PUBLISHED JULY/AUGUST 2020
by Jeniffer Thompson, Founder and President, Monkey C Media —
Independent publishers have always had to think outside the box to succeed. COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity to do what we do best: adapt.
As we learn to navigate the new normal of social distancing and prepare for a post-COVID-19 world, will things just go back to the way they were? As a branding and publishing consultant, I’d like to be the first say, “I hope not.”
If we have learned anything about ourselves during this crazy time, it’s that humans are resilient and adaptable. We always find a way. Change is hard, yes, but sometimes it’s what we need to propel us into a whole new way of thinking—and, in this case, a way of reaching our audience and building a tribe of loyal readers.
While the planet is taking a break from smog and the ozone layer is rebuilding, humans are staying home, but they are also reaching out virtually and finding connection on a global scale, a phenomenon that makes now the best time ever to be an independent publisher.
There are four monumental shifts that have occurred as a direct result of COVID-19:
Need: Our audience is captive and hungry for content.
Acceptance: Our audience is adopting technologies that make it possible for us to engage them in a very personal and authentic way.
Adaptation: We, as authors and publishers, are being forced to adopt those same technologies and are stepping out of our comfort zone in order to reach and build our online communities. We are not only adapting those technologies to our needs; we are embracing them with grace and generosity and giving more to our readers.
Forgiveness: The fear that you might put out subpar content or do “it” badly has been replaced with a desire to jump in and connect right now. As a result, we are seeing an outpouring of kindness and forgiveness. Where people might have once judged you as unprofessional because your sound quality was poor, or your cat leapt onto your lap in the middle of a webinar, people are now deeming it endearing and laughing in the moment—creating the much-needed affirmation that we are all in this together.
There is no doubt that these have been emotionally trying times. But, at the same time, there is something beautiful about our ability to come together, support one another, and open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and connecting. We as an industry, specifically small presses and indie authors, are scrambling to remain relevant, and we, once again, must be at the forefront of innovation.
Adaptation Is the Indie Way
The independent publishing world was born of the need to circumvent traditional publishing, an industry that locked too many authors and storytellers out of its tight-knit world. At the cornerstone of our success, so far, has been our ability to adapt and think outside the box. When we were denied distribution, we found other ways to reach our audience. When our books were denied access to mainstream media coverage, we created our own outlets.
When Jan Nathan founded the Publishers Marketing Association (now IBPA) in 1983, she knew that if we came together and learned how to educate ourselves and think outside the box, we could reach our audience in new and innovative ways.
You see, our audience has always been there; it’s our ability to reach them that ensures our success. This is why I believe so ardently in the power of author branding and digital marketing. This is why I believe that now is the best time to be an author.
Every online tool you implement (and how you employ it) can be the difference between building a tribe of engaged super fans or, conversely, selling a handful of books to friends and family and then watching your sales ranking plummet into obscurity.
COVID-19 has shifted the playing field once again. Readers are captive and eager for new content to entertain, educate, and, more importantly, connect them with the outside world.
When IBPA had to make the difficult decision to cancel the 32nd Annual Publishing University, the executive team quickly adapted and developed a novel (and dare I say) elegant solution to presenting the Benjamin Franklin Book Awards: they went virtual. The show must go on!
Within weeks of California shutting down, my creative cohorts began making their content available for free, offering online classes, reading their books live on Facebook and Instagram, joining read and critique Zoom meetings, and using technologies that they swore they never would. People all over the world are putting aside their proud Luddite tendencies to stay connected.
As conference organizers all over the country began to postpone or cancel, conference organizers quickly shifted to an online format—and people showed up. When the Bologna Children’s Book fair hosted a virtual edition of the fair, more than 60,000 people showed up, double the number of people who attended the previous year. Total access is here—travel and financial constraints no longer play a part in attendance. Authors like John Grisham are doing Zoom and Facebook Live events with boutique bookstores all over the country, and, yes, people are showing up!
Creating Genuine Connections
But that’s not the whole story. While access to content is improving and attendance is increasing, people are also finding real joy in these virtual connections. Authors are beginning to see the true value of online networking. And it’s not to sell books—not directly anyway. Book sales are the result of community building and authentic engagement.
