If you’re an aspiring author who doesn’t know what an author platform is, you might be the very definition of ignorant bliss.
I say this with love, maybe even a little envy, because author platform has taken on an astoundingly important role when it comes to whether or not a writer will get a traditional publishing contract — and it’s equally important to self-published authors who are serious about their writing careers.
The rise of the author platform as an industry obsession is a relatively new phenomenon. While industry folks may argue that platform has always mattered, today it’s more important than ever before.
A huge shift has transpired in the past decade when it comes to what agents and editors weigh when deciding what projects to represent or publish — and in some cases an author’s star quality matters more than his or her actual book.
I acquired nonfiction women’s books for Seal Press over the course of eight years during the height of this shift. In 2004, when I started, author platform was barely on our radar; by the time I left in 2012, it was the most important factor in determining whether or not we’d make an offer on a project. Now, post-2020, it is more important than ever! And simultaneously, it’s easier than ever to build a platform.
What is author platform?
Many aspiring authors believe that platform is all about social media. They’re partially correct. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest followings are important, but they are not the only piece of the author platform pie.
Here’s what I was looking for as an editor and what I now try to help authors hit in their book proposals:
Some of these factors, like personality and ability to execute, are difficult to gauge. But these very factors are why authors with popular blogs and established fan bases get book deals: because they’ve proven that they have a cult of personality, and they follow-through.
These important yet intangible factors also highlight one of the ways in which literary agents are valuable to editors. If an agent and an editor have a strong working relationship, oftentimes the agent serves as someone who’s vetting an author’s personality and follow-through.
Differentiating yourself is crucial
Even though personality is only 10% of the pie, differentiating yourself is underlying the whole thing.
Investing time and effort in your personal brand is crucial to your success as an author. If you’re asking, “What’s in it for me?” you should know the most important element of a personal brand is that it helps you stand out from the crowd and carve out your niche.
After all, there is no competition for you. Knowing how you want to differentiate yourself will save you time too, because you won’t try to be all things to all people.
Branding is about how you are perceived in the market, and today you have control over that perception. Personal brand management is about collecting and presenting the pieces that tell your story.
You can shape this perception by running all the content you create through a filter, asking: Is this congruent and true to my brand?
Two examples of strong author platform
Both of these authors garnered large advances on the strength of their platforms (which were not specifically strong on social media) while I worked with them.
1. Andrea Robinson, author of Toss the Gloss
Andrea had almost no social media presence, no previous books, and not much by way of previous coverage. She couldn’t showcase that she had a strong existing readership, either. So how was Andrea differentiated from the next person?
- What she had was a well-known agent I had bought books from in the past (personal referral) and whom I trusted when she told me Andrea would execute.
- Her contacts were stellar — including Ralph Lauren, who ultimately gave her a blurb and threw her launch party. How many people can say they know Ralph Lauren personally and that he would throw a party for them?!
- She was also clearly an expert on her topic, maybe even an industry leader, having worked in the beauty industry for decades. Seal made a strong offer for the rights to publish her book.
2. Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Awakening
In 2010, Oprah chose Mark’s The Book of Awakening (originally published in 2000) as one of her ultimate favorite things, shooting it to the New York Times bestseller list and changing the course of his career.
When Mark got picked up by Simon & Schuster for his next book following his meteoric rise to fame, he had a negligible social media presence and little previous media. He had a new fan in Oprah, though (contacts!), a huge existing readership, expertise in spades and a whole library of previous books to his credit.
In Mark’s case, the Oprah touch made a big difference (when doesn’t it?), but he’d sold a book to a traditional publisher just a few months before being “discovered” by Oprah, so while his advances are bigger now than they were, he’s an example of an author who was already getting publishing deals based on expertise, an existing readership, and previous books.
Author platform isn’t just for nonfiction writers
In case any fiction writers are reading this and wondering whether any of this matters to you, the answer is yes. Just listen to this podcast from bestselling fiction author, Ramy Vance.
