Discover more from Agents and Books
Let me X-plain them to you
Last week in the Q&A we had a question about platforms, and I knew it was time to update my oft-linked to post from four years ago. Four years!! And quite a bit has changed in the world since April, 2019. Some of that has changed how publishing views an author’s platform.
What hasn’t changed is that when an author thinks about their platform, they think about all the work they need to do to maintain a presence on social media. Social media is still an important part of an author’s platform, though not in the same way as it was in 2019. It’s tempting for me to organize my thoughts here social media site by social media site and tell you what they’re good for, who they’re good for, and how you should use them.
But I can’t do that because I don’t know how you should use them. Only you do. And you find that out by doing, not by me telling you things. Instead, I’m going to go through what I think are the fundamentals of an author platform, and you can use those to fill in the practical parts yourself (i.e. whether to be on TikTok or not). I know you would rather me give you TEN QUICK AND EASY WAYS TO SELL 1M COPIES OF YOUR BOOK ON INSTAGRAM!!! but you probably also know that does not exist. So, what is a platform?
A platform connects you to readers. Sometimes that leads to sales.
This is the point of a platform, on any site and for any author. You want to create a direct link between you and the people who want to hear from you, who opt in to hear from you, who might buy your book one day. How do you build that link? Well, why do you follow any one online? Are they funny? Do they post interesting facts? Cute dogs? Are they talking about a topic you’re interested in? Did someone else you think is cool repost their stuff so you followed to see more of that and found out wow, this person is even better than I thought? It’s not rocket science. Give people a reason to follow you, as authentically as you can.
You might gain one million followers on Instagram by posting pictures of your Corgi-Great Dane mix rescue puppy. Those followers, though, may care little about your forthcoming non-fiction book about America’s crumbling roads and bridges. You can absolutely talk about more than one topic on your various platform venues. You can post your dog pics on Insta and talk about bridges on Twitter1 and still post about your book on both. You don’t have to keep things perfectly separate and NEVER talk about your book on your dog platform. But as you use these tools, you’ll find out which content gets the most traction on which site, and you’ll fine tune your posting to that. Your platform is not just a megaphone that screams BUY MY BOOK (see below). If you want people to follow you, you have to give them a reason to.
Platforms are not just social media.
It’s easy to say social media when we talk about platform, as if that’s the only thing that matters. It matters a lot because it’s something basically everyone can see. Agents can see what gets likes and follows, and so can you. But that’s not the only thing that makes up a platform. And you don’t want to have just one place you can reach readers, since we’ve seen how easily a platform can go south. You want to spread your platform out, not only to hedge your bets if, say, a beloved microblogging site is driven into the ground by an idiot megalomaniac, but because you have more to offer the world than just a few sentences or a nicely cropped picture. Your expertise will lead you into figuring out what else to do. You could write a newsletter, like I do, and bring readers in by sharing your thoughts and expertise. You might teach classes, and as those grow, it could be a big part of how you reach readers. You might speak at professional conferences regularly. You might write articles in well-read newspapers or websites. One of these things is not a platform, but together, they create a robust way to connect with potential readers.
You’re better at reaching your readers than the publisher and that’s ok.
Writers commonly complain that it takes a lot of work to maintain an author platform (yes) and that publishers should do more to market their authors (also yes). But you do not want a publisher posting for you on your social media (or your newsletter or your blog) just as they do not want you to reach out to Kirkus reviews to ask them to consider your book. Your are better at promoting yourself on your platform than a publisher is. Even if a publisher posts on their own platforms about you, it’s still probably more effective coming from you. Go look and see how any followers your favorite publisher has on any platform (if you even have a fave publisher). Then go look at see how many your favorite (or even your fourth favorite) author has. See? More people follow authors online, or subscribe to author’s newsletters or the like, than follow specific publishers around the internet. The publisher will do the things they can do (and yeah, we wish it was more), and you can take care of your author platform.
Different genres and audiences respond differently to author platforms.
It’s not so shocking that different platforms appeal to different demographics. You won’t find many Gen Zers on Facebook and or Linked-In (which has a robust social component!!!!). So where you post depends on who you want to talk to. You don’t have to make TikTok dance videos to reach readers of your academic monograph about crop rotation. You aren’t directly talking to five year olds anywhere to tell them to buy your picture book. You might post fifteen tweets about your cookbook to Twitter and get 20 collective likes, but your two Instagram reels that show your finished recipes take off like gangbusters. Your short, daily newsletters might fall flat, but work much better as once-a-week missives. Different platforms reach different readers and require different styles of content, and you just figure it out as you go along.
