murder Mystery book came out. Both of these reviews are for the seventh book in my series, titled The Kiskadee of Death.

Yes, it took seven books for me to land on these reviewers’ radar.

Seven books.

Another first in the last month was receiving a request from a magazine editor to write an essay for them. In my entire writing career, I have never had an editor approach me for an article – I was always the one doing the pitching. To have an editor seek me out to author an essay was a huge boost to my career confidence; knowing that I’ve made an impact on publishing professionals is worth the months I’ve spent cultivating readers and developing my brand.

The final mark, for me, of having my feet firmly planted on my writing path is the number of guest posts and speaking engagements I’m now booking with relative ease. Whether my new-found success in that arena is due to my hard-won lack of fear of rejection, the persistence I’ve practiced, or just a matter of time, I don’t know. And at this point, I don’t care what has generated these new opportunities; I’m just very grateful to have them.

Coincidentally (or not), I recently read an interview with Kate DiCamillo, the celebrated children’s author. Before her first publication, DiCamillo recalled meeting Louise Erdrich, the award-winning author, who asked DiCamillo how long she’d been writing. When the budding children’s author said “Four years,” Erdrich advised her to hang on, that her own book career had taken six years to get off the ground.

It made me feel better that even some of the author superstars of the publishing world know what it’s like to have to wait for success.

The bright side of all that waiting is that when success does finally come, a writer can look back over the years that have gone before, and see that without that waiting, that revising, refining, re-imagining, and all those countless hours of learning a craft and business, the achievement would not taste as sweet as it does. Because the truth is not that all things come to she who waits, but that all things come to she who works while she’s waiting.

Have you begun to see some signs of success in your own writing journey?


What I Really Want To Say

I’m sure these things never happen to any of you other authors, so forgive me while I vent for a bit among you, my friends and colleagues.

(Not that you have any choice. I mean, we all voluntarily signed up for this crazy business of writing books, so it’s part of the unwritten code that we have to put up with each other’s rants now and then. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” as Bette Davis famously says in All About Eve.)

Scene #1

Filled with good intentions, I agree to mentor a local high schooler who wants to become a writer. I attend the mentor orientation program and lay out goals for the semester, based on the profile and paperwork the student has submitted. At our first meeting, the student informs me that she already has her novel’s first three chapters completed and that she wants to know what publisher she should contact. She explains why her book will eclipseTwilight and expects me to help her become the next Stephenie Meyer.

What I want to say: “Believe me, if I knew how to be the next Stephenie Meyer, I wouldn’t be here helping you. I’d already be the next Stephenie Meyer.”

What I really say: “It would be a good first step to check your spelling since I can see five mistakes right here in the first paragraph.”

Scene #2

I agree to speak at a local aspiring writers’ workshop about my decades-long writing career, the need to understand the business of publishing, and how I finally landed my first book deal with a traditional publisher. After my presentation, I invite questions. The first one I get is, “Have you considered self-publishing? It’s really fast, and I’ve already published several books.”

What I want to say: “Good for you. How many copies have you actually sold and why are you here, then? Did you not hear anything I just said? ”

What I really say: “Good for you. Traditional publishing isn’t for everyone, that’s true.”

Scene #3

I’m standing in line to order my favorite hot tea at the local coffee shop when I see an acquaintance who waves me over to her table. I get my tea and go to say hello. My friend introduces me as a writer to the woman seated next to her, at which point the woman launches into a lengthy description of the book she’s thinking about writing. My eyes glaze over, my smile freezes on my face, and I feel the heat from my tea seeping through the extra layer of the cardboard holder and into my fingers.

What I want to say: “I really don’t give a rip about the book you want to write. I don’t even know you. I just wanted a cup of my favorite tea.”

What I really say: “Nice to meet you. Gotta run.” And I promise myself to make my own tea at home for the rest of my life.

Okay, I’m done ranting. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better. I’m going to go make my tea now.

Your turn. Any rants you want to share?

The Beauty of Lying Fallow

harvested fieldLying fallow isn’t just for fields. If you want to find kernels of ideas to jumpstart your next writing project, you might be surprised to see how much you can glean from the already harvested fields of your finished projects.

Just as farmers routinely allow sections of their fields to remain unplanted for a season in order to replenish the land’s fertility, writers need to leave past projects alone for a time in order to get a fresh perspective on their work – a perspective that often reveals the kernels of ideas that somehow got hidden beneath the framework of that finished work. Every writer knows many ideas that pop into the head during the research and composing process end up getting tossed out in the pursuit of a tightly woven story or narrative. That’s part of the discipline of self-editing: you mercilessly cut out your own words that you might have lovingly slaved over because you realize that, in the end, they don’t make your work stronger.

Ouch. The truth hurts.

The good news, though, is that those same words, those kernels of ideas, might be able to take on their own life in another season of your career–as long as you can find them again. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your notes from a writing project after its completion. Yes, it means you’ve got bulky files sitting unused on a shelf, or on your computer, but it doesn’t mean you’re a hoarder who just can’t let go.

sproutIt means you know that as soon as you get rid of those notes, you’ll find yourself looking for that funky little idea that didn’t quite fit the last manuscript, but would be an amazing starting place for a new project…now that you’ve had some fallow time to let that kernel of an idea begin to sprout all on its own in your subconscious.

I used to think that if I wasn’t working on a new project, I was losing time. Now I realize that my imagination needs as much of a rest as any physical landscape that is cultivated for production. What’s even more delightful is to browse through my bulky files of old projects and find new inspiration just waiting to be gleaned from the rubble of a field I thought I had fully harvested. I shouldn’t be surprised – the Biblical injunction to leave the field fallow in the seventh year was not only to improve its productivity for later, but to provide sustenance for the poor who were free to eat of what was left. In other words, the field might have been harvested, but even in its fallow season, it could give nourishment.

For writers who feel depleted after the long haul to publication and market, it’s reassuring to know that imagination is already replenishing itself.

What kernels have you gleaned from harvested fields?

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?