Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Expectations and Platforms
I'd be interested in hearing someone who knows what they're talking about do a total break down of the author platform - complete with what a successful author platform should be, AND how to apply it across ALL genres. Oh, and I'd want to see examples of this done from the start up of a writer's career. Not after they've self published nine books and NY takes notice.
Since the beginning of this year, I have been hearing a lot about building your author platform. I went to a workshop earlier that was listed as being about something entirely different, but it turned out to be a big brouhaha about building your author platform. I was open to learning about it, but in the end, walked away very disappointed in the workshop, and the idea behind it.
Before I ever heard of an author platform, the catch phase of the day was author branding. If you wanted to sell books, you had to work on your author brand. No matter that you might want to write across genre lines, you were expected to push and cultivate your name in conjunction with that brand. For example: a lot of people associate my name with werewolf stories. Not surprising. I've written several of them.
I'm all about author branding, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. I feel like your readers should know your name and have an idea of what to expect when they discover you have a new release. When people pick up my books, I want them to think "Hey, look it's Cora! She writes paranormals and weird stuff. Cool beans." That's great. It works for me. The reader has an idea of what they might find in one of my books.
On the other hand, I am not a fan of this new author platform push, and I'm going to explain why.
The way I understand it, an author platform is supposedly how you reach your readers, and how you're getting your name out there in a way that is valuable to you...and potentially to a publisher and/or an agent. This includes your conference appearances (and I don't mean you registered and showed up!), any interviews or articles or keynote speeches you've written or given (to show you're an expert in your field), awards you've won (although you're later told the awards don't really matter that much unless they're big national awards - for example, you've won The Pulitzer), and of course you need a strong social media presence (although it doesn't matter at all how many followers you have). The exception to all this? If you have a huge following, or you're selling a million books on Amazon all by yourself. AKA, the Hocking effect. (Although, she didn't necessarily have a platform. She built her author brand by writing a series that she sold on Amazon.)
Okay. This is where I have the problem with the concept of the author platform. Publishing is not a one size fits all kind of business, and with the current self-publishing boom, that has never been more true than it is right now. I feel an author platform is something that lends itself way, way better to a non-fiction writer. For example: doctors who write non-fiction books have credentials, a career, and backing. If a doctor wrote a self-help book, or a diet book, they have a platform to tour with. It's built in. There is an end result the reader wants and expects with that kind of book. The platform matters because the reader will want to see what their results might be.
If you're a fiction writer, it's not the same. You have your name, your genre, and your writing voice. There is no end result for the reader. Either your book sucks or it doesn't.
If you've given workshops, keynote speeches, won a dozen awards, etc. etc... chances are you're probably already an established author. You're also probably published in one form or another, and may or may not have an agent. Whatever the case, I seriously doubt you had any of those things to start with. And these are things I'm seeing the industry people asking us to have as part of our author platform. It's a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Please be successful before we sign you.
If you self-published instead, and have all of the things I wrote about in the paragraphs above, you likely don't need an agent or a publisher, unless you plan to go into traditional publishing. At least, that seems to be the popular opinion I'm picking up from various groups, blogs, forums, etc.
If you don't have any of the above, well....would you pay to go to a conference that had someone teaching a workshop about publishing who isn't published? No? So again, explain to the new guy, and to me, how he's supposed to break in with an author platform?
My advice to the guy would be to write what he wants to write, and brand himself as that kind of author. Screw the platform. What's the point of having a roof if you don't have a house to prop it on? Work on building your author brand. Put out nine books. Nine short stories. Go with a small publisher or put them up on Amazon. The point is to find your target audience. They are your most important asset - they are the people who buy and read your books. Blog with them, Facebook with them, and use twitter to network with other authors. Join groups in your desired niche. Carve out a little hole in the big cheese for yourself.
I could be completely wrong about this entire author platform jazz, but I have yet to hear anyone explain in specifics that can be duplicated how someone who is unpublished and wants to go the traditional route is supposed to build a successful author platform without having some kind of back list, or credentials to prop up that platform. I think this is because the industry is trying to cram everyone into the same publishing box. Guess what - we don't all fit. No two careers are ever the same.
