Thursday, October 16, 2014

Building Your Author Platform

Hello, it's Dan today, and I'm here to talk about platform.

In the modern world of publishing I often hear discussions of author platform, especially among new writers trying to break in. There are a lot of misconceptions about what platform means, and how important it is, so I thought I'd take a crack at clearing things up, and offer some useful resources for authors hoping to build their platform.

What is a platform?

Broadly speaking, an individual's platform answers the question, "How many people know this person, and in what way?"

The definition of author platform -- at least in machiavellian publishing-industry terms, might be more accurately phrased as "How many people will buy this author's book, and why?" 

Your platform matters to publishers because it affects how they can market your book, and how many copies they might expect to sell. Here are some of the things that might be considered part of an author platform.

1. Celebrity status

This is arguably one of the most powerful things to sell books. Like it or not, being famous (or infamous) makes your book marketable, even if it's an absolute pile of drivel.

2. Qualifications

For non-fiction, an author's qualifications are an essential part of his or her platform. We expect people who write books on a topic to have expertise and/or a unique perspective. Books about science or medicine, for example, are generally written by scientists or doctors. Harrowing survival stories are written by survivors. Cookbooks are written by people who cook.

There are fewer minimum qualifications for the fiction author, though being able to string coherent words together might be one criterion. Professional short fiction credits and agent representation support the idea that the author can write well enough to be paid for it. It also helps if the author has proven experience that informs the book, i.e., Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini's book THE KITE RUNNER is about a boy growing up in Kabul.

3. Audience

Your audience comprises people who know you already and may be interested in buying your book. Celebrities have audiences. Columnists and reporters have audiences, as do many experts who have published articles, won awards, or had speaking engagements.

Established authors of fiction already have an audience, one that's reflected in sales of previously published work. Thus, if you've published books already, their performance (for good or bad) is part of your author platform.

4. Personal Connections

Your personal connections may also contribute to your platform, especially if you have relationships with people or groups who can help promote or sell your books. For example:
  • Members of the publishing industry (agents, editors, publishers)
  • Celebrities or famous authors
  • Members of the media (TV, radio, magazines, or high-profile blogs)
  • Professional and amateur organizations (SFWA, conventions, book clubs, etc.)
  • Bookstores and libraries

5. Online Presence

I mention this platform component last, because it gets the most attention sometimes but may not have a significant impact one way or the other. Granted, we live in a digital world, and readers increasingly go online to find new books and connect with their favorite authors. An author's online presence might consist of:

  • A web site and/or blog
  • A newsletter / e-mail list
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) 
  • Online community membership (Codex, AbsoluteWrite, etc.)
Remember, these are ways for you to reach out to a potential readers and to build relationships with other influencers. A "Buy my book" link in your Twitter profile is not a platform!

How important is the author platform?

If you're reading this article, the answer is probably "not as important as you think," but this is a question best answered by what the author hopes to write. As I mentioned before, a platform is essential for a non-fiction author, because it directly affects how the book will sell. 

A platform is less important for authors of fiction, with the notable exception that authors who have already published books can bring a readership to the table. Most new authors trying to break in don't have a substantial platform, and that's fine. It's hard to build up a readership when you haven't published anything! That said, if you have 10,000 people following you by e-mail or on social media, you have a greater ability to promote your own work.

How to Build an Author Platform

I use the word "build" quite intentionally, to highlight the fact that building a useful author platform requires hard work and should be done with a long-term plan in mind. At a minimum, a new author should have:
  • A web site and/or blog
  • A presence on social media sites
These two things are well within your power to establish, and if you're serious about getting published then you probably should. Next, I recommend the wonderful Platform Pick-up series by literary agent Sarah Negetovich, which covers elements such as:

What About Short Fiction Credits?

I've read books about platform-building in which the authors suggest that you begin submitting stories to professional magazines right away in hopes of snagging one. I think this advice is a bit outdated, for a couple of reasons:
  1. Short story writing is an art form. Many authors who write long fiction struggle with short fiction, and vice-versa. 
  2. The short story market is fiercely competitive. Magazines are constantly inundated with submissions. The acceptance rate for most pro markets is well below 1%.
  3. A short story sale does not promise that the author can write long fiction.
Then again, if you write short stories that go on to win prestigious awards, it can do wonders for your career. It's a considerable time investment to write a publishable short story, but if you enjoy doing it, go forth.

What's Your Platform?

Now it's your turn. What are you doing to build your author profile?

Caitlin: Great post, Dan! I'm always trying to build my platform in strategic ways and it's so hard to know what will yield results. As for publishing short fiction, I agree it often takes different skill sets, but I'd definitely encourage novelists who enjoy writing shorter pieces to submit them. I've published a few pieces of short fiction and a handful of people have reached out to me from the depths of the internet to let me know how much they liked one of my pieces. And yes, these occurrences are utterly awesome! Maybe those "fans" will buy my book. Maybe they won't. But it does serve as a potential way to connect with readers who may appreciate my style and sense of humor. And, it's just fun! :)
Karlie: This is something I've started to seriously think about, Dan, but truthfully, I haven't done a lot on it. Like you said, if you have nothing published or even about to be, it's hard to promote yourself as a writer! But I'm trying to increase my online presence as much as I can, because I'm serious about writing and I want to be successful with it. In this day and age, that usually requires being all over the Internet, LOL. Awesome post, and it really got me thinking. :)

Lisa: I guess you could say I had a smattering of a platform as a non-fiction writer before I wrote my first book. Though I never looked at it as a platform at that time. Now I'm glad I gleaned followers in the newspaper buisness before starting the uphill battle of reaching a whole new audience. (Since I'm pimarily Young Adult writer, it doesn't exactly mean my previous followers will transfer over very smoothly). However, there are some loyal ones that are hanging in there. Now that I'm more focused on what a platform actually means, I see how a person can either look like a writer waving a bunch of flags to get attention, or how he or she can simply be friendly and gain an audience more organically. Both may do the job but who will have long-standing fans?

Also, something I believe you touched on a little bit, Dan, is you can't let your platform overreach your writing goals. Afterall, an audience is important, but if you don't have any books to share with them, it's all for naught. 


  1. Dan, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the Platform Pick-Up Series. You've got some great advice on here. :)

  2. Thanks, Sarah! You were an inspiration for this :-)