by Catriona Troth
Having attended November’s Byte the Book event, with its head to head between Polly Courtney and Richard Charkin, CEO of Bloomsbury, I was thrilled to be asked to take part in the first Byte the Book of 2014.
Byte the Book is the brainchild of Justine Solomons. The organisation aims to bring together authors, editors and others in the publishing industry, give them a networking opportunity and also educate them about the impact on the industry of technological. Their live events at The Club at The Ivy in central London attract audiences of around a hundred and are followed on Twitter by many more.
The subject for January was Creating an Author Platform in a Digital Age. As someone who is pretty much on the nursery slopes when it come of creating a platform, I might have questioned what I had to offer, but Justine was keen for me to talk about Triskele Books and how our approach, as a collective, differed from that of a lone author.
My fellow panellists on this occasion were:
Alex Heminsley [@Hemmo], freelance journalist and author of Running Like a Girl – “a practical exhortation to ‘ordinary women’ to lace up their trainers, and see what they are capable of.”
Jeff Norton [@thejeffnorton], author of the high-tech thriller series Metawars for young readers; through his production company, Awesome, he is also currently producing a pre-school television show, developing his first feature film, and co-writing books with other talented authors.
Byte the Book has a close relationship with Twitter. The events are not only promoted via Twitter, but those attending are encouraged to tweet live from the event, with their tweets appearing on an interactive board behind the participants. So it was only natural that Justine should begin by asking each of us about our relationship with Twitter.
Alex Heminsley was an ‘early adopter’. “I joined Twitter when it was still rather a silly place,” she said. (“It still is, isn’t it?” said Justine.) In some ways, it could be said that Running Like a Girl grew out of Twitter. A lot of her tweets were about running – “When you’re running, you can still have spare energy in your thumbs,” – and she began to find people tweeting to ask her to recommend a book about running. There were plenty of them, but they tended to focus on technical things like training plans. That wasn’t what she was looking for and she sensed that it wasn’t what her followers were looking for either. So classic answer to the problem – if there is a book you’d like to read that doesn’t exist yet, write it yourself!
My relationship with Twitter was much more recent. I only joined about eighteen months ago.
“I was pretty sceptical at first, but I have become a massive enthusiast. I made a conscious decision from the start that I wasn’t going to chase the maximum number of followers. I couldn’t see the point of having ten thousand followers if only ten of them were actually interested in reading what I had to say. So well before my book was published, I focused on interacting with people who were interested in the same issues as I was, following them and posting stuff I thought they would engage with. I guess you could say my aim was to find what author and self-publishing guru Dan Holloway calls ‘A Thousand True Fans.’ I am still a long way from achieving that, but the goal is there.”
Jeff Norton’s position is different again. Although he is an enthusiast for Twitter, his audience is not to be found online. (“Either they’re not allowed on social media, or they don’t use it because, now mum and dad are doing it, it’s no longer cool.”) On the other hand, he has a captive audience.
“My readers are legally obliged to be in school six hours a day, five days a week – I always know where to find them. And you know what? They love to be in the same room with you and be able to look you in the eye.”
All three of us agreed that the most important thing – however you achieved it – was to make a real connection with readers.
As Alex said, “If you went to a party and someone came right up to you and just kept saying ‘my book’s out on Thursday; my book’s out on Thursday,’ you’d pretty soon start to avoid them.”
Justine asked Jeff about his background in branding, and how an author might define their own brand.
“It’s much harder to create a brand for an author than it is for a product. You take a glass of water; you give it a name – that’s Febreeze. It can be painful for an author to reduce themselves to three words, but it can be useful. But more important than that is to be compelling and to be consistent.”
I was then asked to explain the difference between being self-published and working in a collective.
“First of all, Triskele is not a company. (We took one look at the fact that we lived in three European countries, one of which was not even in the EU, and decided not to go there.) We each pay for the publication of our own books and receive our own royalties. So what do we do together?
“We hold each other to a high standard. We co-edit one another’s books, as well as using the same thoughtful and meticulous proofreader, Perry Iles. We share a wonderful designer – JD Smith – who creates all our covers and does our interior formatting. But most importantly, we share the marketing.
“We have a shared website and blog, and we take turns to write for it and for other guest blogs. That way we are not constantly trying to come up with something new to say but can pass the buck to the next in line.
“As Jeff said, it can be pretty tough to try and define yourself as a brand and then keep talking (however politely and obliquely) about how good you are. But to talk about how great everyone else in the group is, and at the same time to share our experiences with other writers – that’s something else again.”
At this point we arrived at the coolest part of the evening for me. In my enthusiasm, I had been talking faster and faster and the microphone had been drifting away from my mouth, so the back rows were having trouble hearing me. But Jeff Norton could hear me all right. He took the microphone from me and said, “These guys sound like the Wu Tang Clan of indie publishing.”
Now, I am old and boring and I have to admit I had to look this up – but I understood enough to know this was a damn fine compliment. (For those of you who share my ignorance, the Wu Tang Clan are a New York hip-hop group known for launching the careers of affiliated artists collectively known as the Wu-Tang Killa Bees.)
From Alex’s early background in publishing, she was asked what she thought was the most effective way of promoting oneself to sell books.
“Well, the first thing is, you can promote yourself as much as you like, but as a writer you need a text people will engage with. But then you need to think about how you project yourself. If a reader meets you first via social median they are going to want to know: is the person who’s written this going to bug me the whole time I'm reading it?
“And you don’t always have to be super-professional and glossy. Take a book trailer, for example – there is something the Velcro tackiness of a video shot on an iPhone that is very appealing.”
Did I think authors were better placed to promote themselves than publishers?
“I don’t know if they are better placed, but whether they are trade published or indie, it is a pretty sure bet these days that they are going to have to do it. The trick is to find a balance between what is effective and what you are comfortable with, and then go for it.”
Jeff’s view is that your book is always going to be more important to you than it is to a publisher. “They get their pay check at the end of the month whether your book sells or not.
And Alex’s final advice to authors to help them build a profile?
“Show authenticity and integrity, and create a generous space around you.”
Which sounds like good advice for anyone – in real life as much as on social media.
The next Byte the Book is on Pricing: What are the most effective publishing pricing models? It’s on Monday 10th February, starting at 18:30 at The Club at the Ivy. Tickets are FREE to Byte the Book members, but must be reserved. Non-members pay £15. You can book here.
Future events can be viewed here.
If you can't make it to an event, you can get live updates during the evening – or catch up with it later – by following the hashtag #bytethebook on Twitter.