Different authors need different platforms.
An author writing non-fiction for adults needs a much different platform than an author writing middle grade fiction. If you’re writing non-fiction for adults, a robust platform is essential and required. You have to be talking to a goodly number (I know you want numbers! See here for numbers.) of people for a publisher to consider your platform strong enough to support a book. This is because readers base a lot of non-fiction book purchases on the name recognition of the author and their relative authority. If you’re in a bookstore looking at two similar books about potty training, do you buy the one whose instagram you like and follow, or that other one you’ve never heard of? The author with the most followers is not always the most qualified to write a book! That’s because publishing is not a meritocracy. I know it’s frustrating, but that’s what we’re working with here.
If you’re writing fiction for adults, your platform is a nice added bonus. Genres like romance, science fiction, and fantasy feature authors with pretty big platforms, and that’s great and helpful. Publishers are still willing to buy books from novelists with no platform, though, regardless of what others have told you.
Writing for children is a little different. Lots and lots of kids are not online, so it makes sense that you are not posting for three year olds. You may be posting for their parents, but more likely you’re posting for teachers and librarians. You would say different things to teachers and librarians than you would three year olds, if the latter could read Twitter. In YA, there is a bigger push for authors to have a platform, thought it’s still not a requirement, and it’s even harder to build one in that area. Because who are you talking to? Parents? Librarians? Teens? Adults reading YA? ALL OF THE ABOVE???? If you’re writing YA, you’ll likely find what works best for you specifically, and that’s the best way to go about it.
The book cannot build the platform.
You have to do this first. You cannot say to a publisher when you publish my book, that will make me go viral on TikTok. I mean, you might go viral on TikTok when your book comes out, but not likely if you’re starting from scratch. Specifically in non-fiction, the platform has to come first. Any author’s platform will grow when their book comes out, but it has to come first, for just about everyone.
If you hate doing it, don’t.
Do do not have to make videos. Full stop. I am not making videos for my book when it comes out, save maybe an unboxing video or something like that. I am not getting on TikTok. (I actually put this in my proposal!!) I do not have the time, energy, desire, or skills to make a good video. If you hate something—like videos or Facebook or whatever—you don’t have to do it. You have to do something else but you don’t have to do that one you hate, or that is not safe for you to do. Your fear or distain will come through in your content and it will suck and no one will follow you and it will be a huge waste of time. You should try things, but if you hate it, you don’t have to do it. (Everyone is frustrated, confounded, confused, baffled, and annoyed by social media. That’s not the same as hating it.)
You can say BUY MY BOOK more times than you think you can.
I read some number somewhere that said the average user saw maybe a third of any single person’s tweets, and I bet that number is WAY lower now. So you can tweet BUY MY BOOK three times as often and maybe reach the majority of your followers. The algorithms have greatly changed in the past few years and it can take some gamesmanship to figure out the system. You are not being annoying when you post the same things repeatedly, even BUY MY BOOK. I know if feels very cringe. Self-promotion can be uncomfortable, but if you don’t do it, who will? People are thinking way less about you than you think they are. Post more.2
Start now. It takes a long time.
You will not have 10,000 followers overnight. Heck, it took me years to reach 10,000 subscribers here. It’s gonna take a quarter of that time to reach 20,000. It takes much, much longer than you think to build your platform, and that’s ok. That’s how it works for everyone. (It goes without saying you should not buy followers.) It is frustrating, confusing, contradictory, ever-changing, and opaque. But it’s that way for everyone, so just keep going. There are no shortcuts. Start now.
Goodness that was a lot! And there’s probably more I could say. I guess you’ll just have to wait until you can BUY MY BOOK to find out!! As soon as you can pre-order it, I will let you know. I have to write it first.
I am not calling it X.
Some newsletter platforms encourage you to post more frequently to build your audience better/faster/more and I disagree! Their numbers might support that for any single author, but on the whole, I don’t think the average reader wants MORE email. Maybe your readers are different, but in some things I think less is more.