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The Dirty Secret of Author Platform (Hint: It’s Difficult)

My friend Jane Friedman shared a blog post encouraging newer fiction writers to forgo the idea of developing an author platform, in favor of focusing exclusively on the craft of writing.

One writer immediately responded by saying “hallelujah!” So today I want to talk about three things:

  • Why Jane is right. But why she may be misinterpreted.
  • Why writers are scared of the idea of author platform.
  • Why a platform is critical to your success.

Okay, let’s dig in…

Why Jane is right about author platform, but why she may be misinterpreted.
Jane is not saying author platform is unimportant, but rather, she is saying that the conversation around it needs to be elevated. This is a topic for serious authors who are ready to make a commitment to their writing career and establishing connections with readers. For those who are struggling to even find the time and focus to even write, it may be premature to fill up their days Tweeting and blogging.

I feel that Jane may be misinterpreted because authors are frustrated with all that is on their plate. If you only care about the sound byte of “author platform is dead,” then you are only doing yourself a disservice as a writer. You, as a writer, are not off the hook for understanding and developing your audience.

What I find again and again is that many writers are unable to tell an agent, a publisher, or even a friend the following:

  • What their comps are – what other books published in the past five years are like theirs.
  • What genre or topic the book would be categorized on a bookshelf at a store, or on Amazon.
  • Anything about readers beyond vague demographics. Instead of describing what their ideal audience already reads, and why, they opt for broad descriptions of who they hope their audience is. EG: “women between the ages of 13 and 65.” If you think your audience is potentially everyone, then you will not be able to take meaningful steps to actually reach anyone.

Even these three basic elements of describing one’s book stump many writers. And they are inherently tied to author platform – to helping others understand how your book fits into the world.

Why many writers resist the idea of author platform.
Let’s face it: writers are busy. They are likely juggling:

  • Their writing time
  • A day job
  • A family
  • Managing a home
  • Hobbies
  • Other responsibilities to their friends, community and personal life
  • The publishing process

Also, there is an emotional component to writing that Joanna Penn recently discussed on her blog: On Writing And The Fear Of Judgment.

So when the topic of author platform comes up, this is often the straw that broke the camel’s back (sorry for making the writer a camel in this metaphor.) And I have a great deal of empathy for that. My days are spent working with writers, and have have helped hundreds of writers find their audience. I live in the trenches with them, and don’t glamorize what it means to be a writer.

Because they are overwhelmed, many writers simplify the concept of author platform to mean surface level tactics such as Tweeting, or Pinning or spamming people on email.

This is an incorrect view of what author platform really is.

Oftentimes, writers put off developing a platform until it is too late to matter for their book. They mistakenly assume that a publisher can magically create a platform for them, or that the author themselves can craft a meaningful platform with readers in the narrow window of thee-months before their book is published.

But developing an author platform takes time. Here’s why…

Why a platform is critical to your success as a writer.
Whenever an author talks about their success, invariably, they talk about the many people who helped to create the book and ensure it found it’s way into readers’ hands.

When I define author platform, these are the two words I use to describe it:

  • Communication
  • Trust

That as a writer, your author platform is about learning how to best communicate the value of your book, and developing trusting relationships with those who will care about it.

In other words: it is about deep foundational things, not about flippant surface level tactics of promotion.

Jane told me this quote years ago, and to me, underscores the value of developing an author platform:

“The most disappointed writers I know are not unpublished writers, but those who have been published.”

The implication is that upon publication, no one bought their book, and no one cared about their book. They published into a vacuum of their own creation. They didn’t develop the communication channels or trusting relationships that they needed to ensure their book found readers.

No one is more motivated to communicate the value of your book more than you, the author. Why should you consider building an author platform now? Because it takes time to develop meaningful relationships and trust with others.

Should this only be pursued by serious writers? Yes, because this is hard work. Establishing an author platform is about ensuring your book is not just “published,” but finds readers and has an impact in their lives. It is about thinking about a book beyond just an object whose effect is measured by a publication date or a point of sale. That the book is something that lives in the hearts and minds of readers long after it is read.

This is what an author platform delivers.

Why do I feel this way? Because I spend my days working with writers to develop author platforms that truly built an audience for their books. One of the ways I do this is via a course I teach on the topic called “Build Your Author Platform,” where we demystify what an author platform really is. What I find again and again is that writers make breakthrough’s in areas that they have long resisted: understanding who their ideal readers really are, and how you can develop trusting relationships with them.

This type of work is not easy. But it does creates something that many writers dream about: not just having a book with their name on it, but a true connection to readers whose lives you have shaped.

Thank you to Jane for sparking these ideas, and for talking about author platform with the seriousness that it deserves!

  • Nina Amir

    Great post, Dan. I, too, fear some writers will misinterpret Jane’s message.

    Aspiring authors typically have no idea how to succeed in the world of publishing–no matter how they plan to publish. But I feel they all need platform if they want their books to sell well. But they need to understand what platform really means, as you have pointed out, and how you really create it in an effective manner. (And some writers are not at the stage where they are ready to create it, although I firmly believe there are very few writers who won’t need to do so at some point.)

    As you mentioned, they also need to know their market and their competition. Along with that, I contest they also need to know if they are ready to publish. That last point is key. They may not be ready to publish now because they don’t have all the pieces in place. They may not have angled their book to the correct market(s) or made it unique enough or necessary enough based on a competitive review. They may not have a fans, followers or subscribers who will help promote their books–or review them when they are first released. And no amount of tweeting or blogging will make that book sell if they don’t take those steps. Not to mention that the tweeting and the blogging must tie into the book in a meaningful way, not a spammy or an outright promotional way; these activities must be done with the same type of strategy and thoughtfulness as creating and writing the book.

