Build Your Platform – Get Yourself Some Gigs

Here is a terrifying sentence: If you want to be a writer, you probably need to be a speaker as well.

Gulp.

I know that most writers would rather hang out a coffee shop or with their cat writing the day away than speak. I know a few writers who would rather stab themselves in the eye with a sharpened yellow #2 pencil than speak. But if you are working on building a platform, speaking is your quickest way of doing that.

Just today, I had a woman from Texas call me up and say, “I’m ready to speak, but I don’t know how to launch that part of my business/ministry.” Since a good part of each of my work days are spent finding speaking gigs, I thought it would be helpful to share some of my strategies each time I blog here.

Tip #1

Speak for Free

It is the bane of every speaker’s existence. That moment when your event coordinator says, “We don’t really have a budget for speakers, but we would love to have you come.”

In my opinion, unless you are already booked to capacity, take the gig.

Yes, you are worth more than that, and your time is valuable. However, the best way to get more speaking engagements is by speaking. It is a false economy to sit at home all day creating flyers and making phone calls looking for paid speaking engagements, when you have passed up the opportunity to speak for free.

Speaking is your best form of advertisement. When someone is sitting in the audience listening to you, chances are she belongs to at least one or two other groups or organizations that use speakers on a fairly regular basis. Multiply that by the number of people sitting in the audience, and that is the best form of marketing.

Recently, a large church asked me to speak for free to a group of over 150 women. At first I was put off because surly they could afford to pay me. I thought better of it and accepted the gig.

From that one engagement, I have had three paid bookings, and another spin-off booking. Plus, I got a great recording from that one engagement.

If you are going to speak for free, make sure you get something out of it besides free advertising:

  • I always ask for my expenses to be reimbursed, (food, travel etc,) Don’t ever let your speaking cost you money.
  • Ask your venue if they can record you. Having that recording is essential when you are booking other gigs and they want to hear what you can do.
  • Build a great book table so even if you are not getting paid to speak, you can make money by selling your products.
  • Ask if the event coordinator will be a reference for you.

Action Plan:

  • Let the world know your are available. Tell friends, coworker fellow church members that you are open for business and willing to speak no matter the fee
  • Search our religious, community, and industry groups who are looking for free speakers
  • Even if it is not a subject that you are an expert on or passionate about, see if there is a way you can make it work for the group. This is especially important if you are fiction author. Your local MOPS group probably isn’t going to book you to talk about your latest historical novel, but they might just love your talk on Pursuing Your Passions as you talk about what it took to get published. Or how about a talk on making history come alive to kids?   Just figure out how to become a niche expert for any group by bringing in your specific expertise.

Question for You – If you speak, how are you getting your speaking engagements. If you don’t speak, why not?

Getting Your Feet Wet

This past month, my family and I spent a week camping in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We enjoyed the cool temperatures and the awesome beauty there and spent several days hiking the many trails that stretched just yonder before us. One such day led me to unknown waters–or rather, an unknown way to cross a certain mountain stream, without getting my feet wet. [BTW, I failed miserably. If interested, you can read about the disaster here.]

Sometimes, we just have to get our feet wet–if not our legs, arms, and ears. When it came to marketing and promoting my first book with Zondervan in 2009, I knew I needed to jump in with both feet.

Having read various marketing blogs and having studied the ideas of many ACFW authors, I had a good idea of what I wanted. I planned to schedule book signings, visit bookstores, create bookmarks, etc. But having this knowledge and knowing what to do with it (when you have a marketing budget) are two different things.

Once I received my advance, I had actual money to work with. Yay! So, I began with a budget. Oh, but wait! After reading through all my notes and research, there seemed to be a LOT of controversy on how much to allot toward marketing. Some authors put all of their advances toward marketing, while others spent hardly any, depending solely on their publishers. If my husband had his say in the matter, a very low percentage of mine would be given to marketing. LOL. After all, if God wanted my book to sell, He’d provide a way. Right?

