The core of the author platform is unchanged — it's the tools that are rapidly changing

Author Jeff Potter on the changing role of the author and how to market your own book.

Digital not only is affecting the way books are produced and consumed, it’s also affecting the way readers and authors interact. In the following interview, Jeff Potter (@cookingforgeeks), author of “Cooking for Geeks,” talks about the changing author platform, which is requiring authors to don marketing hats and connect with readers directly. He says the book as a product is expanding to include the conversations and communities surrounding the book.

Potter will expand on these ideas at Mini TOC Austin on March 9 in Austin, Texas.

Our interview follows.

What is an “author platform” and how is it different today from, say, 10 years ago?

Jeff_Potter.pngJeff Potter: There is so much amazing writing available online, whether curated by hand (New York Times, The Atlantic) or by community (Reddit, Hacker News). Readers today can satisfy most of their reasons for reading for little time and money. That’s a pretty big hurdle for a book author to compete with. I realized that, in order for people to want to spend time with my book, it was going to have to fit into a lifestyle that’s already full of amazing, quick content.

Readers are buying books as experiences, not just for the facts or knowledge, and a component of that is the author-reader relationship. A decade ago, it was a very one-directional conversation: The author wrote and the reader read; ideas and questions rarely flowed from reader to author or from reader to reader. Today, that’s no longer the case. Readers tweet me questions; they file errata and corrections on O’Reilly’s site; they send me messages. The “book” is no longer the product — the product is now the conversations and community that grow around the book.

Historically, an author’s job was done when the final manuscript was submitted, maybe along with a minor number of press interviews after the book launched. The author platform today has expanded to include fostering that online community and supporting readers. Being an author is about communicating ideas, not about writing a book, and once framed this way, it’s easy to see that an author’s platform, at its core, is unchanged — anything that helps the author spread ideas and excite readers — but that the tools for doing this are rapidly changing.

What are some of the key ways authors can connect with readers?

Jeff Potter: Google Alerts and Twitter searches, these are some of my favorite things. Readers will tweet out or blog about my book without even thinking that I might see it. I make a habit of responding, even if only a short comment (“Glad you liked it!” or “Let me know if you have any Qs”), and I can’t tell you how many times that’s blown people away and led to a fun conversation.

As for blogging, and this is just me, I find it to be more work than it’s worth to post regularly, but that’s probably more an artifact of who I am and the particular topic I deal with. There are tons and tons and tons of food blogs; coming up with something novel and not just being an echo chamber is harder in this field. If, however, you’re dealing with a specific topic and can create a blog of real value to your community, definitely do that.

In marketing your book “Cooking for Geeks,” what were some of the most successful tactics you used?

GeeksCover.pngJeff Potter: In a nutshell, being creative and coming up with tactics that fit my audience and message. I was incredibly lucky to have my book come out the same month that JetBlue sold its “All You Can Fly” pass — I put up a blog post that read, “If you buy a box of books, and JetBlue flies to your city, I’ll come and give a talk.” This worked out amazingly well. I didn’t have to deal with cash or selling book-by-book — I had the boxes of books shipped ahead of time, and I got to go to events where someone else was excited enough to have me come and speak that they made sure there were plenty of people for a fun talk. And by selling a box (using my author’s discount), I was able to pay for my costs along the way. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was an incredible experience.

In the interest of offering something directly actionable, here’s my quick punch-list of things that I recommend:

  1. Have a website for your book that comes up right away in Google when searching for the title. (Change the title if necessary!)
  2. On the main page, have a very clearMedia / Press” section.
  3. On your press page, give the following information:
    • List your contact info, including a phone number (You can remove it after a few months; get a Skype or Google Voice number if you prefer.)
    • List two or three bullet points of what makes your book unique (from the viewpoint of what would be interesting from the journalist’s readers perspective).
    • Photos of you and your book, with a permission release.
Mini TOC Austin — Being held March 9, 2012 — right before SXSW — O’Reilly Tools of Change presents Mini TOC Austin, a one-day event focusing on Austin’s thriving publishing, tech, and bookish-arts community.

Register to attend Mini TOC Austin

What advice would you offer to new authors just starting out?

Jeff Potter: This is going to sound cheesy, but write a good book that readers want. Worrying about publicity and even author platform stuff is much further down the list, compared to having something interesting to share. So, to that extent, here are a few tips I wish I’d been given on day one on how to write a book.

  • Dedicated time; dedicated space. This is the magic formula that I hear over and over from successful creative people. Whether it’s a dedicated writing desk or a table at a café, find a space where you can get into the act of creating content. And then carve out time in your schedule to go there. The hardest challenge, I found, was to get the proverbial pen and paper ready to go. Once out, things seem to take care of themselves, at least most of the time.
  • Do creating separate from editing. The act of creating is about adding words (or paint or clay or cocoa powder); the act of editing is removing the weaker ideas. Trying to do both at the same time is like trying to play tug of war with yourself: You’ll end up exhausted and in exactly the same spot you started.
  • WIIFM: “What’s in it for me?” Every single sentence is there for the benefit of the reader. Not you, the writer, nor your editor, nor as an inside joke between you and a friend. (Well, maybe some of that’s okay, right Marlowe?)
  • Know who you’re writing for, and write for them. Don’t worry about trying to make something “broadly appealing.” For me, I wrote the book I wish I would have 10 years ago when just starting out in the kitchen. It was that simple.
  • Answer one and only one fundamental question in your book. The “Cooking for Geeks” question was: “How do you go into the kitchen and have fun cooking?” As a corollary to this rule, develop a simple litmus test for anything you’re putting in your book. In “Cooking for Geeks,” everything had to be a) fun or interesting, b) directly applicable, and c) answer the fundamental question.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite quotes. Stephen King: Writing is “like crossing the Atlantic in a Bathtub” (I’d add “with a teaspoon as an oar”). And Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Writing a book is the single hardest thing I have done in my life. It’s also the most rewarding.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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