As most authors know by now, there is a continuing debate over the importance and impact of one’s platform on book sales.
In one of the more interesting experiments I’ve seen, author C.S. Lakin (@cslakin) decided to publish a genre novel (in a very particular genre, with a very particular formula) and release it under a pen name, to test whether a first-time author—one ostensibly without any platform—could sell a meaningful number of copies. Read her full post about it.
You can find a diversity of lessons in what Lakin did; one of the key takeaways (for me) relates to the role that genre plays in an author’s success in achieving e-book sales through the largest online retailer in the world, Amazon.
Lakin commented that her purpose wasn’t necessarily to prove platform unimportant, but the headline of the post and the comment thread (of course) point to a great deal of excitement over the early results: this first book by a platform-free author is selling 30-50 copies every day.
For many years, I’ve taught classes on platform, which makes me look like a rather biased party on this topic. However, my ideas have evolved over the years. Some of that evolution can be traced through these posts:
- A Definition of Author Platform
- Should You Focus on Your Writing or Your Platform?
- The Art and Business of Reader Engagement & Author Platform
In a nutshell, I tend to agree with those who advise that fiction writers put a low priority on platform building, at least until you have some books to market and real seriousness of intent. By seriousness, I mean: you expect to earn money that will help provide a living. But I also believe that paying even a little bit of attention to developing direct connections with readers (e.g., through having your own website) pays off over the long-term of your career. You don’t do it for short-term gain; you do it to incrementally grow your name recognition and spread word of mouth—to help you better discover and engage with readers over 5, 10, or 20+ years. (Some might not even categorize this activity as platform building, but the word has become very fuzzy in publishing circles over the years, and functions as a blanket term covering sales, marketing, promotion, publicity, and branding.)
Here’s the thing about Lakin’s experiment. I think it reveals platform hard at work, because Lakin happens to have a solid platform she can’t hide, even with a pen name. Let me explain.
As far as my definition, I believe author platform has 6 key components:
- Your writing or your content (in this case, books)
- Your social media or online community presence and outreach
- Your website
- Your relationships (people you know, the kind of people who will answer your e-mails or phone calls)
- Your influence (e.g., your ability to get people you don’t know to help you out, listen, or pay attention)
- Your actual reach (the number of people you can reliably broadcast a message to at any particular moment in time)
When people hear the word “platform,” they often think about social media, or doing self-promotional activities. What they forget is that one’s body of work is the entire engine behind any author’s platform—it all starts with the writing and its appeal to a target audience—and also includes relationships developed in the process.
I haven’t spoken to Lakin about this (I may set up an interview!), but just looking at the surface of her experiment, here’s what I see happening.
- Social media outreach: Lakin used her own Twitter account, which has 44,000+ followers, to spread the word about the book.
- Writing & content: Lakin is the author of more than a dozen other books. When she tweeted about her new book, she was appealing to people who already know and like her—and people who could help spread the word. (That said, I understand that perhaps her current fans may not be active readers of the genre in which she now writes under a pen name.)
- Relationships: Lakin appealed to well-known author friends to write reviews of her work, which presumably offered social proof and credibility to her debut book. But how many authors without a platform have such relationships already in place?
There are other helpful factors, which some may not categorize as platform—and perhaps much of this truly boils down to our definitions of that word!—but that I find at least related to the strength of your platform. Lakin was having conversations with people about which genre to choose and was conducting some amount of reconnaissance—presumably drawing on relationships that are always part of any author’s long-term success. And she is now discussing the experiment at one of the biggest blogs for self-publishing.
None of this is to downplay the value in Lakin’s experiment and what lessons it holds for authors looking for keys to success. The most important point she makes (IMHO) is not to be taken lightly: the genre/subgenre you write in (or at least categorize your book by) affects success—and can carry a book’s sales, at least in the short term—if you’re following the conventions of the genre and playing well with Amazon. I just wouldn’t be so quick to say, “This was a book published without an author platform,” when we’re looking at someone who is very experienced in the industry and has a network of valuable resources to draw upon.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.