Friday 11 January 2019

Making the Most of an Opportunity

By Candy Gourlay

Amazingly, my novel Bone Talk was shortlisted for this year's children's Costa Book Award.

Unfortunately (for me) the other three shortlisted titles –– The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay, Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen and The Colour of the Sun by David Almond – were pretty magnificent books. The winner, announced last Monday, was the uber-talented Hilary McKay.

On the night, my daughter cheered me up by awarding me with her own version of the Costa. And then we watched laughing baby videos for the rest of the evening.

To be honest, when the shortlist was announced. I was under no illusion about the possible outcome.

But there was no time to waste.

The shortlisting had created an opportunity. There would be more people paying attention to my book – many of whom would not have heard of me before. How was I going to make the most of the time between the announcement of the shortlist (in November) and the winner (in January)?

Opportunities happen all the time in this job. Tiny opportunities that are the building blocks of a platform. I'm not just talking short-listings and prizes. Opportunity also comes in small packages: completing a manuscript, learning a skill, attending a conference, the launch of a book, a positive review.

How do you make the most of your opportunities?

Don't Wait.

I suppose I could have waited until the winner was announced. But the shortlisting was THE opportunity. The winning might never happen (and it didn't). So whatever I decided to do, I needed to do it right away. No putting it off.

We all procrastinate, don't we? I can build that website later, post those photos later, work on those resources another day.

As a former journalist, I am keenly aware of the ephemerality of the news. Something in a blaze of attention today can turn cold and forgotten overnight.

Making the most of an opportunity means doing something while people are still paying attention. They're still receptive, still ready to share your good news. If you get the timing wrong, it will be too late. And you'll never get that white hot moment back.

Reach out to True Believers.

Like many authors, I am my own one-person marketing department. One thing I've learned is you just don't have time to go door-to-door, selling your goods to every individual you meet. Most people don't get this, hence the many invites to do free events because "it's good publicity!". Random targeting is a waste of time better spent writing another book.

Don't go door-to-door, go find True Believers. True believers, in marketing parlance, are people who are already interested in what you have to give. They want to know about you, and they will talk about you to their friends, who are likely to have the same interests. I quoted Seth Godin in a recent piece over on my author blog:

"You put an idea in the world. Not to everyone in the world, just to people who want to hear it. And then maybe it spreads. And if it spreads it grows. And if it grows you get to do it again ... The goal is to go the people who care. To invite them in and to tell them something they didn't know before ... Not with a grand opening but with a whisper. Here, I made this. That's our work."

I've discovered over the years that the people who really make a difference to my book getting read were not the individual punters I met at a festival, nor even the child readers who write me fan mail ... not even my large family in Manila, who have been known to create shortages of my titles by buying up all the stock in local bookstores. The people who make word of mouth happen about books are the children's librarians who champion books and put them into the hands of readers they know will love them. After librarians are the literacy advocates. And then maybe teachers.

Realising this, the challenge is: how do I connect with the people who want to hear about my ideas? Perhaps learning about them is a start, getting to know what makes them tick. This will give me the wherewithal to create work that truly matters to them – carefully considered essays, videos, etc –  rather than just fly-by sound bytes.

Make something that will last.

Yes, social media has made it easy to be our own marketing departments. But beware, the scrolling news feed and the disappearing Instagram story are only good for the moment.

Twitter and Facebook are superhighways that don't stop moving. It's all about reach, but not necessarily about engagement.

To make the most of an opportunity, you need to create things that have lasting value – something that adds to the sum of your public profile, ideas you will be building on, something that you and your audience will learn from, something that readers will continue to discover over time.

It might be a well-written essay filled with nuggets of wisdom that people are always searching for. It might be a How To video that anyone in search of guidance might access. It might be a podcast that can be shared and revisited over and over again.

My years of blogging on Notes from the Slushpile, for example, have made me a better author. They gave me a chance to reflect on the issues of publishing – and thinking is never wasted time. They had the incremental effect of helping me formulate opinions and ideas that I continue to refer to in my writings and presentations. More currently, I find that my writing on blogs and other platforms, has been helping me learn about diversity, cultural appropriation and other issues that, as an author of colour, I am frequently invited to comment on.

For the Costa shortlisting, it was important, I thought, to create something that would outlive the Costa buzz. Something for the immediate audience here in the UK, who are already familiar with the Costa. And something for the audience back home in the Philippines, who do not know about the Costa but who would be so pleased that a home-grown Pinoy was up for the award.

