Author Platforms: What Are They And How Can You Build Them?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Who Need Readers

In this post I’m going to explain author platforms so that you can decide whether you want to invest time in building one. Essentially, author platforms are soapboxes. Authors stand on their platforms to gain the attention of a crowd.

Politicians have platforms, as do political parties. It’s helpful to think of the political analogy because, as an author, you, too, have something to say–an idea or story you want to share with the world.

Like the platforms of political parties,  author platforms allow you to stand above the crowd and broadcast your message. Author platforms help you develop relationships with your readers. Just as in politics, readers expect you to deliver on your promises. In exchange for a reader’s loyalty, you will provide the same kind of information or entertainment you provided before.

 

Jimmy Carter standing on a soapbox in Tallahassee

What is the “message” you want to get out into the world? It’s probably this: “Buy my book.” But “buy my book” may also mean “buy my message to save the world from global warming” or “let me share what I know about caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.” Your desire to share your message with the world can also mean that you promise to divert your readers or entertain them. In exchange for your readers’ hard-earned cash, you’re going to deliver information that will solve a pressing problem or transport your fans out of their ordinary lives. Image from Flickr via State Library and Archives of Florida

If you’re writing nonfiction and putting yourself forward as an expert–a doctor, a diet guru, a relationship counselor, or a lawyer–then by all means you will want to “build a platform.” Who wouldn’t want to be Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra? But if you write fiction, you aren’t trying to solve anyone’s psychological or financial problems. Your objective and the kind of platform you’ll build will be different.

Author platforms for fiction authors must be built around the idea of entertainment. Think Neil Gaiman or George Saunders. Think J.K. Rowling or Diana Gabaldon. Think Hollywood stars who write books, such as Carrie Fisher. These literary superstars have thousands of readers. They have fans. They have ways of getting news about their latest releases in front of large audiences.

New authors won’t have any of these advantages. We won’t fill arenas or have buyers lined up outside bookstores. If we have a platform at all, it’s likely to be the size of a child’s step-stool. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore the idea of building an author platform. For authors who self-publish or who publish with independent presses, platforms are essential to long-term success.

The bottom line is this: Building author platforms means building a readership.

Finding Your Ideal Reader

Author platforms are all about finding your ideal reader. This doesn’t mean every reader. It means readers who enjoy a certain kind of book and who might buy more of the same kind of book. Let’s say you’ve written a book about birds in Texas. Birders in that state found your book useful. Can you write a book about California birds that’s just as useful? When your readers go on their next birding adventure, will they put book in the glove box?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your objective is to occupy a specific niche. Building your platform plank by plank, you will write the same kind of book again and again. Folks who like your “product”–i.e. book–will want to buy your next book and the one after that. Here are some examples:

  • Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, was the first to write a book that helped ordinary people knock down roadblocks to creativity. Her subsequent books followed up on her success.
  • Deepak Chopra started his career as a member of Maharishi’s utopian, transcendental meditation commune in Iowa, and as an author, he has carved out a niche in New Age, self-help books.
  • Diana Gabaldon developed a huge following with her Outlander series. The original book spawned many others.
  • Ditto for Jean Auel, author of Clan of Cave Bear and subsequent books.
  • Self-published author Hugh Howey’s series, Wool Trilogy, started with one book. He developed a fan base and wrote more.
  • Amanda Hocking’s self-published My Blood Approves series has also vaulted her to literary stardom, with the initial book leading to more successes.

Personal Connections With An Author

Having an author platform means that you have thought about, and connected with, readers. It means you are consciously thinking about people who might become potential fans. Next week I’ll be talking more about this subject, but for now, let me just share a couple of pieces of information for you to ponder.

One is that most books sell 200 to 250 copies. That’s true for books published by the Big Five and for self-published books.

Who buys new books? Well, if you’re lucky, the people you know personally will buy them. The point is that people are more likely to buy a book if they have a personal connection with the author.

Avatars Thumbs Up Author Platforms

Building author platforms takes time, but if you keep at it, you can develop a loyal readership of people who don’t know you, but who love your books. Image from Open Clip Art via

The idea of “personal connection” extends far beyond your e-mail list. It extends to people you interact with online: Facebook friends; readers on Goodreads; connections on LinkedIn. Connections like this may be shallow at best, but at least these folks know something about you.

How Can You Get People to Buy Your Book?

How can you get people who don’t know you to buy your book?

When your book is published, whether by traditional publishers or by you yourself, you will need to begin putting yourself out there in the world. What “building a platform” means is that you are sharing a bit about who you are.  Your goal is to turn strangers into friends.

You can do that a couple of ways. One way is to solve problems. The other way is to entertain.

Here’s where celebrities have the advantage. A news anchor like Jim Lehrer can hold a successful book launch for his fiction because, for many years, he was the anchor of PBS News Hour. Andrew McCarthy’s debut novel, Just Fly Away, garnered media attention because he’s actor.

