How Much Does Author Platform Impact Sales?


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author platform

by Lori Greig / Flickr

As most authors know by now, there is a continuing debate over the importance and impact of one’s platform on book sales.

In one of the more interesting experiments I’ve seen, author C.S. Lakin (@cslakin) decided to publish a genre novel (in a very particular genre, with a very particular formula) and release it under a pen name, to test whether a first-time author—one ostensibly without any platform—could sell a meaningful number of copies. Read her full post about it.

You can find a diversity of lessons in what Lakin did; one of the key takeaways (for me) relates to the role that genre plays in an author’s success in achieving e-book sales through the largest online retailer in the world, Amazon.

Lakin commented that her purpose wasn’t necessarily to prove platform unimportant, but the headline of the post and the comment thread (of course) point to a great deal of excitement over the early results: this first book by a platform-free author is selling 30-50 copies every day.

For many years, I’ve taught classes on platform, which makes me look like a rather biased party on this topic. However, my ideas have evolved over the years. Some of that evolution can be traced through these posts:

In a nutshell, I tend to agree with those who advise that fiction writers put a low priority on platform building, at least until you have some books to market and real seriousness of intent. By seriousness, I mean: you expect to earn money that will help provide a living. But I also believe that paying even a little bit of attention to developing direct connections with readers (e.g., through having your own website) pays off over the long-term of your career. You don’t do it for short-term gain; you do it to incrementally grow your name recognition and spread word of mouth—to help you better discover and engage with readers over 5, 10, or 20+ years. (Some might not even categorize this activity as platform building, but the word has become very fuzzy in publishing circles over the years, and functions as a blanket term covering sales, marketing, promotion, publicity, and branding.)

Here’s the thing about Lakin’s experiment. I think it reveals platform hard at work, because Lakin happens to have a solid platform she can’t hide, even with a pen name. Let me explain.

As far as my definition, I believe author platform has 6 key components:

  1. Your writing or your content (in this case, books)
  2. Your social media or online community presence and outreach
  3. Your website
  4. Your relationships (people you know, the kind of people who will answer your e-mails or phone calls)
  5. Your influence (e.g., your ability to get people you don’t know to help you out, listen, or pay attention)
  6. Your actual reach (the number of people you can reliably broadcast a message to at any particular moment in time)

When people hear the word “platform,” they often think about social media, or doing self-promotional activities. What they forget is that one’s body of work is the entire engine behind any author’s platform—it all starts with the writing and its appeal to a target audience—and also includes relationships developed in the process.

I haven’t spoken to Lakin about this (I may set up an interview!), but just looking at the surface of her experiment, here’s what I see happening.

  • Social media outreach: Lakin used her own Twitter account, which has 44,000+ followers, to spread the word about the book.
  • Writing & content: Lakin is the author of more than a dozen other books. When she tweeted about her new book, she was appealing to people who already know and like her—and people who could help spread the word. (That said, I understand that perhaps her current fans may not be active readers of the genre in which she now writes under a pen name.)
  • Relationships: Lakin appealed to well-known author friends to write reviews of her work, which presumably offered social proof and credibility to her debut book. But how many authors without a platform have such relationships already in place?

There are other helpful factors, which some may not categorize as platform—and perhaps much of this truly boils down to our definitions of that word!—but that I find at least related to the strength of your platform. Lakin was having conversations with people about which genre to choose and was conducting some amount of reconnaissance—presumably drawing on relationships that are always part of any author’s long-term success. And she is now discussing the experiment at one of the biggest blogs for self-publishing.

None of this is to downplay the value in Lakin’s experiment and what lessons it holds for authors looking for keys to success. The most important point she makes (IMHO) is not to be taken lightly: the genre/subgenre you write in (or at least categorize your book by) affects success—and can carry a book’s sales, at least in the short term—if you’re following the conventions of the genre and playing well with Amazon. I just wouldn’t be so quick to say, “This was a book published without an author platform,” when we’re looking at someone who is very experienced in the industry and has a network of valuable resources to draw upon.

  • denyse cohen

    Interesting article. I agree with your observations of Lankin’s experiment, willingly or not she didn’t start from zero. We all know how much reviews are important, and having “well-known” authors do that for her is priceless. Good reviews are had to get buy, nowadays, even bloggers who offer reviews have a huge waiting list which enable them to pick and choose what they want to read. My book, One Hit Wonder, was a Kindle deal in the beginning of year and sold over 2000 copies on that day. From those sales, I got three reviews. On Twitter now, as far as credibility, is not only important how many people follow you, but also your follower’s/following ratio. Needless to say, it’s really hard work to market a self-pub book.

