Author Platform Lessons from #1 New York Times Bestseller Rebecca Skloot

Are you a writer who wants to ensure your book finds an audience? Today I am going to review specific lessons that Rebecca Skloot has shared as to how she took her book from an idea that no one wanted to the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List with her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Everything I share below is from an incredible interview with Rebecca by Jason Boog as part of the Mediabistro Literary Festival & Workshops. This program, and so many others by Mediabistro are highly recommended. Full disclosure: I teach an online course for Mediabistro: Digital Content Strategy.

While Rebecca is a nonfiction author, I feel that much of what she shares is applicable to fiction and other types of writers. Okay, let’s dig into the tips she shared:

“The biggest mistake writers make in terms of marketing and publicity for their book is starting too late.” For Rebecca, writing and marketing were intertwined, and she laid the groundwork for marketing 8 years prior to publication. That’s right, she spent EIGHT YEARS considering the marketing channels she needed and the relationships that would be essential to spread the word about her book. She orchestrated her entire professional career as a freelance writer around the idea of building the network and awareness she needed to help ensure the book was successful. By the time the book came out, there were many well-placed people waiting for it and ready to help spread the word.

“Writing is an art and publishing is a business,” she says, and underscores that you need to do both if you want to be read. That yes, writers need to be marketers.

Rebecca didn’t wait for others to give her permission. She printed off her own galleys of the book before publication, and sent them out 100 of them to any “big mouth” she could find who may be interested – people from blogs, Twitter, science insiders and journalists. She credits this with a lot of the conversation and buzz that started a year before the book was released. This happened against her publisher’s wishes – they cautioned her about creating buzz too early. But she found that the sooner she got people interested, the more invested they felt in the process and the more likely they were to talk about the book once it was released.

Rebecca knew she wanted an excerpt in Oprah’s magazine. So, even though the book wouldn’t be published until 2011, she began pitching the staff at O back in 2004. Why? Because she wanted them to want the book when it eventually came out, so she focused on:

  • Establishing the relationships she needed at the magazine.
  • Understanding their process and what they look for in feature content.

In other words: she did her research, and she spent years laying the groundwork, instead of just waiting for “publicity” to happen three months before the book launch. She was invested in the media outlets that she wanted coverage in.

Rebecca offered her services to O Magazine as a freelancer – she would do ANYTHING for them – never turning down an assignment. She focused on their needs first, build relationships with her editor there, who gradually became curious about the book Rebecca was working on. Again and again, she talked about how when you build a relationship by helping, that eventually that person asks: “so, tell me what else you are working on.” By the time her book was ready for publication, Rebecca says it was a “given” that O Magazine would publish an excerpt of it. What’s more: she packaged the excerpt for them in a way that made it SUPER easy for them to publish it, she knew exactly what they would need, and removed barriers. This is what the experience of helping them for 6+ years provided her.

It didn’t stop there. She knew Popular Science, Scientific America, and Wired magazines would be important as well, so she worked hard to get freelance jobs with them, always focusing on helping and building trusting relationships. In other words: she built her freelance career on where she wanted the book to be years later. This allowed her to tailor her book content better for each. For example: for Popular Science, she wrote the article as a list, which they like; for Wired she created an infographic, which they like.

Again and again, Rebecca considered who her audience was, where they would be, and who has access to them. In addition to her freelance writing, she volunteered at conferences, joined boards and ensured she was anywhere book reviewers or those in the media would be.

For events, she would volunteer to organize panels at journalism or science events, and then target & invite specific editors at publications she wanted relationships with. She did the same with agents who may be interested in her book. Most of these people would feel honored to be asked to be on the panel, and would gladly have lunch with her prior. The key here is this: she got to know them as COLLEAGUES, not as an author pitching their book. As she says: she was able to engage them in conversation around the story in her book in a natural setting, in a way where they would be open to learning about it.

She reached out to editors saying “I am a book reviewer, don’t you want to meet me?” and “I am a conference panel organizer, don’t you want to meet me?” and of course they did. But this was part of a strategy: “I knew eventually I would be talking to them about my book.”

