Platform, explained and semi-embraced

photo-419Every industry has its buzzwords. “Platform” is a big one in the book publishing business. It’s easy to loathe but I think it’s also misunderstood. Viewed in a different light, it’s helpful to all sorts of authors, famous or not.

Platform is defined as the built-in audience an author brings to a book. If you are a much-loved TV star who can yak about your book on your talk show, you clearly have a great platform. A lot of people will hear about your book, and since they’re already interested in you, they’re more likely than the average person to buy it. Most people don’t buy books. Fame is helpful for cutting through the noise.

Of course, what annoys writers is that just because someone is famous doesn’t mean that person has a good book concept, or can execute it particularly well. The latter is not a huge deal as the famous person (if she is wise) can hire a writer, but there are a lot of concepts that don’t pan out: blog posts that went viral, but what is the second chapter? That doesn’t stop the publishing industry from bidding up the advances on these books. It can seem to an aspiring author that unless you engineer some sort of reality show about your life, you will never get a book contract.

I know, personally, that this isn’t true. I also subscribe to the Publisher’s Lunch newsletter, and see daily all sorts of deals that don’t involve household names. Modern Mrs. Darcy has a post up about an author who got a deal based on a well-researched, fascinating story. His publisher also seems to be putting some money and effort into publicity, which is great.

That last point is a subject of contention in some writing circles. In theory, if a publisher puts money and effort into marketing a book, then that creates its own platform. It shouldn’t matter what built-in audience the writer brings to the table… except it still does.

I have been the recipient of some amazing media: national television, reviews and excerpts in well-read publications. My publisher has paid for ad campaigns. Publicity does sell books, but not all publicity sells as many books as you might think. Remember: most people don’t buy books. People can see you on a national television show, and find it very interesting, and be curious about your ideas, but still not buy the book. It’s not wasted effort, to be sure. People might decide to read your blog, and the more you’re out there, the more you get offers to write for other places, or speak places, and be considered a thought leader or what have you. This is all great for you, but a publisher wants to sell books.

Why do people buy books? They buy books if they are interested in you and want to read more of your story or worldview (fiction or non-fiction). This brings us back to platform. Even if your publisher is willing to invest in publicity, even if your publicist does amazing work getting you attention, your built-in audience is what will move books. Being able to email many thousands of people who have voluntarily given you their addresses on launch day, and know that many will then buy your book, if they haven’t already pre-ordered it because they’re excited to read you, is huge.

Fortunately, platform isn’t something you have or don’t have. You can build one. You can create a digital presence and give talks, and cultivate an email list from that. You can land social media followers, and podcast listeners, and the like. All of this is work, but I believe it is fundamentally part of a writer’s work. That’s one reason to invest 5 hours each week in visibility (as part of the perfect 40). It’s the visibility hours, not just the core production hours, that will create a book that reaches its audience. It’s also all cumulative, so best to start now.

12 thoughts on “Platform, explained and semi-embraced

  1. This was such a useful piece – building a platform is part of my current plans, so if/when my book is finished I can bring something in the way of visibility to the table.

    1. @Claire – it’s smart to start before you’ve got the book. Not only is the visibility helpful with getting a book deal, you can try out concepts on your audience and see what they respond to!

  2. This was incredibly helpful. I tend to think of platform in the raised dais (ie, blatant and shameless self promotion) kind of way. Thinking of it in terms of increased visibility is so much more palatable.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one: “They buy books if they are interested in you and want to read more of your story or worldview.”

    I don’t have a lot of time to read books, but when I do, it’s the author that draws me, not necessarily the subject matter.

    1. @Raki- exactly. A book is a purchase that demands something of you (vs., say, a shirt). If you’re investing time in it, you want to be engaged with the person you’re spending several hours of your life with.

  4. I’ve been on both sides of the author/publisher coin, albeit at a smaller scale than you- my books don’t sell anywhere near as many as yours do, and I run a micro-press (maybe I should call it an artisanal press?) I also review books on my Tungsten Hippo site. One thing I’d add is that often, a request from an author for a book review post/interview post/what have you will meet with more success than a similar request from the publisher, particularly if there has been some online connection in the past. One feels like doing a favor for a friend, the other feels like doing marketing. Also, I always tell people who want to start building a platform or using social media for any professional-related reason that the sooner they start, the better. You have to leave time for authentic connections to form. You cannot really rush those.

    1. @Cloud – very true that it’s about authentic connections, and you can’t really rush those. I am trying not to be the author people hear from only when I want to promote something 🙂

  5. Oh, I struggle with this! It’s so hard for me to do any sort of self promotion — to the point where I even have a hard time explaining to people what I do for a living (well, partly because who does understand book indexing? And partly because I have 2 jobs, and which one do I mention? The other’s the one I linked to). But I try to remind myself that it’s equally hubristic to just sit back and look like I expect to be so great that people come find me.

    1. @Meghan – completely sympathize! But yes, I like the way you’re changing that mindset. It’s hubris to think the world will come find you. You have a useful service that people need, and the people that need it would like to hear from you. Straightforward and simple as that!

  6. I think another aspect of maintaining a platform (such as a blog or podcast) is the regular practice at your craft. Sometimes I would feel that my blog was a burden because it does not earn me any income and I don’t have a huge audience. But I’ve come to see it as so valuable for many reasons one of which is that it keeps me writing every single week and I consistently read that great writers say that what they do is write and write and write and try to get better.

    1. @Kelsey – Yes, this. I don’t make anything from this blog directly (no ads, no affiliates, etc.) but it does several things. It gives me an online home so people can find me, and continue in the conversations I start in my books. It also gives me a chance to write more and try out ideas. A blog post is kind of like a minimum viable product. I float stuff here, then I often float it at places with a higher ceiling on readership (like Fast Company – where I can see if something will get thousands of shares). I don’t want to waste a year of my life on a book if no one will care about the topic.

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