Now for an entirely different perspective on the matter...that of a reader. I'm an avid reader, and honestly, I could give a rat's ass about an author's platform. I don't think most readers care about a platform. That's something only the industry cares about, as if it's some kind of insurance that the author can sell books, and by now they should know there are no guarantees. An author's first book can sell strong, and their second might flop. But I digress... back to a reader's perspective...
All we readers really care about is reading your book - if it interests us. I tend to look for authors who are branded as either erotic romance authors, or horror authors. You can market your Civil War focused political spy thriller across nine platforms, have a million twitter followers, and be the top client of NYC's most esteemed agent. You can have critics sing the praises of your book until they're blue in the face - still, I'm not going to buy that book. Why? Because I'd rather watch bread mold that read that time period. It doesn't do anything for me. Regardless of content, I am damn certain I'm not the only reader who thinks (and buys books) that way.
If you're selling me a diet book, and I read it - well, I might suddenly care about your author platform. I might go to your website, look at your interviews, read your reviews, look for articles about your work. I'd want to know if you're an actual doctor, and possibly if there are any law suits against you. I might want to see where you do weigh ins. I might want to know who some of your clients are, and where you're giving your low-carb cooking retreat in the summer. Another example: I may be interested in the author platform of the writing guru who is giving a summer workshop on breathing passion and life into your characters. Whatever. My own observation: a publishing platform seems to work better for non-fiction writers. I say that, because when reading fiction novels, I couldn't care less.
The point is, if I haven't heard of you, and I Google your website - and, yes, I Google authors all the time looking for something new to read - the first thing I want to know is what genre you're writing in. Again, if it's not erotic romance or horror, I go to the next website. It's not because I'm cranky, it's because I'm not your target audience, and I know what I want to read.
Speaking of reading and finding authors on Google, I've found many new authors (to read!) on Twitter, or through Facebook. I see they write books, and hit their website to see what they're offering. And if I find something interesting, I'll buy it. I read two or three books total a week (depending on the length of the book). I read both fiction and non-fiction. If any of the fiction authors I read have a platform, I'm honestly not aware of it. Truth be told, if a fiction author tries to market their book to me beyond a simple cover image, blurb, and excerpt on their website (a simple contest is okay too), I run scared. Rather than sit through a big promo spiel, I'll go to the next site.
Big sales letters and repetitive pushing of a book reminds me far too much of those people hustling tickets outside Walmart - you know those people. They're using their little kids to stop you at the door to sell raffle tickets for a chance to win a quilt or a barbecue grill, or some such mess, usually for an organization no one has ever heard of. My thoughts on that? DO NOT WANT. In fact, when I'm leaving a store and there are hustlers are out there, I don't even make eye contact! It's the same thing when I'm visiting an author's Facebook, Twitter, or website. I do not ever want to be hustled into buying a book, especially fiction books. Just show me the books, ma'am. I'll figure the rest out for myself.
Several years ago, I came across an author who was just a little bit too...pushy...(that's putting it nicely) and that totally turned me off to ever reading her work again. What good does it do you if your "author platform" is so strong it drives people away?
The publishing industry is shifting and changing. It's a shaky landscape out there right now, so I understand where agents and publishers are coming from when they challenge authors to build a massive media presence. I agree it should be on us, the author, to get ourselves out there to connect with our target audience. That aside, most writers, especially unpublished folks and newly published authors, won't be able to pull off the kind of "platform building" some editors, publishers, and agents are talking about as a necessary key to "breaking in" nowadays. It's actually driving potential authors from ever attempting to publish in a traditional way. And who can blame them? The expectations for a lot of us simply aren't realistic.
Say it with me: Publishing isn't a one-size-fits-all industry. Write the best book you can, connect with people who are interested in your genre. Brand yourself, whether you're a paranormal author, a romance author, or you write cozy mysteries. Make sure you're easy to find online. I'm not convinced success is so much about platform as it is about connecting with your potential readership. Perhaps they are one in the same. Then again, I never claimed to have all the answers.