After much deliberation, calculation, and prayer, my husband and I came up with a percentage of the advance we thought would work, budgeting out certain amounts for things I deemed necessary and leaving room for items that were a bit more extravagant. For learning purposes, my budget had the following items:

  • High Speed Internet and Updated Computer
  • Author Website
  • Publicity Photo
  • Book Trailer
  • Book Launch
  • Promotional Items (bookmarks, pens, etc.)
  • Book Signings (travel, meals, etc.)
  • Conferences/ICRS

Did I stay within my budget? I’m happy to report that I did. Next month, I’ll share my plans for creating an author website–what I wanted in the beginning, what I settled for, and how it all turned out. Until then, enjoy the moments AND don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

Platform Builders

When I started writing seriously in 2004, my focus lay completely in fiction. I’d written devotionals and snippets of life pieces in the past, but they served my own need for expression, then resided silently in a folder on my computer. Fiction was and is my passion.

But then something unexpected happened. In 2006 God presented me with the desire and opportunity to write as part of a team for a blog to help those in spiritually mismatched marriages like my own. I jumped in because I wanted to help other women avoid some of the heartache I’d experienced to reach a place of thriving in my faith and my marriage.

From this blog a ministry was born. Readership grew as did our perspective and understanding of the need we’d tapped into. This led to a book about how to thrive in this type of challenging marriage (aren’t all types challenging?), a Facebook presence, then a Twitter page. We suddenly found ourselves reaching readers in ways we hadn’t thought possible at the beginning. Our main site (www.SpirituallyUnequalMarriage.com) started showing up as a resource on other ministry and church websites. Thank goodness for Google Alerts to let us know!

All this coalesced into our platform, which became the turning point for a publisher to say yes to our book. How did that happen?

Here’s what I did:
1. Identify a need. As authors, we pretty much get the message today that we have to do more than just market our book. People want more. Common trends have set a pattern of having take away value. So, identify a need you can fill. Offer something to your reader that they can use and apply to their own lives. Once you identify a need, you can clarify your message. And you’ve just identified your market.

2. Create a presence. Social media has exploded at an astonishing rate in the last year alone. The heavy hitters (Facebook and Twitter) revolutionized communication. And now Google+ looks to be another joining the slew of social media giants. For our purposes, I will say that Facebook turned out to be surprising success. We wanted another means to connect with readers and be a resource and that’s what happened. Why? Because we made our page about our readers and meeting their needs, not about selling our book. Again there’s that take away value.

3. Consistency. Though we started with just our blog, we were and are consistent about content and postings. We brought this pattern over to our Facebook and Twitter pages, which builds presence, trust and reliability. Readers trust a growing presence that’s consistently putting information out there with a clear message that has no strings attached. Trust me, people smell an ulterior motive faster than the garbage dump next door. Be honest, be authentic and be original, but always stay true to your message.

4. Become a resource. Past experience opened the door to serve a specific market with the goal of being a resource. That was always the purpose—how did we assist others in finding the help they needed in a difficult marriage? What could people take away and apply to their lives and marriages? Over time, we presented ourselves as a reliable and helpful resource that other sites and churches could tap into. We showed we were there to help, to partner with individuals and groups, and to share what had worked for us in order to help others on the same path.

5. Be patient. (I can still hear my wise agent, Rachelle Gardner, telling me this.) Building a platform takes time. Factor that into your writing plan. Don’t rush to submit a project before it’s reached its potential because it’s a bigger challenge to turn a no into yes.

As I said this journey began in 2004 with my focus on learning the craft of writing and growing in my understanding and abilities. From mid 2006 to late 2009, our platform grew to the point that a publisher was willing to take a chance with our message. That platform is still growing to day with the addition of a special book site (www.WinningHimWithoutWords.com) focused on the message of the book and offering free resources for listening and downloading, as well as teaching videos. We’re also working on partnering with other authors to promote each other’s books and ministries through our newsletter, websites, and speaking engagements.

How does that affect my future as a fiction writer? Same game plan with some minor adjustments. The stories I write serve the same niche we found for our nonfiction and thus brings me back to step one. And away I go! See you on the shelves!

Brand Basics

If you’re interested in delving into this business of publishing, then you’ve likely heard a lot of talk about branding. Simply put, branding clearly identifies you with a product. For the author, it might be their brand of fiction or their platform. Your brand is strong if someone hears either your book or your name and can identify the other. For instance, if I said “Stephen King”, certain things would pop into your mind even if you’ve never picked up one of his novels. If I said, “The Shining”, you could likely name the author. Stephen King has a strong brand.

