This week, I have spent a few days upgrading the web aspect of my author platform. I changed the layout to focus on my short story and my forthcoming novel. The effort also included setting up sign-up forms and automated marketing emails for subscribers. This post is about what I did and my reasoning for doing so.
My site – www.damianvargasfiction.com – is a self-hosted, using Fasthosts, and built on the WordPress platform, as are so many websites these days. I previously had a very out-of-the-box site, based on one of the free themes that come with WordPress by default. It was sufficient to give me a basic presence, but I wanted more control over the layouts.
I’m an Author not a Web Developer
For a period, back in the mid-90s, I earned an income as a web developer, but that was a long time ago, and I lack the skills and tools necessary to create good bespoke site nowadays. While I am sure I could get back to a decent level of competency again if I had the time and inclination, I confess to lacking in both respects. That lead me to look at The DIVI builder from Elegant Themes.
After a few hours of investigation, I decided that it was worth spending US$89 to get access to DIVI (and all of Elegant Themes‘ offerings, for a whole year). If you have any inkling whatsoever about web development, and you have used the standard WordPress page editor, then you know that the gulf between what is possible with both approaches is vast. DIVI, on the other hand, gives you a visual page-building tool, with a very granular level of control over every element of the site, without having to touch any code. That allows me – with my lapsed skills, but particular requirements – to create a website that is far more customised and specific to my needs than is possible with a basic off-the-shelf theme.
What is DIVI?
While DIVI is a very visual creation tool, you probably still need to understand a little about web design – e.g. understanding concepts such as divs, rows, margin and padding for example – but it is easy to use overall. It took me a couple of hours to install it on my site and to work out how to use get going. You can arrange elements (such as text, images, forms, galleries, sliders) on the page just how you want. You can also edit the properties of each of these elements to reflect the nuances of desktop, tablet and mobile views. Doing so is very important since while we may, as authors, sit at a big-screened PC or laptop all day hacking out our lengthy tomes, our audience – whether they are reading our end-products or shopping for them – are likely doing so on a mobile device of some kind.
I have now set up my home page to give equal visual prominence to the short story that I have available currently, and the upcoming novel for which I want to get beta readers and potential customers. An essential part of doing this is the use of email subscriber forms and specific content to use with these that serves to entice people to use them. I have been listening to a lot of self-publishing and social media podcasts recently, and the task of setting up and using email auto-responders seemed like a worthwhile investment of my time if I want to be able to build an email subscriber base.
How do you use email auto-responders?
I have created three sign-up forms on my site now. The first is to allow people who want to be notified when my debut novel (Six Hard Days in Andalusia) will be released. When a visitor to my site enters the email address (and after they have clicked on the confirmation link in the automatic email that they then receive), they are added to a list of subscribers who are specifically people who have asked to be informed about the book’s release date.
There is also a separate form which is intended for people who wish to be beta readers for the same novel. They are a different audience (who want early access to the book before it is fully ready for publication, and are willing to provide feedback). I will likely give these readers the eBook for free, both the pre-release and the final version. Hence I want to put them on a different list and to be able to communicate with them in a different manner and at a different time.
Thirdly, I have another sign-up form that readers can use to sign-up to receive my short story, The Woman Who Smiled, for free. This story is available as an eBook on several stores including Barnes & Noble and iBooks, as a £0.99 purchase. I used Draft2Digital to set that all up. However, if a visitor to my site signs-up using this form, they are then sent a new chapter by email, each day over a period of six days, for FREE. There are two buttons on my site, one to go to the stores (the premium purchase user flow) and one to go to the form to get the story sent by email (the ‘freemium’ flow). I made the button image for the second route is visually more apparent since I decided that I would prefer that people sign up for free (and give me their contact details) rather than spend a small amount of money on the one product at this point. I am building for the future.
Serialisation or ‘snackable’ content
The Woman Who Smiled is a short story, the fictional events of which take place over a period of seven days, so it seemed natural to me to organise the free version in this manner. Subscribers receive one chapter each day. This process is in keeping with theories that I have regarding the potential market for short, digestible ‘snackable’ stories that can be read on a commute or during a lunch break. I will be talking more about this – and the plans I have to commercialise this – in future blog posts.
