The Tech-Savvy Writer: Embrace Technology, Establish Your Online Presence, and Earn More
Christina Katz | July 2012
Jane Friedman, a well-known future-of-publishing expert and the online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review states, “A writer can have a future without technology, but not a very profitable one. If writers don’t like technology, they should give up word processing, pen/pencil, paper, and books because these are all technology, too.”
We are living in a brand-new economy—the “gig economy,” as Tina Brown coined it—compared to the one writers of the 20th century had to navigate. Today’s economy is global, moves at lightning speed, and can support (in theory, at least) infinite variations of one idea in multiple forms and media formats. Meanwhile, most of the old forms for content, such as books in print, are still selling and selling in more variations. No wonder writers often feel confused about where to put their energy when it comes to embracing technology.
Writers today are cottage industries. If you work with words, all you need these days to get plugged into the global economy is a laptop and an Internet connection. If you have a smartphone and a printer to go with them, you’re ready to do business.
We already live in the gig economy, so we may as well accept ongoing change and evolution as the new standards. We must do this in order to produce our own writing career success if we want to have any business at all, and technology can help. The ability to create and maintain a multifaceted, multimedia body of work is one of the most exciting propositions of the new economy we live in—for those who are willing to embrace it.
The ability to create and maintain a multifaceted, multimedia body of work is one of the most exciting propositions of the new economy we live in—
for those who are willing to embrace it.
Creativity and innovation are in demand, and writers can step up and meet these needs in industry and literature. They just shouldn’t expect to do the exact same things every day. When writers embrace technology, which they have been doing for centuries, new worlds of possibility open up.
As a writer, you are the talent, the idea person, the troubleshooter, the coach, the taskmaster, the producer, the trainer, the accountant, and whatever else you need to become on any given day. Writers have to wear many hats, so get used to them flying on and off your head at astonishing speeds.
The mutable quality of a writing career allows it and you to grow and thrive in directions that might have gone unexplored even a decade ago. If you only did one thing—writing fiction, for example—you might feel crabby when the economy starts to struggle in a way that tips income away from you. But remember: the only thing that is certain is change. Very few people claim writing as their sole source of income these days, and those who do are extremely good at it. But this is not the day-to-day situation for most writers. If you listen carefully, you will hear the successful, established authors like Margaret Atwood point out that starving the creative worker for the benefit of the rest of the food chain is not a sustainable plan.
You don’t have to be a freelancer, if the term is offensive to you. You can become a cottage creative. You can script your own career. You can write the soundtrack, the promos, and the copy. You can write talks, curriculum, bios, blog posts, and workshops. If you can be fairly consistent in what you write over time, with workloads that are manageable for you, then you can succeed.
You can become a cottage creative. You can script your own career. You can write the soundtrack, the promos, and the copy. You can write talks, curriculum, bios, blog posts, and workshops.
So, if you cringe at the mention of technology and writers in the same breath, just remember a few more words from Jane Friedman: “Saying no to technology is like saying no to learning, experimenting, socializing, and new ways of storytelling. Why would you do that?”
You wouldn’t, I hope—not if you could learn skills for using technology to succeed in your career in the short and long terms. If you follow these simple suggestions, you will.
Technology 101 For Writers
The best use of technology is not merely as a one-way broadcast system, although you will use technology to communicate your professional credentials and latest news. However, your use of technology will really work to your advantage when you can make the most of it as a context, rather than just as a billboard.
Before you can get to this exciting stage, you’ll need to start with the basics, which include a website, a blog, email lists, and social media outlets. Once you have covered the basics of an online author platform, you can start to use technology playfully, creatively, and in exciting ways that elevate tools from mere content-delivery systems to dynamic, interactive contexts, where new work can be born from interactions spontaneously taking place between writer and readers.
An interactive context where new books and other types of materials are constantly born is the new publishing nirvana. But if you want a piece of the action, you are going to need to master the basics first.
Create a simple and straightforward website the first time around that focuses not only on what you’ve accomplished but also on what you have to offer. Writer websites often progress from simple to more complex over time.
Level One: The Targeted Miniportfolio
If a writer already has published work and wants to share the news with editors or agents, a miniportfolio works well. The simplest miniportfolio can be posted using free blogging software like Wordpress.com. All you need is some copy to introduce yourself to targeted readers, an “About” page that describes your professional experience, a “Clips” page so editors can easily pull up samples of your work, and a “Contact” page. Make sure you select a template that isn’t distracting to the reader, and put your best head shot on your “About” page. For the best results, keep your first website clean and focused on just the facts.
Level Two: The Expanded Portfolio
The nice thing about a miniportfolio site is that you can expand it easily as you continue to grow and earn. What other pages might you add? Some ideas might include a summary of any personal or business writing services you offer, or a “Testimonials” page with positive comments from professionals you’ve worked with. If you start blogging, you can link to a blog hosted elsewhere (which is what I recommend, if you are new to blogging or unsure about your topic). And don’t forget to add social media buttons if you participate on such sites in a professional capacity.
Level Three: The Global Presence
When you begin to have something to sell, like a first book, an ongoing class, or a series of workshops or presentations, it’s probably time to upgrade to a professional-quality site. You can do this yourself, or you can hire a web designer to create a professional-quality web presence for you. Sometimes a professional upgrade doesn’t include a lot of new or different information from what the free site had, but a designer’s touch can make a big difference on the effect a site has. If you do nothing else to preserve your technological options in the future, be sure to purchase the URL that is either your name or the public variation of your name that you wish to use (if, for example, your name is already taken). A good designer can take it from here. Or you can use your technological knowledge to build your own professional-quality site.