Your brand needs to be supported by your internet presence such as your blog or web site. Think about the images you want to portray. Are you a contemporary women’s author? Then, your site should have a different “feel” compared to someone who writes suspense.

I worked with Tekeme Studios for my blog design. First hurdle to overcome was the content of the blog. How can I be different from the other thousands of blogs that are out there? What I noticed myself doing was answering a lot of medical questions for fellow writers. I couldn’t find anyone else with this type of blog. That was good because perhaps I could provide a service for other authors that was thus far unfulfilled.

Second was to think of the feelings I wanted to invoke when people first visited my site. For me, these were intrigue, medical, with a slight suspense feel.

Here was the first design:

Here comes the third part. You have to be willing to speak up if you don’t like the design. After all, this is your brand and your investment. You should have strong feelings about it. For me, the design read historical. The man was dressed in period garb and the cabin looked like one you’d find on the frontier. This image didn’t support my brand as a suspense novelist. Plus, I‘m a woman and why did it need to be a man answering those calls for help? Also, too bright and orange (not a huge fan of that color). Not an ominous feel at all.

You’ll know you’re with the right design team when they understand your concerns about the design and are not offended about making changes. After discussing my concerns, it became as follows. You can check out the full implemented design at http://jordynredwood.blogspot.com/.

My challenge to you:  Are you thinking about what your brand is? How are you evoking that brand image with your internet presence? Ask people to visit your site and give you thoughts about what they feel. If you’re a suspense writer, people should feel ominous… maybe a little worried, like they will when they read your novels.

These are some examples of authors who I think have portrayed this well. Visit their sites for a little homework. Do they have a strong brand? Do they evoke certain feelings when you see their imagery? I think what they’re doing supports their brand of novels.

  1. Brandilyn Collins
  2. Tosca Lee
  3. Robert Liparulo

What are some things you’re doing to support your brand?

Platform 101 for Regular (Not-Famous) People Like Me

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t decide to be famous when I grew up.  Because I’m starting to think that if my face was plastered across magazine covers and my name was on the marquis, I would have a lot easier time getting people to read what I have to say.

But, alas, I decided to be a plain-old, regular gal.

And, while I like my regular life with my regular kids and my regular husband and my regular job, I imagine that authors with big-time names and fancy doctoral degrees have a much easier time building their platform than I do.

You see, I write pregnancy and parenting books.  And, while I do have three fabulously adorable kids that give me lots to talk about on the pregnancy and parenting front—I’m not an OB, I’m not a nurse and (shocker) I’m not Jenny McCarthy.

Which means I’m not an “expert”.  And I’m okay with that.  But will my readers be?  And, since I’m not, how do I convince my readers (and the world) to read what I have to say?

Here’s what I’ve learned about platform building for regular folk:

1.    Stick to writing what you know.  For some reason, people generally don’t like to hear advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.  (Who knew?)  So, since I’m not a doctor, I steer clear from giving medical advice, but give everyone the nitty gritty details on what it’s like to go to the doctor—something I’ve done a lot of.   You may not have a diploma on your wall—but if your life experiences have given you expertise in something, write about it!

2.     Write what you know in lots of places.  Once you’ve written what you know, write it in a lot of places.  Spread the love and submit articles for magazines, guest post on blogs, start a blog of your own and post user generated content on websites like Yahoo! Shine.   Get your name out there—and before long, people will start regarding you as an “expert”.

3.    Keep your blog focused on your area of expertise.  For a long time, I wrote blog posts according to the whim of the day.  And I found that my readership shrunk and my posts seemed stale.  Why?  Because they weren’t focused.  Based on some advice from my agent, Rachelle, I decided to keep my blog 100% focused on pregnancy and parenting—and thus, create a level of expertise for myself through my own blog postings.

4.    Get to know the experts in your area.  I had the most amazing OB read and endorse my book.  With his endorsement came the assurance that while my book wasn’t written by an OB, the advice in it was medically sound.  Likewise, I try to stay well read on the pregnancy and parenting front, so that when I publish material, it comes with the backing of the experts in the field.

