Building an author platform takes time, and you won’t get far if you wait for some magical moment. But you have the freedom to focus on the activities you like, so don’t make your life difficult by forcing something that’s not really you.
New writers often express confusion about how much time to spend building an author platform when they have not a single book or credit to their name. The bigger obstacle, however, may be that they don’t yet know who they are as writers. An author platform grows out of a body of work — or from producing great work. It’s difficult to build a platform for work that does not yet exist (unless you’re some kind of celebrity). Until you have work available for the public to read, it’s probably too early to be focused on platform building.
Furthermore, while having a platform gives you the power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by focusing on marketing activities. Platform isn’t about who markets the best, it’s about making incremental improvements in how you reach readers and extend your network. It’s about making waves that attract other people to you — not begging them to pay attention
Writers sometimes conflate platform building with spending time on social media, which is unfortunate. It’s understandable, though: the traditional publishing industry often reduces platform to how many online followers you have. Plus it’s tempting for everyone to accord status to authors with large followings. Resist that urge; large social media followings are almost always a result of producing work that’s enjoyed by your readers, not from social media activity alone.
For long-term sustainability, it’s best to focus on cultivating stronger relationships and connections to existing fans and partnering with organizations, businesses, and individuals to extend your visibility. Sometimes it’s about creating and pushing out more work — being prolific — which may be preferable for writers who don’t feel like their strength is in building relationships.
Other times, by experimenting with new mediums or distribution channels, you can reach an audience you weren’t able to find before. For example, Seth Harwood is a crime novelist with an MFA in fiction from Iowa who built his readership by distributing work in podcast form. He bought recording equipment, read his work chapter by chapter, and distributed each installment via iTunes and his website. Before long, he had enough of a following to attract the attention of a traditional publisher who released his book in other formats but allowed him to continue producing the free podcast.
However you decide to build your author platform, it’s important that you enjoy the activities so you can stick with them for the long haul. This is too often discounted. Platform-building activities take time to gather momentum, and just about every author has abandoned an approach too soon, before it was really clear if it would work out. Also, it’s best to have some consistency with your voice and style. This isn’t about being predictable so much as having a message or approach that people begin to associate with you over time. Avoid adopting a “marketing voice” that’s different from that of your work; you can get pegged as a boring shill.
Here’s my rule-of-thumb list for platform-building priorities, specifically for new and mid-career writers:
- Identify new publishing opportunities or partnerships to spread your work to the right audience (i.e. a bigger audience than the one you currently reach).
- Look at new mediums in which to present your content or stories. If you’ve focused solely on written work, is there an opportunity to also try audio, video, or visuals?
- Establish or improve your website. Sometimes this means investing a little money in design or development.
- Improve the cohesiveness of your writer identity or brand. This might be as simple as printing a business card that matches your website or having a Facebook cover photo that reflects your brand. Again, it may involve hiring design help.
- Add an email newsletter to your activities if you don’t have one.
- Identify the social media outlet(s) you want to use creatively and focus on for growth, or those where you might simply experiment and play.
I rarely set such specific platform goals for myself. Instead, I mainly work off of signals. I pay close attention to how people are engaging with me and my work (and sometimes I measure it, using a tool like Google Analytics) and what themes show up in the comments, questions, or conversations in the community. Then I adjust. I also pay attention to people I admire and sometimes imitate them if I see a better way of doing things.
While I read trend articles and stay current on how the industry is unfolding, such things don’t influence me on a day-to-day basis; it’s more about understanding how best practices evolve and only acting when I feel compelled to do so — because that’s where the energy of the moment directs me.
For example, right now, podcasting is one of the most popular platform builders in writing and publishing, but I personally consume very little audio content and don’t feel that’s where my talent lies. Even though several people have suggested I should get into audio, I’ve resisted because no appropriate opportunity has presented itself — but maybe it will in the future.
I favor experimentation and letting my enjoyment drive platform building. Whether you’re a goal-setter or not, it’s important to pay attention to what gives you energy and what takes it away. Avoid pursuing a platform-building activity if it doesn’t feel like a good match for the rest of what you’re doing.
Put another way: Don’t make your life difficult by forcing something that’s not really you. There are so many ways to develop a strong author platform that you have the freedom to focus on the activities you like, which in turn will lead to the satisfaction and growth you want.
So set some goals. Or don’t. But get started on the process of building. It takes time, and you won’t get far if you wait for some magical moment.
Excerpted from Jane Friedman’s latest book, The Business of Being a Writer.
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