Is it a Good Idea to Post Chapters of Your Novel On-Line to Build Your Platform?

As many of you might already know, I teach Social Media for Writers and I am also finishing a book designed to teach writers how to use social media to market and build a platform. I am all about helping writers get content up on the web and teaching you how to use that content to gather a following of readers. The largest component to building a Web presence is that you must post regular content that is informative, entertaining, and ideally, engaging. At this past conference, the question I got more than almost any other was, “Is it a good idea to post my writing on-line?”

My answer was, “Depends on what you’re posting. Most everything yes, in limited quantity. Chapters of a novel? No. No. Definitely…um, no.”

Yesterday, I ran across a blog post from Jane Friedman, a prominent member of the publishing community. “Stop being afraid to post your work on-line!” she claims. Ms. Friedman’s blog was excellent and made some really informative points, but I think there were a number of caveats that should have been included, which we will discuss.

Ms. Freidman cited all kinds of successes, blog-to-book deals and self-published books that landed contracts and success, but not one of them was a novel. She also cited the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan, but here I feel we have three large problems 1) totally different medium (text messaging) 2) likely a different format than a traditional novel and 3) could possibly be a Japanese idiosyncrasy.

I agree with Ms. Friedman that posting your work on-line is helpful for certain kinds of writing and it certainly worked for “Stuff White People Like” and “Julia & Julia”, but what about novels?

Well, fiction does tend to always be the sticky wicket where the rules don’t apply the same way. Ms. Friedman kept using the generic terms work and manuscript, but the successes she cited were all non-fiction, How-To, observational humor, etc . . . but, again, no novels (Japanese text novels being the strange exception).

Ms. Friedman’s blog is fantastic, and has great advice for all kinds of writers. Non-fiction and humor lend themselves to making good blogs and building an Internet following. But, for novels, many of the benefits of posting pieces of your book break down, and I’ll explain why.

Test marketing. Ms. Friedman asserts that posting your work on-line is a great way to test market.

Fair enough. But before you get too excited, there are certain inherent problems with doing any kind of accurate test marketing for fiction.

First and foremost, are you certain that you are getting an accurate statistical sampling when you post chapters of your book on your blog? Most of us cannot accomplish this.

In my experience, the majority of new writers do not have a statistically large following on their blog or even on social media.

Because chapters of a novel are a piece of a larger whole, they are extremely difficult to gain the following and fan base like “Fail Nation—A Visual Romp Through the World of Epic Fails.” In fact, “Stuff White People Like” had a Facebook following in the tens of thousands so it was easy to glean that it was popular and well-received. But chapters from an unknown, unpublished author? Tougher to duplicate these kind of numbers. Way tougher.

Thus, any posted comments about your chapters are a hard way to gain any genuine insight because of this huge problem of numbers (or lack thereof). The smaller the group sampled, the less accurate the Bell Curve. Ten or even twenty people who take time to comment, positively or negatively is in no way an accurate litmus test as to how well your story is being received.

Additionally, the individuals who are most likely to follow or comment on the writer’s work are generally a member of that writer’s peer group—friends, family, fellow writers. Thus, it seems to me that this is the digital equivalent of telling an agent, “All my friends and family just love my book!”

Can you test market fiction by posting on-line? Sure. Anything is possible. But I think it is a lot tougher to do than it seems, and requires a very large and diverse following to get an accurate idea of how good your novel really is. Not to mention that a writer’s work could look perfect and lovely when viewed in small snippets, but the novel as a whole, could be a disaster. I think there are better uses of a new writer’s time and better content to use for platform-building than sections of a novel.

Getting feedback on your work. Ms. Freidman is definitely correct on this point. Feedback makes us better writers. But again, I think this is one of those ideas that are way better in theory than in practice.

Sort of like, in theory I want my husband to tell me if I am gaining weight, but in practice?

The plain truth is that we have feelings and we all care deeply about our writing.

My issue with posting on-line is that it is a tough way to get accurate feedback for a number of reasons. When you get critique in your writing group, you know whose opinion is valuable and whose isn’t. When an agent critiques your work, you know that is a valid critique whether you agree with it or not. But when you open yourself up to the worldwide web, who knows if that person commenting knows a protagonist from a potato?

