Milestones (or, the art of blogging as a key to a successful author platform)

In a twist that should surprise no one, last week’s post was the 200th post on my blog — and that milestone went past to the sound of crickets.

I thought I’d take a moment to speak about milestones (besides putting in a big, actual, stone at the side of the road — for that you just need Roman concrete 😉), how we celebrate them, and offer some practical advice about building an author’s platform.


The Journey

I say missing the 200 posts on this blog is not a surprise, because I did exactly the same with my other blog just a few weeks ago… But we should celebrate, and we are, so here it is 🙂

First, before we delve into the fine art of blogging, we are running a giveaway for Amazon gift cards! You have till the end of this week for a chance to grab one — and you can share again for more chances — so head here for the details!

Now for the blogging part. 200 posts is, I feel, fairly respectable. The beginning was a bit sporadic, but for the past couple of years I have been publishing regularly, with weekly posts covering my Three-R’s: Reading, Writing, and Romans.

In the four years since this blog went live in August 2015, I’ve written and published:

The Achievements

What have I got to show for it?

  • 262 ratings / 140 reviews on Goodreads, with a combined 4.37 star average
  • 137 reviews on Amazon (main site), with a 4.6 star average
  • Many new friends and acquaintances in the wonderful author community
  • Too many funny memes and general shenanigans to count

Not bad, not bad at all, for someone who was a complete newb to writing (if not to reading) four years ago, with a tiny budget, in less than 10-15 hours per week on average, learning as he goes and doing almost everything himself. While book sales aren’t enough to threaten my day job, they are certainly enough to cover costs (and I don’t skimp on editors and cover design!) and have some left over. It’s a better hobby than golf, what can I say 😁

This in no way is meant to be about bragging. I post encouragement to other authors often. The author community (indie and otherwise) is very supportive, and I rank the friendships made as highest on the list. I also routinely give-forward, by helping other authors and guiding them through what I’ve learnt (the hard way) in a hope to make their journey smoother.

The Advice

So what advice can I give, for anyone who thinks the above numbers look good? (JK Rowling need not apply).

There is the general writing advice (a lengthy post about which is scheduled in two weeks, summarising my recent talks with writing groups), as well as specific advice on tools for book production with tips for paperbacks and ebooks, and random musings.

For this post I’d like to focus on blogging, which is an essential part of an author’s platform. Here’s what I learned in four years of building this up, broken up into three main points:

Branding

Branding isn’t the logo, as any marketing person will tell you. Branding is your online identity, what others feel when they they come across you or references to you. And make no mistake — buying decisions are emotional, not rational.

Your blogging should reflect this identity, that voice that is uniquely yours, just like in your writing. This splits in two neat parts: what message you send, and how you send it.

What you blog about is your own niche. For me, it’s my Three-R’s (No, I never get tired of this joke; why do you ask?). This blog covers:

  • Reading: the reviews I post are there to help fellow authors and to provide readers with some recommendations, usually covering the less well-known authors & novels. (And that’s besides the second blog I run, dedicated to promoting other authors!)
  • Writing: thoughts about my writing journey, which – hopefully – are of benefit to other writers. For readers, I routinely provide free, fresh content in the form of short stories, flash fiction, and excerpts & news about Felix.
  • Romans: anything ancient history, really, but focusing on Roman culture and trivia from antiquity.

You should know who your target audience is (though identifying it is a complex exercise in itself), and what value you can bring to them. Remember, in these days you are vying for their time and attention more than their money. Convince them with good content that you are worth listening to, worth spending 10 minutes reading a post or 10 hours reading your books.

How you blog about it is a combination of general net-etiquette and spinning it around the reader. The obvious advice on the former is “be nice” (or at least don’t be a dick). On the latter, again figure out what your target audience wants, and hook them with it. Make it about the people who come to your site, about the experiences that they seek which you can offer, and engage (politely) with all commentators.

For example, my best-ever (by far) post, is the one about Roman Housing and Costs of Living. Though my more vocal readers come from fantasy, I know this blog and such articles reach out and get the attention of those who love Ancient Rome and want to learn more. So use these types of posts to attract readers, build a name, and — coincidentally — raise awareness for my novels.

Content Pipeline

The key thing in blogging, the most important factor, is content. Good fresh content is what drives visitors to your blog, what keeps them there — and gets them interested enough to get your products (books) as well. It’s a long process, not a quick post-and-check-sales thing, and you you need to do it as regularly as an old grandma on a diet of bran muffins and prune juice.