Obviously, she walked a line that many writers fear: becoming a marketer. As she says, “It feels weird and smarmy to think of this stuff,” but she knew that unless she was aggressive in forging these relationships, her book would not find the audience she knew it could.

And she knew this would be an uphill battle. When she sent out her original proposal back in 2001, she received many rejections, each of which seemed to say some variation of these two responses:

  • “I see this as an extended magazine article, and not a book.”
  • “I can’t imagine how a book on this topic will reach more than a very limited audience.”

Her goal: prove them wrong. For her marketing efforts, she focused on three things, in this order:

  1. Magazines and media
  2. Book reviews
  3. A book tour

For that last step, she had many hurdles to overcome. She leveraged her network to identify potential speaking opportunities and begged people to cover her travel expenses. She would schedule one university, then hunt for any bookstore she could speak at within driving distance of it.

She had to overcome her fear of public speaking, and learn how to hone her talk. She trained for this. In the end, she never did read from the book at these sessions, but instead engaged her audience in story and conversation.

Rebecca is eager to clarify that while she was strategic in this process, that she was careful to not always be talking about herself. Instead, she talked about the story her book shared, a story that she calls an obsession for most of her adult life. She describes it:

“I wasn’t just saying ‘I have this thing I want from you, and that is it.’ I was an actually really active book reviewer and panel organizer, and really did believe it was important to get all kinds of science writing out there, so I was helping other writers. I was always volunteering. There was a reciprocal community, not just ‘oh, here is that woman who is always talking about her book. That’s the key, it was never all about the book, it was a bout the community of it, making people feel apart of something. It wasn’t just talking about my book, it was me asking ‘tell me what you are doing.’”

During this process, she learned of the value of social media, and especially Twitter. She says she was always showing people how to use Twitter – pushing them online and into conversation.

“People misunderstand Twitter, they think it is about press releases and marketing. But it is about relationships and conversations.”

A key mistake she sees people make again and again on Twitter is to only post status updates about themselves. Instead, she recommends sharing stuff you are interested in, and anyone who would like your book would also be interested in.

“Just be yourself, a human being, not your ‘public persona.'”

When listening to Jason and Rebecca talk, it was clear: this is a ton of work. In all of these years, even after she got a book deal, she went through 2 agents, 3 publishing houses and 5 editors. She had a 2 year battle to get her book back from the 1st publisher because they wanted to remove what she felt was the heart of the story – the family. They wanted to keep it just about the science. They really pushed her, and tried to make her feel she was just lucky to have a book contract. She fought back, and eventually – years later – won.

When she went out again the second time to find a publisher, she had “built this very large group of editors who were very curious to read the proposal.” By this time, she had learned a lot about marketing, and converted the single paragraph in the proposal that spoke to marketing to a full-fledged “marketing plan,” which was about a page and a half in length. She provided specific publicity ideas and made it very clear that she would be acting as a publicist in this process. She also included a long list of famous writers who said they would look at the book for potential blurbs. Her bio was also different because she had spent years writing for national publications.

Whereas the first proposal was a flop, the second one was very well received. It was ironic too, many editors responded that since seeing her first proposal years ago, that Rebecca had clearly become a better writer, had better developed the characters, and story, etc. But the truth was: the proposal was EXACTLY the same as it was back in 2001, except for the marketing plan and her bio.

There was so much interest, and there was a bidding war for the book via auction. She actually interviewed each publisher to ensure she wanted to work with THEM!

How did she sustain herself through this process? I’ll just call it gumption. She was balancing:

  • Freelancing to pay the bills
  • Teaching on the side
  • Writing and researching the book
  • Trying to sell and market the book

This, all over the period of 8 or more years.

“It is devastatlingly exhausting, and you are often struggling because you haven’t yet received royalty payments.”

Is this the path for every writer? Of course not, though Rebecca does feel that marketing will be expected more and more of authors.

You can find Rebecca in the following places:

And you can find those who made this interview possible in the following places:

Thanks so much to Mediabistro, Rebecca, and Jason for such an incredible resource!

