Author Platform & Social Media

What’s all this stuff I hear about having an author “platform”? Is it related to social media? And how do I work social media to my advantage?


Frankly, until recently I’d never even heard of an author “platform” and certainly had no idea what it meant. Judging from comments I’ve seen in many writing forums, most other writers don’t really understand the concept, either. They mistakenly believe it’s all to do with social media and your website, but in fact that’s only a small part of it, apparently. Anyway, in an attempt at illumination, I went trawling the Internet for information and have come up with what follows. I can’t vouch for the accuracy. (It is the Internet, after all.)


One thing that people seem to agree upon is that agents and publishers are now anxious that writers have as robust a “platform” as possible. That said, what a platform is, exactly, seems somewhat nebulous at times. Based on what I’ve gleaned, it would appear that it basically comes down to the sort of “presence” you have in the world around you. Sounds kind of metaphysical or new-age, but what this means, essentially, is the sort of connections and networks you have established in your life, and the extent to which these can be exploited in the eventual sale and promotion of your book.


Your “presence” can presumably be anything from an audience for a newsletter you put out to people in a community of which you are a part (i.e. a member in a group that is involved in raising awareness for some cause or other; a military veteran; a scientist participating in the search for exo-planets, etc.). Membership and involvement in recognized organizations and institutions will all contribute to your platform if they bear some relevance to the type of book you’ve written. Being a card-carrying member of an engineering organization, for example, likely wouldn’t be regarded as terribly important to your platform if you’re writing children’s picture books, but it could be of benefit if you’re writing science fiction novels that draw heavily upon your engineering skills. Likewise, if you’re a former fighter pilot and writing thrillers involving the military – in particular the air force – then that would be a significant part of your platform. On the other hand, being a firefighter isn’t likely to contribute a great deal to your platform if you’re writing books about wine. It still has potential to add to it, but not to the same extent.


While there’s a lot of talk about building a platform before publishing your book, it’s difficult to see how one could go about this without the sort of resources few people have. Obviously celebrities already have a substantial platform, based on the body of work that made them celebrities in the first place. To this extent, they already have a following which agents and publishers can regard as potential readership for any book the celebrity might desire to write. Similarly, a doctor has established credentials that could be exploited to lend credence to any work she may have written (as in the case of Kathy Reich, whose professional standing in the world of forensic anthropology provides an air of authority to her novels – which involve a forensic anthropologist – that readers are immediately drawn to).


For the average writer, however, platform may be more difficult to expand upon unless the books he/she is writing are directly informed by significant elements of his/her life. And even then, the relevance would be determined by how large a space those elements occupy. You might write a book about skydiving, for example, but as regards your platform, agents and publishers are likely to want to know a) your qualifications for writing a book about skydiving b) your standing in the world skydiving community c) and the extent to which recognition of your name can be exploited to market the book. If you’re just someone who skydives out of a small local club and have never achieved any significant skydiving feats your platform is considerably weaker than say someone who skydives out of a large national club and has perhaps broken several skydiving records.


No doubt writers can use the Internet to strengthen their platforms with time, but a platform that is robust and significant isn’t really something you can accomplish overnight. And even here, it will have varying degrees of relevance. Someone who gains a considerable reputation in the online gaming community, for example, might find that difficult to parlay into an effective tool for marketing a romance novel – though again, it should not be outright dismissed, as there are doubtless people who play online games who are also readers of romance novels. (They recognize your name from gaming and buy your book out of curiosity.)


Making social media a part of your platform also requires patience when it comes to building an audience. Above all else, it is definitely not a question of shouting to the world about you and your book. According to the experts, that’s probably one of the worst things you can do.


Back in the days before the Internet, writers basically wrote their books and didn’t have to worry too much about platforms or even all that much about the marketing of their work. It’s true that celebrity, community involvement, professional standing and such could contribute significantly to a writer’s presence in public awareness and the degree to which the public might accept a writer’s work, but for the most part writers were able to spend the majority of their time writing books. Only a select few were ever afforded the luxury of doing publicity junkets that would take them from city to city (sometimes country to country) doing book signings, readings, and appearances on radio and TV. But that was then, and this is now.


These days, it seems, most writers – particularly those who lack the benefit of star power – are required to have some sort of Internet presence up and running even before their book is published. This is considered an essential plank in a writer’s arsenal of marketing tools, and generally encompasses things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+, etc., as well as an Amazon author’s page, a blog (or blogs), and a website.