Now, the best content is long form content. Posts with 2,000 words or more, ideally much more. This is the stuff that gets people to react, that sticks in their memory, that gets shared. This is your evergreen content, the posts that are good for repeated future reference.

Sounds daunting? Think you can’t come up with so much good content, or that it will suck up your time? Not really. That’s what piplelining is all about. You need regular content and long form content, but not all content needs to be long all the time. Mixing it up (which you’ll likely do to cover all aspects of your niche) provides you with opportunities for interweaving both short and long articles.

For example, here’s what I do for contents:

  • Book Reviews: You read more than one book a month, right? You review those books on Amazon and Goodreads, right? Well, post the good ones on your blog too.
  • Links: You research stuff for your novels, right? You come across articles that are just plain interesting, right? Collect them in a themed post, tie them together with some astute commentary, and away you go.
  • Personal writing news: Hey, we all have those occasional book launches, and need to tell our readers about them. When you get close to one, start dropping excerpts, cover reveals, announcements, giveaways and competitions, etc. Anything that will engage your readers and build up a buzz pre and post launch.
    In between, write the occasional short story or flash fiction (a thousand words, or even less). Short form isn’t for everyone, but if you can swing it it’s a great, evergreen content boost.
  • Long form: Let’s not forget those. I find that when inspiration hits I can bang up those articles quickly (relatively — each one still takes over an hour to craft), and usually write a two or three in one week. I just don’t post them all immediately.

Notice that three (and a half) out of the four points above isn’t about me, at least not directly. I offer my readers things that they would be interested in, outside of my novels. The platform is there for you to be noticed, not to just shout self-promotion from.

There are plenty other bits of content you can come up with. I run a whole separate blog dedicated to character interviews, and some of what I write here applies there as well. Many authors run interviews with other fellow authors, which is a great way both to help and reach more audience (just make the interviews interesting, find your unique spin and don’t be just another a bland form). There are companies that run blog tours, and you can register and get content in appropriate genres. Personally, my opinion is that my blog is the key to my author platform, it’s the ambassador of my brand. I therefore focus almost exclusively on contents that I generate, or that very closely matches my niche focus.

Now that you have your content, build up 10+ posts. Schedule one per week. Make sure you mix up the content (especially when it comes to personal news), to avoid subject fatigue. Voilà, content for more than two months. That’s two months for you to come up with more books reviews and links (which, really, should be a cinch), plus time to polish those long form articles.

This is what my pipeline looks like, at the time of writing this post:

Some of those drafts are semi-complete articles, just waiting for the final polish and scheduling. Most are no more than a title and a few bullet points, that I’ll get to when I’m next in the mood. They are either further long-form posts, or collections of links I need to sort into themes and add my spin. (Book reviews I schedule as soon as I write them). When you have the time — and I could go weeks without worrying about my blog — then I find that it becomes a lot easier to fill in the content as inspiration and time allow. It becomes easy to maintain these numbers.

This is your pipleline, how you can get consistent, good content out there on a weekly basis, without chasing the posts, without stress, and without missing a beat. Remember to switch up the various subjects, and as you write new articles make sure you “re-balance” the publication schedule as needed (got three book reviews in a row? Why not insert the longer post you’ve just completed about the funny things you researched in between). Backup content (your review of GoT or Harry Potter, which really everyone already knows about), can go at the end of the queue for a rainy day — you can keep delaying posting it in favour of time critical content like a last minute promos.

Distribution

Just like with publishing your novel, posting on your blog during those first weeks brings up… crickets. It’s not enough to write something and put it out — you have to actively court readers in order to stand out of the noise. Here’s what I learned about it.

Time. It takes time to build a following. Stick with it, it’s worth it. Pretty much like everything else in writing.

Twitter. Won’t get people flocking in droves to your just-published article, but is great for keeping links to your evergreen content floating about and slowly reaching a bigger audience. The trick is to vary the copy (the “sales pitch” above the link) and use 2-3 relevant hashtags. Create a few of those, and schedule them on a rotating basis every week or two. Use a paid tool (or, if you’re like me, hack it together) and keep making use of those long-form content pieces.

Facebook. Facebook can be great to share content, if used smartly. You can auto-post from most blog platforms to a Facebook page. FB, however, drastically reduces distribution from pages unless you pay to boost posts (which I don’t). Instead, use that post as a basis and then share it to FB groups. Share in groups that are dedicated to the subject matter of the particular post to reach a good audience (much better than hashtags — which FB supports, but FB users don’t engage with). I routinely search for good groups, and when I join I also send friend requests to all the admins and moderators (likely the people most involved in the groups, with the most friends in them). Do pay attention to group rules though — that falls under proper net-etiquette.