5.    Get out there.  If you want to get your name out there, you have to actually get your name out there.  That means prying yourself away from your computer (fun as it is to write the day away) and meet people.  It can be as simple as going to playgroups/school meetings/ministry events and getting to know people in your audience and as complicated as setting up speaking engagements around the country.  Regardless, if you’re not out there talking about your book, no one else is.

Question:  What are your best platform-building tips?

How Opinionated Should a Novelist Be?

If you’re a novelist, there’s good reason to keep your opinions to yourself. Which can be difficult for people who are often sought for their opinions.

I recently read a Time magazine interview with John Grisham in which the author was asked, “Do you try to put Christian sentiments into your books?” He responded,

I’m a Christian, and those beliefs occasionally come out in the books. One thing you really have to watch as a writer is getting on a soapbox or pulpit about anything. You don’t want to alienate readers.

It’s a very diplomatic answer. Grisham doesn’t plead the fifth; he admits his religious persuasion. But he also admits that his Christian faith, if wrongly handled, can “alienate readers.”

This is the tightrope that novelists walk. In our age of electronic super-connectivity, there is no shortage of opinions and outlets for voicing them. But if you’re an author, that “connectivity” can have a downside. The more opinionated you are, the more chance you will alienate readers and potential readers.

Not long ago, in a post entitled To Blog or Not to Blog? Rachelle Gardner discussed the pros and cons of authors maintaining a blog site. Among the cons she offered, was this:

If you’re trying to be honest and authentic on your blog, and you spout off about religious views, politics, your views on parenting or any other controversial topic, you risk alienating potential buyers of your books simply because they disagree with one of your personal viewpoints.

There it is again — “alienating” readers. Your views about politics, religion, and controversial topics, no matter how “honest and authentic,” can negatively impact your professional influence or perception.

At the time, I hedged. “This notion that you shouldn’t express opinions,” I wrote, “bothers me.” However, at the time, I also did not have a novel published.

Call it political correctness, call it spinelessness, call it selling out, but I’m beginning to think that backing off from controversial opinions may be the smart thing for a novelist to do. Let me tell you why.

I recently perused my posts for the last year. Of my ten most commented upon posts, only two of them are NOT writing / publishing related. What should I make of this? It’s pretty simple: My visitors DO NOT visit my site for political commentary, parenting tips, sports takes, film reviews, recipes, social critique, or vacationing on a shoestring budget.

What people want from us writers is… writing-related stuff.

Please note: This does not mean we shouldn’t have opinions. Most of us have lots to say about politics, parenting, sports, film, social issues, etc. It also does not mean we should never blog about them. It means that whatever your brand is, it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with your controversial opinions.

Am I inferring that novelists should refrain from all controversial topics? Nowadays, I don’t think that’s possible. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, investigative bloggers, and the 24 hour news cycle, what one believes can eventually be found out. Furthermore, the possibility remains that being opinionated may in fact win you supporters. After all, it is your OPINIONS about writing, the publishing industry, a specific genre, or the arts, that attract some readers.

The point is, whenever you voice a controversial opinion, it will have a plus / minus effect. Some people will like you more, others will like you less.

If someone asks me my position on __________ (fill in the blank), I will probably tell them. But the bottom line is this: Good stories have little to do with a storyteller’s politics or religion.

I don’t know what Cormac McCarthy’s politics are, but I loved The Road. I don’t know what Dean Koontz believes about climate change, but I like the Odd Thomas series. I’m not sure who Tosca Lee voted for, but I really enjoyed Demon: A Memoir. I’m not sure what Leif Enger believes about gay rights, but Peace Like a River is a wonderful book.

I don’t know the opinions of a lot of my favorite authors. And I’m better off if they don’t tell me.

Up The Creek Without A Paddle – But Not Really

To an unpublished author, thoughts of marketing your book once it’s published might not be front and center of your mind. You’re more focused on finishing that manuscript, acquiring an agent, polishing your proposal. That’s as it should be. But what if you’re agented, and have several editors showing interest in your completed project?

