Four Big Lessons for Authors

I have been advising authors about online marketing since 1994. While the tools have completely changed since then (I never advise anyone to promote their book on AOL anymore), there are some enduring principles that still hold true. Here is a little background from my own publishing story, and the four most important lessons I have learned along the way.

I signed my first big book contract in 1995. My co-authors and I had a non-fiction book proposal that two major publishers were very excited about, which helped our agent land us a six-figure advance. Ah, the good old days! Yet we still hired our own publicist, because even with all the money the publisher had invested, they were not planning on doing much to promote the book.

Lesson one: Even in the “good old days” authors were not always well-served by publishers, but the money made that hard to see.

After our book was successfully published in 1998, I thought the odds were good that my next book would get picked up, and the ones after that too. Over the next ten years I pitched several non-fiction projects to different publishers. I have a wonderful collection of thoughtful, encouraging, apologetic letters from acquisition editors, whose basic point was that my books would be too hard to sell.

At the same time, I got to work building my author platform. I published articles in magazines, wrote essays for anthologies, created a website, networked with other authors, and continued to speak and promote our book. In 2005 it seemed like everyone important had already been blogging for years, but I started a new blog anyway.

Lesson two: It’s never too late to get in the game if you’ve got something to say.

I didn’t really want to blog of course, I wanted to earn money selling books. I had plenty to say about my book topics, but back then publishers would not consider any work that had been previously published on a blog. So I accepted the fact that blogging didn’t pay and couldn’t be repurposed, and instead used my blog to get more teaching and speaking gigs. It wasn’t an ideal situation but at least I was making some money, building up a core readership, and networking with other bloggers.

By 2008 the tools had changed yet again, and I realized that while still pursuing a book deal I could publish something on my own. I used to create my first paperback book, What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares. I ordered print copies in bulk to sell at local bookstores and events, and uploaded the ebook to Amazon just to see what it would do. Online sales were very slow but at least it was there, increasing my visibility and driving traffic to my website. I now had product to sell on the road, a proven ability to sell books, and a list of things I’d do differently next time I self-published.

Lesson three: While the tools are there for anyone to use, it’s your overall strategy that makes the difference.

In 2010 I decided to focus more on web presence and social media consulting. Now that publishers were actively embracing books created from online content, I began blogging here with the goal of creating short ebooks which I could then turn into larger books down the road. I joined the Bay Area Bloggers Society, soon became co-leader of the group, and started a YouTube interview series on platforms and publishing.

Developing material for BABS meetings allowed me to systematize what I knew and refine my presentation skills. All that content development has now led to an author platform workshop I can present anywhere. It has also allowed me to write for the Tools of Change blog, which opens up even more opportunities. I feel that I have found my niche in this intriguing and challenging field full of intelligent, generous people.

Who knew that by not achieving my main goal of getting published all these years, I would now be in a stronger position than if I’d had easy wins early on? Every part of this experience has been invaluable, even the frustration and hours of unpaid work. I will end with the last and most important lesson I have learned in my publishing adventures so far.

Lesson four: Sometimes the best things come when you can’t get what you want—but only if you keep at it.

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