  • Steven M. Long

    Very interesting post. My understanding of platform has evolved a good deal since I’ve been working on it. Some of that understanding has involved breadth – i.e. it’s not just how many followers you can get – and some of it has been more personal, more about the idea that if it’s not fun it’s not going to work because you (I) just won’t do it. I’m a terrible salesman, but I love writing, and love the conversations that spontaneously occur and open the door to getting to know someone else a little bit. I like being part of a community of people that share an interest. I think to me, a lot of platform building is just actively engaging with communities you enjoy. Actively paying attention to a group or interest and participating (comments, blog posting, whatever), instead of just surfing: add time and consistency, and that’s building a platform.

    As far as things like sales go, I only know what works for me on the other side: I buy from people I know and like, and think about buying from people I’m familiar with. Taken that way, it’s hard to imagine that (especially long term) having a platform doesn’t have a meaningful impact.

  • Steven M. Long

    I didn’t read the link to Larkin’s experiment, but I think it’s hard for people with a platform to really get how it feels to be a self-published author starting with nothing. My friends who are in this position get quite frustrated: it’s a constant battle to figure out what to do, and measure results in a market that can be hard to navigate. The minute I read “44,000 twitter followers” I was like “okay. I see.”

  • FrancesCaballo

    This is a really interesting take on Susanne Lakin’s post that appeared on Joel Friedlander’s blog. I also believe in the importance of having an author platform. I know that as my own author platform expands, strengthens and diversifies, I sell more books. You’re right to point out that Susanne has a tremendous following, built up over the years, and that her followers really listen to her. I also think she was brave to use a pen name and conduct this experiment. Still you raise a valid point. She used her platform (including her excellent writing) to promote a book (a specific genre) that she didn’t admit to writing. She also did a tremendous amount of research in preparing that book. So what’s my point? When I read Susanne’s blog post yesterday, I hadn’t thought about how she used her platform to promote her book but she did. She has about 45,000 Twitter followers alone who trust her recommendations. That’s huge. She’s also a talented writer AND editor — also huge. So perhaps her success is a combination of using her platform to promote a well-written book. I think it can all come down to our writing. If we don’t produce well-written, edited, and professional-looking books with great covers, it will be difficult to succeed. So developing one’s craft and working on strengthening our author platforms are truly the winning combination.

  • Gigi Amateau

    Your definition of platform is the most helpful one I’ve read. So, it’s a continuum and, maybe, not necessarily linear? Thank you, Jane, for lots to reflect on in this post.

  • troublesometots

    Maybe when my book comes out (fingers crossed for fall 2014) I can come do a guest post on how my platform impacted sales. Because really that’s all I have – a platform. I’m not a writer by trade or education but I have a good platform. How much that platform will translate to sales has yet to be demonstrated. But I DON’T have everything that Lankin has – writing/editorial skills, a rolodex of high-profile author friends to write blurbs, etc. Although in that regard my “experiment” would most closely match that of most indie publishers.

  • Susanne Lakin (C. S. Lakin)

    Thanks, Jane. Like so many “scientific” tests, it’s almost impossible to create an uncontaminated environment. And I wasn’t intending to try for that exactly. I suppose I could have released the book without any endorsements or pre-reviews, and also could have not tweeted at all (but I told no one my pen name other than those involved in the project, and they were “sworn to secrecy.” So, I wonder–I do have a lot of Twitter followers, and who knows how much influence I would have upon romance readers, since, as you say, I cannot be sure how many of my tweeps love that genre. However, a person with only five followers can use hashtags, and their tweet will show up in those columns romance readers are gleaning for new books. Whether romance readers took the time to investigate who C. S. Lakin was and whether to believe her recommendation, there’s no way to tell. But I doubt many would. My guess is on Twitter, romance readers saw the tags, got curious about the book, and then bought it.

    I feel, too, I owe a lot of the sales to knowing just how to create an enticing product page on Amazon, which mostly, I’ve found, has to do with infusing all sections with keywords repeatedly that tie in with the categories chosen. As I play with these, I see sales go up and down. I feel this is a huge factor and one I plan to explore heavily in my upcoming ebook I’ll release on this (From Idea to Big Sales in 3 Months). We authors are keen to find the secrets to discoverability, and there are many but no one assured way to be found. But on Amazon, there are some ways to help tip the odds in your favor, to help readers find your books. I believe the reason my book immediately got on the top of lists on Day 1 under new releases for the main genres I chose as categories is from my using those keywords throughout the page. I had NO sales yet, but the book “showed up.” Which is the goal. From there, readers will navigate to the product page, read about the book, then (hopefully) buy.

