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Author platforms and the Black Box Effect

If you’ve spent as much time reading author blogs as I have, you may have noticed a disturbing pattern. In nearly every “here’s how I did it” post in which the author explains her route to greater visibility and sales, there comes a point when something happens that the author did not plan for or expect, that puts her over the top.

I call this the Black Box Effect: the degree to which authors are still mostly in the dark about what makes their book marketing and platform-building efforts succeed. For authors to take full advantage of this incredible time in publishing we need to reduce that effect, which means we need better data, and better tools to help capture and measure the data that already exists. So I went to Author (R)evolution Day last week to see how far along we are in chipping away at the edges of that black box.

Happily, we are further along than many authors realize.

I should back up for a moment and note that author platforms were only part of the ambitious agenda for Author (R)evolution Day. #ARDay, as it was fondly referred to, was in fact several events in one. Attendees got an overview of publishing, a call-to-arms against DRM, crash courses on copyright and metadata, and hot conversations about community-building, production, distribution, and discovery models.

I will focus here on some key takeaways and promising methods for minimizing the black box effect. For a complete archive of event coverage, go here.

What’s an Indie Author anymore?

Agent provocateur Jason Allen Ashlock pointed out that “indie author” is not an accurate term for what is now more of a team sport. Authors do best when they collaborate with editors, designers, and many others to publish their work. And moderator Kristen McLean presented some compelling numbers from DBW on the advantages of being a “hybrid” author: they earn on average $10,000 more per year than traditionally published authors, and $31,000 more than authors who are solely self-published.

Eve Bridburg of Grub Street spoke about the importance of authors supporting each other in finding the best avenues to discoverability, and on redefining success as something greater than just book sales. Author platforms, it seems, are intricately networked with one another and should reflect a well thought-out strategy extending beyond a single book.

Make it free

No, we blessedly did not discuss Kindle ebook pricing. Rather, we looked at free in terms of how to give readers that strong incentive to read our books. Rob Eagar suggested that it only takes one good reason, and laid out quite a nice assortment of marketing ideas, including offering exclusive unpublished writing in blogs, PDF downloads, and pre-launch emails.

One of the liveliest sessions was on Community-Driven Publishing, where free extended to podcasts and chapter readings, offering new content on Wattpad, and using Glossi to make gorgeous magazine giveaways. Kickstarter and Pubslush were compared, and it will be very interesting to see how the newer but more book-focused and analytics-rich Pubslush platform grows in the coming year.

Embracing data, hugging technologists

On the issue of better data, Laura Dawson informed us that while there may not be a map to discoverability, metadata is our gear shift and we ought to know how to use it. That involves cleaning up incorrect metadata associated with your books on all the “new Big 6″: Google, Apple, Amazon, Sony, Kobo, and Nook.

One of my favorite parts of the day was learning about the many promising platforms that offer new production, distribution, and sales tracking tools. Companies such as LeanPub, Net Minds and especially WriterCube are poised to crack open that black box in a big way. Most authors are not early adopters, but I hope Author (R)evolution Day makes these great startups more visible, which will also help them achieve scale and become even more effective.

Keeping it all in perspective

In the end, though, the day’s main message was to pay attention to metrics, but not let them rule the roost (see Rob Eagar’s related article here). Remember that conversations on social media are a two-way street. Keep creating great content. Figure out your overall strategy and goals first, then choose the tactics that work best for you.

The good news for authors is that we’re living and writing in a whole new landscape. You have a gear shift, if not a car. There are plenty of people—agents, publishers and technologists as well as other authors—ready with tools and collaborations to help crack open that black box. And the rest of us are just waiting to hear back about what works for you.

  • http://www.philsimon.com/ Phil Simon

    This sounds like an interesting conference. I also despise the “here’s how I did it” type of book or blog post. Really? Is the pattern repeatable? Probably not. What’s the formula for Instagram? 

    • http://twitter.com/annehill Anne Hill

      I don’t despise them, but like you I despair of finding a replicable pattern. Especially when the success-producing action is some version of “and then this friend of mine told someone else.” 

      I sometimes feel like the best piece of advice for authors building a platform is: First, get a large network of old friends. Who knew it all began in grammar school?!

  • Kristen McLean

    Great summary Anne! Enjoyed meeting you, and really appreciate such a thoughtful summary on what I think was a great day. Kudos. 

    • http://twitter.com/annehill Anne Hill

      Thanks Kristen! Great meeting you too. And thanks for your moderating skills in those last couple panels. They were fascinating discussions, and in my world could have been twice as long.

  • Laurie

    Thanks for attending and keeping the rest of us informed, Anne! It’s an exciting time to be writing and publishing.

    • http://twitter.com/annehill Anne Hill

      You are most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/Brainmaker Suzanna B. Stinnett

    Great window into this year’s TOCcon, which (again) seems pivotal. One big problem we all have is clearly not going away: Integrating new tools. I’ll whine in private about the overload of embracing another round of new tech, because these players are especially shiny. Glossi, Leanpub, Pubslush, all sophisticated tech that speaks to the integration we should be seeing now. I wonder, Anne, do you see these tools as helping traditional publishers cross the bridge to the hybrid author hand-shake? And are any of the tools you’re looking at aimed more at recruiting the value of traditional publishers? Or are they still more about feeding the indie author’s world?

    • http://twitter.com/annehill Anne Hill

      Great questions, Suzanna. I was impressed by the effort that these startups are putting into widening the field for all kinds of authors. Some of the platforms may be more attractive to traditional publishers than others, but I heard no one say that one sort of publishing path was preferable to any other. Choice is the new black.

  • Shojib Ashrafi Na Ashrafi

    You’re already doing a great job with the website and the blog. I love the content here and I’m always glad to come back and read some toughts on photography – be it gear, shooting or something else, loved the recent video for Samsung. I love that it isn’t a gear review site. I’d suggest you keep doing what you are and adding some odd piece of gear you found interesting and think people don’t know enough about or don’t use it enough or in the right way.
    If someone wants a review there are already sites that do them and are doing only that. This site isn’t that and it should never be.It’s not like it’s hard to find a review today for anything.

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