One insidious catch-22 of publishing is that in order to get a publisher’s attention, you often have to be already successfully published. Another significant challenge for authors is that you then also have to sell books, and one of the best ways to do that is through public speaking engagements. A lot of books and articles for writers focus on all the skills that writers need in order to be successful as published authors, and some of those skills tend to be things that many writers aren’t necessarily good at.
However, if you’re willing to learn a few skills and put in the time, learning some of these skills can be a great way to build a fan base and a marketing platform to help you get published and sell books.
I’ve been writing since I was about eight, and I started writing novel-length science fiction and fantasy stories when I was twelve. I’ve always dreamed of having my larger epic fantasy novels published. Actually, my super-secret dream is that someday I want a whole track of panel discussions at DragonCON devoted to my fantasy world. In my early 20s, I’d written thousands of pages. I was attending conventions and listening to writers, editors, and publishers talk about the biz. But the more I learned about publishing, the more disheartened I got.
At the time, I was hopelessly shy, so even watching writers speak on those panels, I thought, “I could never do that.” I got really good at talking myself out of submitting any writing. For that matter, I got really good at failing to finish any writing too. I’d start new books, and develop complicated plots for my novels, but I couldn’t seem to finish anything except those first couple of novels I’d written as a tween.
At that time, I was still writing out most of my work longhand, and I had collected literally an entire bin of handwritten fiction. That’s…about 3 feet thick of stacked looseleaf papers. And for a decade, I felt bound by that bin. I felt that I couldn’t publish anything, or finish any stories until I had all of that typed up. So what did I do? I left it in that bin. New fiction I had started typing directly into my laptop, but that weighty bin I dragged around, typing up a little bit every now and again.
I had long bouts of writer’s block, but I still had that dream of publishing my fiction.
New Skills From Strange Places
Around the same time, I had been involved with a Star Wars fan club. We had started throwing elaborately-decorated room parties at science fiction and fantasy conventions. I had a background in theatrical design and I loved the environments we created. However, as our projects got more complex, our team grew more fragmented. The life-size Jabba the Hutt was a tremendous success, but the follow-up we did of the replica Carbonite Chamber caused endless bickering amongst our team.
I realized after that project that I really needed some leadership skills.
Not long after that I had the opportunity to become more involved with my local Pagan/alternative spirituality community. I’d wanted to be part of a spiritual group for years, but I had never known how to find that. As a part of that spiritual work, I began having opportunities to learn public speaking and leadership skills.
I was still afraid of speaking. I identified myself as Shauna, the shy one, good at writing and planning, good at the behind-the-scenes work… not the one who can be the engaging public speaker.
I started doing the leadership work because I had dreams of leading large, creative projects, and for a while I thought that sure, I could learn the leadership and group dynamics without needing to be a good speaker and facilitating. Speaking in front of groups still made me queasy.
But after a while, I realized that I needed to become Shauna, who can be a dynamic, charismatic facilitator. I realized I needed to do this for the projects I had in mind, and that it would help me once I had books published and I wanted to be able to promote them.
Dedication to New Skills
I spent several years learning leadership and facilitation at the Diana’s Grove Mystery School , which was geared towards personal and spiritual growth for people who identified as alternative spirituality. It was primarily Pagan and Earth-centered, but it was really open for any spiritual seekers. I learned to facilitate workshops, small groups, large-scale rituals, and more. I also began leading a group in St. Louis and doing a lot of public workshops as part of that.
What I hadn’t quite planned on was that I really enjoyed facilitating workshops and rituals, and that I was even pretty good at it. When I moved back to Chicago after finishing my third/intensive year at the retreat center, I found that I was beginning to build up a positive reputation as a leader, teacher, and ritual facilitator. I remembered one of my mentors saying something that the best thing anyone could ever do for Diana’s Grove—which was always financially struggling—was to go out and become famous as a teacher and thus bring more attention and interest back there.
Somewhere in all of that, I began intentionally working to build up my credibility as a teacher and facilitator within the Pagan community. I had already published some articles through Diana’s Grove’s e-zine, and I began working to get articles published in more nationally-recognized Pagan publications.
I could have, right at that time, written a book on some of my core topics of interest; Pagan leadership and community building, facilitating workshops and rituals. Everything I had learned and seen in the Pagan community showed me that there were rather a lot of authors out there, but that to be successful, they needed to get noticed, to stand out from the crowd.
Building a Reputation
And so I kept publishing articles, and I kept teaching further out from Chicago. I paid out of pocket to travel and teach at regional festivals. Slowly I began getting enough credibility that I was invited to speak at festivals and conferences as a guest. I wasn’t getting paid for those speaking engagements, but I was continuing to build my reputation. On occasion I would have the opportunity to get paid a modest stipend for teaching a weekend-long class.
A Pagan/New Age publisher contacted me, interested in seeing some book-length manuscripts from me. I knew that my work had paid off; instead of me sending out manuscripts to people who had never heard of me and might not be willing to take a chance on an unknown author, I had a publisher who had heard of my work.
I began getting more invitations to speak as a headline presenter. Now—primarily these were teaching engagements that I sought out myself, but I slowly began getting invitations from festival organizers that I had not met, who were hiring me based upon my reputation.
At the same time, I had been building up my social media platform. I maxxed out on Facebook friends (you are allowed a maximum of 5,000 friends) and had semi-regular posts on my blog. I had been invited on a number of podcasts, and for a while I co-hosted one.
Building on Successes
In 2013 I released my first e-book and had several essays appear in anthologies. I published my first piece of fiction. Getting those books published inspired me to finish and submit more writing.
What I realized was holding me back from finishing my fiction was I felt I had to lead with my biggest, most epic fantasy stories. When I released that intention to work on shorter fiction that I could more easily finish, I found that I wasn’t as hung up on it being “perfect.”
My current goal is just to keep up the pace; to keep finishing shorter and novel-length pieces of fiction, to finish a longer book on facilitation skills for Pagan leaders, to finish essays to get into more anthologies, so that I have regular publications coming out that increase my visibility. With the reputation I’ve built and the teaching engagements I’ve already established for the next six months, I have a platform to sell my books.
And, perhaps somewhat more unexpected than I had thought when I began the path of learning leadership and facilitation—I learned public speaking skills well enough that I now am asked to teach others how to speak publicly. I certainly never anticipated that! Now I’m thinking forward to the next couple of years and the possibility of teaching classes like “Public Speaking for Writers” workshops at Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions, among other places.
I think about all the writers out there that think, “I can’t do that,” and yet, public speaking is such a tremendous asset as a writer. And public speaking can get you published.
Building a platform is sometimes the slow and tedious way to go—but, if you go in with a focused intention, and make all of your efforts work toward your plan of building a platform for your writing both to increase your potential interest to publishers, as well as to make your work interesting to potential book-buyers, you’ll have an easier time getting published, and an easier time selling books once you get there. And you might even pick up some skills, such as public speaking or social media, that you can teach as well when you’re asked to speak at events.
*First Published on the MuseCharmer
Shauna Aura Knight is an artist, author, and presenter. She writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy including Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, and The White Dress, the Autumn Leaves. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of community leadership, public speaking, facilitation, and personal transformation, and is the author of numerous articles and books on those subjects including The Leader Within and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. Visit her at http://www.shaunaauraknight.com, or her Leadership Blog or Fiction Blog.