PUBLISHED MARCH/APRIL 2021
by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —
Publishers can help their authors with where to start, which direction to go, how to navigate the curves, and which roadblocks to avoid when building a platform.
- A platform helps authors reach buyers, but it involves more than that.
- An author platform is 25% expertise; 15% ability to execute; and 10% each for author contacts, social media, previous media, previous books, personality, and existing readership.
- Building a platform requires authors to define who they are and what they do, something authors themselves must ultimately do.
“Build your platform,” publishers tell their authors. “It’s the key to success.” But how do you get from here to there? Too often, authors are left to puzzle over the route. In their attempts, they may feel as if they’re going in circles, needing a platform to attract more readers but needing readers to build a platform.
Better is a clear route that elevates authors to where their audience can find them. For that, they need a roadmap that shows where to start, which direction to go, how to navigate the curves, and which roadblocks to avoid.
A Journey Worth Taking
The emphasis on an author’s platform is a relatively new phenomenon, says Brooke Warner, publisher at She Writes Press and SparkPress. In 2004, when she began acquiring nonfiction for Seal Press, platforms were a small consideration. By the time she left the press eight years later, they had become the most important factor in whether a project was acquired.
“The industry’s singular focus on author platforms results in many authors not having the opportunity to have their stories heard or published,” Warner says. In fact, this was one reason she founded a hybrid press.
Jack B. Rochester, a former board member of the Independent Publishers of New England, agrees that platforms can be over-emphasized in the acquisitions process. “The topic and content of the book should always be the primary criteria; the platform second,” he says.
When Hannah Gordon worked with City of Light Publishing, a company she co-founded, she devoted a good deal of attention to helping authors build their platforms. Besides incentivizing a publisher to invest more time and energy into improving a manuscript, a strong platform can help with public relations, she says, giving journalists reasons to talk with an author.
Having limited sales and marketing resources, independent presses may need to weigh an author’s existing platform during the acquisitions process, says Cardinal Rule Press founder Maria Dismondy. Yet she says she has sometimes signed writers who lack a platform “because we just couldn’t pass up on the message in the story.” In those cases, her staff commits extra time to mentoring and coaching the authors to build their platforms.
Platforms tend to be most critical for nonfiction projects, but fiction authors benefit from a strong platform, too. “It is very attainable for both genres,” says Mindy Kuhn, president of Warren Publishing. “Shift your mind from pushing a new book to trying to find folks who are interested in your subject matter.”
Pointing the Way
To get to a successful author platform, authors need to know what one looks like. Warner provides a helpful breakdown of the components: 25% expertise; 15% ability to execute; and 10% each for author contacts, social media, previous media, previous books, personality, and existing readership.
A platform helps authors reach buyers, but it involves more than that, says Gordon. “Good business owners listen to what their customers want, and they cross-pollinate,” she says.
To build a platform, Gordon suggests authors include all steps of effective marketing. First, they should identify their goal. Then they should conduct research, from which they glean insights. Using these insights, they should develop a strategy and craft messages. Finally, they should choose and implement tactics for communicating these messages.
Too often, Gordon warns, authors and publishers jump straight to working on tactics. As a result, their attempts at a platform are all over the map.
A platform goal might be to connect with an audience that wants the author’s content. Through research, authors can discover who specifically that audience might be. In addition to demographics, Gordon advises authors to consider psychographics: personalities, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles.
“Dive down silos,” she says. Reaching a solid niche audience may be more productive than trying to reach a broad, ill-defined swath of readers.
Once authors have a sense of their audience, they can use their research to gain insights into where they can be found and what they want to hear. With this knowledge, authors can develop a strategy for connecting with the audience using specific messaging. Then come the tactics: developing contacts, working traditional media, and using social media to grow a reader base.
When developing contacts, Kuhn suggests authors think of a dartboard. In the inner circle are friends and family. In the second circle are groups the author belongs to. In the third are friends of friends who might share news and information by word of mouth. In the outer rings are people who don’t know the author but are interested in the subject matter of the book.