What a 17 Year Old Can Teach You About Building an Author Platform

Nikhil GoyalWhat can a 17 year old teach us about building an author platform? A LOT! Today I want to profile Nikhil Goyal, a 17 year old high school student who will be releasing his book on education reform this September: One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. I met Nikhil back at the Writers Digest Conference in January, and was immediately impressed with him. When In the months that followed, I was floored by how professional he was and how quickly he is growing his platform. Recently, he and I chatted about the exact ways he has grown his following and built his credentials, which include mentions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC, Fox Business, and others. He has also spoken at more than a dozen events and conferences this year. He has more than 13,500 followers on Twitter, and amassed this following by discussing series issues in education reform in an intelligent manner.

You can listen to my chat with Nikhil at the bottom of this post, or read the recap below where I outline the big lessons we can take away from his experience in developing his platform over the past year and a half. Let’s dig in…


“The way to build your brand and get people to notice you is to post intellectual things and controversial things, provoking a dialogue.” This is how Nikhil describes his process for the past year and a half.

When I asked how he distiguished his voice among the thousands who are discussing education reform, he told me: “In any field, you have to find a way to distinguish yourself, you have to find your niche. The niche I found is that I am a student, I have been in the system for 13 years, and my voice should be heard. You should be putting your views out there, even though you might get criticism. This allows all different sides to come together.”

The thing that stumped me on the face of this is: there are thousands upon thousands of 17 (and 18 and 16 and 15, etc) year olds out there who are students, whose voice should be heard. Why does anyone care about his voice in a broader sense – why is The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and major conferences getting his viewpoint on education reform? What is his credibility?

He told me how the writing, research, and building an audience for his book provided him a reason to interview people and engage with those active in this field. But it went beyond that. People were interested in a student giving ideas because oftentimes you don’t think of high schoolers engaged in social media in a productive manner. “Age can get you only so far. Your ideas have to be solid, backed by evidence; you have to talk to experts. I engaged with some of the most important people in education,” he told me.

Nikhil and I met at the Writers Digest Conference in January. He attended my session, and came up to me after to introduce himself. This is something I always recommend people do at conferences, but only a small percentage of attendees do. This is how you differentiate yourself, make valuable connections, and turn generalized tips into personalized advice from the speakers. Nikhil was well dressed, gave me his business card, and told me about his book. He was well spoken and brief, being respectful of my time. I know, this seems like a simple thing, but most adults don’t want to wait on a line to chat with a speaker, and freeze in that moment when it’s there “turn” to describe what they are about. So they find excuses to not do it. Nikhil took that risk. From there, he followed up with me via email again and again, and now here I am featuring him on my blog. Risk = reward.

But what really impressed me when we met was this: I told him about an event a week later, Columbia Journalism School was having a “Social Media Weekend” event, and I recommended he attend it. Sure enough, a week later I saw him there. That made me realize how serious he was.

He describes his process of reaching out to others for his book:”I just started researching and spoke to all different kinds of people on all different sides.” He told me how he spoke to authors of books on education reform, those featured in articles about the topic, and the journalists who wrote them.

“People like being reached out to, they like being interviewed. These are simple emails. People ask me the secret to my success and there is no secret sauce. You just have to find something you are good at and engaged in a way that you reach out through events, via blogs, write about them, interview them, and make yourself known in the field.”

This is a huge differentiator for him. 99% of people who want to do what Nikhil does, won’t. Essentially, he is cold calling people. He is forcing himself to be uncomfortable to try to get folks to return an email, do an interview or get on the phone.

He says: “One of the things I try to live by is the question: ‘What is there to lose?’ Okay, they reject you, they ingore your email. So you move on. That is one of the things I have learned: overcoming failure and rejection. Move onto the next person, there is a plethora of different people to talk to.”

Most adults step cautiously, as if they have everything to lose. But Nikhil only seems to see what he has to gain. I’m sorry, but a lot adults spend there whole life trying to get over rejection they felt in high school. Here is someone who doesn’t worry about rejection. That’s rare, and another way that he will find ways to succeed when others just find obstacles.

Nikhil is clearly thinking long-term: “One of the main things I focus on is that anything I put on the internet
is not going to be erased, it will be there forever. You have to watch what you say in Tweets, in Facebook status updates, in articles. When somebody says your name, you want the first thing they say after it to be ‘This person gets stuff done, this person knows how to solve problems, they are a major player in the industry they are involved in.’ You have to have a Google trail, when someone Google’s your name, they have to see your latest blog post, or some articles you were featured in.”

