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.