If you look at the pie chart above, you may feel that your area of expertise matters little to the novel you’re writing, but is that really true? For instance, one of my clients works in the medical transplant field, and she’s writing a thriller whose central focus is about an illegally obtained organ. Her expertise matters a lot — as do her contacts in the medical world.
Fiction authors are scrutinized for the other aspects of platform as well: contacts, previous books, previous media, social media, readership, ability to execute. It may take getting a book or two under your belt to grow a readership (which is why there’s a case for novelists to kick off their own careers through indie publishing), but no, you’re not off the hook.
- Related: Effective Book Marketing Strategies for Consistent Sales
- Related: How to Market a Fiction Box Set
- Related: How to Market a Self-Published Book Like a Traditional Publisher
Focus on what works
Track your efforts and focus on what works. This will help you see your progress along the way. And it will also help inform future decisions on what to try next.
Rather than feeling lost and unsure of what to try next, you can look at what has worked and what hasn’t and adjust your course. You’ll have a record of what you’ve done that you can check against blog traffic, newsletter sign-ups, followers per platform, or content downloads.
For example, if you keep track of podcast downloads after sharing each episode on social media, you’ll be able to see if there is a direct correlation. Is one effort feeding another?
Time is what it all boils down to: writers, perhaps working at another job or taking care of family, have very limited time, and marketing can easily eat up most of it, leaving little for you to actually write. The goal is to find what works, then 80/20 it. Do the 20% of things that bring you 80% of the results.
Whatever system you use to plan your marketing, make it work for you.
Building your author platform is a process
If you’re a writer who wants to publish in any capacity, author platform can be a difficult thing to wrap your mind around. What’s expected of you can feel overwhelming, if not insurmountable.
In addition to teaching and writing about platform, I’m growing my own, so I empathize with the glazed-over looks I sometimes get from authors who ask me questions like, “Do I really have to do all of this if I want to be a published author?”
The key is to take it slow. For writers who are just beginning, it can feel like you’re coming really late to a party that’s been going on for years — and that’s in essence exactly what’s happening. If you look at someone who has thousands upon thousands of Twitter followers, it’s likely they were an early adopter.
Remember that what you bring to the table already — just by being you — comprises a large part of the pie: expertise, personality, and ability to execute.
With this you at least have a foundation, and possibly, with the right project, enough to land a deal. But most authors need to start to layer on the rest of the components in order to prove to a publishing house that they’re worth a bet. No matter how good they think your book might be, if an editorial board can’t justify its sales potential, they simply won’t offer you a contract.
Remember this sometimes hard-to-swallow fact: getting rejections is often not about how good your book is, or whether it deserves to be published.
It’s about editorial boards weighing whether they think they can sell thousands of copies of your book — a tall order for any author. Your platform is an engine working for you to meet that goal, and all you can do is to keep growing it, a day at a time.
At the end of the day, none of this is science.
Some authors receive many rejections before self-publishing bestsellers (Still Alice, by Lisa Genova); some authors get deals based solely on their social media presence (Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern); and some authors have no platform but manage to land book deals anyway. (Don’t look to the outliers to make a case for not attending to your platform, though.)
Platform-building is a fine balance between being authentic and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone as much as you can — but not to the point where you’re overwhelmed and paralyzed.
Take it a day at a time, and don’t be hard on yourself if you feel behind.
Building your platform is a marathon, not a sprint. You will get there, but it takes time.
Earlier in the article, I said that social media isn’t the only piece of the author platform pie. But when you look at the chart again and do the math, a powerful social media standing can account for:
- 10% Social Media
- 10% Contacts
- 10% Personality
And if your social media accounts prove your ability to execute over the years and show your expertise on your topic, you’re suddenly filling 70% of the pie.
That’s why it pays to take social media and platform building seriously.
**Editor’s Note** We’ve teamed up with Self-Publishing School to offer this free training on How to Explode Your Book Launch. If you’re ready to take your social media and author platform to the next level, this is the best way to do it.
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock