Many writers I speak to are nervous about the idea of becoming more like a marketer, less like a writer. They want their book to find an audience, and they assume that they have to try marketing “tricks” in order to do so.
But they don’t.
Building your platform as an author is actually the opposite: it is about becoming more like yourself; finding the voice for your writing career; establishing trusting relationships with your audience. It is NOT about simplifying who you are, changing your persona away from your core, or learning “tricks” to get people to pay attention to you.
There is also this perception that before the internet, successful writers enjoyed the freedom to just sit in their attics and write, write, write, never having to worry about building their audience or managing their writing career.
Biographer Carl Rollyson addressed this question about poet Amy Lowell (1874–1925):
“Lowell wrote [perhaps thousand letters] during her lifetime to publishers, magazine editors, journalists—anyone who might be instrumental in promoting her books to the public. Now she had a staff to help her, of course. Even so, she did not have access to the kinds of social media and electronic platforms that I’m sure would have thrilled her. She did not believe that the work spoke for itself. An author had to speak up for her work and do so with a savvy understanding of the marketplace.”
“Hemingway had many of his exciting exploits recorded by press photographers. He got in on everything, even the D-Day invasion. He was always showing up in some high-circulation magazine like Life with a big fish on the hook or hunting rifle in hand. His visage was (and is) immediately recognizable. And he had no problem letting that familiar visage appear in ads, for which he also wrote the copy.”
It goes on:
“American writers have long had to keep an eye on money, marketing, and “self-legendizing.” Benjamin Franklin did it and so did Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Truman Capote, and George Plimpton… Whitman understood the importance of blurbs so well that he reviewed his own books, packing the reviews with blurbable quotes. He also quoted—in an ad (which he paid for himself) for Leaves of Grass (which he paid to have printed)—a kind letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, without Emerson’s permission and to his chagrin. Mark Twain cultivated his own image even more rigorously than Hemingway did.”
What is nice about how the web has changed things is that writers can now connect with their audience in more meaningful ways, not creating fantastical stories, relying solely on established media outlets, or paying for expensive ads.
It is easy to romanticize that those who are now legends became so purely on the strength of their art. But that often ignores the hard road to success.
I was watching a documentary on David Bowie awhile back, which focused on his career moves that lead up to the success with his album Ziggy Stardust:
“What you didn’t realize [when Ziggy Stardust became a hit], is that he had been trying to become successful for 10 years.”
In those 10 years, David changed his name (from Jones to Bowie), and tried his hand at many different guises and styles, including: folk music, children’s music, R&B, rock, acting on stage and screen, and even appeared in an ice cream ad. It is clear that he was hunting for appreciation, validation, and reciprocation from an audience. And that if had found success as a folk singer or children’s singer, then we likely never would have had Ziggy Stardust.
In two weeks, I am going to see Bob Dylan perform again, whose musical influence is hard to even put into context. But he too changed his name, and at times, created a false backstory to create his legend based on things other than just the music. Over the years, he has been cagey about details.
Nowadays, it is the opposite. It is more about being HONEST about who you are, and using that authentic connection with others as a way to develop an audience for your writing.