His website and photos of himself are professional – and what he shares on his blog or social media is strongly focused on the same topics. When you see him anywhere, you quickly know exactly what he is about. You know his brand.

Nikhil only started going to events in late 2011, and he used social media just “for fun” before that as well. Then he began speaking, and it snowballed from there.

When you look at the Appearances page on his website, you see the list of events across the US and internationally that he has spoken at or attended. I asked how he ramped up his speaking so quickly: “I have a lot of different favorite speakers. I had no idea what the best conferences were before January of this year. So I made a list of my favorite speakers and where they have spoken and various places I am speaking at. I have a proposal that I tailor to the place I want to speak at, and it’s just a quick email. Most people are pretty receptive. When I started off, I applied to events a few weeks later, but I quickly realized that you have to apply months and months in advance, sometimes a year. So I learned how to understand that market, because you want to go to the best events and attract those in your field.”

But he took it a step further. For the mentions he has received in major media outlets he told me: “I meet a lot of journalists at these various events, and I just ask them to connect me to the Education editor or someone who is lifestyle or culture and I ask if I can write a quick guest post. They are usually receptive.”

He has 13,500 followers, but he has only focused on Twitter in the past year and a half. How did he get so many followers so quickly? Education chats – those weekly hashtag chats on Twitter. Evidently, there are 10-15 chats per week: #EdChat, #StudentVoice chat, #SSchat (reforming curriculum in social studies), etc. So he participates and gets his name out there in a place where very few students are.

Nikhil Goyal's Twitter feed Oh, also this… to the right is a screenshot of his Twitter feed from last night, where he takes the time to thank individual people who shared an article that featured him.

How does he find the time? During the school year, he does a lot of article writing during class, finishes homework during class so he doesn’t have to do much after school. He Tweets during school, pulls up The New York Times on his Kindle and Tweets out interesting articles he’s read. After school and weekends, he devotes his time to the book, which includes lots of interviews.

When I asked his final advice to my readers, he said: “Everyone should have a blog.” When I first met him, I was surprised he didn’t yet blog, and was thrilled to see he began taking it so seriously. “It just helps get your message out there. If they Google your name, they go directly to your blog.”

Again and again, you see that Nikhil focused on the basics: knowing his audience and engaging with them in a meaningful manner. A lot of people have this viewpoint that someone who is 17 that is a “digital native” and grew up on social media lives in some kind of new world of social engagement; that it’s all about texting and Tweeting and Pinning. But Nikhil has leveraged email, knowing how to present himself, his intelligence, and just plain showing up at in-person events and talking to people.

The other day, I had someone pressing me to find a “secret button” (my word, not theirs) in social sites such as Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook that allowed them to essentially blast their message to not just their followers/connections, but to those people’s friends and followers. They wanted to scale without any effort, at the push of a button. There is this impression that is what social media has given us, but that is inaccurate. The basics still matter, and seeing what Nikhil has created in such as short period of time illlustrates this.

You can find Nikhil in the following places:
And here is his recent appearance on Fox Business.

To hear my chat with Nikhil, click ‘play’ below.

A Book Launch is an Investment in a Long-Term Career

Cynthia MorrisIn this guest post, Writer’s coach and author Cynthia Morris shares what she learned from launching her self-published novel. Disclosure: Cynthia was a client of mine, and I helped her strategize her launch process. Also: she’s pretty awesome.

by Cynthia Morris

When I made the decision to self-publish my novel Chasing Sylvia Beach, the possibilities excited me. I knew that creating and launching a novel takes an enormous amount of work. But I also knew that if I found the right perspective, the work wouldn’t seem so daunting.

I chose to lean in to my experience as a businesswoman. After all, I’ve been writing and launching products since 2000. Launching a novel couldn’t be much different, could it?

A month post-launch, I can report that it’s not much different than the other e-books, courses and retreats I’ve launched through my business. But what was different about the novel was the depth of personal connection I have with the book.

Deep in the process of writing seventeen drafts, I had to pop my head up to see the bigger picture. I needed outside, expert perspectives to help me see what I couldn’t and to help me plan the project’s entry into the world.

