by Anne R. Allen
A year ago I ran a series on how to blog that went viral and got mentions on a lot of prestigious blogs. I went on to teach blogging and social media at the Central Coast Writers’Conference. The following is an overview of part one of my beginning blogger course. Next week, I’ll run part two: “HOW NOT TO BLOG.”
NOTE: please don’t take anything I say here as dogma. As a certified Old Hippie Chick and lifelong Authority-Questioner, when I step in a pile of dogma, all I want is to scrape it off my shoe.
Which is probably why I ran afoul of the Amazon Review Taliban in the last couple of weeks. Boy, howdy did I learn my lesson, (although my little incident of stepping in it also got me a sympathetic mention on Porter Anderson’s must-read publishing industry round-up Writing on the Ether this week.)
So please note:
I do not now—nor will I ever—dictate what anyone must blog, read, write, think, review, smoke, or wear.
(Really. I think you look fabulous in that evening gown, Mark.)
These are my own observations of what seems to be working right now. But creative people are always finding ways to get around rules. It’s one of the things creativity is for. If you hate blogging, please–go find a more interesting way to promote yourself and come back and tell me about it. I’d love to feature your experiences here.
So: do you absolutely need to have a blog if you want to sell books?
Nope. But it just might help..
Even a couple of years ago, only nonfiction writers needed “platforms,” but that’s changed. Even the Big Six publishers expect authors to do most of our own publicity.
And what is a platform?
It’s the network of people who know you well enough that they might buy your book. All social networking sites contribute to it. So joining RedRoom, Goodreads, Kindleboards, Absolute Write, She Writes—or any of the smorgasbord of writer schmooze-rooms—will help build platform. So pick a few and join up. But not too many: remember this is about promoting your writing, not keeping you from it.
The point is to get your name out there where the Google spiders can find you.
Why? Here’s a quote from Oak Tree Press acquisitions editor Sunny Frazier that might answer your question:
“I don’t read the query (sorry aspiring writers!) I look for two things: genre and word count. Then I Google the author. I’m looking for the number of times the writer’s name appears on the Internet. I’m searching for a website or any attempt to build a platform.”
Yup. She checks your presence on the Interwebz before she looks at your writing. Sad but true.
Before I started blogging, if anybody Googled me, they’d find me on maybe page 20 in the endless string of Anne Allens. If you Google me now, you’ll get 20 pages of mostly me. And I’ve only been blogging a little over two years.
The three major pillars of most writing platforms are Facebook, Twitter and your Blog.
The greatest of these is your blog. This is where you get to be 100% yourself however many characters it takes.
Here’s what publishing guru Jane Friedman says:
“All serious writers need this kind of hub so they can start learning more about their readers and formalizing a connection with them. Facebook, Twitter, and other sites help you find readers and connect, but those connections can disappear at any moment, or gradually over time–but with a blog, they can always find you.”
That’s why a website you have to pay somebody to update for you isn’t as useful. People want to connect with you—not your web designer. The difference between a website and a blog is the difference between putting an ad in the Yellow Pages or personally giving somebody your phone number. Blogs are friendly. And if you have a blog, you don’t need an expensive website. Here’s what Nathan Bransford said about formal websites:
“The thing about author websites is pretty simple, in my mind. They’re expensive. Are they worth the return on investment? I don’t know. I can’t think of a time I’ve ever bought a book based on a visit to an author’s website. But I have definitely bought books based on author blogs. I know I may not be the average reader, but I still have a hard time seeing how it’s worth the investment unless the website is really spectacular.”
Does a blog sell books?
Not directly. But it helps in lots of indirect ways. I found my publishers through my blog. I got to know Ruth Harris through my blog—and most of the people who are hosting my blog tour. Networking pays off.
A lot of blogging advice is for professional bloggers who are looking to make money selling ads on the actual blog. That’s not what you want as an author. You want a fun, inviting place where people can visit and get to know you—a home rather than a storefront.
I had to learn blogging by trial and error—lots of error. So here’s the stuff I wish somebody had told me.
20 Steps To Starting Your Own Blog
1) If you don’t do it yet, spend a couple of weeks reading a bunch of writing and publishing blogs before you jump in and create your own.
See what you like and don’t like. Agent blogs and some of the popular indie-publishing blogs are good for meeting people at all stages of their careers. I especially recommend Nathan Bransford’s blog because he’s a publishing insider and a social media guru as well as a successful MG author. He’s also a smart, classy guy. Plus his blog has forums where you can get to know people.
2) Comment and interact with other commenters.
You only have to say a few words of agreement or disagreement, or offer your own experience about the topic. Lots of writers have a “blogroll” in their sidebar with a list of other great writing blogs. Start clicking around. If you like what somebody says, click on their name in the comments and you’ll get their profile and you can go visit their blog. Comment there and Bingo, you’ve got a potential follower.
