Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails

author platform building

Photo credit: Chris Devers via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

If you’re preparing to pitch your nonfiction work to agents or publishers, you’ve probably heard about the necessity of having a platform.

Platform, in a nutshell, is your ability to sell books based on your visibility to the intended readership. If you’re a total unknown, then you may be turned down for lack of a platform to support your book’s publication.

For this post, I don’t want to discuss how the publishing industry reached this point—or the perceived unfairness of it all. I comment a bit further on this dynamic in my definition of platform, but suffice it to say, once you’ve understood the publishing environment we’re all operating in, a proactive or optimistic reaction may be: OK, I’ll develop a platform! Er, how do I do that?

The dream-crushing cynic in me is tempted to say: Don’t force it, because it won’t work. You’re reverse engineering a process that—in the majority of cases—is destined to fail. Here’s why.

1. You focus on superficial indicators of platform.

By far the most common question I’m asked by platform-building authors is: How big do my numbers have to be? What’s the minimum number of Facebook likes? Website visits? Email subscribers? And so on.

It’s true that the easiest way for someone to quickly size up your platform is to look at your numbers, but it’s a shortcut. An author platform is organic, complex, and unique—and impossible to meaningfully express through numbers alone. The number is only a signifier that can indicate something interesting is going on.

The strength of an author platform encompasses many factors, including your relationships, your influence in a community, and other signs of social proof. However, agents and editors who seek authors with a platform do sometimes say quite pointedly, and even arbitrarily, “Well, we need to see at least 10,000 Facebook likes and 100,000 blog visits every month, or it’s not worth us considering.”

My gut says these statements are made more to discourage and get people to throw in the towel, rather than offer a realistic or meaningful goal to achieve. The surface numbers ultimately mean very little; after all, you can buy as many likes or followers as you want. (But please don’t.)

What matters more than these numbers is engagement and trust with your intended audience, and how word spreads about what you do. Once someone scratches beneath the surface of your numbers, they’ll be able to tell if your platform has been manufactured for appearances.

2. You focus on social media growth.

Social media is just one facet of an author’s platform, but since it’s among the most quantifiable, it can be overly emphasized. Sadly, nothing will make you chase your tail faster than focusing on building a social media following.

Think about this question, just briefly: Why would someone want to follow you on social media? Why do you follow someone?

It’s usually because you read, listened to, or watched something that person did. You laughed, were inspired, or touched by some story or insight they offered, whether online or through traditional media.

Building a social media following requires that you do something, publish something, or share your work or your ideas with the world.

Or: you build a social media following because you’re producing work that people enjoy. To try and build a following for something you will do at some point in the future? Extremely difficult.

Anyone with a really significant following is, 99% of the time, producing work that people enjoy in the here and now. This work might include social media activity itself (Twitter interview series, Facebook videos, Instagram poems), but that activity is still creative activity. It is sharing work now that gathers an audience.

I see authors try to build a social media following to demonstrate platform, while at the same time fearful that if they put too much of their ideas or work into public circulation, they will exhaust themselves or “waste” their best stuff. So what do such people post about? Usually nothing meaningful—and so they flounder.

3. You put everything on a timeline that’s too rushed.

If you’ve already written a book proposal—or pitched your work and been told to go develop your platform—then you’re probably thinking in terms of, “How quickly can I build this thing so I can go back to Ms. Agent with the numbers she wants?”

You now have the most challenging mindset in which to develop a meaningful and long-lasting platform.

As I wrote earlier, each platform is organic and complex. Think of it as a fingerprint, a unique signature of each author that spirals out in a very particular way. You can certainly steal ideas on how to build a platform from other authors, or follow certain strategic steps to increase your marketing muscle, but platform building is a career-long process, not an overnight process. It is built on the foundation of your work that’s available, your professional experience and credibility, your visibility or standing within a particular community, and the people you know who can help lift you up. Some of it is relationship work, which is difficult to speed up.

While it’s possible to take online courses and work with marketing consultants to make progress—especially to gain clarity on your target audience, your messaging, and your branding (and such work will help you avoid mistakes and perhaps shorten your path to your goals)—for most authors, this is slow, intensive work, which involves difficult questions, such as:

  • What are the topics or themes you want to become known for?
  • Where do readers currently go to feed their interest in these topics?
  • What could you create to appeal to these readers on your topic—using a creative process or tools you would enjoy over a period of years?

