It’s pleasure to bring you this insightful Q&A with writer Sean Platt. As his own website states, Sean Platt writes it all. He writes copy, websites, books, and has most recently developed a new epic thriller series, Yesterday’s Gone, with his writing partner, David Wright.
In addition to my interest in the creation and marketing of his series—described in detail below—I also wanted to get Sean’s take on the role of entrepreneurship and marketing in a novelist’s life. Read on for his passion and wisdom!
You have a successful and fascinating background as an entrepreneur—someone who knows how to write to SELL. You’re now transitioning to the world of fiction. Given the skill set you have, how has this influenced and/or informed your work as a novelist in terms of craft, technique, and process?
I think that might be the best first question I’ve been asked yet.
I’ve only been an online entrepreneur for about three years, but my time as an entrepreneur in general goes back to when I was about 10 or so, selling candy bars, comic books and Garbage Pail Kids on the playground.
I’ve had several businesses since then, but I went online as a writer a few years back and completely forgot my business background, wrongly believing the quality of my writing would be enough to build a lucrative online career.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Any writer who believes their writing is good enough to build BIG business all by its lonesome is looking at a broken road paved with shattered glass. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’ve known plenty of great writers who’ve had to eat a big pile of dirt pie because they thought the strength of their voice would be enough, then went online unprepared, myself included.
No matter what business you’re in, you should understand marketing basics, at least if you want to pull the most potential from everything you write.
It took me a long time to accept this. My inner entrepreneur knew it on a practical level, but the creator in me wanted my writing to be exceptional enough to spread by quality alone.
Being a ghostwriter and writing marketing copy for others fixed my delusion.
But the awesome thing is, though resistant in the beginning, learning the basics of copywriting and persuasion gave me the psychological insight to help me grow as a writer and deliver a better reader experience. And creating the best possible reading experience is what will ultimately help me build a large, engaged audience.
Copywriting is persuasion, and that means writing in a way that gets people to move, feel, think, or take action. In fiction, that means keeping the book in a reader’s hands, get them to turn the pages all the way until the last one, and then tell all their friends.
I thank my lucky stars every day for the road that led me to copywriting. What I once saw as an irksome diversion, I now see as the most valuable tool in my box.
Copywriting has help me instinctively lay an intelligent structure under everything I write, from fiction to sales letters to poetry.
We both know that selling fiction is a harder proposition than selling information. In your mind, what strategies are the same and what strategies are different when tackling the marketing of a novel (or fictional series) vs. an information product?
Selling fiction may be slightly more difficult, but I also believe it’s ultimately more rewarding. If you look at the top 100 paid downloads on Kindle, they’re all fiction. People crave entertainment, an escape from their day-to-day. Readers are more likely to tell their friends about their latest fiction read than they would be with a nonfiction book.
If you become the emancipator of the mundane, and do it consistently from title to title, readers will gladly line up to buy everything you write. So while nonfiction might solve an immediate need, fiction allows you to build a deeply loyal audience.
Of course there are examples on both sides. I’ll buy everything Malcolm Gladwell writes, but most of the auto-buys on my list are from writers who know how to drop me in a world I’ve never been, then push my buttons on every page as long as I’m there.
You can make a great living selling high-priced information, but the info usually comes with an abbreviated half-life. If I write a great piece of fiction, my children can make money from that work even after I’m gone, which is something I absolutely love.
With nonfiction, you have keywords on your side. You can cover an evergreen topic and generate a small return on that title forever. But truly connect with a reader and they’ll be sifting through your back catalogue looking for more.
Fiction helps you to build a legacy, and that’s where I’d like to land.
I’m in a mastermind with a few dozen online entrepreneurs, meeting four times a year. One of the gentlemen in our group has a massive e-book project with BIG dollars behind it. He’s publishing 1,000 nonfiction titles to create a passive income stream that will last him the rest of his life. This isn’t the Kindle spam you’re starting to see a lot of. These books are high-quality and thoroughly researched.
When I told him how much I admired his well articulated strategy and the tremendous care he was putting into his plan, along with the fact that he was publishing 1,000 titles without resorting to the use of PLR, he just laughed, bought me a beer, and said:
“You can write fiction. You’ll build an audience and hit my numbers faster than I can dream.”
I love that. It’s the difference between writing to keywords like you do with SEO, and writing for your muse. Being able to connect with an audience is everything. I love how John Locke did it, researching his market thoroughly, then creating the Donovan Creed character to service that audience.
Tell us about your motivation for developing a series vs stand-alone works. Pros and cons? Do you anticipate this is the future of fiction writing—or is this just something you think works for certain types of writers?
My writing partner, David Wright, and I both love serialized fiction a lot, especially on TV. We’re both big fans of Dexter, 24, LOST, Breaking Bad, etc. We’ve been fascinated with the idea of blending the notes of superbly scripted television with the serialized fiction model first introduced by Dickens a couple hundred years ago, tailored to a modern buyer bred to consume bite-sized content.
Each of our “episodes” is 100 pages or so, which makes them easy to fly through, especially considering they’re specifically written as page turners. We first tried serializing fiction two years back, but did it all wrong. This time, we had to nail it.
