A Definition of Author Platform

Here’s what agents and editors mean by platform, plus a clear definition of what author platform is NOT.

author platform

by William Pearce / via Flickr

This post was originally published in 2012; it has been revised and expanded.


Author platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently. But by far the easiest explanation is: an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.

Platform is a concept that first arose in connection with nonfiction authors. Sometime during the 1990s, agents and publishers began rejecting nonfiction book proposals and nonfiction manuscripts when the author lacked a “platform.” At the time—before the advent of the Internet or social media—publishers wanted the author to be in the public eye in some way (usually through mainstream media appearances) with the ability to spread the word easily to sell books. In other words, they weren’t interested in the average Joe sitting at home who wanted to sell a nonfiction book but who had no particular professional network or public presence. Then, as now, publishers and agents seek writers with credentials and authority, who are visible to their target audience as an expert, thought leader, or professional. 

  • Visibility means: Where do your or your work regularly appear? How many people see it? How does it spread? Where does it spread? What communities are you a part of? Who do you influence? It’s typically not enough to say you have visibility. You have to show how and where you make an impact and give proof of engagement. This could be quantitative evidence (e.g., size of your e-mail newsletter list, website traffic, blog comments) or qualitative evidence (high-profile reviews, testimonials from A-listers in your genre).
  • Target audience means: You should be visible to the most receptive or appropriate audience for the work you’re trying to sell. For instance: If you have visibility, authority, and proven reach to orthodontists, that probably won’t be helpful if you’re writing a book meant to target to Fortune 500 companies.

Do you need a platform to get published?

It depends. If you’re a fiction writer, no. Fiction writers should focus on crafting the best work possible. That’s not to say a platform is unwelcome if you have one, but an agent or publisher will make a decision first based on the quality of your manuscript and its suitability for the current marketplace. (That said, if you’re a huge celebrity or Internet star, it’s possible you’ll get a book deal based on that alone, and be paired up with a ghostwriter or publishing team to help you produce a bestselling book to take advantage of your stardom.)

It rips me apart to hear very new writers express confusion and anxiety about their platform, especially when they have not a single book or credit to their name. Well, it’s not a mystery why platform is so confusing when you may not yet know who you are as a writer. First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that. It’s very difficult, next to impossible, to build a platform for work that does not yet exist (unless, again, you’re some kind of celebrity).

However, if you’re a nonfiction writer seeking a book deal with one of the Big Five New York publishers, then you’ll need to develop or demonstrate that you have a platform. I discuss that more in my post on book proposals.

For memoirists and other writers working on narrative nonfiction, you can sometimes find yourself off the hook when it comes to platform. With narratives, the focus tends to be more on the art and craft of the storytelling—or the quality of the writing—more so than your platform. So a lot can depend on your credibility as a good writer; an existing track record of newspaper or magazine publication can often be sufficient to get yourself a book deal. However, one look at the current bestseller list will often betray publishing’s continuing interest in a platform: you’ll find books by celebrities, pundits, and well-established writers occupying a fair share of it. To help overcome the platform hurdle, it helps to be writing a narrative that is timely and taps into current hot topics.

Nonfiction authors shouldn’t despair if they feel like their platform is nonexistent. You may simply need to reconsider what type of publisher is a good fit for your book. Small presses, and especially university presses, have more interest in the quality of your work than your platform. And it’s not uncommon for successful authors to begin their careers with quieter publishers, then later sign with a New York house once they’ve built visibility and a strong track record.

What platform is NOT

A lot of people confuse platform building with marketing, promotion, and publicity. While those types of activities can build your platform, let’s be clear: being an extrovert on social media will not, by itself, lead you to a platform that interests publishers.

Platform is not about bringing attention to yourself, or by screaming to everyone you can find online or offline, “Look at me! Look at me!” Platform isn’t about who yells the loudest or who markets the best. It’s more complex and organic than that.

What activities build author platform?

Platform building requires consistent, ongoing effort over the course of a career. It also means making incremental improvements in extending your network. It’s about making waves that attract other people to you—not about begging others to pay attention.

The following list is not exhaustive, but helps give you an idea of how platform can grow.