Additionally (this ties in to my earlier point), if you have a network comprised of mainly friends, colleagues and family (which most people do), do you really believe they are going to be brutally honest and comment publicly that your writing was awful? They won’t, because they aren’t jerks. They are your friends and do not want to hurt your feelings.

It is one thing to ask for our brutal feedback in person, discussed over a table in a local library during critique group. It is a whole other ball of wax entirely when you want us to post that same feedback on the Internet publicly and in writing. Most of us just aren’t going to do that to another writer, even when it comes to mild critique. If the writing isn’t that great, most of us just won’t say anything. And is that helpful to the writer for the purposes of feedback? Probably not.

But what about those who don’t care about your feelings, who aren’t personally vested in you?

Before you post anything, ask yourself one important question. Can I take someone eviscerating my work in a very public forum? Anonymity does weird things to people. Most of the time readers will be nice and kind and helpful, but sometimes they can be just plain horrible. If they tear apart a blog, that is one thing. That’s 500-1000 words. But with your novel? All it takes are a couple of negative remarks to crater your self-confidence and send even the best of us scurrying back to our laptops to rewrite our entire plot (and there might not be anything wrong).

I remember a couple years ago I posted a humorous piece for public critique on my MySpace blog. I must have had 20 people who told me is was awesome and hysterical. But I had one huge jerk who posted a really hurtful mean comment, and I am still not over it to this day. I never felt the same joy about that article, and all it took was one person’s nastiness to crush it. Was my response logical? No. But it was common. Humans are emotional creatures, and when you look up “Emotional Creature” in the encyclopedia, I think it says, “See Writers.”

Even published authors have a tough time when someone posts a nasty comment about their work in a public forum. But there is a difference. They have a published book, professional validation, and sales figures to ease their pain. The rest of us can just end up feeling like we are trapped in Hell’s Dunking Booth.

My professional opinion is that for all other kinds of writing, go read Jane Friedman’s blog. The link is posted at the end. But for those who desire to be successful, published novelists, chapters of your novel are not the best choice for content on your blog or your web page. I recommend my blog from two weeks ago, “Where are All the Readers?—Social Media & the Writer’s Revolution” for some ideas of what makes good content (instead of chapters of your novel).

Happy writing! Until next time…

By the way! If you loved this blog and just want MORE? My book, “We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media” is now available. Buy one today and take charge of your writing career! My book is designed specifically for writers. I want to change your habits, not your personality. Harness that same creative energy used for writing and use it to build your platform.

Jane Friedman’s blog

http://writerunboxed.com/

(specifically) http://writerunboxed.com/2010/04/23/stop-being-afraid-of-posting-your-work-online/

To learn how more about the publishing business, I highly, highly recommend Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer book and workshops (now on-line, so no excuses). Sign up today at http://www.bobmayer.org.

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  1. #1 by Claire on April 28, 2010 - 8:54 pm

    Fantastic post, Kristen! I have wondered about this issue myself. It blows my mind when people post samples of their novels online. It’s just never struck me as a particularly sound idea, but I can definitely see why people would do so.

    Also, I’m definitely going to check out that post you recommended from a couple of weeks ago. It looks very helpful! :)

  2. #2 by Bill Wolfe on April 29, 2010 - 1:08 am

    This was a really timely post, as I’ve been considering content on my blog, beyond book reviews and random writer-ly musings.

    I wonder if you might indulge a question I have, then.

    I have some (okay, a few, but a ton of them are in my head still) short stories / fables that are part of the fictional world I am building in my novel; however, I don’t think their entirety will actually make it into the novel(s) themselves – more like references by characters familiar with the story.

    Would it be okay, do you think, to post those sorts of things, as a sort of mild introduction to the fictional world and/or my writing style? Or do I set those things aside as a potential for a future publishing project once novel(s) are published and popular, etc.?

  3. #3 by janefriedman on April 29, 2010 - 2:54 am

    All points well-taken. I should’ve taken some take to point out or investigate novelists who made the jump.

    There are plenty of self-published novelists who’ve been successful, both in the “old” world (e.g., ERAGON), as well as the “new” world, e.g., the author that JA Konrath recently mentioned, who has self-published her work on the Kindle:

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/04/interview-with-karen-mcquestion.html

    Of course, this isn’t the same as just posting chapters online.