    Thanks, also, for pointing out that I wasn’t and do not at all feel authors should ignore platform; quite the opposite! I highly encourage it, and clearly have been doing so with my real name. My only point was to see how much easier it made it for me to sell some books with a whole lot less effort than I’ve had to do selling my literary fiction and novels that are combined genres and not the big-selling ones.

    I appreciate your discussion on this, and of course, if you have more questions, I would love to do an interview with you!

  • Susanne Lakin

    One thing I mentioned on The Passive Voice yesterday in regard to this is that, as a writing coach and full-time copyeditor, I do about 200 manuscript critiques a year.I help many first-time novelists prepare and launch their novel, and time and again, I see that first novel sell big right out the gate. The genres vary, but they are the top-selling ones. Just recently some of these clients put their book up, hit the top lists and were selling 200 books a day. No author platform yet, no name, very little social network established. No reviews of note. Maybe one or two did a Bookbub ad for one day, which helped, or some other promo here or there, which is what unknown authors often do.

    Yet … in a way it proves my point about the genre helping. These were in paranormal, thriller/suspense, romance (and YA versions of all these). They are great book written perfectly to their reading audience, and continue to sell well. So, for me, seeing this happen over and over, it’s giving some weight to the genre issue.

    Just to emphasize: a lot of my clients write terrific books, have great covers, and even get weighty reviews upon launch, but they sell almost nothing. Usually those great novels are not in the big-demand genres. They often are cross genre or just don’t neatly fit the type of story that is selling big. That’s why deconstructing a few top-selling books really helps. No guarantees though. Hope this makes sense!

  • Steven M. Long

    I have a feeling (ha ha – that sound you’re hearing is the anecdote/speculation alarm going off!) that building a good platform is how you sell books over time and establish word of mouth. I think a lot of people just go to Amazon and look for the genre they like (which means that working to get your ranking high and writing in a popular form will get you a lot of play), which is something that happens outside of building a platform, entirely.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Oh, definitely an organic process. There’s no point A to point B as far as I’m concerned.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Yes, please report back!

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Much appreciate your comments here, thank you. I’d love to see you do a follow-up post in 6 or 12 months about the project! Or I can set a reminder to interview you at that time. :)

    I am VERY curious to see how the Amazon landscape evolves, and how much today’s strategies‚ involving metadata and algorithms, continue to play a strong role in sales and discoverability. It’s something not even the big publishers have been that strategic about, as far as I know. One assumes they will catch on at some point (maybe).

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Spot on, Frances.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Totally agree: add time and consistency. That’s most of the game right there.

  • Susanne Lakin

    Here’s another thing. Jane, you mention the influence my Twitter presence and tweets may have had on the sales for Charlene Whitman. Yet, for two years now i have been promoting my own novels on Twitter daily, with very few sales. If, as you claim, my clout and name recognition had something to do with getting those sales for my pen name, then why doesn’t my clout and reputation help sell my novels in my real name? It doesn’t (at least doesn’t turn into sales). I maybe sell on average ten copies of my books a month despite all that platform, recognition, awards, etc. So in a way, that was a bit of a control in the experiment, showing that the genre made the difference. Does that make sense to anyone else as well? To add to that, I regularly tweet others’ books–many are my clients’ books. And even with my clout and number of tweeps, a lot of clients tell me they haven’t sold any books at all (or hardly any) in all these months. So has my clout helped them. Doesn’t look like it. So I don’t think this Twitter component is making the difference.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    That’s all good food for thought, thank you.

    Re: Twitter specifically. My experience has been that Twitter isn’t a particularly good hard sales tool. But I do think it indicates something broader about a person’s influence and reach, or ability to make things happen. Or, put another way: it’s a soft marketing tool.

    So, I totally believe that genre is playing a role in your sales or success with this experience. (Literary authors have always had a more difficult time. Always.) When I adopt a much broader view of what’s happening, I see you as a pretty sophisticated player with a platform. Some first-time authors have that level of sophistication and ability, but the majority that I observe do not.