  • Publishing or distributing quality work in outlets you want to be identified with and that your target audience reads.
  • Producing a body of work on your own platform—e.g., blog, e-mail newsletter, social network, podcast, video, digital downloads, etc—that gathers quality followers or a community of people who are interested in what you have to say. This is usually a longterm process.
  • Speaking at and/or attending events where you meet new people and extend your network of contacts.
  • Finding meaningful ways to engage with and develop your target audience, whether through content, events, online marketing/promotion, etc.
  • Partnering with peers or influencers to tackle a new project and/or extend your visibility.

You can’t build a platform overnight—unless you somehow become famous overnight. (If you do, take advantage of it, of course.) Platform is not something you can buy—buying followers or email addresses isn’t a platform because that’s not a meaningful audience who cares about you or your work. Being able to repeatedly reach and speak to people who know you and trust you is meaningful.

Some people have an easier time building platform than others. If you hold a highly recognized position (powerful network and influence), if you know key influencers (friends in high places), if you are associated with powerful communities, if you have prestigious degrees or posts, or if you otherwise have public-facing work—yes, you play the field at an advantage. This is why it’s so easy for celebrities to get book deals. They have “built-in” platform.

Platform building is not one size fits all

Platform building is an organic process and will be different for every single author. There is no checklist I can give you to develop a platform, because it depends on:

  • your unique story/message
  • your unique strengths and qualities
  • your target readership

Your platform should be as much of a creative exercise and project as the work you produce. While platform gives you power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by posting to social media a few times a week. You’ll need to use your creativity and imagination, and take meaningful steps. It’ll be a long journey.

I like trying to persuade authors of the value of platform—at least when built organically—because it represents a meaningful investment in your lifelong career as an author. You shouldn’t rely on a publisher, agent, or consultant to find and “keep” your audience for you. If you find and nurture it on channels that you own, and on your own terms, that’s like putting money in the bank.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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235 Comments on "A Definition of Author Platform"

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Bonnee
4 years 5 months ago

I’ve only heard the phrase recently, and I now see that my original thought of what it meant was slightly off. I thought it was referring to where people can find you, where you stand; like your blog or website or something, if that makes any sense. So thank you very much for sharing this, I understand much better now 🙂

Phil Simon
4 years 5 months ago

A platform is all about planks–and an author’s planks can certainly vary. I’d agree with your list, Jane, and add a few: like an app and a publishing company. I’m also with you on the nebulousness of the term ‘platform.’ It’s become a buzzword that far too few people understand.

Of course, I’m trying to change that.

Joseph Giacalone
Joseph Giacalone
3 years 11 months ago

I keep on telling myself not to walk the plank either!

kathryn magendie
4 years 5 months ago

When I go for “community” instead of “me me me-ism” I find I enjoy this social networking thang a whole lot more. It takes me outside of myself, for writing books leaves me most often inside myself. WHen I decided just to have some fun, be myself, and support others, that’s when I saw a growth (slow but steady) in my visitors and followers and friends. But, most important is the books I write. If I can’t back up my words with work, then what’s the point!

Great post.

Amy MAcDonald
4 years 5 months ago

Thanks for this succinct description of both old and new media that authors need to have a presence in.  I always wonder just how much of my time, as an author, should be devoted to social media, since it can be a huge time sink and take away from writing time. And since it (an online presence) doesn’t really seem to correlate with book sales, I have often dismissed it. But if publishers are looking for it, that’s one more reason to explore all these areas. Sigh…

Dan Blank
4 years 5 months ago

I LOVE this Jane! Everything you say here underscores that an author platform is a lifestyle, not a single act. That it differs from publicity, from marketing. 
Thanks so much for the deep exploration!
-Dan

Yodelberg
4 years 5 months ago

What I like best is that platform is not about being annoying or being an extrovert; hard selling or self-promotion. The clarification is encouraging. I was beginning to wonder.

Sunnyl Lckwood
4 years 5 months ago

Excellent definition! So helpful! Thank you, Professor Jane.

Angie DiBenedetto Ledbetter
Angie DiBenedetto Ledbetter
4 years 5 months ago

Last & latest word on platforms. Thank you!

Gina Fava
Gina Fava
4 years 5 months ago

As a newbie author who is just beginning to wade into the platform waters, I’ve already been feeling “in over my head.”  Your advice clarifies so much, and I feel a bit more stable knowing that it’s an endurance swim and not just a quick splash.

