What kind of online presence does an author need to succeed in an increasingly digital world? Literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock talked about the kinds of stories that go viral in his web conference at Mediabistro’s Literary Festival on August 17. His answer may surprise you.
Navigating the waters of licensing and distribution is the job of the agent and the publisher, said Ashlock, who is the president of bicoastal author management firm Movable Type. Before thinking about websites, movie deals, and clever Tumblr campaigns, the writer’s job is to create an experience for the reader, he said, “that requires them to tell someone else” about the book.
Authors should build into their stories what the literary agent refers to as a “pillow message.” A book should affirm readers’ beliefs and values in the same way a decorative pillow that reads “home sweet home” might affirm their feelings about home and family. On the Internet, we call this a meme.
Fiction writers should start by creating a hero that other people will want to follow. Pitches about broken families, addiction, and other problems in society might be well-written, said Ashlock, “but they don’t affirm and advance a value system.” Better stories inspire readers with beliefs like “you’re never too old to change” or “you’re never too old to fall in love.”
As for building a personal brand online, the bar is set pretty low for fiction writers. “Don’t have a bad website,” Ashlock said, and don’t share too much on Facebook. Ultimately, your job with social media is to participate in cultures and categories that existed before you and will continue to exist after you have gone, like science fiction or romance. The experience between meeting an author in person, reading the book, and interacting online should also be consistent.
In non-fiction, said Ashlock, “if there’s no platform, there’s no project.” Writers should already be immersed in the community about which they are writing and be considered an influencer in their field. They should look authoritative, but human. In this genre, he explained, “You are the hero.”
Quora, Twitter, and LinkedIn are good places to start for building a professional network around a particular area of expertise. Earlier in the literary festival, Camera Ready author Manoush Zomorodi shared grooming tips for creating book trailers and other online videos. Our sibling blog GalleyCat also has a list of five ways to promote your book that also apply to establishing yourself as an expert online.
But when drafting a proposal, “you don’t need to bring in fully-fledged transmedia projects,” Ashlock clarified. Just look at what is already resonating with your target audience and have a vision of how that could work for you in the back of your mind as you lure the agent in with your story.
In Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, the heroine copes with a natural disaster while navigating the everyday struggles within her own family. “The sentences alone would make you weep,” Ashlock said of her prose, “but there was also something at stake — agents are looking for books like that.”
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