So I recruited the assistance of a couple of videogenic friends – fellow author Sarah Towle and Pinoy artist/editor/writer pal Joy Watford – to create interview videos about Bone Talk.  We made two – one in English, with Sarah, for British readers, and the other, with Joy, in Taglish (Tagalog and English) for Filipino readers.

Filming a Taglish interview with my friend, Joy Watford. We filmed it using the selfie camera of my Android phone  attached to dual lavalier microphones. As you can see, we forgot to tidy the book case behind us.

They were not short videos so I published them on my YouTube channel, which is a platform where people take more time to watch longer form stuff (unlike Facebook and Twitter where a minute is a long time, and people zoom through videos,  often not even bothering to turn up the sound).

The videos are not for casual passers by. I made them for people who are prepared to make the time to watch – maybe someone who's read and loved my book, a teacher who would like to teach it, a librarian who wants to know more so that she can share it with more readers, a bookseller who would like to hand-sell the book.

I'm not expecting masses of traffic. And I'm not hoping for an instant spike in views either. I'm happy for people to discover the videos over time.

"The goal," Seth Godin said, "is to go to people who care." I know this is going to be a quality audience.

Make it matter.

We authors do so much for scrolling newsfeeds. Partly because it's compulsive. You can't help yourself when you feel the the newsfeed's siren call. We pretend that it's work, that it's all in aid of the author platform our publishers expect us to have. But deep down, we know our posts are destined to be forgotten. The social media superhighway moves too quickly and too many people are on the highway already.

So how do we make an impact on social media?

How do we make what we do matter?

Slowing down is one way. Posting less, and leaving your posts there for enough time to be found, to gather attention.

Another way is by being more selective about what you share and when you share it. The less dross you post, the more people take you seriously and want to see what you have to say.

It also means taking the time to put your post into context, so that it's value is clear to the audience. Why am I sharing this? What does it mean to me and my books? Why should it be of value to you?

For the past few years, I have favoured Facebook and Twitter, neglecting my websites and blogs for the ease of microblogging and the instant gratification of the scrolling newsfeed.

But now I want to invest effort into making things that last,  that continue to be relevant beyond the spark that led to its creation. This year, I'm going to test this by using platforms that aren't ephemeral: platforms that won't scroll away and disappear.

I'm ready for a change.

I'm ready to make the most of every opportunity.

I'm ready to make it matter.

Candy Gourlay is leaving Facebook. Read why here and here. Please stay in touch via Instagram, Twitter and via her website


  1. Candy, this post is TOP NOTCH and GREAT ADVICE and all creators should read and reread every month or so. Kudos to you for sharing it.

  2. Excellent advice! I've recently taken stock of past work and been shocked at the number of times I've failed to follow up on opportunities. I also love the idea of building social commentary to last - not only does this way feel like it has more integrity, it should also put you more in control, rather than playing constant catch-up. Thanks, Candy.

    1. To be honest, a lot of this is hindsight. Realising how my past activities had shored me up to become an author. But it's good to assess and it's good to be able to use these lessons for the future.

  3. Just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you! And looking forward to hearing how it all goes post Facebook.

    1. I haven't quite left yet but the withdrawal symptoms are bad!

    2. And just trying to imagine a Facebook-free platform has been fun, exercising creative muscles I have not used. Although it still feels like shooting one's self in the foot.

  4. Fabulous advice from the very wise Candy.

  5. Some good advice here Candy. Over my many years of writing and after all the books, features, reviews I have had published and writing courses I have run I have often missed golden opportunities by leaving things too late, or not mentioning them at all. I have recently started a new blog to reach out to other writers and showcase my books, my areas of expertise and writing achievements. My aim is to share what I have learnt. I like the idea of giving a timeless commentary.

    1. Thanks, Anita. I think we are encouraged to get hung up on traffic, counting likes and views. Yes there is traction in spikes, but the quality of the audience is also important. And I feel like the more ephemeral platforms cater to audiences that are not truly invested in what we have to offer. There is a place for FB and Twitter, to raise awareness. But it's time for us all to move away from a disposable culture.

  6. Thank you for this Candy. Such great advice and you put it so well. X

  7. This is so good. So many people are assessing their social media presence and taking a step back to get a clearer view. I know I want to spend my time reading and learning - not flicking and scrolling. I have now left fb. It's a start.


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