What Is An 'Author Platform'? And What Does It Have To Do With You?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘author platform’. You may not be quite sure what it means. Part of the reason that it is hard to define is that there are various definitions out there. The closest applicable definition of the word ‘platform’ in a dictionary might be ‘a raised floor or stage used by public speakers or performers so that they can be seen by their audience’. The word itself comes from French plateforme meaning ‘ground plan’. What we are talking about with the term ‘author platform’ is the ‘raised visibility of an author in relation to an exact target audience’.
Author platforms first arose in connection with the highly competitive field of nonfiction. Before the rise of the internet and social media, about twenty years ago, agents and publishers started to demand that non-fiction authors be in the public eye in some way so as to be able to spread the word more easily about their books. It became a competitive edge to have a professional network or public presence so that readers could see the author’s credentials and authority, enabling them to be positioned as an expert, leader, or professional. This idea then drifted into the field of fiction.
It could be seen as the first stage of a recognition in the world of mass marketing that marketing doesn’t really work when it is based on numbers alone: you can place an ad in front of millions of people, but the ‘take-up rate’ - that is, the number of people who actually act on that ad or ‘convert’ into customers, is incredibly low in relation to the number of people who must have seen the ad. This ‘shouting from the rooftops’ marketing is further described in my book A Marketing Handbook for Writers, in which I point out that there is a tremendous waste of time and energy in this so-called ‘conventional’ approach. With the idea of an author platform, we start to see the beginnings of a more fundamental and workable method: marketing by affinity.
In establishing a platform, an author begins to ask the right questions: where precisely would his or her work appear? How many interested people would see it (as opposed to how many people generally)? How exactly does word about it spread? Where does it spread to and what exactly triggers that ‘viral’ quality? What communities of like-minded people is the writer a part of? Are there any groups of people whom the writer could be said to influence?
Visibility can be measured these days - a writer can show how and where he or she makes an impact using various internet tools. The size of an e-mail newsletter list, website traffic, blog comments, reviews, testimonials and so on are the evidence that a ‘platform’ exists and is working (or not). But vital to all this is the ‘target audience’: authors need to be reaching the most receptive or appropriate audience for the work they are trying to sell. A writer needs to reach exactly the right public, and when efforts are expended on inappropriate audiences they are wasteful and might even be counter-productive.
How do you find that exact target audience? And how do you make them ‘like’ you? Not just clicking a ‘like’ button on social media, but developing an affinity for your work to the degree that they will spend money on it in an effort to get closer to You.
The first and most important principle is this:
Fiction writers must craft the best work possible for their exact target audience.
Unless the work is marketing itself by being attractive and powerfully fulfilling, most marketing efforts will be a waste of time and money. To use a crude example, if you made a pizza that tasted awful, but managed to get people into your pizza restaurant to sample it, it is highly unlikely that they would stay, or that they would recommend your pizza to others. It’s the same with a book: your book has to be fantastic as a priority. In fact, your book itself is your first marketing tool.
An agent or publisher will make a decision first based on the quality of your work and its suitability for a particular marketplace - unless of course you already have a huge ‘platform’ based on being a TV or movie star or some other kind of celebrity. Arguably, one could define a ‘celebrity’ as an ordinary human being with an extraordinary platform - i.e. a person with a raised visibility in relation to an exact target audience.
So the key thing here is that an author platform has a foundation, and that foundation is the work itself. You can try to build a platform around a work that does not yet exist (and people attempt this all the time) but that would be comparable to setting up a pizza restaurant without any pizzas: it’s probably doomed.
Having established that your work itself appeals to the right sort of people, you then need to develop organically from there: good fiction is all about the art and craft of storytelling, so developing credibility as a good writer should probably start with a growing track record of newspaper or magazine publication.
But a key early step is to work out who exactly is your target audience. There’s no point working to become visible to a group of romance-seeking young female readers if your main storytelling abilities are in the field of hardcore Westerns, or vice-versa. Working this out is so central to developing a platform that it almost beggars saying it: unless you know to whom you want to appeal, how do you know where and how to build your platform? Constructing a vast network of blogs, social media sites and website pages for a target audience of retired steam train story enthusiasts is likely to be a waste of time - not many of them will be on social media; spending time building up a profile as a columnist in a crocheting magazine is unlikely to get you in touch with an audience of video-game-loving teenagers. Yes, these are ridiculously extreme examples, but they hopefully make the point.
Figure out who your readers are.
Is having a platform all about building a series of internet locations from which to shout out to the world about your products? No, emphatically not. That would be to fall into the trap of old-fashioned marketing all over again - not ‘shouting from the rooftops’ as much as ‘wailing from the web’. No - building an author platform is all about setting up channels along which those people who really have an affinity for what you do can get closer to you.
Note that: 'getting closer to you' not 'selling your books' - sales will happen if the channels are set up correctly.
Of course, conventional marketing, promotion, and publicity activities can build your platform, but bombarding social media with posts about your books will not, by itself, lead you to a platform that interests publishers. A platform raises your visibility, yes, and so it is tempting to conclude that it is all about You - but it’s really all about them, your target public.
What do your ideal readers want from you? How can you bring them a little closer to you? What can you provide for them that they really want? This requires consistent, ongoing effort over the course of years, not magically finding the one Facebook ad which brings you a thousand sales. It means incremental improvements, two-way conversations with real people, extending your network, and doing things that attract other people to you (while being careful not to do anything that repels them).
Here are some suggested actions:
1. Find meaningful ways to engage with and develop your target audience, whether through content, offers, tailor-made gifts, etc. By ‘meaningful’ is meant not glib or shallow or obviously commercial in intent. Think affinity.
2. Attend networking events in your precise field where you meet new but like-minded people and extend your network of contacts. Note that you should only do this with events which are narrowly aimed at your field - networking as a general thing, with people with whom you do not share a relatively small range of interests, is usually a complete waste of time.
3. Run a blog, e-mail newsletter, social network, podcast series, video channel that is aimed at attracting quality followers or a community of people who are highly interested in what you have to say. This takes time.
A real, working and valuable author platform isn’t something that you can construct quickly, just as developing a real, trusting relationship with someone takes time. Because the truth is that that is exactly what you are doing, but on a larger scale: you are beginning, growing and guiding to maturity a set of relationships using a range of tools. Take time about it and before too long you will be able to repeatedly reach and speak to people who know you and trust you.
That is valuable. Not just commercially, but spiritually.