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.

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