How Will Your Memoir Sell?

October 29, 2020 § 7 Comments

Do you need a platform to sell a book?

Read that question again. Not as “Do you need a PLATFORM to sell a book,” but as “Do YOU need a platform to sell a book?”

We usually think of “platform” as “social media.” But there are literary platforms and mass-media platforms, too. Some memoirs sell on powerful writing alone.

How do you know if yours is one of them?

Memoirs fit roughly into four categories, and each category needs different elements to sell. Yes, a strong social-media platform can be one of those elements, but it’s not the only one. Let’s break it down:

Voice-Driven memoirs are collections of anecdotes, essays or loosely-connected stories. David Sedaris falls into this category, as does Jenny Lawson—authors we want to spend time with, to enjoy whatever story they want to tell because they’re telling it. Comedians’ memoirs are also in this category. Their plot might be “I grew up, I worked hard and then I got famous,” but we want to hear that story from the person inside it.

Character-Driven memoirs are often generational family stories through the eyes of the narrator, like The Glass Castle or The Liar’s Club. Or the reader navigates a particular situation or time in close concert with the narrator, as in The Year of Magical Thinking. The journey is through time and personal change, rather than up a mountain or around the world.

Plot-Driven memoirs focus on a journey, from Point A to Point B. There’s usually a physical element: sometimes these are places on a map, as in Wild; sometimes the journey is through addiction, or traveling from sickness to health as in Porochista Khakpour’s Sick.

Personal Record memoirs survey a place, culture or time. Orange is the New Black (women’s prison), Kitchen Confidential (professional cooking), and Maximum City (Bombay) each encapsulate the writer’s personal intersection with a larger phenomenon. “Legacy” books—collections of family letters, parent biographies, community histories—fall in this category.

The sellability of each type of memoir—to agents, publishers, and ultimately readers—tends to spring from these elements:

Voice-Driven Memoir: Come Spend Time with Me

  • Personal Fame from public speaking or a public career like theatre, dance or politics.
  • A unique, consistent, often funny, voice.
  • Mass-Media Platform: publications in newspapers and newsstand magazines.
  • Social-Media Platform: a high-engagement blog with hundreds of comments per post, or social-media accounts that regularly receive thousands of likes.

 

Character-Driven Memoir: Personal Change, Beautiful Writing

  • Excellent writing with a strong narrative voice.
  • Deep insight into oneself and the human condition, expressed on the page.
  • A “hot essay”—a literary or mass-media publication that draws wide attention.
  • Literary connections: teachers and workshop leaders who promote you to their agent and publisher, and will blurb your book.
  • Literary platform: a body of work in literary journals and upscale mass-media; places at selective residencies; literary awards and contest wins.

 

Plot-Driven Memoir: The Journey Is the Story

  • Newsworthiness of your journey, especially if a physical journey has been reported in mass media or an internal journey is related to an emerging hot topic.
  • Cultural relevance of your journey, like a significant generational, ethnic, or gender experience.
  • A “hot essay”
  • Literary platform

 

Personal Record: My Experience with an Interesting World

  • Self-publication and niche-marketing to the community the book is about (your relatives, a geographical area, etc.), though traditional publishing is also an option.
  • Cultural relevance, especially if you are an expert on or native of a world that’s becoming newsworthy or topical.
  • Social-Media Platform, including incredible visuals that invite readers into the world OR
  • Mass-Media Platform, especially regular publication in niche venues about your world, such as popular travel or cooking websites OR
  • Literary platform if your writing is voice-driven.

 

You don’t need to tick off every element in your category. But the more you can achieve, the better your chances of selling your memoir.

If you want to focus primarily on your writing, you’ll need to consciously improve your craft, seek publication in top-notch journals, and cultivate ongoing connections with your teachers. If your physical journey is the fascinating part, try to interest a reporter in your story, or learn to pitch to mass media yourself. If you want to build readership online until you reach critical mass, make improving your reach and content on social media a large part of your writing practice, and write a book that makes social media a positive contribution to your time.