Now is the time to start your engines and put some wheels on your marketing strategies. Sure, your book may not sell right away, but you’ll want to be prepared when it does. And even if you’re still in the early stages of your writing journey, it’s never too early to start thinking about it.

Last week on my blog I shared a few of the things I’ve been doing since my book, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, released in March. The prospect of marketing can seem daunting to a new author. At first I felt as though someone had pushed me upstream with no paddle, no compass, no directions at all. I soon learned the world of marketing has many places to explore. Today I’m going to focus on one.

Networking.

Your network is where you hang out; it’s who you talk to, share life with. It’s your community. At this point, published or not, you should be working hard to establish an online presence through blogging, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+, etc…the Internet is by far the cheapest and fastest marketing tool at your disposal. Learn to use it wisely.

Then there’s your real-life community. We all have family, friends, co-workers, right? These are the folks you want in your network, people who know you, love you and have supported your writing efforts over the past few years. They’re going to want to tell everyone they know about your book, this is great! Make sure they’re kept up to date in the process and send them a copy or two when your book comes out. The more people you can get saying wonderful things about your writing, the easier your job gets. And don’t forget to thank them for their efforts.

But what if you don’t have a supportive family? What if the people in your immediate circles just don’t get it or just don’t care? All is not lost here. While I’d like to advise you to have a good heart-to-heart with these folks, I’m no family therapist. Focus your networking efforts elsewhere.

Do you belong to a writer’s group? If you don’t, you should. This is the next best thing to having all your cousins in Nebraska hauling boxes of books around in the back of their trucks and selling them at every pit stop.

I’ve recently finished reading an excellent book on social networking by Kristen Lamb, We Are Not Alone  – The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, (Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2010). I highly recommend this book and I know quite a few of my fellow WordServers do too. One thing Kristen said that I love is this: “Fish where the fish are.”  Your writer’s group will not only provide support and encouragement in your writing journey, but when your baby is finally born, they’ll be the first to send flowers and start handing out the chocolate cigars. Most writers have a blog. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t like to read. Combine the two, and you have instant reviewers, influencers and endorsers.

Don’t ever be afraid to ask for an interview or to ask someone to review your novel. Yes, you may have to send a few copies here and there, but if it’s going to help get the word out about your book, it’s a great investment. And always offer to reciprocate by featuring fellow authors on your own blog and helping them spread the word about their new baby when the time comes.

Networking has been the most fun for me so far in this gig as a newly published author. I’ve expanded my network considerably, met a lot of wonderful people who have been more than gracious with their words, time and endeavors to get my book ‘out there’,  and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again when my next novel comes out!

What about you? Have you started networking? If you’re already published, tell us about your experiences.

Becoming a Nationally Syndicated Columnist

I am fortunate enough to be both a national columnist on politics and world events through Cagle Cartoons, Inc. and a blogger at www.marthacarr.com on writing, faith, and whatever wild adventure is going on in my life. This weekend that means a 5K followed by a second jump out of a plane. Don’t tell my agent. I’m celebrating learning to walk, and then run again after a whopper of a bout with cancer.

However, there has to be a question in everyone’s mind these days whether it’s worthwhile for writers to still strive to become nationally syndicated columnists. The decline of newspapers and the rise of blogs (like this fabulous one) must make people wonder if there’s a place for the journalist who provides content through a clearing house.

Both a column and a blog can become a source of income and it takes time for that to be true in both instances. There’s really no shortcuts, so that’s the same.

But despite all of the advantages to having a blog, and there are many, there are still some pretty big benefits to writing for others for a living.

