The Truth About Author Platforms

The truth about Author Platforms - What they are, how they work, and how you can start building yours.

The term “author platform” gets bandied about a lot.

The various author marketing gurus/pundits always talk about how an author platform is so important and that every author needs to have one to ever hope to sell a book. Then, the author advocates say “No, you don’t need to worry about an author platform until you’ve sold at least 5,000 copies and written 8 books.”

So, which is it? Do you need one or don’t you?

Should you start now, or wait?

And, seriously, what the heck is an “author platform?

Before we get into that, I’d like to tell you about two authors.
 

John Scalzi

human divisionYeah, I went there. John is an exceptional science fiction author who writes regularly at the Whatever blog, most likely the longest running author blog out there. His first post was March 18, 2002. The site now gets 86,000 visitors a day. He was the president of the SFWA, is a Hugo award winner, and just an all around nice guy. He has an author platform, one he’s been steadily building for the better part of 13 years. As a result, every new book is a best seller. In the science fiction world, he is a household name. He is the idol of thousands of hopeful, nascent sci-fi writers.

John rarely writes about his books on his blog — he writes about life, he gives commentary, he wades in on social topics, he dispenses advice. His content is shared a zillion times a day.

But, 13 years ago, when he wrote his first post on “Whatever”, I’m betting that wasn’t the case. But, he kept going, putting out good books and nice blog posts, over and over. Day in and day out. And now, his blog is huge. It didn’t happen overnight. And, yes, his blog probably wouldn’t have been so huge without his great books and awards. But, here’s the noodler — he probably wouldn’t have had such a great book career if he hadn’t put in the time with his fans on his blog.

Old Man’s War, John’s breakout book, is ranked 7,875 in all books on Amazon, and has over 1,480 customer reviews
 

Matthew Woodring Stover

Caines LawMatthew Stover is, by any and all accounts, a fantastic writer. As a matter of fact, when Orbit re-issued his Caine novels, John Scalzi fought for the chance to interview him. Yes, that John Scalzi. His relatively small, but loyal, fanbase regards Stover as the greatest action writer in the history of sci-fi. Seriously. Have you read Shatterpoint — easily the best Star Wars novel ever? Have you checked out Heroes Die or any of the other Caine novels? The man put the “kick” in kick-ass.

But, chances are you don’t know who he is. If you search for him, you won’t find much. He has no website. No newsletter to join. His Amazon author page is a blank. There’s only a lone facebook page, sparsely updated, and an abandoned blog. Where do his fans go? How do they talk to him? How can they get news on what he’s working on? I don’t know. Perhaps his publisher’s page?

He doesn’t have a platform.

Heroes Die, Matthew’s breakout novel, now stands at 274,357 of all books in Amazon, and has 161 customer reviews.
 

The Definition Of An Author Platform

If you do a quick web search for “author platform” you’re going to get some great articles — Jane Friedman, Dan Blank, Forbes Magazine, The Book Designer, Page Two — all good stuff. Their definitions ranges from “be on social networks” to “Endorsements from A List Authors” to “Professional website.”

When you distill all of this wisdom down to some solid, common points, an author platform is:

  • A core website
  • An author’s “voice”
  • Good books
  • Reader Interaction
  • Newsletter
  • Loyalty
  • Recognition
  • Expertise
  • Significant Fan Base
  • Social Media Following

Wow, that’s a huge list!

And those aren’t easy to do — how does a new author get started? I mean, seriously, “Significant Fan Base?” How about ANY fan base?

By every measure, this list is a tall order. But, if you break it down, it’s achievable. Just remember, all of the elements on this list play together — and some are built on the others.
 
Art House sm

An author platform is a lot like a house

 
I’m an engineer, so when faced with a complex problem, I tend to configure it in my mind as something I can build. With that mindset, author platforms are like houses. They have a foundation, walls, and a roof.
 

  1. Your website, your books, and the author’s own authentic voice are the foundation. These need to be there and they need to be strong. Anyone thinking of selling a book must have these items in place from the outset.
  2. Email newsletters and reader interaction are the structure. These are the walls of the house. They are the what holds things together.
  3. All of the rest – loyalty, recognition, social media followers, fan base, expertise – are what I call the roof. They are super important, but can’t exist without a foundation and walls in place to support them.

 
All three elements have to be developed for an author platform to grow and be effective.

No one wants to live in a house without a roof. But, you can’t place a roof without walls and a strong foundation.
 

If you don’t start building your author platform as early as possible, you are doing yourself a great disservice.

What Are Authors Supposed to Do?

My friend Tim Grahl recently wrote about author platforms and how the author who doesn’t have one has a serious disadvantage. Dan Blank, noted author advisor, says the same.