The process of launching taught me a lot. I now know that the same principles that apply to my business also apply to a novel launch. I worked with Dan Blank to help clarify my vision and develop strategies and tactics to achieve that vision.

Four challenges defined my strategizing, which I began in earnest a year before launch. I needed to:

  1. Define my reader for the novel.
  2. Shift from writer to marketer.
  3. Make good decisions with an eye to the long view.
  4. Be unique in my launch offer.

Investing time
Investing time in the thinking and strategizing process is something many people don’t consider until the eve of the launch. I started a year before launch to plan my content strategy, design my novel’s web site, plan the launch while continuing to build my audience.

The time I invested beforehand helped me feel both empowered and strategic with my launch. Here’s how I responded to the challenges mentioned above.

Defining my readers
In business, the first question to ask is: “Who is my audience? Who would be interested enough in this book to buy it and tell others about it?”

This is a step that many creative people miss. We get so caught up in our ideas, we forget that in order to sell something, it has to appeal to a buyer. A specific kind of buyer.

I know my audience for my business, Original Impulse, where I coach writers through their own creative blocks. I knew I had a lot of reader loyalty but would they want to buy and read my novel?

My initial mistake was to assume that all people in my network would be interested in my book. But I realized that just because they follow me to learn to write more and be more creatively expressed, doesn’t mean they want to read my novel. With Dan’s help, I refined my definition of my reader to help target my marketing efforts.

Shifting from creator to marketer
One of the biggest challenges writers face is not being able to separate themselves from the writing to have the objectivity required to do the marketing.

I wrote Chasing Sylvia Beach because I wanted more people to know about this American expat and her inspiring life as a bookseller in Paris. When I thought about the content I wanted to produce, it was natural that I would tell stories about Sylvia. But it took a bit longer to realize that sharing the themes in my book through stories about my character might also be interesting to readers.

Looking at my themes reminded me that what we value most dearly is what we put into our art. This makes talking about the book less an act of marketing and more an act of sharing what I care about. Writing and speaking about the novel and my process of writing it is a reflection of everything that’s at the core of my life and work.

Making good decisions, and lots of them
Keep trying for traditional publishing or self-publish? Who to hire to design the cover? How to print and distribute? These are the kinds of questions that keep indie authors up through the night.

Inherent in any project lies a million little – and big – decisions. Decision-making is another of the big challenges creatives face: we don’t like choosing. When we choose, we lose possibility, and possibility is the darling of the creative.

We also get hung up on making the right, best decision at every turn. Many of us experience ‘analysis paralysis’. The inability to drive decision after decision is what lies behind millions of abandoned projects.

I wasn’t immune to the daunting responsibility of having to decide about the cover, the author photo, the printing, the launch party. I maintained my momentum by getting professional help from Dan, my mastermind partner Alyson Stanfield and friends.

While I had the ultimate say on everything – one of the best reasons to self-publish – I had a lot of targeted input on my decisions. My influencers helped to drive my decisions to be smarter and more strategic.

Differentiating my book in a crowded market
I knew I didn’t have the pull to drive a mega launch. I wouldn’t hit the New York Times bestseller list and I wouldn’t dominate my category in Amazon. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t create something remarkable and memorable.

Before brainstorming possibilities, I had to identify my motivation for making something special. I wanted to do a limited edition for my readers. I enjoy the direct connection I have with people who buy my e-books and take my classes. It seemed odd to miss out on that with the novel.

Dan encouraged me to bring in my love for illustration and paper products. Part of the reason I wrote a historical novel is my nostalgia for the analog era where paper, pens, books and ink ruled. I wanted to make something that both physically and thematically illustrated the novel.

My original impulse was this: to have a library card pocket in the back of the book with an insert of some kind. I envisioned a folded piece like my beloved Moleskine accordion notebook.

Still, while the form was clear to me, the content wasn’t. It took a long time to gestate, but when the idea crystallized, I did all the art in one marathon rainy day in Denver. I pulled together the stamps, cards, library pockets and then signed and numbered the art included in the limited edition.