Instagram. Instagram is pretty crappy when it comes to sharing links. The company’s aim is to keep users on the site/app, so sending them elsewhere is a pain and often not working. Unless your content is somehow image heavy or can be compressed into an image (which to me doesn’t fit with a 2,000+ words post of original content), then keep Instagram for the memes. Pinterest is much better at this — you’ll need an eye-catching image to connect to your link — though I admit I’m not very active there.

Goodreads. Is a reader-centric platform. The groups there seem to be divided very strongly between readers and authors, and reading quite often are very vocal about no self-promo from authors. Still, you can have your blog auto-syndicated to your Goodreads profile’s blog (via RSS, so that you main-blog posts become posts on the Goodreads author blog). This just helps spread the content, when someone check out your profile or follows you.

Each platform has its idiosyncrasies, and different people feel more confident on the various platforms as they prefer to consume their info in different ways. Whichever social media you use, remember that you generally receive as much as you give. Beside just jumping in blasting everyone with your content, you need to listen to others, interact, be nice, and be engaged in order to expect the same response from others. Make sure that the time you spend on social media isn’t wasted — that you’re spending the right amount of time to be engaged, to promote your own message (politely — never book-whack anyone), and that you do it all within a limited amount of time that doesn’t detract from your core business — that of writing.

Newsletter

More of a side-note, as some of the same concepts apply. Email lists and newsletters are complementary to blogging and have their own power. They are another separate, integral part of an author’s platform. There’s a reason why they are recommended often. Though both are there to disseminate your message to subscribers, an email list and a blog often take up different corners in your platform, with a different focus and content criteria.

You can connect your blog to your email list, and email everyone weekly for each new post. It could work for you (and I know good blogs who do it), but I choose to reserve the mailing list for less frequent, more visible news. The reason is that one of the key things in newsletter is that you’ll want to have a single, clear Call to Action (CTA). This is the one link, one button, you want recipients to click (and no, it’s often not a ‘buy my books’ thing).

If you email monthly or quarterly, you have obviously more time to work on your newsletter pipeline. You have more space to come up with creative themes, craft the messages, and make a compelling CTA for each newsletter. You can (and should) include links to your long-form and top performing blog posts in a more generic ‘other news’ section. It could be a way for subscribers to get just the good stuff (the articles, the new fiction, the major announcements), or it could be something different. Probably a mix (e.g. mailing list subscribers get the short stories first, before you publish them), so that you can reuse content and branding across the two.

Apply the same concepts of branding, quality content, and pipeline to your newsletters. Use the same distribution technique to announce it, and draw subscribers. Also use magnets (get a free copy of Book 1 when you subscribe), newsletter swaps, and group promotions/giveaways to get newsletter-specific subscribers. Then wow them with your content to keep them there. In general, give it a different spin than your blog, while maintaining your core brand message. Use both, for a more robust author platform.

Summary

I’ve had a modicum of success over the past 4 years of writing and publishing. I won’t be causing GRRM to smoke nervously in the corner about his #1 slot — not yet, anyway — but I believe I’m doing things right. I’m using my blog (my whole website) as a key part of my author platform. I got a good rhythm in providing valuable content, which shows its mark in that my reach is continually increasing. It’s going to be one of those cases where one becomes an overnight success after a decade of hard work 😉

My tips above are meant to help fellow authors short-cut their learning curve, achieve more quicker. I hope I demonstrated how you can blog both regularly and effectively, and thus build an author platform that will help you reach readers. It actually becomes easier over time, especially if you keep a good pipeline that let you drum up posts when you have the time and inspiration. It doesn’t take as much time as you’d think, but — just like writing a novel — it takes consistent, concerted, effective effort.

Stay tuned in two weeks, when I’ll be sharing my hard-earned lessons about the keys to writing novels, based on my talks with several groups of budding authors. You can follow the blog (bottom right), or join the mailing list to get the good stuff.


Like my content? Leave a comment!

Ha! Bet you expect a buy-my-book link 🙂 But really, hearing from you is very gratifying, and why I do this. I’d love to hear about your experience in blogging and in reaching out to potential readers.

(Though if you’re too shy to comment, I won’t hold it against you if you just buy my books 😉

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