Jane Friedman, all around book person, recommends authors not worry about their platform until they are more experienced, preferring they focus on production instead. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, long time author, agrees.

The good news is they’re all right. The bad news is they’re all right.

You see, Blank and Grahl are 100% correct: Authors need a platform. In their mind, it’s marketing 101. You need a system in place to gather, energize, and direct potential book buyers to your books. You simply have to have this.

But, Friedman and Rusch are also right — platforms can be expensive and hard to build, requiring time and effort and money. For new authors, probably at least working part time — effort needs to be conserved. In their mind, if you have to choose between writing and building a platform, you should be writing.

Each faction has a very solid point of view. But, I’ve been supporting authors directly for a while now — I see pretty much very aspect of their site and sales. In my professional, empirical data backed opinion, if you don’t start building your author platform as early as possible, you are doing yourself a great disservice.
 

How To Build An Author Platform

There are TONS of people out there who want to sell authors on building a platform. Coaches, speakers, and how-to sellers. But, while all of the counseling is great stuff, they don’t acutally help you build it. They just tell you, in new and interesting ways, the same stuff we’ve been discussing here.

I was talking with a prominent author coach a little while ago, and he told me something I couldn’t believe: most of the authors who take his courses — which are expensive — don’t actually do it.

They don’t build the websites, they don’t grow the newsletter, they don’t find their voice.

Why don’t they? I mean, they probably dropped $300-$500 to get a masters course in book marketing from a man with a proven track record. Why not put the lessons into motion?

Because it’s hard.

It’s easy to make a website – it’s hard to make one that works.

It’s easy to sign up for Mail Chimp, or Aweber, or Constant Contact — but it’s HARD to grow that mailing list.

It’s easy to make a fast update on facebook, but it’s hard to write a blog post that lasts.

But without these things, your platform has no foundation, no structure.

Without that, what will your readers hold on to? How will they find you in the sea of 4 million books (and growing!) available on Kindle? How will they find your voice above the din of millions crying out “buy my book!”

Sooner or later, you have to start assembling your platform. And, it’s best to get started early, rather than late.

Your platform may not be in effect for your first book, or even your second. But it will grow.

Yes, it takes time. But the more you delay, the more time is wasted.
 

How to Get Started

Building an online presence and starting your brand as an author — or as anything — may seem overwhelming to many. There are so many options, and so much conflicting advice, that analysis paralysis can set in very, very quickly. But, you’ve got to do it. YOu just have to jump in at some point and move forward.

For authors starting their writing career, I always give the following advice. If you just take these four small steps, you’re setting yourself up for success down the road.
 

  1. First, get a website and your own domain name. It doesn’t really matter what platform you choose — wordpress, blogspot, squarespace, wix, or ThirdScribe. But, the domain name is important. Why? Because chances are, as your platform grows you will want to move up.

    Say you start with a wordpress.com site and you don’t have your own domain name so it’s mysite.wordpress.com. But, now you want to migrate to ThirdScribe or to a self hosted site. You can’t take mysite.wordpress.com with you. Now, you’re in a complicated situation — you want to change, but how do you direct your existing followers to your new site? How will you keep your hard earned SEO if every link changes once you move?

    Don’t put yourself in that position. Get your own domain name at the beginning. It costs $11/year, preserves your branding, and allows for growth.

  2. Next, write the best book you possibly can. The books are what it’s all about. Make sure yours is the best you can make. Prose, style, editing, cover art — do it right. And don’t be afraid to take your time with it. The biggest mistake I see authors make is to just crank out books — take the time to get it right and set yourself up for success. This isn’t a race.
  3. Blog about the whole thing — and more. You’ll be growing your audience through your website and blog, that means you have to write stuff there. Your site can’t stay static. Once a week is a great way to go. Make it something personal — not a “my book is coming” post. Talk about a topic that interests you. Talk about inspirations hopes, dreams. Talk about crushing defeats and picking yourself back up. Talk about inspirational themes in your book and your writing. Talk about your hobbies. Talk about stupid stuff. Just be authentic.

    Use your blog to let your audience connect with you on a personal level.

  4. Start a Newsletter. As soon as your site is functional, slap a newsletter signup on it. Just do it. I know it will take a long time for that to pay off — that’s why you need to start it now. Newsletters are so powerful because they take so long to grow. So, get on that right away. It’s generally free and easy, so there’s truly no reason not to get moving on that.

    Once you have a body of work under your belt, you can start getting creative with different enticements to get people to join your newsletter — but, until then, don’t be afraid to put it out there. Use the power of your blog, and the personal connections it can foster, to get people to follow you.

  5.  

These four steps, more than any other, will get you started on the right path.
 

About Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine -- a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

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