Building a platform in a strategic and focused way, in order to meet a goal such as securing a book deal, requires a significant investment of your time, energy, and resource. It ultimately requires business planning and is going to take time away from your creative writing. For some authors, they’re out of their element in trying to tackle this challenge unless they’ve had prior business experience, or have a coach who can mentor them through the steps necessary to have focus and clarity in their approach.

I’m not sure all authors are cut out for building platform on a business schedule. Some authors luck into their platform by creating and sharing their work without regard for results—they gather a large audience almost by happy accident or through years of creative persistence. Other authors have strengths or assets they can draw upon to get things rolling (an MFA from a prestigious university, a friend in a high place).

So if you’re told you lack a platform, what do you do?

  • If you have the money, time, and energy, hire someone to help you get started down the right path. Dan Blank at We Grow Media is one consultant who works in this area.
  • Look for a different publisher. It’s usually the Big Five who demand platforms. Smaller presses often don’t care—they’re focused on the quality of the work and how well it aligns with their mission and values.
  • Put your book project aside. Producing new work and more work (in non-book form) is a meaningful and assured way of building your platform.
  • Consider self-publishing.

Also, a word of warning: Too often authors are rejected for “lack of platform” when the real reason is that the quality of their work or their ideas is subpar. But it’s an easier reason to give than criticizing the quality of someone’s work. Unfortunately, this does far more harm in the long run. Authors can become totally obsessed with the wrong plan of action, and it sets back their progress by years. Never assume that platform is your problem even if it’s stated as such. Despite a substantive reason for rejection, it’s also become a catch-all, easy-way-out rejection.

Parting advice

Platform building doesn’t stop if you do land a book deal. Your journey has just begun. The good news is that authors can build a platform by engaging in activities that are most enjoyable to them—because if they’re not enjoyable, you won’t continue doing them for the time required to see any kind of pay off. If you build platform only as a means to an end, it generally fails, and that’s why I tend to get cynical when authors try to do it only in service of securing a book deal. It doesn’t reflect an understanding of the much bigger picture: the tremendous value of being visible to your audience.

Posted in Business for Writers and tagged , , , , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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30 Comments on "Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails"

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Katrin

Launch Lab consultations from experts at GrubStreet in Boston are also helpful in guiding writers toward this kind of work in a way that feels authentic and sustainable.

Alexis
I have strong feelings about this because I’m not really a writer but I am somebody with a large platform who has written a book. I think often people don’t understand how much time and effort it really takes to build a platform. It’s an enormous amount of work and a heaping helping of luck. Yes I have #s that make book contracts happen (and I self published anyway) but that was after 4 years of almost full-time work. Is this something you’re really ready to launch into? And ditto on engagement! I constantly see FB pages with 100K+ fans… Read more »
Cathy Shouse
Although this was a bit gut-wrenching to read, your intelligence and honesty are always greatly appreciated. 🙂 As someone who has been published in the print world and associated with writing groups and conferences, such as Romance Writers of America and Midwest Writers Workshop, for several years, I’m wondering if these areas count as a platform of any kind? If so, how would that be quantified, if the social media numbers are minimal, at best? I’m under the impression that a platform must be targeted, and can’t be scattered around as mine is. Any thoughts on shaping such a scattered… Read more »
Lynne Spreen
Jane, how far we’ve come. In 2009, when I met you at the Cincinnati Editors’ Intensive, this whole idea of platform building was new and horrifying. Writers would have to build their own customer base?!? So depressing. What good is the publisher, then? we asked each other. “Don’t be bitter,” read one of your PowerPoint slides. The next most helpful guidance I received was Christina Katz’ “Get Known Before the Book Deal,” in which she conveyed this stellar guidance: think of what you love. Then remember a book is only one way to promulgate it. Speeches, blog posts, etc. are… Read more »
Elizabeth Monnet

This article and the readers’ comments are all very useful advice for the indie authors like myself – BRAVO!! I’ve been struggling over whether to begin a blog to keep my readers engaged before my 2nd novel is available. This article helped me focus attention on what matters. I will only blog if my blog truly entertains and engages my readers.

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[…] “Platform, in a nutshell, is your ability to sell books based on your visibility to the intended readership. If you’re a total unknown, then you may be turned down for lack of a platform to support your book’s publication,” writes Jane Friedman in her (indispensable and outstanding) blog at JaneFriedman.com. […]

Becky Livingston

Thanks Jane. This is a wonderful article. I so appreciate your hard-won, honest (all that matters), and knowledgeable feedback on this hot, hot topic. Lots to think about here.

