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What exactly is platform? It’s a slippery publishing concept. You’ve probably had an earful of the standard industry thinking on the subject, but it turns out that there’s more (or less, actually) to platform than we thought.
According to publishing pundit Jane Friedman, a writer with platform is “someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience.” (And just to be clear: platform applies mostly, but not exclusively, to nonfiction writers.)
Friedman’s article “A Definition of Author Platform” explains the conventional thinking on the topic, and it’s depressing enough to push you in the direction of the nearest bar or a change of career. For instance, her “Side Note” says this:
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.
And one of her explanatory bullet points is this:
- Proven reach. It’s not enough to SAY you have visibility. You have to show 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).
As you will see if you read the rest of the article, the expectations entertained by editors and agents are, for most of us, unrealistic in the extreme—no matter how much we want to break out of relative obscurity, no matter how much we long to please our publishers (or prospective publishers).
Writers have been plagued by this irrationality—the unrealistic demand for unreachable platform—from the day some p.r. person invented the notion. And social media have been cornerstones in the platform-building mythology. But here comes an important news flash from brand strategist Stephanie Bane, in a very good piece called “‘Platforms’ Are Overrated,” on a very good site called Creative Nonfiction: True stories, well told.
The surprising subhead (better sit down…) is “Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about building a presence on social media.”
“Any author starting out today,” Bane writes, “is likely to hear the same advice from agents, publishers, and even well-meaning writer friends. That advice? Build your ‘platform.'” And then Bane proceeds to point out the Platform Emperor’s nakedness in great detail, starting with this:
Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry suggests that a robust online presence, maintained by an author, will compensate for a non-existent marketing budget and that some uncoachable mix of wit and digital luck can propel an author from obscurity to fame. The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.
But she doesn’t just leave it there: Bane presents cogent arguments, with statistical support, for the pointlessness of most efforts to create (unfunded) platform via social media. She takes apart and debunks the assumptions that pass for facts among publishers. For example, she posits a situation in which you’ve managed to acquire 1000 fans for your author page on Facebook, by spending some money to enlist more than your personal friends. After that, this:
What does this do for sales when you’re finally ready to release your book? There’s limited public data on return-on-investment on Facebook, but we can use old-school direct marketing numbers as a proxy. As a rule of thumb, a good response rate on direct marketing efforts is 1 percent. If you reach all one thousand fans of your author page no fewer than three times with an announcement of your book release, and include a link to Amazon, you could reasonably expect ten of them to buy your book. That’s right: ten. But we know that only 6 percent of your fans will see each post to begin with; so, to ensure that your fans even know about your book release, you will have to promote yourself to them relentlessly. Mercilessly. To the point that they begin to unfriend you, or at least hide your feed.
Bane also takes on the value (or not) of blogging, Twitter, and your personal (rather than author) page on Facebook. I find myself wanting to quote the entire article, because not one word of it is uninteresting. And that includes some good advice from Amazon. Despite my issues with the gorilla, in this particular case Amazon acquits itself well: it tells authors to skip the social media and write more.
Which is Ms. Bane’s point:
Multiple agents might respond to your query letter in part because you’ve got such an outstanding social media platform, but they won’t end up representing you if your book is mediocre as a result of your having spent hours building a presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook instead of writing.
When you have to make a choice about how to spend your writing time, choose your book first. Every. Single. Time. To approach your writing career any other way is a mistake.
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THANK YOU: I learned about the “Creative Nonfiction” site from a Facebook post put up by artist Lorie Novak; I’m very grateful to her for sharing the link to Ms. Bane’s important article.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Book Court, Brooklyn, NY
Heirloom Bookshop, Charleston, SC
Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA