What is author platform anyway, and how do you build it?

June 19, 2014

DSC_0024These days one of the most tossed-about words in publishing is platform. As in: we love your work, but you don’t have a strong enough platform for us to publish it. Sound familiar? But what does author platform actually mean? And why does it matter? 

Who else is confused about what platform means?

Having a strong platform means you have visibility and connections with your target audience. A lot of people mistakenly believe it refers to social media presence, but that is just one of many possible elements in an author’s platform.

Platform is critical to self-publishers’ success, because without it, you will have a tough time marketing your book. We hear from a lot of authors who think that that just because their book is available for sale online, people will find it. That’s not the case. A Smashwords survey a few years back showed that only 14% of ebook purchasers discovered their ebooks through browsing. Most purchasers of books online hunt for a specific title. With millions of titles available through electronic retailers such as Amazon, KOBO, and NOOK, you need to drive people to purchase yours. Platform helps you do that.

This is platform in action

Our client Bruce Sellery is an excellent example of an author with significant platform. He gives regular keynote addresses, he conducts workshops, he has both a video and a text-based blog following, he’s active on Twitter and Facebook, he does regular TV appearances on shows such as the Lang and O’Leary Exchange, he’s published two books (Moolala and The Moolala Guide to Rockin’ Your RRSP), and he has a financial advice column in MoneySense magazine. He’s busy.

When Bruce publishes a new book, his followers are eager to read it.

Elements of author platform

Some of the elements that contribute to an author’s platform are:

  • A sizeable social media following
  • Significant website traffic
  • A large blog following
  • Frequent publication in recognized magazines/newspapers/websites
  • Active participation in various networks, online or off (e.g. an HR professional who is active in the Human Resources Professionals Association)
  • Regular event appearances and speaking engagements
  • Connections with acclaimed authors
  • Endorsements from A-list writers
  • Interviews with major media
  • Credibility within the field you’re writing about (this is crucial; it’s not much good if you’ve spent a lifetime working and developing connections in health care but your book is about art history, for example)

It’s never too early to start building your platform

We spend a lot of time counselling clients on building their platform long before their books are ever published. Platform is not something you can build overnight. Some of the most successful self-publishers spend years building it, often organically.

Consider the case of Canadian poet and spoken word artist Shane Koyczan. Earlier this year, Koyczan launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund self-publishing of his upcoming poetry book, A Bruise on Light. His goal was to raise $15,000. Instead, he raised a whopping $91,154, a phenomenal amount for any contemporary poet that will earn him a tidy profit even after his Kickstarter rewards and book production costs are paid out. Koyczan was able to raise this amount because he had an impressive platform.  It includes:

  • A polished website that acts as a hub of information about his work
  • An email list of followers (in exchange for giving their email address, they receive a poem from him every month)
  • Previous features in a wide range of media, from local Vancouver newspapers to the BBC
  • Massive Twitter and Facebook followings
  • An appearance in the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics
  • Tours of his work
  • An anti-bullying video he created that went viral
  • Two published books of poetry
  • And so on

Lest you think Koyczan had it easy and you could never get there yourself, consider this (as described on his Kickstarter page):

“I got my start in self-publishing when I first began performing, 1999. I put out a number of chapbooks in my first 6 years as a way to help offset the costs of touring. In the beginning there was quite a bit of hustle going on; a lot of selling zines and chapbooks to raise enough money to get to the next city on the tour. The shows themselves often didn’t pay enough to get you to where you needed to be next. In 2005, I caught a number of very lucky breaks in Vancouver. I ended up performing at the Writer’s Fest (virtually unheard of for an unpublished author). I remember my friends and I being snickered at as we sat in the hotel lobby stapling together handmade books.”

In other words, he was out connecting with readers and building his platform early on. Don’t wait until the days or weeks before publication to start thinking about your own platform. We cannot emphasize this enough.

I’ve got nothing. What do I do?

Let’s say you hate social media, you’ve never taken a writing class, you’ve never been featured in media. How do you start building your platform? You might start by connecting with other people in your subject area. Why not:

  • Attend conferences on your subject
  • Start building genuine relationships with bloggers in the area
  • Join professional networks related to your topic
  • Submit articles on your subject to the publications that specialize in it
  • Start blogging to establish yourself as a subject matter expert

You might also check out some of the many  resources available on building platform. We like Joanna Penn’s website, and Tim Grahl’s book Your First 1,000 Copies is useful too (unfortunately, it’s only available through Amazon).

This is a lot of work. Maybe I should just get a book deal instead.

These days, publishers are less inclined to help you build your platform; they want you to come with it already established. In today’s risk-averse publishing climate, publishers want to know there’s a built-in audience for your work. Platform is one way of demonstrating that you have one. It’s just as important for authors working with a publisher as it is for self-publishers. But with some careful thought, you can build the platform you need to publish your book successfully.

This is the final post in our series The elements of a non-fiction self-publishing success story. If you have questions about how to build your own non-fiction self-publishing strategy, drop us a note.

 

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