As Jane Friedman says, “Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal.” Your book is worth writing. If you want to sell it, start educating yourself now on how that’s likely to happen, and how you’re cultivating and connecting with the readers who need your book.

Need more platform information? Want to know how to build an audience with or without social media? Join Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A Zoom chat today at 1PM EST (recording will be available). Always free. Sign up here to receive the zoom link.

 

Tone Deaf

October 27, 2020 § 4 Comments

I’m not writing this for you. You already know better. I’m writing this so you can forward it to that friend of yours. You know. The one who keeps tagging you in social media posts about her book? The author who, every time you mention you’re looking for something new to read, offers an Amazon link? Who responds to every question even remotely related to her topic with “I wrote a book about that!” blatting away like a lone trumpet in the middle of a string quartet.

Yes, marketing statistics show that people have to hear about your book seven times, in seven different places, before they decide to buy it. But tone-deaf self-promotion does not create a pleasant memory of Oh I should purchase this book. Repeated advertising in social settings creates resentment and irritation, and as I wrote here a while ago, irritation doesn’t sell anything.

Yes, we should be proactive. Yes we should be unafraid to share the news—the wonderful news!—that we have published a book and wouldn’t our friends love to support us? Our friends do want to support us. They just don’t want to do it every day.

Here is how much marketing support you can reasonably expect from your friends:

One retweet.

Two mentions to their real-life friends that you have written a book and it is nifty.

From your extra-best awesome writer-friends: one retweet, one Instagram post, one book review written to Amazon and copy-pasted to Goodreads. More than that is doing God’s work.

From close relatives, and from people who would like to have sex with you: physically walking into a bookstore and ordering one, even two copies of your book.

From your local newspaper: a brief mention of your reading at a local bookstore. Because “Hey, I wrote a book” just isn’t all that newsworthy.

For the press, consider writing PR (or having your insanely expensive publicist write PR) that expresses how your book ties into popular culture right now. Or the problem many people have that your book solves or addresses. Maybe even your unique story about writing the book, if you triumphed over adversity or accomplished a life goal. Not just about your book.

But you can’t send a press release to all your friends. Not even an advertisement disguised as a Facebook comment.

The two best ways to get people interested in your recently published book are to make yourself look like an expert, and show them how your topic is directly relevant to their lives. You do this by offering assistance. For example, if your Facebook friend has a problem that you know how to solve and that is also related to your book, answer their question. Solve their problem. Direct them to another resource that is not your book for more information. At the end of all that assistance, note somewhat self-effacingly, I also wrote a book about this, and here’s the link in case you want to look it up. The product is an afterthought in your service to your friend.

Author Karen DeBonis has a great technique for talking about your topic without talking about your book every time. She has set a Google alert for one of the topics of her book, “people-pleasing.” When she sees a quality article related to people-pleasing, she can tweet or post the link, with a quote from the article and some commentary from Karen about why this information is useful, or how she identifies with it. (Here’s how to set up a Google Alert)

This is double literary citizenship! You’re promoting the writer of the article you’re linking to, and increasing interest in your own topic. You’re helping establish your own expertise, or that you are at least a clearinghouse for this information. When someone has a people-pleasing-related question, they’ll remember, Gosh, I bet Karen knows the answer, and come to her. Then she can answer their immediate question, and gently direct them towards her book. If her book is not out yet, she has incurred gratitude. She has made a deposit in the Bank of Goodwill, which can be redeemed when the time comes to purchase, review or post about her book.

None of this is “being clever on Twitter,” though that can help. It’s not “have a million Insta followers,” though that can help, too. This is doing service you already know how to do, to genuinely connect with people affected by a topic about which you care deeply enough to have written a book.

Self promotion is not self service. Yes, fanfare the news of your new book from the rooftops. But also gently play the symphony of support, solutions, and expertise for your grateful listeners.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A on Zoom. This Thursday at 1PM Eastern is the Ask Us Anything Halloween Party—costumes optional, bring your burning questions about platform, promotion and social media. If you’re on the list, you’ll get the link, or sign up here!

How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments

“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

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