Ernie Zelinski
Great article! I had similar sentiments about having a platform for some time. In fact, I detest the term “platform.” I know that there will be authors with a great web presence who will get a book deal with one of the big five publishers and the book will still be a failure. On the other hand, an unknown author without any web presence whatsoever will bring out a great book with a great title and create an international bestseller, whether it is self-published or published by a traditional publisher. Incidentally, traditional publishers would likely say that my platform is… Read more »
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[…] Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails (Jane Friedman) If you’re preparing to pitch your nonfiction work to agents or publishers, you’ve probably heard about the necessity of having a platform. Platform, in a nutshell, is your ability to sell books based on your visibility to the intended readership. If you’re a total unknown, then you may be turned down for lack of a platform to support your book’s publication. […]

James Kendley
I had the rudiments of social media platform started when one of the Big 5 picked up my novel series. Online presence and persona is still a developing concept, and I sometimes cringe at attempts of my imprint-cohort of new novelists to engage. I just won’t insult readers. Genuine online engagement works best for me in developing relationships with readers, and it’s more satisfying. than constant self-promotion—or sucking up by pretending I can teach people how to write or how to get published. I’m not that guy. I’m the guy who wrote the books he wanted to read, polished and… Read more »
K. Alan
Thanks, Jane, for this insightful article that presses just the buttons many of us feel are sensitive. While I absolutely agree with your views, and those of most comments here, I need to point out two things: firstly, it is a different world with different pressures for those who have never been published, and, secondly, I disagree that small presses are not seeking a platform; many of them even advise high stats in their submission guidelines. I even had one experience with a small press emailing me the day after I submitted, asking for my stats before agreeing to read… Read more »
Leslie

Great article, Jane! I have to say that when I had “editor calls” with editors interested in my fiction book, the FIRST one editor (not from a Big 5, but not a small press) was “How many followers do you have on social media?” Then she said she hadn’t finished the book yet, but since other people were interested, she didn’t want to “miss out.” Luckily, every other editor was more professional–but it was eye-opening.

Nancy Peske
What a wonderful piece! I’m going to share this like crazy. Yes, it’s quality, not quantity–and yes, quantity becomes an excuse for turning down a book project. Organic growth means actually caring about your followers and engaging them, which is why I wrote 25 Powerful Ways to Get Engagement on Facebook based on what has worked for me and my clients. My agent pointed out a couple years ago that my page’s engagement is high and that is far more important than raw numbers. I don’t feel like I’m working at my platform–I just love talking about my topic (sensory… Read more »
Nancy Bilyeau

This is a great article. Lots of insights. My only comment is that many agents ask for a platform when stating what they seek in a prospective author. On their websites, they ask for it from the very beginning, from writers of fiction and nonfiction. So I think that is where some of the anxiety comes from.

Tomas Knightley

Thank you for this article, Jane. You certainly live up to the idea of giving people something of value. What I particularly like in your writing, here and in other articles, is that it comes through that you care about your audience.

I am at the beginning of the journey that you honestly describe as a long-term project, which takes time and effort. It is all new to me, and being told that it is all about giving people something of value and persisting is comforting to me.

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[…] a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails (Jane Friedman): “Platform building doesn’t stop if you do land a book deal. Your journey has just begun. […]

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[…] author brand. Don’t wait until your book is complete to start building your author platform. Read Jane Friedman’s blog post on Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails. You’re not building your platform/brand to sell books. You want to build relationships. This […]

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[…] Friedman dissects why building a platform to land books sales so often fails, Robert Kroese steps us through using KDP ads to sell books on Amazon, Frances Caballo lists 40 […]

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[…] web, I mean build your author platform. NOW. Before your book is even completed. I suggest reading Jane Friedman’s blog post on Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails. You need to get yourself out there as an author, but not to get a book deal. You want people to be […]

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[…] for Jane’s recent article—Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails (Jane begins by saying it’s for nonfiction; but, it’s perfectly adaptable for […]

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[…] Awesome post: Building a Platform to Land a Book Deal: Why It Often Fails […]

Carla Paton
Thanks, Jane. I agree with most of what you’ve laid out. However, we should remember the historical context of why publishers started asking that authors have a platform. Many publishers no longer have the marketing budget that they used to (or so we’re told). Therefore, yes they might publish a book, but if they provide little to no marketing, it will die on the vine regardless. Obviously, publishers are hedging their bets against this, by knowing there is a ready market. So I think writers are wise to ensure (to the extent possible) that their hard-won words will not bounce… Read more »