Agent after agent. Editor after editor. “You need more platform!”
“Build a following on social media!”
It’s comforting for all of us to believe that social media—so countable, so calculated!—is the answer. That we should spend a chunk of our writing time each day pursuing the little dopamine hits of comments and likes, watching the numbers mount up, working hard to send out love and feel loved back.
But social media is not platform.
Social media does not drive book sales. Social media has never driven book sales. When an influencer sells 10,000 books “on social media,” it is their tool, not their fuel.
Think of constructing a literal platform: a hammer exerts the force to pound a nail. But it didn’t drive itself to the worksite. The hammer is the culmination of architectural plans, engineered into blueprints, supply-chained into piles of lumber and churning bowls of concrete, in a location where people have agreed to show up and pound nails.
Twitter, Instagram or TikTok might deliver the final “buy this” message, but that message is a single nail in your author platform. To have anything to attach that message to, you must first know your mission, discover your best mix of publishing, events, ads and social media, and create an audience who agree to show up and buy books.
As a valuable tool, social media helps nurture relationships built over time through online and real-life interactions in multiple contexts. Making a Reel, hosting a webinar or speaking to a book club will each result in 1-10 people signing up for what you do, even though the Reel reaches over a thousand people and the book club has maybe 10.
But social media channels are not tools to move product. Instead, they train you to produce content that keeps eyeballs on the screen, and to change that content every time “the algorithm” changes or a new product—Reels, anyone?—is rolled out.
Social media channels are built on the unpaid labor of women and children. Meta’s profit model forces their best workers to regularly guess and adapt to new rules, while constantly creating new work, under threats to their livelihoods and their self-esteem. It’s a Hunger Games where the Gamekeepers randomly disable all the weapons you’re carrying and reissue new ones without instructions:
Surprise! No-one sees your Facebook posts unless you pay!
Surprise! No-one sees your Insta posts unless you make video!
And the “walled garden” means if you leave a social network, your audience stays with them—which is why email lists are so important.
Long before issuing the work order, “Buy this book!” you need a platform that supports your mission.
The two kinds of author platforms that sell books
1. The culmination of our life’s work, of who we are. This is the most useful kind of platform. I’ve spent 25 years learning to teach, to write, to edit, and to share that knowledge. Jenny Pentland spent her life being Roseanne Barr’s daughter. Suleika Jaouad spent her life speaking, writing and reporting, eventually about her own illness. Each of these lives has become a book. With a life’s-work platform, writing a book is a logical next step to convey your mission to the world. The book enhances the platform as much as the platform supports the book.
2. A platform deliberately created to support a book, which may or may not become our subsequent life’s work. This kind of platform is built with faster work over a shorter period of time, and it’s what most agents and editors mean when they say, “Build more platform.” Ideally, this platform also builds on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about.
From these platforms, social media is an economical, low-stakes tool to speak directly to our audience and discover what they want to read. Listen for the gaps in their knowledge, their complaints, their fears, and identify how your book—your mission—fills those gaps and soothes those fears. Build your platform on solving those problems and reaching those readers, often one by one. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, a conversation after a conversation after a conversation is power.
Social media also allows us to amplify messages we share elsewhere:
- I wrote an essay, here’s a quote on Twitter, go read it.
- I’m speaking at the library, here’s the poster on Instagram, please come.
- My book is on sale, here’s a review quote on Facebook, this is the third of the seven times you’ll hear the title before deciding to buy.
Here’s what you should do before using social media
- Know your mission, why it matters, and who needs your work.
- Have at least three paths to connect with your audience that are not social media—events and appearances, writing and publishing essays, op-eds or blogs, interacting in real-life groups, etc.
- Create an email list and start writing to your audience regularly.
- Be able to write a press release or pitch that serves the magazine/podcast/newspaper’s needs—not just your own.
- Engage regularly with other writers as your colleagues, and copy the behavior of authors you want to be shelved with.
You don’t have to do all of it—but you do have to do some of it.
Writers, stop chasing social media numbers.
Stop working for Instagram.
Use the hammer when it’s the right tool—and stop caring about whether the hammer loves you back.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.