In it for the long haul
The sale of this edition went great. The launch party was sweet and satisfying. I’m still assessing the efficacy of my efforts and I’m still taking daily steps to promote my novel.

I’ve been a writer for enough years to know that this career is a long game. We need to find satisfaction from the small victories along the way to our bigger vision. Defining my own success rather than relying on conventional metrics like bestseller or Amazon rankings allows me to continue to own the process.

Sure, I still care about sales and want readers to love the book. But I also know that every investment in this book is an investment in my career as a writer and artist. And those are investments I am willing, and luckily able, to make.

To read more about Cynthia’s book launch process, check out this post: Craft And Connection Takes Time

Is “Platform” Saturated?

I was speaking with an author friend the other day, and she explained how she felt “platform” is saturated. That there are so many people out there trying to develop their own brand – their own audience – their own platform, that it has become a crowded market of people screaming “look at me!” “look at me!” “look at me!” Of course, they don’t actually say that, they say “this is my tribe,” as if the terminology somehow changes things.

Her conclusion was that with so many voices online, that the scale has gone up for attention. That it’s not enough to just get 100 followers on Twitter, or even 1,000. You have to go big or go home. You have to do increasingly crazy things to get attention. The phrase she used is that it is a “reckless chase.” A reckless chase for attention.

She went on to explain how some of the inspirational stories of those who build amazing platforms are those who had a head start. They had found success in before the web boom, and are now increasing that lead by leveraging social media, Kickstarter, and other means.

I loved this conversation.

I have known for awhile that the term “platform” will eventually wane, even if the concepts beneath it are evergreen. One day, we will look back at 2011 and 2012, and remember the term “author platform” as embodying this time period, much as we will remember TV Shows such as Silver Spoons or the A-Team embodying 1984.

For my friend, calling “platform” oversaturated allowed her to make some hard decisions: to blog less, to focus more on content creation than get her name “out there” as an author. The decisions she made are very positive, because she really has several platforms, but that’s another discussion.

And while the term “platform” will indeed come to represent a jaded view of marketing and publicity, I feel that the value of it will not go away, we will simply find a new name for it.

For many writers, the real value of “platform” is about adding muscle, not unnecessary fat. About growing their skills, not about chasing celebrity. It is about building a meaningful connection with others, not becoming a bestseller at all costs, screaming at the top of your lungs.

Some people think the metaphor of a platform is that you stand on it. That the platform you build is one in which you raise your voice and profile above others, so that an audience can see you. I don’t view it that way. To me, platform is about enabling communication. It is about understanding those you hope to connect with on an incredibly deep level. And it is about understanding the language that engages, a language that best embodies what you are about. A platform is nothing more than solid footing. One that is at the same level of the community you engage with. One that they can share, that supports them as much as it supports you.

Why do I still focus on helping writers develop their platform? Because every week, I speak with authors who have made meaningful connections with readers. That their work takes on a life of it’s own, growing, spreading, becoming something more than just a “thing.” It lives. Because a book is not about being an object, it is about having an effect. It is what happens AFTER a book is published that matters. How it shapes peoples lives; how ideas within it are adopted by others, remixed, and executed on. It is about the legacy the book creates, shaping people’s lives in small ways.

I know, I know, the author’s goal is to “write the best book possible.” I get that, and I agree with that. But once you do that… how do you ensure your book has an effect? How do you open up that channel of conversation with those you hope to engage? Because the book itself, as awesome as it is, will just sit there on the shelf. It’s up to you to ensure it matters.


What Is Your Biggest Challenge As a Writer?

Most writers I know have a laundry list of challenges. They try to balance their home life, work life, and writing life, hopefully finding fulfillment with each.

Over coffee and drinks, they tell me where they fall short. Over Skype and through courses, they tell me where they fall short. These conversations are not indications of failure, because, you know, that is life. Every day, we fall short by some measure. But unless we identify and address these issues, how can we improve and each lead the lives we want as writers?

So I created a short 4 question survey to learn more about your challenges as a writer. If you have a moment, I would GREATLY appreciate your feedback and insight:


I am creating several resources for writers that will launch this Fall, and couldn’t be more excited about them. Your answers to the survey will be used to craft these resources ensuring they help other writers in addressing their challenges.