Similar to the evolution of your first website, a few practice blogs might have to happen before you find your posting groove. Perhaps it’s even fair to say that we are all in a constant state of outgrowing the blogs we have now. This is fine, so long as the interface between your website and your blog is flexible, so you can either drop or add blogs as needed, or make easy tweaks to your built-in blog that allow it to evolve with your career.
Common advice suggests adding a new site and blog every time you add a new book. But I say, don’t spread yourself this thin. Create a home base you can commit to in the long run, and plan to update it as you go along. Your latest work is always going to be the one you tout the most. But in the digital age, where digital products can last forever, there is no longer any reason to leave your past works behind. Build your professional online presence deep while also keeping it simple and making it easy to navigate. An ongoing blog can help you keep your readers updated on the latest news without the need for a major website update every week.
What will you post on your blog? That’s easy: you will report on whatever is of most interest to your readers. Here are a handful of ideas to get you started:
- The latest news on your topic
- Your opinion on the latest news on your topic
- Your professional news and appearances
- Thoughts on what you are writing right now
- A response to a hot topic online that is relevant to your work
- Something inspiring to you, your readers, or both
- A photo-inspired post
- A roundup of other people’s posts on a topic
- One incredibly helpful tip
- A list of refreshingly insightful tips
- A roundup of your previous posts on a topic
- A list of your most recent successes
- Dates and countdowns to new products and services
- A funny top-ten list a la David Letterman
- Q&As with people you respect and recommend
- A book giveaway for a specific kind of comment
- Invitation for very specific types of guest posts you’d like to host
Your Email Lists
Writers have this crazy idea that everyone is equally interested in what they have to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know for a fact that my mother could care less about the writing classes I will offer in September. But I also know that my former students not only want to know, but also need to know months in advance, if I expect to have any students in my classes come fall. This is just one example, but you get the picture.
Writers have this crazy idea that everyone is equally interested in what they have to say. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Therefore, break your contacts into types of lists and only send each list what they actually care to hear about from you. And never let anyone try and convince you that email lists are passé. When you are in the writing business, custom communications are your ticket to long-term success. Just be sure to send folks what they want to receive and always use 100 percent permission-based marketing. Software like Constant Contact or Mail Chimp can help you get into the habit.
Here are examples of types of lists to create and nurture over the years:
- Your readers and fans
- The traditional media
- Top bloggers in your niche
- Book reviewers
- Your professional colleagues
- Event planners and organizers
- Your students
- Your friends
- Your family
Your Social Media Outlets
Social networking is important, but only if the work you are doing is important first. The best “paid” blogging or tweeting gigs you can get as a writer are going to come from selling your own products and services directly to your audience, whether you partner with a publisher to create them or not.
Think of social media as professional outreach. Social media is the last thing you do when you are setting yourself up in the world as a communications professional. It’s not more important or most important; it’s simply a natural extension of how you express your professional platform authentically in the online world.
The two key words for social networking are caring and sharing. Knowing who you care about and actively reaching out to those readers are tantamount to success in our connected economy. It’s OK to slip in what you offer while you are caring and sharing; you are allowed to earn a living, as long as you don’t overdo it. If you overdo it, folks will simply stop listening and find someone else who cares more genuinely.
For social media outlets, you can use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Pinterest—whatever works for your readers. Just follow the instructions on each site to set up your accounts appropriately and adjust your settings according to what you want and need.
View social media channels as communication tools for spreading the word about your platform. If your platform development is just another to-do list or litany of musts and shoulds, this feeling of “have to” will come through in your communiqués loud and clear.
Instead of directing your energy outwards willy-nilly, pull people in. Rather than accosting others with your agenda, share your plans and engage in dynamic interactions that are mentally stimulating and inspiring for everyone involved. Remember, you have to be interesting to garner interest. If you do interesting things to engage readers, you will be interesting to them.
Your Well-Rounded Online Platform
There is an art to platform-building, just as there is an art to writing, selling, specializing, and continuing to evolve as a creative businessperson. Your platform is simply everything you do as a professional in your writing career. View your platform as a lifelong creation that grows and evolves alongside your craft. In the long run, you have to keep your platform fresh for readers and for yourself or you might encounter burnout on both sides.
Even if you work for others, I suggest you work for yourself first, by establishing yourself as an expert and then turning your expertise into multiple income streams over time. There has never been a more enterprising time to be a writer, and there are many ways of earning in addition to writing. As the publishing industry provides less money for book advances, it becomes more crucial that writers, who plan to author, have long-term earning strategies of our own even as we partner with others.
It takes a village to write a quality book, but it takes word of mouth to sell that same book and keep it selling. I think disappointment can come with using technology if you rely solely on online tools. If you look at best-selling or even mid-list authors, you will notice that they mix things up. They combine online activities with live activities, experimenting with the proportions until they create the best results. Successful authors are interested in connecting in person and online with their audiences, no matter how exhausting it is to go on book tour.
Forget overnight success. Grow your body of work. Build up your following over the years. Pay attention and be responsive to the needs of readers.
So if you are wondering if you should speak on a panel, offer a workshop, or start an event for readers locally, perhaps you should, if you can manage the time and energy investment. Personal interaction with your readers will pay off in the long run. You can lay the groundwork for a strong, lasting, evolving platform online, but be prepared to get out there and interact with real, live people, or you are going to miss out on developing that all-important connection with your audience.
Forget overnight success. Grow your body of work. Build up your following over the years. Pay attention and be responsive to the needs of readers. Use technology to make all of this easier and more fluid. In time, your readers will pay you back with their attention, loyalty, and enthusiasm for spreading the word about you and your work.
Christina Katz is the author of three books from Writer’s Digest: The Writer’s Workout, Get Known Before the Book Deal, and Writer Mama. Her writing career tips and parenting advice appear regularly in national, regional, and online publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and a BA in English from Dartmouth College. ChristinaKatz.com.