I’m printing this out and posting it above my desk, as an outline more or less of small steps to strive for everyday that hopefully will amount to something bigger someday soon.

Many thanks!

Patricia Gligor
Patricia Gligor
4 years 5 months ago

As always, a very informative post, Jane.
When I think of platform, I think of the values or principles authors possess. A platform is what we stand on, basically who we are. Are we honest, forthcoming, compassionate people? Do we possess integrity and a desire to help other writers? Or not?

KathyPooler
KathyPooler
4 years 5 months ago

Jane, Thank you for this very clear definition of what an author platform is and the distinction about what it is not. It takes time , patience and a concerted effort to build a platform that” defines your message, highlights your strengths and qualities and reaches your target audience.” I have found that making meaningful connections is the single greatest building block to building a platform. Great post!

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[…] couldn’t possibly define “author platform” any better than Jane Friedman does in this blog post, so I won’t even try. This is truly a post that anyone who wants to publish a book should […]

TNeal
4 years 5 months ago

For me, I experienced a sense of freedom when I stopped building a platform and started connecting with people. I think you’ve done an exceptional job of clarifying what a platform is and what it isn’t. Thanks for your insights and perspective, Jane.

Amctigue
4 years 5 months ago

Thank you, Jane. An excellent summary that sets me into the right mindset moving forward as an author. 

Dac Crossley
Dac Crossley
4 years 5 months ago

Jane, that’s really nice. Very well put. Since I’m a western writer, I call it my “brand.” Maybe that’s clearer than “platform.”

Patricia Volonakis Davis
4 years 5 months ago
Your post reminds me that I’m doing something completely different these days to build my platform, as well as (I hope) doing some good.  Like it or not, I have inadvertently become a women’s advocate because of my two non-fiction books. ( I see myself more as a human advocate, but that’s nothing to do with this post.)  The more I thought about some of the messages I’ve gotten from women, or Facebook comments, or tweets, or whatever, the more I realized that women are starving for true friendship, a mentor figure, or even just genuine encouragement to pursue their… Read more »
Letizia De Rosa
Letizia De Rosa
4 years 5 months ago

HI Jane,
love this concept. A few years ago I started a collective community called Book Creators Circle to help writers gain platform. We are international and would love to include any writers you might recommend. Please see http://www.bookcreatorscircle.com.au
With thanks for helping to promote this concept and professionalism.
Letizia 

Kimberly Faye
Kimberly Faye
4 years 5 months ago
Jane, I appreciate your concise and tenured approach to this subject. As newly published author I am finding my unique path to the platform that best suits me. I am learning the importance of owning an approach to my goals that fits my style and energy. It would be oh-so-much easier to have been born with the silver spoon of recognition in my mouth, as is, my platform began at ground zero and I’m shoveling out the footers for the foundation (sometimes one spoonful at a time). I especially like that you take a clear stance on what a platform… Read more »
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[…] Bookmarked A Definition of Author Platform | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] What is an Author Platform? by Jane Friedman […]

Radine Trees Nehring
Radine Trees Nehring
4 years 5 months ago

Terrific explanation of platform.  Thanks for lining it all up in order and sending it out to us.

Jefferson Smith
Jefferson Smith
4 years 5 months ago

Currency is an important component, too. Like any social network, if your platform hasn’t been contacted or updated in a couple of years, it has less value.

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Sharon Stanley
Sharon Stanley
4 years 5 months ago

This informative post comes at such a good time for me.  You answered questions I didn’t even know I had.  Thanks!

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4 years 5 months ago

[…] your platform:  the ongoing challenge for authors.  Jane Friedman offers clear definitions of what a platform is and isn’t as well as suggestions of activities to assist in the process.   Excellent information for all […]

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[…] 1. The always brilliant Jane Friedman offers the definitive word on author platforms in her post,  A Definition of Author Platform. […]

Christie Maurer
Christie Maurer
4 years 5 months ago

This is a very helpful post. It’s a relief to see that building platform doesn’t require the hard sell or pushing oneself and one’s work onto people. Thanks for sending the link to Broad Universe. 

Cheryl Velasquez
Cheryl Velasquez
4 years 5 months ago

Jane thank you for this post. It was very helpful and clarified some questions I had about platforms.

