On Christmas Eve, I caught the flu.
I spent Christmas Day wrapped in a blanket, wracked with chills, and coughing intensely. Clutching a negative COVID test didn’t make me feel any better. Influenza didn’t care. It wants its championship belt back.
I’m slowly getting better.
I spent a week whispering like the Godfather before progressing to growling like Darth Vader.
As a podcaster, I talk a lot. So this time of silence has revealed some interesting insights about communication and book marketing.
#1 A Great Book Is Not Enough
When I can only whisper, my children can’t hear me tell them to be careful, even if they really need to hear my warning. It doesn’t matter how much they need to hear me. The only thing that matters is my ability to make myself heard.
The publishing world is like a house full of chattering toddlers. When readers don’t hear about your book, they don’t know about it and can’t read it, even if it’s really good.
But if the book is good enough, it will market itself, right?
You tell me.
Yesterday, roughly 1,000 new books were released. Which one was the best? A book listed on Amazon is like a phone number listed in the phone book. The phone will ring only if people search the phone book for that number.
And if you think that was an old-fashioned metaphor, just wait.
The word “platform” comes from a tool used in the 18th century by Great Awakening preachers to speak to audiences of tens of thousands without electronic amplification.
Platforms were elevated stages with slanted walls behind them. Acoustically, they directed the speaker’s voice toward the audience.
Here is an illustration from 1819 of what a wood platform looked like:
In these days of microphones and blogs, authors don’t build their platforms out of wood, but if they want to reach readers, they need to build their platforms out of something.
A wooden platform didn’t make the person speak louder. It simply directed his voice toward the audience in front of him. Behind the platform, it was harder to hear the speaker because of the platform. More sound waves moving forward meant fewer sound waves behind the platform.
Pick a Target Reader
New authors often make the mistake of targeting an audience that is too broad. It’s as if they want to remove the wooden platform so people behind the platform can hear better.
But the people behind the platform don’t want to listen. By removing the platform and trying to reach folks behind it, the crowd in front can’t hear as well. The folks who came specifically to hear your message can only hear it if you focus on them.
You know your book isn’t for everyone, but you may not realize how focused your audience needs to be.
If you were about to speak from an old-school wooden platform, I would coach you to pick one person in the back of the crowd and speak just to him. If the tall guy in the back can hear you, everyone else can too.
In the same way, I advise writers to write to a single specific human rather than a nebulous “audience.” I call this person Timothy. If you can thrill one, you can thrill many.
Speaking to one human will clarify your writing and help you focus your marketing efforts on what works.
#2 Build Your Own Platform
When you start to build a platform, borrowing someone else’s platform can help you get experience and exposure, but it also gives the platform owner power over your future.
For example, let’s say you built a big following on TikTok. Your videos get lots of views and engagement. The TikTok algorithm puts your videos on the “For You” page, and millions of strangers see your content. That seems fantastic. But TikTok can take your videos off just as easily.
Or TikTok itself could get banned. You may think that sounds crazy, but the largest democracy in the world has already banned it. India banned TikTok because they saw it as too dangerous.
But that wouldn’t happen in America, would it?
Well, let me put it this way. The US senate recently voted on whether to ban TikTok for government employees. Do you know how the vote went? All the Republicans and Democrats and both Independent senators voted for it. The vote was unanimous.
When was the last time the United States Senate voted unanimously on something?
They all agree that TikTok is unsafe for government employees, and if you have been watching the senate testimony, you would know why.
I doubt the ban will stop with government employees’ smartphones. Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning and the TikTok app no longer works. Your audience on TikTok may vanish, and if you’ve borrowed TikTok’s platform, you’ll have to rebuild.
If you use TikTok, make sure you have a TikTok recovery plan. Upload each video to Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. If TikTok gets banned, your audience can quickly shift to one of the American alternatives.
I don’t see TikTok as a reliable way to build a platform. The sales surge from BookTok was not initiated by authors and so far has not been reproduced by authors. It was initiated by readers.
TikTok is just a metaphor for a bigger trend in platform building that can be summed up in one word: sharecropping.
How Sharecropping Works
Back in the day, if you wanted to be a farmer, you could buy your own land to farm. Or you could sharecrop and get land for “free.” A landlord would let a sharecropper farm his land in exchange for a share of the crops.
“Free” farmland sounds like a great deal.
Why should you buy your own land when you could just share someone else’s land for “free?”
Because when you sharecrop, you don’t own anything you build. When a sharecropper builds a house on the land, the house belongs to the landlord. When a sharecropper spent months clearing stones from the field and used them to build a protective wall to keep predatory animals out, the wall belonged to the landlord. The landlord could kick the sharecropper off the land, keep the wall and house for himself, and enjoy his rock-free field.