3) It’s easier to comment if you have an online profile, so I suggest you sign up at Gravatar.com.
This gives you an online profile that’s compatible with all blogging platforms. Upload a picture—a smiley one of yourself is best. There’s room for a short bio and your contact info. Make sure you post an email address. That’s why you’re doing this—so people can find you. If you’re on Facebook, Goodreads, Google + or whatever, post the link. If you’re on Google + (which I like, because it’s kind of quiet and low-key) you’ll already have a Google profile, but it’s helpful to have a Gravatar profile, too, because it’s compatible with all blogs.
4) Choose a blogging platform.
The biggest free blogging platforms are WordPress, Tumblr, LiveJournal & Blogger. Tumblr is a platform for short posts, videos and pictures—something between a blog and Twitter. You can also have a blog on your personal website, or on a writer’s forum like RedRoom. But these aren’t as likely to be picked up by search engine spiders, so if your goal is to be more Googleable, I suggest using a more popular platform.
I use Blogger (owned by Google, with addresses that read “blogspot.com”) because it’s the easiest to set up and use—and has some really pretty templates. But Blogger does have some drawbacks. Whole continents get blocked periodically—probably by Blogger’s fierce spamblockers. And for a while there, we were all losing our follower widgets, and some people couldn’t get into their own blogs. But the glitches eventually get ironed out.
People who are more tech-savvy love WordPress. You can get step by step instructions here. Jane Friedman loves WordPress. And it has the advantage of being easily translated into an ebook. Very cool.
4) Decide on a focus and tone for your blog.
Blog gurus will tell you to address a niche, but I’m not sure any more if that’s the best way to start. I think the most important thing is to develop a strong personal voice and be flexible. And don’t plan to blog about writing all the time. There are an awful lot of us out here doing just that and you want to provide something fresh.
Roni Loren—a fabulous romance author and popular blogger who is going to be visiting us on December 18th—has written some of the best posts on blogging I’ve read. She’s pointed out she’d never have the following she does if she’d started with a niche blog. She started out as a YA writer and switched to erotic romance. Yeah, a tough switch.
Beginning author-bloggers form a wonderful community. That community can help you in hundreds of ways, so don’t worry too much about seeming like a ‘professional” blogger right away. Be real, flexible, open and friendly and you can ease into your niche later.Remember the most successful blogs reveal the writer’s personality and provide something useful at the same time. Even if you choose to be a niche blogger like me, keep flexible.
Don’t focus on one book or lock yourself into one genre, especially if you‘re a newbie.
Zombies could invade the second draft of what started out as a cozy mystery. Or a Victorian romance could veer into steampunk. Romance writer Rosa Lee Hawkins might decide to become dark, brooding R. L. Hawk. She doesn’t want to be stuck with that pink, lacy blog—or betray her romance-loving followers. You can always add stuff, but it’s harder to take it away.
5) Think of a title and subheader.
Don’t get too creative here.
Make sure you put your own name in the title. Your name is your brand.
Yes, I know most blogs you see have names like “Musing, Meandering and Muttering,” but this really isn’t a good idea.
Anywhere you go online, you want to promote your brand, or you’re wasting time (time you could be writing that opus that’s the reason for all this, remember?) It’s OK to be unimaginative like me and call it YOUR NAME’s blog—maybe reducing the ho-hum factor with something like “Susie Smith, Scrivener.” The advantage to using your own name is—
- When somebody Googles you, your blog will come up, instead of that old MySpace page you haven’t bothered to delete, or the picture of you on Spring Break in Cabo in 2006. Yeah. That one.
- You don’t get boxed into one genre. (I strongly advise against starting different blogs for different books. One blog is hard enough to maintain.)
If you need to be convinced of the “your name is your brand” thing, read social media maven Kristen Lamb.
6). Choose a couple of photos from your files.
Usually one of yourself for your profile, and another to set the tone. And of course your book covers if you have them for sale. Try to keep with the same color scheme and tone.
If you write MG humor, you don’t want your blog looking all dark and Goth, and cheery colors will give the wrong message for that serial killer thriller. Romance sites don’t have to be pink, but they should be warm, inviting and a little sexy or girly.
Also, if you have a website or Twitter page, aim to echo the tone and color in order to establish a personal “brand” look.
7) Prepare a bio for your “About Me” page.
This is the most important part of the blog. Make it intriguing and funny without giving TMI. You can add some more pics—maybe of your dog or your funky car. Keep family out unless it’s a family blog. Pseudonyms for kids are a smart idea for protecting their privacy..
8) Go to a friend’s blog.
If they use Blogger or WordPress, there will be a link at the top that says “create blog.”
9) Click on “create blog.”