One common denominator among authors crushing it on Kindle is that they have multiple titles in the same genre. Dave and I had published six titles by August of this year, but they were in four separate markets. We may as well have had just one.
We wanted to hit Christmas with multiple titles, and serializing a single story was the smartest way to get there without sacrifice. The most important thing was to deliver a remarkable reader experience.
I don’t think serialization is the future of fiction writing, but I do believe it will be a massive trend, starting in like 90 minutes from now. And as you said, I also think it’s suited to a particular type of writer.
Not everything I do will be serialized, far from it. I still love the standalone novel and plan to write plenty. I will say that this particular project, Yesterday’s Gone, is the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. And even though Dave and I set out to write a fun but somewhat trashy page turner, I am ridiculously proud of the end result, and slightly surprised by its depth.
I knew I could write a good book, that’s my job as a ghostwriter, but those usually take a long time. We wanted to write Yesterday’s Gone fast and furious, and I think both of us are a bit surprised at what surfaced in the end.
What are your key marketing strategies? How are you finding (or will you find) your audience? Is there any key principle to how you’re tackling it? Will social media play a big role?
Another great question!
If Yesterday’s Gone was an information product, the launch would consist of me sending out a few e-mails, lining up affiliates, and a bunch of blah-blah blogging that would bore me, and probably you, to tears. But it isn’t. Yesterday’s Gone is both more old-fashioned, and more modern than anything else I’ve seen. And it requires a different strategy entirely.
It would be impossible to hit the critical mass we’re looking for without reaching our core market of readers, yet our networks aren’t large enough to make that happen, nor are we willing to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to get there with paid media.
Our best bet is to reach the influencers, since they’re the ones who can reach the readers. Melt the snow at the top of the mountain to fill the rivers below.
That’s why I’m here taking you up on your kind offer for an interview, it’s why I was on Copyblogger a couple of days ago, and why Dave and I have dozens of interviews, guest posts and profiles lined up throughout the remainder of the year.
Social media is the biggest piece for us. We have well nurtured online audiences and will be using our social media influence to augment our stops on the massive blog tour from now through the end of the year.
What surprises or unexpected challenges have you already faced? Or what do you think is your biggest challenge to come?
The first big hiccup came a few days ago when I saw that Joe Konrath was taking a break from blogging! I had a great strategy, I thought, to grab his attention. I’ve read his work for a long time, and am a big admirer of what he’s done online. I’ve made genuine mention of him in many of my guest posts, and Dave and I were writing something tailored to him to publish next week.
Once I saw that he was taking a break, the strategy went kaput. Unfortunate, but just a small oh well. You can never hang your entire strategy on someone else’s nail anyway.
And yes, I should have e-mailed Joe a month ago when you first suggested it, but I really hate cold e-mailing and believed that if he discovered Yesterday’s Gone on his own, it would be something he would naturally champion, rather than being asked to do so by someone he doesn’t know.
The main challenge is in knowing where to place our focus, though that’s been a challenge every day I’ve been online for the last three years! It is gradually getting better, but we’ll need to run fast over the next 10 weeks or so until Christmas to hit the numbers we’re looking for. It will be a challenge, but I’m confident that once we reach our initial baseline, the quality of our story will carry it the rest of the way.
We’re starting to see a great swell of authors who are more entrepreneurial than ever (both successful and not-so successful), which is quite a new phenomenon in the publishing world. Most authors have depended heavily on publishers, agents, and others to do their marketing and promotion for them. But you’ve been a natural entrepreneur all your life. For authors who are considering the independent publishing route, what advice do you have? What’s the critical mindset—or what are the critical tools—an author must have?
That might be the best question I’ve asked during the entire promotion, Jane.
I might be the biggest advocate of self-publishing you will ever meet. However, I don’t believe it’s for everyone.
It is definitely for me, but that’s because I write fast and all over the place. I want to publish my own work, from children’s to horror to poetry to nonfiction, to everything in between. I’m even interested in writing romance. I also love working with other writers and moving them from good to great, and see myself as a publisher as much as I do a writer. Plus, I spent the last few years learning a heap about marketing, and believe I’m qualified to do the best possible job for myself.
But for writers who only want to write a couple of books, or don’t want to do any marketing or any of the heavy lifting stuff like layout, editing, or the hundred and one tiny things it takes to get a title to market, traditional publishing is probably the way to go.
We’re in the midst of a huge shift, and the rules aren’t set. Things are changing constantly and faster than ever. The best advice I can give is be prepared and don’t settle for anything but your best. You MUST deliver your reader the best experience possible.
Kindle is not a gold rush, and if you treat it like it is, you will fail. Self-publishing is like anything. Quality will rise.
The future of reading and writing is wonderfully unexpected. Those writers who will win big are those who understand where things are headed and hit the highway before there’s traffic.
If you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing, click here to become a “Goner” and get exclusive chapters with shocking endings, and a ringside seat to Sean’s behind-the-scenes marketing. Learn more about Sean here, and follow him on Twitter.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.