  • GrigoryRyzhakov

    Susanne, I just wanted to point out the same thing. You have the right controls in this experiment. Congratulations on the result. I’m doing a similar experiment in January with a pen name in erotica subgenre. But I won’t use any promotion whatsover, I’m quite curious about the results.
    Overall, we all know that daring, experimental cross-genre fiction rarely sells unless backed up by any of the Big6.

  • Jolly Roger

    What I truly appreciate is that Susanne Lakin has attempted to objectively analyse what is enormously complex in a sea of opinions, rules-of-thumb, and anecdotes.

    While the critiques of her methods do have validity, they pale when merely confronted by opinion and experience.

    Just how objective is her analysis? Time will tell. But, by benchmarking this issue, she has brought a lens that others can bring to bear on their own efforts.

    This is NOT to suggest that platform is not important. I would love to see similar attempts to objectively analyse their own positions.

    Bravo, Susanne Lakin!

  • Steven M. Long

    I have a good friend whose book came out about six months ago – she hired a publicist and spent a lot of time on platform, but she’s gotten far and away the best results by manipulating Amazon. I (we, her friends) try to reassure her that the platform building is going to help her throughout her career.

  • http://lexacain.blogspot.com/ Lexa Cain

    Lankin’s experiment seems skewed if she is linking her new “first time author” book to her well-known name and her social media contacts. No real first time author has those connections. I know a lot of first time authors and none of them (us) are selling anywhere near 30+ books a day. But at least those with some media presence are selling something.

  • http://www.erniezelinski.com/Bio-and-Contact.html Ernie Zelinski

    Here are two more examples that genre can make a difference on Amazon.

    Every Christmas the print edition of my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” does very well. It breaks into the 1,000 best-selling books on Amazon for about a week. Today it was the 866th best-selling book on Amazon. Of course, around Christmas the sales are much greater than at other times of the year. The print edition will sell about 1,000 copies this week and the ebook edition will sell about 75 copies (yes, the ebook edition will sell less than a tenth of the print edition).

    Here is another example of genre having some effect on sales. I just checked what the top two best-selling books on Amazon are at 10PM (MST) on December 20th.

    Interesting, the top two books are:

    1.”Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids” by Rob Elliott

    2. “Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids” by Rob Elliott

    Who is Rob Elliott? Does he have a platform?

    I believe that there is lot, lot more than platform here.

    Of course, there is also a lot more than genre having an effect on sales of these two books so that they reach the #1 and #2 position on Amazon. (I will figure it out but most authors will be too lazy to do this.)

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  • Paula Cappa

    Wow. I’m really impressed. But I have to say Lankin’s 44,000 Twitter followers certainly had a large play in the success. Clearly, Lankin was drawing from her base so that’s a huge plus coming out of the gate. I don’t have 44,000 followers on Twitter (more like 900), and many new authors don’t have thousands of followers. I do think pinning down your genre is key. And author platform does give an author a stronger position as a writer. My books are “quiet horror” or paranormal so I’m straddling the genres. Not sure if that’s an advantage or not. We’ll see. Thanks for this interesting post!

  • Jeff O’Handley

    This is directed specifically at Ms. Lakin’s statement about the influence of Twitter on sales. She says, “for two years now i have been promoting my own novels on Twitter daily, with very few sales. If, as you claim, my clout and name recognition had something to do with getting those sales for my pen name, then why doesn’t my clout and reputation help sell my novels in my real name? It doesn’t (at least doesn’t turn into sales).”

    The problem as I see it is that most people don’t like being sold to on Facebook and Twitter (caveat: I don’t use Twitter; I do use Facebook). No one likes getting barraged with “Buy my book” posts, and I can also say from experience that I glaze over and wear out my scroll wheel
    whenever my author friends squee over their latest five-star reviews or post screen grabs of the most recent upward movement of their books in whatever obscure category Amazon slots it in. It’s a turn off.

    Now, I don’t know how Ms. Lakin is using Twitter, but I suspect most people tune out when the self-promotion machine gets cranking. If she recommends someone else’s book, however, that’s a different story. People on social media seem much more receptive when you’re not actively promoting yourself.

  • Jen Smith

    Interesting, but as you mentioned this was hardly a book promoted with no platform.

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  • TinaBina

    I am a psychiatrist and have completed writing a book on personalities and relationships from a whole new viewpoint never before written about. I understand the need for a platform and want to set up a blog and website to gain readers beyond my local community. My concern is theft of my ideas before they get into a published book. How is this issue dealt with in blogs/websites where the book’s content is discussed?

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman