In preparing to tell you that you don’t need a huge personal “platform” to get a publishing deal, I feel like a missionary about to knock on your front door, all aquiver with zeal and broad-shouldered with conviction. Like, Hi there, friend! Have you heard the good news?
It’s true. You don’t need some huge platform to get a publishing deal or sell books to readers. All you really need is an audience, and the even better news is, such audiences are already out there, ready-built. In a minute, I’ll show you how to find them on Facebook, Reddit, Quora, and similar.
First, let’s acknowledge why “platform” is so horrible, so awful and painful.
My theory, based on observing myself and my friends, is that writers tend to be people who simultaneously crave and fear attention, so we contrive a way to get attention under controlled conditions. People generally don’t become writers because they love being on stage, or because they’d feel at ease kicking back on the set of a talk show and chit-chatting with the shellacked host.
No. Most of us become writers because we’d be uncomfortable in such situations, yet yearn to put ourselves across, anyway. It’s why we choose the loneliest, most introverted medium. It’s also why the modern-day diktat—that, if you want to get published and have a writing career, then you must have large platform complete with zillions of social-media followers—can feel like such a sucker punch. If we were natural-born performers, we wouldn’t be writers. Right?
Still, it would be useless to fault publishers for their reluctance to take on unknown or little-known writers. The dynamic is not limited to publishers, for one. Most people seek information before making financial investments, craving evidence that the investment will profit. Likewise, most people want their bosses to be pleased with their job performance, to not hate them for making bad bets and losing the company’s money.
It’s like that old saying in sales: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”
It’s understandable that acquiring editors, who are after all only human, would feel most comfortable working with established brands, and in the writing business that tends to mean working with writers who are already famous, boast large social-media followings, and/or can boast of big bylines, all the social proof that comes from publishing stories in the biggest venues.
What’s more, while social-media followings don’t always equate to big sales, it remains true that writers who’ve developed huge email lists have a much better chance of hitting bestseller lists. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followings may be red herrings for both publishers and for writers themselves, but email subscriber bases can much more reliably drive sales and preorders.
Besides, whether or not publishers are justified in caring about your platform, the fact is that they do, so why moan? You could waste 10 years of your life wishing this reality were different. Ask me how I know.
Now what if there were a reliable way you could hack a platform and address publishers’ concern that your book will make a good financial bet?
When I sold my nonfiction debut back in 2019, I had the same modest following that I do now: a few thousand on Twitter, and effectively none on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. The way I made my case was by focusing on my subject’s platform instead. I wanted to write a book about Edgar Allan Poe, so in my book proposal, I spent a great deal of time outlining Poe’s platform, both his online following and its physical, meat-world manifestations.
Sure, the guy has been dead for almost 200 years, and still he has 3.6 million Facebook fans—more than James Patterson or Danielle Steele. It’s a hell of a data point, and Poe has large followings on other social platforms, too.
- There are 20,000-plus Poe fans gathered on Wattpad, and another 14,000 on Bookbub.
- Some 63,000 people follow “Edgar Allan Poe” as a topic on Quora, and there’s a subreddit dedicated to Poe which has around 4,000 people.
- There are the four Poe museums in the U.S., plus numerous Poe festivals and Poe associations which include both Poe scholars and everyday super-fans.
If I were a marquee-name writer with a track record of bestsellers, I wouldn’t have a bigger platform than Poe. Colleen Hoover doesn’t, at least by Facebook stats, and right now, she’s outselling the Bible.
I didn’t just use Poe’s stats to impress publishers. I put them in my query letter as well. I’ve also used them to place pitches and promotional pieces about my book, now that it’s out in the world, toddling around on its wobbly baby legs, and I’ve started writing articles about Poe’s massive following, up to and including this one.
Would you believe that editors at magazines and websites also care about reaching large numbers of readers? Shocking, I know.
Everyone at every level of the media business stands eager to tap into huge bases of existing fans. It’s the equivalent of buying IBM, so how can you make this dynamic work for you?
In short, by focusing on a massive, pre-built audience instead of on myself, I got a book deal, making all my author dreams come true. And the same path is open to you, if your subject is a topic or person of broad interest (or even, if its followers are enthusiastic enough, of niche interest).
This tip isn’t just applicable to nonfiction, either. A few weekends ago, when I was attending one of those IRL Poe festivals, I heard the novelist Lynn Cullen talk about how her book on Poe led to a huge career breakthrough, though she’d already published several well-regarded books before she wrote 2013’s Mrs. Poe.
Poe himself is just one example, one topic. There’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Composting. Guy Fieri. Greece. Pickleball. Time-travel romances. Writing itself. Et al. Search for these subjects on Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Goodreads, etc., and you’ll find their fan-bases.
So, even as you grudgingly tweet, or send TikToks into the wind, stop and think: Does your subject already have a large existing fandom? How can you quantify that fandom, using the data to impress agents, publishers, and editors? How can you make strategic connections within that fandom so that when it comes time to promote your work, you’re in position?
The beauty of this hack is so self-evident it’s blinding. The focus doesn’t have to be on little ol’ introverted you (or me). Instead, we’re able to connect with others through a shared interest, to bypass the awkward small talk and delve into a common obsession. Our missions become manageable: Instead of building up a following, we take advantage of a pre-built one. We connect with those who love our closest comp, or those who hero-worship Poe just like we do, which feels so much more natural, comfortable, right.
Pardon me if I sound evangelical. As plain and simple as this platform solution is, it’s magic in practice—a way to make the GD numbers work at last. Some secrets are just too good to keep.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.