In many cases agents are primarily interested in authors who already have a media presence. Having an “author platform” can be a code word for “already has high name recognition.” Let’s assume that won’t be you.

Author Platforms for Nonfiction Authors

If you’re writing a “how to” or nonfiction book, then chances are you’re building on knowledge you’ve gained during a successful, professional career. Now you want to write a book and share that knowledge. If you are a recognized expert, you can get speaking engagements. Even better, you can sell books at the back of the room.

A key concept for nonfiction authors is that the information in the book must be useful, actionable, and solve a problem for the reader. Are you a quilter? Have you figured out a super-duper, easy way to quilt? Great! You have a niche and you’ve solved a problem. Now all you have to do is figure out where quilters hang out on the internet. Are there any well known quilters who could give you access to their network? (In most cases a network means an e-mail list.)  Maybe you can put together a blog tour. It’s easy to search the most popular quilting sites.

As a new author in this niche you’d want to get coverage in your local paper. Develop a PowerPoint about quilting and pitch the program that a library. Speak to civic groups. Your author platform will quickly grow beyond the two hundred or so folks in your network of personal acquaintances.

If you’re serious about developing an author platform, you will have to get out in front of the public. You can do that in person or via the internet, but you must have some way of casting a wide net and reeling in potential readers/book buyers. Of course, it would be great to have book groups read your books, but it’s hard to get them to read a book that doesn’t already have quite a bit of buzz.

Author Platforms for Fiction Authors

Fiction authors don’t solve problems. We entertain. But there is one common element we share with nonfiction authors: If our novels are topical, we may be able to get media attention by talking about the issue that drove us to write the book in the first place.

Think about Still Alice. Author Lisa Genova did a lot of interviews and wrote many blog posts about Alzheimer’s disease. Before a major publisher picked her up, she aggressively sought to let the world know about her book by stressing its content. She blogged, she wrote nonfiction articles, and she spoke before caregivers’ groups. She built her platform based on the content of her story.

Fiction authors can successfully build platforms if they can talk about the subject matter as if they were talking about problems from the news. Authors can cast a wide net by writing nonfiction articles for Salon or the Huffington Post.

But what if your book isn’t topical? What if it’s a fantasy or sci fi or literary novel? How do you expand your platform beyond the friends-and-family circle?

One strategy is to find where readers hang out. Join online groups like Goodreads (the largest book group in the world). Join the community at SheWrites. Participate in LibraryThing book giveaways. See if BookTalk works for you. Find one or two groups that read and discuss books like yours. Don’t promote your book. Just be part of the conversation. Be helpful.

A second strategy is to interest potential readers is your blog or newsletter. I’ll talk about blogging in next week’s post.

Agents and Author Platforms

Agents or publishers may ask you quite bluntly, “Do you have a platform?” Don’t give them the “deer in the headlights” look.

Here are some possible answers:

  • I have 1,576 Facebook fans and a private Facebook group where I can directly contact my fans and let them know about pre-release offers.
  • I have a Street Team of 30 fans who are active on social media and ready to let the world know when my book comes out.
  • I know my local newspaper’s culture reporter and can get coverage for my next book launch.
  • I am all set up on Mailchimp and can send a newsletter to my 1500 subscribers and can expect a 45% response rate.
  • I write a regular newsletter column for XX newsletter, which goes out to xxx members of XX association, related to my subject area.
  • I am the Book Group Chair of American Association of University Women, and can get publicity through their newsletter.

The stats above are theoretical, not mind. When I began building a platform, you could have put 0, 0, and 0 in every category. I wasn’t on Facebook, I had no Twitter followers, and I didn’t have a Goodreads’ page. The only category in which I excelled was CLUELESS.

I guess what I’m saying is if I can do it, you can, too!

Partnerships

Those of us in our ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s did not grow up with social media, nor with cell phones hanging from our umbilical cords. We’ve struggled to find the time to write, and we’ve paid our dues is too many ways to count. I often feel like saying, “Hey, I’ve spent 30+ years learning to write fiction! Now I have to learn this strange new world of self-marketing books, too?” Unfortunately, yes. But the news isn’t all bad.

What that agent or publisher is really asking you is whether you will be a willing partner in their efforts to get your book in front of people who are likely to buy it. Can you apply your creativity to thinking about where your kind of readers hang out?

Also, if you’re lucky and publish with one of Big Five, they may not even care whether you have an author platform. New York publishers have marketing departments that will put your book in front of reviewers, and if you’re lucky, the publisher will even hire a public relations’ person to arrange media coverage.

In the end it’s your call about whether you’re willing to take time away from your writing to build a platform. I can say personally that it’s a huge time sink to do this. It also takes a while to figure out what works for your kind of book and what’s doable for you. You need to have a life, too!

Stay tuned. More next week.


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