From the inner circles, Kuhn recommends identifying 30-40 friends and family to serve as a grassroots launch team. These people can be tasked with writing Goodreads reviews, proposing the author as a speaker to various groups, and posting about the book on social media.
To expand into the outer circles, she suggests authors write articles and guest blogs, do podcast interviews, make media appearances, and speak at events. As contacts are developed, she reminds authors to capture email addresses.
The Social Curve
On the road to a strong platform, social media may feel like a steep curve. But as Warner points out, the social media component is built the same way as the rest of the platform: by showing up consistently and sharing content focused on theme, subject matter, and message. Video content can be especially powerful, she says, because it is the format most likely to be shared.
Gordon points out that the social media formula is simple: engage, listen, react. “What is your audience thinking about right now? What can you do that helps you relate further and makes you more relevant?” she says. “Look at what’s trending and write about that. Look at what people in your community are writing about.”
As a way for authors to track what they’re posting and where, Gordon suggests an editorial calendar. By planning in advance, authors are better able to repackage content and ensure they are staying on brand, she says. The format can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, and tools like Hootsuite and Sprout can help with scheduling. Above all, she reminds authors to be themselves.
Dismondy shares similar advice. “Authenticity is appreciated in the market,” she says. “We are not looking for Instagram feeds that have photos that are professionally shot in a studio. We want to see real life and real connections.”
What keeps authors from achieving their goal? One obstacle is time. As Rochester points out, a strong platform may take years to create.
A creative cover reveal on Cardinal Rule Press’ Instagram reveal of a new title by Michelle Schuab, Kindness Is a Kite String.
Discouragement is another roadblock. To get around it, Warner reminds authors that the process is primarily “an exercise in starting and engaging in conversations.” She also encourages authors to find a happy balance between pushing themselves past the edges of their comfort zone and establishing boundaries that keep them from feeling overwhelmed.
The demands of social media can feel especially daunting. Authors shouldn’t think they have to excel on every social media platform, says Dismondy. “You don‘t have to be in all the places, but you do need to be somewhere,” she says. “Start with one platform and be consistent. Learn about social media marketing from all of the amazing resources out there such as podcasts, free online webinars, and interviews with established authors.”
Gordon admits that social media sometimes feels like “talking to the ether.” Don’t fixate on the number of followers as the only measure of platform success, she says. She would rather an author have 20 engaged followers than 200,000 with whom they never engage.
Because building a platform requires authors to define who they are and what they do, Rochester points out that the authors themselves must ultimately do the work. “I see this as a fairly intense, time-consuming personal development process,” he says.
That being said, publishers can help authors find their way, says Kuhn. The assistance could be as simple as getting them started in the process a year ahead of launch or cross-promoting social media posts.
“Setting expectations and giving authors resources so they feel like they can accomplish what you’re asking them to do is a great way to get authors on board to do the work,” Warner says. For instance, publishers might ask authors to consider why they write, who they want to engage in conversation, and how they hope the conversation will go.
Cardinal Rule Press author Claire Noland during her May 2020 book release partnering with a local gym for the book Evie’s Field Day.
Communication is key, says Dismondy. “Let the authors know in advance what you suggest they do to build their platform in the months from signing on with your publishing house to the launch of the book,” she says. “Authors want to feel like they’re part of a team. Build trust with them by being up front from the start.”
Publishers can also encourage consistency, says Gordon. At the same time, she says publishers should encourage authors to experiment with new tactics if they’re not getting results. In addition, they can facilitate ways for authors to help one another. “When you get brilliant, creative people together, they want to create more things,” she says.
Higher and Higher
Building a platform can feel like the slowest train to nowhere, says Gordon. But once the wheels start rolling, a platform builds on itself.
In that sense, a platform is not about a single title, says Warner. It’s about an author’s journey to become a thought leader in the realm of their work.
By providing a roadmap, publishers make that journey more productive and enjoyable than it would be if the author went it alone. With a research-based strategy and proven tactics, it’s a destination that’s rewarding and achievable.
Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.