Too many of the authors I have worked with saw social media as a means to sell books, and, as a result, they weren’t selling books. They spent too much time promoting and shouting and not enough time engaging and listening. You see, social media was never meant to be a sales tool; it was meant to connect people, to bring like-minded people together, to help people find each other. Social is a means to build your tribe. It’s a tool to help people connect. Book sales are a direct result of community building.
Genuine, honest conversations online about things that matter to everyone are now happening naturally, because the alternative is rather lonely. People are Zooming and connecting and tweeting (I bet you wish you had stock in virtual conferencing companies … and Charmin).
Google launched Google Meet, a free video conferencing software that doesn’t require people to download any software (and it’s free). More and more tools are becoming available. We are just now seeing the fruits of our technological power: human connection.
It’s up to you to embrace this new era of online connection. It’s up to you to throw caution to the wind and start a podcast, or stream live content, or offer free online classes, or read your book in chapters on Instagram Live. It’s up to you to join the conversation and build a tribe of people who think like you do, who need what you offer. Your willingness to jump in and utilize these tools in an authentic way will allow you to build a powerful author brand and platform. You have the power to connect with the needs and desires of your audience, and now you know, with certainty, that your audience is out there and not only willing, but eager to join you online.
Video conferencing is now commonplace and normal behavior for all people, ages 8 to 98. We are not only learning, we are getting comfortable with it—embracing technology with fervor. My clients used to be so concerned about putting out perfect content that they did nothing instead. Now, I see people just doing it. They are putting out videos and sharing magical moments of healing and connection. The fear of technology has been replaced by the need to connect.
And we ain’t going backwards, folks. While I might be eager to get back to the in-person social gatherings where we can celebrate each other with an actual hug, I know that people are not going to give up the ability to connect and learn online so easily. I, for one, like being able to connect from home, in my slippers, with a cup of tea, and a cat in my lap.
10 Tips to Improve Your Virtual Self
- Download Zoom and familiarize yourself with the tools. If you type “How to use Zoom” in your browser, you’ll discover a ton of online tutorials on You Tube.
- Create a backdrop for your conference videos. This could be a bookshelf with curated books or a wall with simple (not too busy) art. Warm colors work well and are more inviting than plain white walls.
- Nail the lighting. North-facing light is the single best thing you can do for your complexion in videos and photos, so if you have a space in your house where you can face that north-facing light, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how amazing you look! Never position a window behind you. This will darken your image and bring out dark shadows that are not as flattering.
- Invest in a microphone for a higher-quality sound than you would get from your computer/phone’s onboard mic. The better you sound, the more professional you appear to your audience, and while people are more forgiving these days, why not bring your A game?
- Develop a series of three signature talks you could deliver to book clubs, local associations, and local bookstores.
- Bookstores are scrambling to remain relevant and keep readers engaged. Maybe you can help. Reach out to your local bookstores and offer to do a special virtual author event (pitch one of those talks you developed in step five).
- Include a link to your website and a link to buy your book in the comments section of your Zoom call. Consider linking to your local bookstore instead of Amazon.
- Update your bio across all of your online profiles to ensure that you are presenting the best of you in a consistent way. Hint: Make sure your bio includes a call to action for your readers. What do you want readers to do? How can they connect with you? How can they buy your book?
- Update your social accounts to include a custom look that matches your website. Consistent visuals further establish your brand and credibility.
- Create a giveaway that you can start promoting on social and in your virtual presentations. Give your audience a little extra, and they will be more likely to invest in you and your message.
Jeniffer Thompson is a personal branding expert, digital marketing strategist, and host of The Premise podcast. She is an award-winning author and speaker who delivers strategy-rich content and actionable tools that educate and empower authors. She and her husband, Chad, co-founded Monkey C Media in 2004 and have been creating award-winning book cover designs and author websites ever since. They specialize in author services that integrate digital marketing strategies and engage readers all over the world. She is a co-founder of the San Diego Writers Festival, serves on the board of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association, and is currently writing her own coming of age memoir. For author services, visit Monkey C Media; subscribe to her blog at Jeniffer Thompson. Listen to her podcast at The Premise Pod.