As invaluable as these may be regarded in this day and age, there can be no denying that they demand a lot of time on the part of most writers. Moreover, their effectiveness is largely dependent upon a writer’s ability to deploy them in a way that will interest people not only in the writer’s books, but in the writer as well -- the idea being to market the writer as a brand, one would assume.

For established authors this is much easier than it is for debut writers who have yet to acquire a fan base. Implementing social media and the like can be extremely time-consuming for many debut writers (mostly those who aren’t fortunate enough to have generated a huge pre-publication buzz about their books), and often the results will leave one wondering whether it’s all worthwhile.


The fact is, if you’ve got a book coming out, you need to be working on your Internet presence long before the release. The more followers you can accumulate on various social media, the better. The greater the standing you can establish in relevant Internet communities, the easier it will be to generate some groundswell for your book prior to its release. The idea being that even if your followers and community colleagues don’t purchase your book, they may nevertheless help spread the word about it – which will hopefully, in turn, boost sales.


One mistake many new writers make when using social media is to fill the various platforms with what are essentially ads to buy their books. The consensus seems to be that a constant barrage of exhortations to purchase your novel isn’t actually all that effective. In fact, it can have the opposite effect and be counterproductive.


I don’t think anyone is saying you should never mention your book on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I would imagine it’s fine to draw people’s attention to new reviews, interviews, awards, giveaways, etc. But the majority of the time your social media should probably concentrate on developing a public awareness of you as an individual and establishing some sort of connection between you and potential readers. You should tweet and post about things that interest you and things you feel may interest readers. For example: Often yet-to-be-published writers will follow published writers in the hope of being provided with useful tips and anecdotes about writing and getting published, so it makes sense to offer some of this on your social media platforms. You might also post material relevant to your book (i.e. if you’ve written a novel about Alzheimer’s, then posts about the disease and links to articles concerning it would be something to consider).


While agents and publishers want writers to have an author platform, it’s rather unfortunate they don’t generally offer much in the way of advice on how best to develop and utilize it. The result is that many writers (myself included) struggle to find our way on this issue (as well as in the effective use of social media). Invariably we end up making a lot of easily avoided mistakes. Easily avoided, that is, had we had some form of proper instruction. Unfortunately, the Internet is replete with a plethora of advice that is as often as not contradictory when it comes to the whole issue of author platforms and social media for writers, which doesn’t help matters any and leaves one to blunder about in the dark.


A few things are obvious, however: When it comes to your platform, this is something you can’t grow in a matter of days. It’s something that can take years; moreover, it’s more an organic process that grows as much out of you as an individual as it does out of your books. As for social media, it’s probably best to stick with only a few of the many available platforms. Which ones will depend largely upon the demographic of your readership. Some platforms have better penetration in certain market sectors than others. Indulging in too many will only leave you spread too thin and devoting far too many hours of the day to something that’s going to take away from time you’d otherwise devote to writing your next big novel.


Regardless of platform and social media, every writer these days should have a website. It would be a mistake not to. That said, don’t make it one big book commercial; rather, it should offer readers more about you and the things that interest you. Again, here’s the opportunity to provide potential readers with more than just an ad for your book and pleas to buy it. The more readers connect with you as an individual, the likelier they are to buy your book.


Your website should be easy to navigate, attractive, and designed to facilitate the dissemination of information. There are plenty of companies that offer you simple drag and drop interfaces and templates that allow for the easy construction of a website. If you don’t feel capable of producing something reasonably professional-looking, then consider hiring a third party to set up and maintain your site. A poorly crafted website may be a detriment to sales – particularly if you want readers to come back and check on the latest developments.


If you’ve got strong political or religious views, the website featuring your book and your brand is really not the place to air your thoughts on these matters, unless, of course, your book is about politics or religion or has some connection to either. Otherwise, you should probably avoid discussing polarizing issues in the same environment in which you’re trying to interest readers in your book. If you still feel the need to express yourself on these matters, then consider creating another website or blog expressly for that purpose.


On Facebook you can set up a page devoted to your book and/or writing, so you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do so. Again, you might want to consider posting articles about writing and writing-related matters on this (and avoid the divisive issues of politics and religion). You definitely don’t want your page to be a constant barrage of advertisements for your book, because, again, nobody is going to spend much time on it if it’s basically the same endless stream of “buy my book” posts.


Regardless of what social media and the like you choose, you’re going to have to devote a certain amount of time to them each week. Time you’d probably rather spend writing. But whether self- or traditionally published, growing an author platform and maintaining social media (and a website) is a must for most writers these days.  It’s the reality of the digital age, and just one more way in which the age of electronica has transformed the manner in which we do things and how we’ll continue to do them in the future. Welcome to twenty-first century publishing.