Author Kit Berry on how she got a book deal by building a social network

I received thirteen rejections before I decided to self-publish.  This was five years ago.  You hear disaster stories from self-published authors, mostly concerning the vanity press and/or boxes and boxes of books languishing in the spare room.  I’m one of the lucky ones.  I’ve recently signed a good six-figure deal for my Stonewylde Series with Gollancz (Orion Publishing Group) for the worldwide rights to my series.  The secret to my success?  My own home-grown social network site.

Early on I created a website and sent out regular newsletters.  Initially this involved twenty recipients; my mailing list is now well over a thousand subscribers.  The elusive “buzz” that we hear so much about from marketing gurus started to pick up nicely and I was receiving several  e-mails a day from people who’d read Stonewylde and loved it.  They wanted to keep in touch and discuss the books.  I’d reply, they’d reply, I’d feel guilty for not replying again ...  My husband suggested that we start a Stonewylde forum online.

Three years on we have a thriving social network community www.stonewylde.net with nearly 700 members and more joining daily.  They customise their profile page, add photos and videos, take part in many different discussions, update their status regularly and join in the chat room.  It’s a community with genuine friendships.

The best thing about the network is that it keeps the fans engaged.  Rather than simply reading my books and then moving on, they’ve remained loyal to Stonewylde.  They talk about our community to friends and family who then read the books.  They leave my promotional postcards on buses, in gym lockers, doctors’ waiting rooms etc.  You can’t buy this type of “word of mouth” hype – it just happens (or doesn’t).  By belonging to the Stonewylde Community, readers’ loyalty and interest in my books is constantly fed and reinforced.

I pop into the site most days to show my virtual face.  Readers love the fact that I, as the author, engage with them on a personal level. We talk a bit about the books but mostly the topics are far-ranging.  Stonewylde was simply the starting point for like-minded people to get together.

Last September we organised our first Stonewylde Gathering for forum members in a mansion in Dorset.   Fifty people came for the long weekend and we had a ball.  In April we arranged a one day meet-up in Avebury and about ninety members turned up, many bringing partners, kids and dogs along too.  There are little get-togethers all over the country and local groups are developing, including a large contingent in the Netherlands and others in the USA and Australia.  We’ve printed several hundred T-shirts over the past two years, by popular demand, which the fans find useful if they’re meeting for the first time and need to recognise each other.  We also produce greetings cards, which many use for Christmas and birthdays, and this really does work in a viral marketing sense.  All this stems from the social network site and people’s loyalty to Stonewylde.

So why did Orion buy the series for such a hefty sum, having rejected it five years ago? It’s largely because I’ve built such a loyal following.  When the fourth book is published next year, several thousand copies will immediately be snapped up by fans hungry for the next instalment.  The hype has already begun, and I’m arranging an exclusive launch party just for the members of my online community.  They deserve it after giving me such intense support over the years.  I’ve never spent any money on advertising so the thousands of books I’ve sold have been purely by word of mouth. 

To anyone contemplating setting up a social network site, I’d say it’s probably not for everyone. There has to be some kind of brand identification amongst readers. A community site is perfect for this type of readership – maybe not so much for a one-off novel unless it has something distinctive in its subject matter that really grabs readers and makes them want to stay with the experience.

My tips for running a successful online community:

·         Don’t despair in the beginning if membership is small and slow.  Have faith – it will grow;

·         Create a strong identity for your community in the branding;  spend time customising the site so it will appeal to your type of readership;

·         Invite people to join via other social media set-ups (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and welcome each new member personally;

·         Think up a few interesting topics that will immediately engage people, and don’t be too heavy-handed with the moderating, especially in the beginning when everyone’s shy;

·         Maintain a strong personal presence in the early stages at least, encouraging your members to remember your book(s) and why they joined the community in the first place.

 

My sites:

Social network – www.stonewylde.net

Website – www.stonewylde.com

 

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