    Two examples of people who made their work available for free online — in serialized AUDIO form — are Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood. They found a medium that worked for them. Would they have experienced the same success if they’d distributed online in text form? Hard to say.

    Whatever a fiction writer does with their work (online or off), there needs to be a strategy behind the presentation/distribution, unless it’s strictly for critique/feedback purposes. Seth and Scott had a strategy, and it paid off (they were offered traditional publishing deals).

    • #4 by Kristen Lamb on April 30, 2010 - 2:14 am

      Wow! What an honor. Yes, that was my thought exactly–the strategy part–and you did have a great quote (but I was getting a tad long, ergo I gave your link) about how these tactics needed to have a solid plan behind them. To me it seemed clear that could be done fairly simply in all the other genres, but fiction is just a tricky bugger. So if you can think of any good sources, please, spease share. And thanks for the link and for stopping by, :D.

  4. #5 by Frances Hunter on May 4, 2010 - 2:48 pm

    Great post! It is also worth noting that fiction does not rank very well in search engines, because it does not contain the kind of keywords that cause it to be picked up. In other words, people who might love your work cannot find it to comment, give you feedback, or become your audience. The posts we have done on our blog that are book excerpts are among the lowest ranked posts we have ever done, because no one can find them.

    Wish someone would come up with a Pandora-type tool to help connect readers with new fiction!

    • #6 by Kristen Lamb on May 4, 2010 - 3:15 pm

      What a great observation! You are correct. Normally that is because we go to the web for information and to B&N or Amazon for entertainment. That might change in a few years, but right now it is a reality. This goes excellent with my blog from a couple of weeks ago. Blog on content, then post fiction samples, flash siction, short stories as the supplementary stuff.

      Thank you, Liz. Your comments have been such a blessing to my series. You are much appreciated.

  5. #7 by BubbleCow on May 5, 2010 - 9:01 am

    I often wonder where writer stand on the issue of copyright. If you were to publish your whole novel does it not then become common property and have some impact on copyright ownership?

    • #8 by Kristen Lamb on May 5, 2010 - 6:53 pm

      The second you put pen to page, you have the copyright ownership of the book. The issue with posting too much on-line comes down to a simple business decision on the part of the publisher. Why would the consumer go purchase something that they can get off the Internet for free? Publishers are in the business of making money.

      As far as work being stolen, nowadays it is very difficult for people to plagarize. Too easy to prove work is stolen, so just not worth it for the most part. Did I answer your question adequately?

  6. #9 by Marisa Birns on May 5, 2010 - 7:24 pm

    This was one of the best and user-friendly posts on the subject!

    I don’t have a blog with non-fiction content, just one where I post weekly short stories. One of the problems I’ve come across is that the few times I’ve tried to submit them somewhere, I was told they are considered “previously published.”

    Will go to check out post you recommended.

    Thank you for this enlightening one!

    • #10 by Kristen Lamb on May 5, 2010 - 7:33 pm

      Thanks so much for the feedback and I am glad you found this so helpful.

      Part of the problem u will run into with posting fiction (as our reader Liz brought up so wisely and reminded me) is that the tags so often used are not search engine-friendly. I explain this in more detail in my book. You will be easier to find on the Internet blogging on topic. Until some major things change, people go to the Web in search of information…entertainment is still new. So hook with your NF blog on topic, then have another page dedicated to short fiction or samples. Just no posting pieces of your book…save that for later to hook when you have a book release date. Otherwise, that is like showing a movie trailer to audiences before you have even gotten funding to shoot the film.

  7. #11 by Nigel on May 10, 2010 - 1:25 am

    I guess if you’re posting chapters you’re in the process of writing your novel. So while you’re dealing with the whole, you’ve focused your readers at line line level. But wait, you wrote about that already … http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/editing-meet-the-novel-killer/

  8. #12 by sapphicscribe on September 14, 2010 - 2:01 pm

    Once again, a great post with useful info! I am currently using a password protected site to have a few chapters of my work reviewed by other writers (http://www.youwriteon.com) and it has it’s advantages, but as you say, if I had taken any of what SOME people wrote personally, I would never type another sentence! Saffy. x

  9. #13 by selimaandthemerfolk on October 25, 2013 - 10:01 am

    I don’t usually read posts this long, all the way through, but I’ve been thinking about do that very same thing. Thanks for the advice. Great post.

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