  • Accountability – there’s a constant weekly deadline with a required word count. No longer and no shorter than 700 to 750 words. The grammar has to be correct, which means AP Style and the facts have to be checked and sourced. An occasional mistake is okay – it’s bound to happen – like the time I mistakenly wrote interred instead of interned. Just one letter off and I accidentally buried two people.
  • Editor – my column appears in about a thousand small town newspapers and some pretty big websites such as MSNBC, Politicus and Moderate Voice and so that means about a thousand editors are combing through the piece to make sure I’m not going to make them look bad. There’s also an editor at Cagle Cartoons that is reading the piece as well. Occasionally that means a conversation about a statement I’ve made, to make sure it’s correct and can I back it up with facts. That’s always in the back of my mind and keeps me rigorously honest. It also means I’m not going to reprint something I heard from friends, saw on the internet or even read in another publication if I can’t find original, reliable sources. Great training for every other kind of writing as well, including fiction. As writers, we want to get it right but knowing when to even ask a question or where to go takes practice.
  • Size of the Audience – These days a lot of syndicates, like Cagle, are going to a subscriber format instead of making their customers, the newspapers and websites, pay for each piece individually. They pay one flat fee and can use as much of the content as they want on any given day. That means I’m under someone else’s established banner and it immediately translated to a million new readers for me when I started three years ago, and now translates to four million readers a month in four different countries. I’m very big in India. Also at the bottom of every column, every week there sits my web address, an email address and the name of any recent book. It’s even better than a paid ad because all of these people already know me.
  • More Profitable Book Tour – Unlike a blog, my audiences are concentrated in large numbers in specific towns and I can design a book tour around that information. I choose to speak as fundraisers for nonprofits such as United Way and sell books afterward in partnership with a local bookstore as a way to raise funds. That also gives the newspaper that runs my column an opportunity to promote it for free, for me, and do some good work for their community as well.

If you are interested in getting started as a columnist, start by going local. That’s how I got started, at the Brunswick Times-Gazette, home of the world famous Brunswick Stew in Virginia. I still get the paper here in Chicago. They need your content and you in turn, can learn how to tell a concise story on a wide variety of topics while getting used to a constant deadline. Then after a year or more, take all of those clippings and start shopping larger newspapers individually and at the same time the big syndicates. Those clippings will tell them you can handle the basics and that you have a few things to say that are worth reading. If you want to know more on the topic, send me your questions at martha@marthacarr.com and let’s talk.

Q: Do you still read newspapers? If so, do you read a print copy or view the paper online?
Have you ever considered writing for your local paper? If so, what topics might you cover?

Preparing for an Interview

Writers pursuing publication should learn how to speak well.

I know what some of you are thinking.

Hey lady, I’m a writer. Not a speaker. 

Here’s the thing. If you are pursuing publication and your goal is to be a successful author, chances are, at some point, you’ll need to use your voice. And I mean your actual voice, not your writing one.

Radio interviews. Workshop presentations. Speaking to your platform. Pitching to editors and agents. I’m sure the list doesn’t end there.

My debut novel will release in May, 2012 with Waterbrook Multnomah (a division of Random House) and although it’s still ten months away, the marketing department is already discussing ways to promote my book.

Recently, I did an audio recording, or an interview conducted over the phone which will be shared with sales reps and retailers. It also might be used for promotional purposes later down the road.

The questions were deep. And I was nervous. I’d never done anything like this before and usually, when I get nervous, my voice gets shaky. And the shakier my voice gets, the more nervous I get. It turns into this whole vicious cycle.

But you know what?

It ended up being a really cool experience.

Here are some tips that helped me prepare, relax, and have fun:

  • Find out what you have to talk about and let the topic soak. I had to answer some pretty deep questions. Questions I didn’t know how to answer at first. Letting them percolate for a while helped when it came time to brainstorm.
  • Type your answers in a bullet point format instead of paragraph format. I wanted to sound conversational, not like I was reading. But the idea of answering from memory terrified me. I needed something to help me stay focused and avoid rabbit trails. So for each answer, I had a short list of bullets to reference.
  • Practice. This is key. Practice alone. But even more important, practice with an actual person. My husband was kind enough to ask me the questions, listen and offer feedback.
  • Time yourself. Attention spans only last for so long. The more concise we can be, the better.
  • The day of the interview, don’t obsess about it. Practice one more time. Then do something to distract yourself. For me, playing some good old-fashioned spider solitaire helped keep the nerves at bay.
  • When the time comes, take a deep breath, smile, and do your best! 
You can use these same tips for almost any speaking engagement. I know I went through a similar process when I prepared to pitch to Rachelle, my agent, and Shannon, my editor, at the 2009 ACFW conference.
• • •

How do you feel about this kind of stuff? Do you enjoy speaking, doing interviews, pitching to agents and editors? Have you ever had to do it? If so, how did you prepare? 

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