While getting some initial sales right now would be nice, I view this strategy as a way for me to communicate that I desire for people to read my stories first and foremost. If that then leads to purchases in the future, that will be a result of me having formed a relationship with them that can grow and last for a long period of time. The benefit to the subscribers, of this approach, is that they get to try my stories to, for example, see if they like my style of writing, at zero cost. Other than asking for their email address, there are no other barriers to engaging with me. Visitors do not need to create an account on my site, provide any payment information or make any other commitment.
The benefit to me as the ‘authorpreneur’, is that I am then able to send regular, targeted emails to these people, who have expressed an interest in my stories, and to work to build a relationship with them. If at any point they decide that is not for them, they can just click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of any email that I send them. They have the control. The onus is on me to satisfy them.
So, how do you build a systemic process for subscribers?
Well, the user journey is thus:
- Firstly, I split the story (which is about 10,000 words) up into seven chapters, the first being a short prologue which is on my website. If visitors to the site like my writing style and the story premise, then they can sign up to become subscribers and are immediately sent chapter two by email (after the confirmation process).
- Then, on each of the subsequent five days, subscribers receive another chapter by email. So far, that is six emails they have received from me.
- After this, I give it a pause for about a week, after which I send another email suggesting that if they liked the story, that subscribers might consider sharing the link to friends and family. After all, if they have feelings of goodwill towards me, they might be inclined to share.
- A few days later subscribers then receive another email talking about the idea of an interview that I will write with the main character, by way of providing some ‘companion content’.
- The last email, a few days later, then includes the link to that interview.
The power of FREE
This idea, of splitting my stories up into digestible chunks and sharing them for free, is an idea that I have had for quite some time now. I’ve seen how other authors have used the technique of temporary price drops (to a reduced, or even free price). I have also seen how some authors give a book away to attract new readers for their entire catalogue, or to be then able to promote a subsequent series to those readers. Whilst that has proven to be effective, I think it is a short-lived tactic and not one that is designed to help new authors build a loyal fan base. It trains readers to hold off making purchases in order to get the free (or heavily-discounted) book at some future point in time. That event may never happen, and secondly, if it does, what then? Will all those free readers suddenly all decide to start buying all of your other books? Maybe they will, but likely they will not. I lean towards the latter scenario being prevalent over the longer term. In the 21st century we, I believe, need to be more intelligent about how we engage with people who have not yet converted to becoming paying customers.
I have read a few books such as ‘FREE: The Future of a Radical Price‘ by Chris Anderson, and ‘The Curve: Freeloaders, Superfans and the Future of Business‘ by Nicholas Lovell about the ‘power of free’. I have also spent several years in the video game industry, specifically in and around the production and marketing of social games and mobile games. Very typically in that sector, the games are based on a ‘Freemium’ (or ‘FreeToPlay’) business model, whereby players can access some or all of the game without spending any money if they so wish. This strategy minimises the friction, to the consumer, of trying a game because players can genuinely play a game without making any financial commitment whatsoever.
Discovery – the No.1 challenge for digital products
The market for digital games is very similar to the market for digital books (as it is also for music). That is to say that it is exceedingly crowded (there is a LOT of content) and that ‘discovery’ is probably the foremost challenge for any author, as it is for game developers and musicians. For each of these three sectors, the cost of making the digital versions of products available for purchase is practically nil. That is what digital distribution does, there is no gatekeeper, and this allows the content creator to have a direct relationship with the end consumer, if (and it is a big ‘if’), that consumer can find them. Marketing and digital discovery is another (big) topic at play here but not the focus of this blog post. However, assuming that said potential customer does indeed find your product, when confronted with literally millions of options (for books as also for songs, games and mobile apps), that end-consumer needs some encouragement in picking your product over someone else’s. A story (note that I don’t say ‘book’) being guaranteed to be free, forever is a significant persuasion factor in that case.
But how do ‘Freemium’ products such as games make money?
The trick is to be always upselling while the player is playing. A particularly powerful selling tool in such games is to appeal to the player’s lack of patience or desire for an enhanced experience. Game players might be able, for example, to complete a specific level in a game without spending money on extra guns, resources, virtual currency or whatever, but it will take time. It might take the player a long time; several hours, days or weeks even. The effective freemium game makes the player aware that they could shortcut that by spending a little money at regular, carefully-designed moments. The choice is theirs. I am exploring the idea of using similar techniques for book marketing.