Sean P. Farley
4 years 5 months ago
This post, I think, is truly important, especially for those of us who are fledglings.  I have to give special thanks to my friend Midge Raymond who linked this article to her blog post.  I’m a novice when it comes to writing, namely the platform stage; it is something I felt I needed to work on now while I actually begin to tweak and reformulate the stories I send out to publications.  As a fiction writer, it’s important to me that my words eventually get heard, even if they’ve yet to be scooped up.  Venues like Twitter and Facebook certainly… Read more »
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[…] On discoverability and platform. The importance of meta-data, making sure all the fields are completed and accurately tagged and categorized so that your book comes up in search. Being algorithm friendly is important. Creative marketing online is another aspect and this is a combination of your own story, your own strengths and also your target audience. There is a sweet spot for everyone. Look at who you want to attract which will drive your strategy. It does need to grow organically and not just be ‘me too’ marketing. Jane has a great article on author platform here. […]

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[…] Friedman on Jane Friedman A Definition of Author Platform “Platform is more about putting in consistent, focused effort over the course of a career, […]

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[…] Jane Friedman defines “author platform” and tells writers to prepare for a career-spanni…. “Use your imagination, and take meaningful steps. It’ll be a long journey.” […]

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[…] Midge Raymond TweetI couldn’t possibly define “author platform” any better than Jane Friedman does in this blog post, so I won’t even try. This is truly a post that anyone who wants to publish a book should […]

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[…] Next Week: Self-published memoirists Rebecca Bricker and Linda Austin will discuss their marketing strategies for their memoirs. While marketing is not synonymous with author platform, a solid platform will facilitate marketing as Jane Friedman points out in this post. […]

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[…] need people to sell your book to.  You need a platform.  Building a platform is a full time job.  Writing a blog or tweeting or being consistent on any […]

Emma Walton Hamilton
Emma Walton Hamilton
4 years 5 months ago

Thank you Jane! What an extraordinarily clear and valuable post. I’ll be sharing it today in the Children’s Book Hub – a resource site that I manage, where this month’s focus is on marketing and promotion for children’s book authors. I very much appreciate your wisdom and generosity.

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4 years 5 months ago

[…] with Jane’s post A Definition of Author Platform, then explore her site for more great […]

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[…] A Definition of Author Platform | Jane Friedman (Publishing, Definition, Platform, Author) […]

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[…] A Definition of Author Platform (Jane Friedman) — “Platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently… But one thing that I know for sure: Editors and agents are attracted to authors who have this thing called ‘platform.’” […]

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[…] A Definition Of Author Platform by Jane Friedman. Enjoyed this. Well thought out. […]

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[…] not nearly as scary as you’d once thought?  Well, that is what the world of the “author platform” has been to me.  (We’ll talk more about this topic later).  I hemmed and hawed over […]

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[…] of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without […]

Meena Rose
4 years 3 months ago

Very helpful and informative!

Chihuahua Zero
4 years 3 months ago

This is a useful post! I used Google so I can define “platform” at a forum, and I’ll be linking to this.

Oh, and you just got a new follower.

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[…] publisher of Writer’s Digest, defines what it is and what it’s not on her website, called Jane Friedman.  It’s worth checking […]

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[…] professor of e-media and former publisher of Writer’s Digest, has a clear take about the Definition of Author Platform . Yes to; “Finding meaningful ways to engage with and develop your target audience.” […]

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What It Means to Have a Platform | Getting Down With Jesus
4 years 3 months ago

[…] family has learned a new word this past year — this thing called platform — and it has nothing to do with cute shoes. But it really is about what we stand for — […]

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[…] Jane Friedman defines target audience as an essential component of an author platform,along with “visibility, authority  and proven reach” in this post on  A”Definition of Author Platform. […]

Mike Kuzara
Mike Kuzara
4 years 2 months ago
Interesting. I didn’t realize I had a ‘platform’. I am an entainer at heart. Whether it is playing music, giving a lecture, or the response I get from having written 573 humor columns for a local newspaper. Bringing enjoyment to other people is it’s own reward. I have written my first novel that contains elements of entertainment, political comment, interspersed with tid-bits of  folklore knowledge and tied all together with the thread of a moral lesson in self reliance and personal integrity. As president on a local historical society, I have a hidden agenda of teaching people who are bored by… Read more »
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