    Like you, I coach clients on platform issues daily. I consult with them on their book proposals and I typically find their markets described in generic terms not far from “everyone.” They may have listed books they think compete with theirs but have done no analysis. And when I look at the platform section, it is devoid of any numbers–or any that show meaningful engagement with potential readers over time. The writers who produce these documents still have much to learn on all levels, so it’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed. In many cases, they are jumping ahead in the process. And many of those who want to independently publish are in this same position but don’t realize it.

    Like Rome, platform is not built in a day…or a week, or a year. It takes time. Yes, writers have little time to get books written in most cases. But if, like Jane says, they don’t want to be disappointed once their books are released (and they don’t sell), they must do the work before hand to ensure they succeed. They have to train themselves in more than just the craft of writing; they have to train themselves in the craft of becoming successful authors. Those aspiring authors yelling “Hallelujah!” need to realize this.

    • Orna,
      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. Your experience illustrates how these are the habits of the professional, and how it extends to the life of a writer, not just the production of a product. Thank you!

  • Wonderful post, Dan. Exactly right on every point. Thank you for saying it so I don’t have to!

  • Philip Martin

    Dan, I’m in agreement with you here, that author platform is very important and that it’s a deep foundational thing. I’ve sometimes
    described author platform as a pre-existing condition. But the key is that it’s a symptom or a signifier. It signifies that the author has some measurable existing audience and, perhaps more important, proves that he/she has the communication skills and content and depth and personality and work ethic to develop such a following. So it allows the publisher to throw resources at that project, rather than at the person who offers to do an interview with Oprah if she calls. So yes, it’s very important, and no, it’s not something every author can go out and get. It’s the opposite: a way for publishers and media to cull the herd. So the difficulty is a good thing . . . for those who can be successful at it.

    Philip Martin
    Blue Zoo Writers & Great Lakes Literary

    • Very well said, thank you Philip.

  • Anon Zero

    I understand the value of a platform and what it can do for your book, and you as an author. But if fiction authors, like myself, should wait before they start building a platform, then when should we start?

    • Kilburn Hall

      Six months before publication is where many marketing firms like Hajni Blasko start. That sounds about right. Too far ahead of publication the public forgets. Wait, till publication to create a buzz and well that’s too late- you’re dead in the water. Try this and good luck!

      • To me, that feels a lot more like publicity than platform, thought.

    • Anon,
      As soon as you have some semblance of order in your writing life. And the sooner the better. You can start small – very small. But too many wait until book launch is upon them, which is too late.


  • VeronicaSicoe

    I agree with your message, Dan, platform is essential before a book is published.

    But I don’t agree with this part 100%:

    “For those who are struggling to even find the time and focus to even write, it may be premature to fill up their days Tweeting and blogging.”

    I’ve started blogging not to build a platform, but to exercise writing regularly. I started out right before the April A to Z challenge 2012, and got immediate visibility for a quite few dozens of other bloggers, which ensured my accountability. I now had an “audience” who subscribed to my blog, forcing me to blog regularly to save face, so to speak. It taught me a LOT about discipline and writing regularly. It helped me finish my novel faster too, because I was never losing momentum.

    So while I definitely believe that writers who aren’t serious about their careers should not waste time on social media and focus more on their writing, I must say that blogging (more than any other online activity) can definitely train an amateur writer to have a more professional attitude. Of course, provided the will is there.

    Thanks for a great post, and for your very constructive and rational perspective. 🙂

    • Veronica,
      I agree with you totally! Love hearing your story too.

      I think that sentence you referenced was me having empathy for those who are just truly underwater with what they are juggling: eg: they have 4 young kids, work 12 hours per day, have a home to take care of, and other responsibilities. What if, they truly only have an hour per week?

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here!

  • Linda Parriott

    This is an important post, Dan. Thank you for writing it and for stating so clearly the dirty secret that a platform–for an author, a political candidate, or a solo business–is not built in a day. That it’s both hard work and takes time. I love what you said about the value of a platform, that it’s about genuinely connecting with your audience beyond book signing tours. @6e1aa8a894e84a933c9187e565136a56:disqus and @twitter-21592385:disqus make excellent points about the practical business realities of being a successful author, or a successful anybody, in this post-industrial economy.

    • Thank you so much Linda, that means a lot to me!

  • Orna Ross

    Interesting post, Dan — and Jane. Thank you both. Personally, I don’t like the concept of platform at all, because the intention embedded in it is to push ourselves up and out into people’s consciousness. I find it much more useful to think in terms of connections and to operate from an understanding blogging, tweeting etc are not promotional vehicles but are writing. Not separate or supplementary but completely interwoven with what (and how) we are trying to create. I wonder if it might not be best to do away with the troublesome term altogether?

    • Orna,
      I hear you, and to me, it is simply semantics. The word “platform” means nothing more than you or I provide for it. Platform, to me, is much as you describe it: not about promotion, but rather, communication and trust.

      So use whatever term you are comfortable with, that is the nice thing about all of this: choice!

  • Jen Smith

    Thanks Dan

  • Great post Dan, thanks.

    Before I started building a platform I heard about the importance of authenticity. That has been my compass in creating an online presence. I like that you bring up the value of trust as I feel it goes hand-in-hand with authenticity. Although I’m struggling through writing and platform building I’m enjoying the learning process and I’m glad I got started early. I have time to make mistakes and fine tune my communication, and I hope to build the trust you mention.

    • Marina,
      Thank you so much. It really is about the journey, not the destination!