Follow directions in the window. They’re easy. In Blogger anyway.
10) Choose a template.
Don’t mess with the design too much, except in terms of color—a busy blog isn’t a place people want to linger. And don’t add animation really big files or anything that takes too long to load. Keep with your color scheme and tone.
11) Pick your “gadgets.”
There are lots. But again, keep it simple. I suggest just choosing the basics like about me, followers, subscribe, share and search this blog. Share is the thing so people can Tweet or FB or + your post. You want this to happen.
You can go back and add anything you want later. Later you’ll want your archives and most popular posts. Just go to your “design” tab to find more. If you Tweet, get a twitter button. (Google “Twitter buttons”) Don’t choose an animated one, though—they’re cute but they slow your load time.
In a little while, you’ll want to install the gadget that posts links to your most popular posts. That makes people want to move around the site and not leave after they’ve read one thing.
I don’t recommend putting your stats on the front page “so many hits” or whatever. It will only advertise that you’re a newbie and might make you sad. Do keep track of your stats on your own dashboard, but remember it takes about a year to get a blog going at full stride. So don’t obsess. Yes, you will have weeks when you have two hits. My blog had five in its first three months.
But checking stats is actually a good idea because you can see where your traffic is coming from. If you suddenly get 40 hits from one address—go check it out. Somebody’s posted a link to you. You may have a new friend you didn’t even know about.
12) Set up privacy settings.
I suggest making no restrictions on new posts. Don’t make every comment wait for your approval before it goes live. You won’t get a discussion going that way. Monitor your blog yourself instead. I’ve personally found that 99% of commenters are friendly.
Also, I suggest turning off the “Captcha.” word verification thingy. Spambot programmers are learning to get around them and they don’t screen out most spam. (That’s done by the spamblocker, which will work just fine without Captcha.) But the two or three extra steps annoy people and keep them from commenting.
But DO have every comment over a week old sent to you for approval. Old posts attract spam and trolls.
13) Sign up for email notification of new comments
That way you can respond to them in a timely way. If commenters give an email address in their profile (always smart) you can respond to them via email, but I prefer to respond in the comment thread to stimulate discussion.
14) Upload those photos.
But not too many. One per post is good. This is a WRITING blog. And NO MUSIC. People read blogs at work. And on their phones. Even though you’re sure everybody on the planet adores the classics of the Abba catalogue, some of us don’t. Trust me on this.
It’s that easy. But don’t forget to:
15) BOOKMARK your blog,
Or you may never find it again. You’d be amazed how many people set up a blog only to have it disappear forever into cyberspace.
16) When you go back to your blog, click “sign in”
Then click “new post” to get inside the blog. What they call the “back” of the blog.
17) Keep to a schedule.
Decide how often you want to blog—I suggest once a week to start—then do it. Preferably on the same day each week. Most blog gurus will tell you to blog more often, but I have a pretty highly rated blog and have never blogged more than twice in one week.
I follow something called SLOW BLOGGING. It’s like the slow food movement. Quality over quantity.
Joining the Slow Blog movement is simple. Start a blog and announce you’re planning to post on alternate Tuesdays, or every full moon, or whenever. Or if you already have a blog, next time you miss a few days, tell yourself you didn’t FAIL to blog; you SUCCEEDED in joining the Slow Bloggers. All you have to do is skip those boring apologies, and you’re in.
18) Write your first blogpost.
So how do you write for a blog?
- A post should be 600-1200 words presented in short, punchy paragraphs. (Do as I say, not as I do—This is one long-ass post. Sorry.)
- Bulleting, numbering and bolding are your friends. Make a point and present it in a way that’s easy to grasp.
- Offer information and interesting observations, not navel-gazing. Direct your focus outward, not inward. (And keep to nonfiction. Blogging your fiction isn’t a great idea for a number of reasons, which I’ll go into next week.)
- If you have more to say than fits into a few paragraphs—great! You have material for next time.
- Keep to one topic, because that stimulates conversation more effectively. If you have dozens of short things to say—Tweet them.
- Always ask a question of your readers at the end. It makes people feel involved and stimulates discussion.
19) Go tell those blogfriends you’ve made that you’ve got a blog.
Hopefully, a few will follow. Don’t despair if you don’t get a lot of followers right away. I had maybe ten for my first six months—consisting of my critique group and my mom.
20) Congratulations. You are now a blogger.
Really. It’s that easy.
What about you, scriveners? Do any of you regular bloggers have suggestions for newbies? Newbies, do you have any questions? We’ll be glad to help.
This week I’ll be making two blogtour stops. I’ll be visiting Roni Loren’s legendary blog, Fiction Groupie on Monday, December 4th, talking about that scary question of whether that first novel can find a publisher.
posted by Anne R. Allen (@annreallen) December 4, 2011