An ‘author platform’ is a commercial concept which has gradually become more and more refined and defined in the last few years. Basically, it is your ability to sell books because of your identity. Your identity determines (allegedly) who you can reach, and who is likely, therefore, to buy your books.
You may feel — and many writers do — that your work should stand on its own merits and the lower your profile is in the whole affair, the better. But in today’s celebrity-orientated culture, publishers expect the author to be involved more and more in the selling of books.
It began back in the 1990s, when agents and publishers began wanting authors of non-fiction to be in the public eye in some way (usually through mainstream media appearances, as this was before the rise of the internet). The idea was to turn the author into an opinion leader, someone with credentials and authority (even if these were largely ‘invented’ by the media), in order to make them more visible to their target audience as an ‘expert’. This concept then spread to fiction writers. Of course, a fiction writer is less obviously an ‘expert’ at anything, so the focus shifted to the author’s personal life: what was he or she doing that might appeal to the target readership? Who was he or she?
It’s all part of a revolution in marketing which we see occurring every day all around us, and which parallels the rise of the internet. The questions being asked include: how do books sell, exactly? Where do particular works regularly appear? How many people see them? How does news about them spread? The huge commercial triumph of the Harry Potter series, which was largely a word-of-mouth success story, prompted deeper investigations into all this.
Obviously, if an author is well-known as an individual, they already have a potential fanbase and readership, but how do you start one from scratch? How does it grow? What communities are you a part of? Whom do you influence?
Conclusions that are often jumped at — you may be jumping to them yourself, as you read this — is that it’s all about numbers: you need vast amounts of people to ‘see’ you in order to have a successful platform. That’s disturbingly only partly true. What you actually need — and listen carefully, because this is the bit that gets misunderstood most often — is a viably large group of the right people.
What determines ‘viability’? Well, you can work it out yourself. How much money do you want to make from your writing? Based on what amount of profit per unit sold? That gives you roughly the number of units you need to sell, and therefore your viable readership in number terms. But the trick is contacting the right people — thousands, possibly millions of pounds/dollars are wasted (along with hundreds and hundreds of hours) because of misunderstandings about this.
Yes, a platform is useful — but the nature of that platform and where you place it will contribute to how successful you are in contacting your viable number of appropriate readers.
It’s tricky because there are two things being processed here: firstly, that viability figure, and secondly the appropriateness of the readership. So let’s look at an example.
Jonny has written a book about a schoolboy who discovers he has superpowers. Jonny wants to make a million pounds as a writer, over ten years. That gives us, based on a profit per unit of about £1.00, a viability figure: Jonny will need to sell one million copies of his book over a ten year period to achieve his goal.
Here’s where it often goes wrong: Jonny begins ‘spamming’ the internet, spending thousands of pounds on ads to try to contact as many possible readers as he can. You will have seen hundreds of similar ads, all over the media, in your newsfeeds and so forth: invitations to ‘click’ and ‘like’ and ‘share on Twitter’ and do all kinds of things. Hugely wasteful, exhausting and usually disappointing.
Because the numbers of readers potentially interested in Jonny’s book is far smaller than he probably assumes, and not necessarily seeing his ads because they are splattered all over the place, indiscriminately. Jonny’s potential readers are meanwhile living their quiet lives, going about their reading of superhero stories, watching superhero movies, probably reading Harry Potter and similar books. They’re looking for other books and films which are like the ones they love but a little different — unknowingly, they’re looking for Jonny’s book. Occasionally, one of them might see one of Jonny’s ads as it whizzes by — even less frequently, one might click and read the blurb. It’s on the basis of those tiny successes that these huge marketing campaigns are created and pushed.
But what if Jonny quietly built an author platform and placed it exactly in the middle of these readers whom he is trying to reach? What would happen?
If you’re interested, stay tuned. You can also contact me directly to have me program such a platform into existence for you.