My promise to potential readers is that the story will always be available for free in a ‘freemium’ mode, such as by way of a daily email. If, however, the reader wants to speed up that delivery of content (or to read it in an enhanced way, such as on their Kindle, for example as an eBook) then they can click on a link to go to the store and make a purchase. If they are happy to wait each day, they are welcome to do that and they are not penalised. I still very much value the fact that they have committed their time to read my story. I will deliver on the promise to give them a chapter each day by email. If they decide to spend money, that’s great too.
How to set up sequenced story chapters by email
To put this process in place, I use a service called Drip. This platform is an automated email marketing platform. There is a bit of learning curve to get to grip with this – and I say that as someone who has worked in building web and mobile applications for twenty years – but it is undoubtedly not insurmountable for any ‘non-techy’ author to do by themselves. There is no programming involved, but it might take a little while to get familiar with the concepts, process and terms involved. There are plenty of helpful resources on the Drip site (and across the web), so with a little bit of effort and patience, I am confident that anyone can make practical use of it.
In laymen’s terms, what you are doing when you are using Drip, is creating a form that you will then embed on your website. That could be on a site that you have had professionally developed by a web developer, or on a blog platform such as WordPress. The Drip system creates a little snippet of code that you merely embed on a page (or pages) where you want visitors to see it, and it just happens. You can customise that form to a certain degree, e.g. to edit the text, images, the position on the site and the conditions upon which it will be displayed.Once a visitor enters their email address and clicks on the button, they are then taken to a page that tells them that an email is on its way to them for them to confirm their subscription. This step builds trust.
Once this is completed, the visitor is taken to a final confirmation page. What happens then, in the case of my serialised free story, is that they then receive Chapter 2 of my story in an immediate email. This email is ‘top and tailed’ with information from me, to explain precisely how it all works. I explain that they will get Chapter 3 on the next day and the rest of the chapter each day after that. Again, they can unsubscribe at any point.
Each of these emails is created on the Drip platform. You can cut and copy from MS Word, Scrivener, Google Docs or any other tool of course. I would recommend running it through Grammarly as well, but my point is that as the creator, you are free to write precisly as you would want. You are in control of the message. Some people might think it appropriate to use a direct, strong sales approach. Others a much more relaxed ‘non-salesy’ style. That all depends on who you are, who your audiences are and what they want.
These emails – nine in my case – can be customised as you see fit, e.g. with different fonts, links or embedded images. They will display differently on various devices but you do not need to do anything to effect that. That Drip platform performs that task automatically. You can focus on the message and your voice.
You then set the dispatch timings and the actions that happen as, for example, readers open the mails. Doing so allows you to tag individuals and to record what they do and do not do. That will enable you to then communicate in the future with each person in a particular way that reflects your audience’s interests and needs. What you do not want to do, for example, is to sell the wrong products to the wrong audience. Tagging them allows you to avoid doing that.
How long does it take to set up?
It took me about a day to set this all up, and I then spent a few hours tweaking the content after testing the process on myself and a few friends. It is imperative that you do that testing; to experience the whole process as an ‘end user’ would do. Do not just read the emails in Drip (where you create them) and do not just read them on a desktop application such as Outlook and Gmail either. Open them on your mobile phone or tablet. Click the links and check that everything works as you intended. Experience the process as your audience does. I work as a digital Product Manager by day, and I know how important it is that you as the ‘owner’ of that process, can experience it as your users (potential readers) do.
What is the impact of doing this?
It is very early days for me as an author. Let me be real here; I have one novel that is barely past the first draft, and one short story of about 10,000 words. Nobody has heard of me yet nor experienced my stories. I am under no illusions about that changing quickly; I have not done any promotions or advertising yet. It is far too early for me. What I am doing is setting up the foundations of an efficient author platform, as the basis for what I intend to do for the next few years. I hope to be able to write a couple of novels a year plus several short stories, and I want to set myself up for success as I invest time and money in making audiences aware of my stories through adverts, paid promotions and word of mouth. I want to make sure that I have a robust, tried and tested platform in place that can handle those inbound audiences of potential readers, and one that can be as effective as possible at converting their initial interest into hard sales.
Build relationships for the long run
Yes, the end goal is to sell books and other products to people who learn about their existence. However, that will only happen, at a sustainable level, if I work to build a long-term relationship with these people. I need that they trust me, understand what types of stories I write, recognise any brands that I can create. This mission is a long-term play, not about getting quick sales, as anyone in self-publishing understands.
So that is what I have been doing this week. It is early days yet. I will report back in months to come how this is working once I start to turn on the promotions and advertising.