A landlord could also arbitrarily increase the percentage of the crop he wants. He who owns the land makes the rules.
It turns out sharecropping is a fancy form of serfdom. It’s slavery in high heels.
Sharecropping in the United States came to an end because of tractors. Landlords bought tractors and fired the sharecroppers. The newly unemployed farmers fled to the cities looking for work.
In the digital world, sharecropping still exists.
Digital sharecropping is when you build your platform on someone else’s digital real estate. If you are not the customer, you are the product being sold.
In 2008, Facebook let you talk to 100% of your audience for free. In 2015, they only let you talk to 30% of your audience for free. Today, you’d be lucky to reach 1% of your audience without paying money. Facebook owns the digital land, and they make the rules.
When you borrow someone else’s stage, they control the volume of your microphone. If you are not in the room where the decisions are being made, you risk losing your voice without warning or compensation.
That’s why I discourage authors from relying on social media for promotion. Social media is sharecropping. And I practice what I preach. Instead of hosting our Novel Marketing Community in a free Facebook group, I pay for AuthorMedia.social. There’s no cost to you, so please join us there to discuss all things publishing.
You can own your own platform by spending money. Buy and own your own domain name at YourName.com. Own your email list, blog, podcast, and website. Owning digital real estate may mean you need to get a day job so you can afford to buy your own digital land, but your freedom is priceless.
Don’t let Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter turn you into a digital surf.
#3 Whisper and the World Whispers Back
It turns out that when I whisper to my toddler, he whispers back. Most of the time, an otherwise noisy child will mimic my quiet tone.
Whispering in a house full of noisy children is not an effective way to communicate. Neither is whispering to your readers.
Many authors wonder why no one is talking about their books. Turns out that if you whisper about your book, your readers will whisper too.
If you want enthusiastic fans to spread the word about your book, you must demonstrate enthusiasm for your book. Readers take their cues from you. Both confidence and insecurity spread like a virus.
If your promotional efforts seemed to have flopped, there could be several reasons.
You Wrote the Book for Yourself
If you wrote your book for yourself, you will feel weird promoting it to others. That weird feeling leads to whispering.
To confidently promote your book , you need to write the kind of book you’re confident enough to talk about. There is a difference between a book written for a reader to enjoy and a book written for the author to enjoy. If you believe someone will enjoy your book, you’ll feel confident promoting it.
If your book is more like a personal journal, I recommend setting it aside. Use it to nourish a new piece of writing written with a specific audience in mind.
For more on this, see Book Marketing Commandment #1 “Love your reader as much as you love your book.”
The Book is Not Ready
Mastering the craft of writing takes time. If you’re promoting the book you’ve ever written, it’s probably not ready for the intense competition for reader attention. If you don’t believe your book is worth shouting about, it’s not ready.
But don’t worry!
With some sweat, study, and feedback, you can get your book ready. The fastest path forward is to set the first book aside, read some books on craft, take some courses, and then write a new book with the lessons you learned from writing the first one.
Getting “a first book” into shape requires the work of an experienced author. Become an experienced author by working on other books first.
For more on this, see Book Marketing Commandment #9. “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.”
No Book Launch
Maybe your book is already good. Many great books are overlooked because their authors don’t know how to confidently promote their books. Authors who rely on social media to spread the word are usually disappointed. Social media book promotion no longer leads to book sales.
Social media is crowded with shouting people. No one can hear you unless you pay for amplification. The “free social media microphone” is not plugged in.
One way to break through the noise is to plan all your promotions to hit during a short window of time, right after your book releases. Authors and marketers call that a book launch.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about how to conduct a book launch.
Once a year, James L. Rubart and I host a special course called the Book Launch Blueprint. In this four-week course, you’ll learn everything you need to know to prepare, plan, and execute an effective book launch without relying on social media.
You must speak clearly if you want readers to hear about your book. Whispering about your book will only frustrate you and your readers. Write your book for a reader, and you’ll feel confident enough to shout, “This book is for you, and you’re going to love it!”
If you Google “How to Launch a Book,” you’ll get over 500 million results. That’s a problem.
Because how do you know which sites will give sage advice and which are wannabes?
You can’t afford to spend your time (or money) on programs built on wishful thinking. You need proven strategies that will launch your book into the stratosphere successfully.
That’s precisely why we created the Book Launch Blueprint.
The Book Launch Blueprint is a 28-day, interactive course developed by Novel Marketing host Thomas Umstattd Jr. (that’s me!) and Christy Hall of Fame author James L. Rubart.
You will learn exactly what you must do to make your book launch a resounding triumph.
Learn more at BookLaunch.fun
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