What is an author platform? Which elements should it contain? And is any of this stuff more important than just writing another book? Perhaps not. But certain aspects of an author platform are important tools for reaching readers and, especially, for holding on to them.
The topic can be confusing as everyone seems to be mean something different by the term. And then this problem is compounded by a lot of terrible advice proliferating, quite frankly. Number-chasing nonsense which doesn’t serve anyone.
Even the term “platform” seems to be quite nebulous and elastic — fertile ground for snake-oil salesmen. Let’s nail that down first:
Author Platform – A Definition
Everyone will agree a website is part of an author platform, as well as any blog and your various presences on all the different social media channels, if applicable. But what about your email list? Personally, I think it’s most useful to be open here.
An author platform is a writer’s collective presence on the internet.Some dude.
That seems pretty straight forward and uncontroversial. Where opinions diverge is with regard to what an author platform is truly for, and what it should contain. And people often skip over the first part of that and jump right to the second. But it’s hard to know if you’re building the right tool if you don’t know what it will be used for.
There are many ways to slice this onion. Primarily, though, author platforms:
- entice new readers; and
- engage existing ones.
You might assume author platforms are largely for finding new readers, whereas I’d strongly argue that their real value is in engaging existing readers, and deepening connections with people we have already sold books to, or otherwise interacted with. More on that in a moment.
The internet is a big place and you can’t be everywhere, not if you want to keep producing books regularly — which should always be your main goal. So, what should you focus on? Which social networks can be dispensed with? How can you build a platform worthy of the name with what little time you have?
To put a finer point on it, is any of this worth the bloody effort? Social media networks in particular are giant time-sinks, as we all know only too well. *closes eleventeen tabs*
Non-Negotiable Elements of an Author Platform
The only truly necessary elements in an author platform are a website and a mailing list. Everything else is optional. I’d also strongly argue that a basic presence on Facebook, at minimum, is very useful indeed, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
But, really, the only absolutely essential thing to have is a website where readers can find basic information about you and your books, and also sign up to your mailing list. And it’s actually the latter that’s the truly crucial part. Everything else is secondary.
My guide to author websites is here: Level Up Your Author HQ
And this is by far the best resource on email: Book of the Year: Newsletter Ninja
But which other elements might an effective author platform contain? Before you can answer that, you must think about what a platform is truly for and what you, in particular, want to achieve.
How About Sales?
Sales are good! I like making money. But author platforms aren’t as good at driving sales as people often assume. If you want to sell books, I strongly recommend adopting the killer strategies from this post: How To Sell Books in 2019.
The real value in an author platform is in deepening connections with readers. And the danger for anyone building a platform is that they can try and build a sales-generating apparatus when they should really be building a connection-building contraption.
Email is a classic example. It’s not a sales tool. Wait, scratch that. It’s an awesome sales tool. But you shouldn’t approach it that way or you will come across in the wrong manner. You should look at it as a way to creating real, authentic, and meaningful engagement with your readers.
If you are genuine, and not just faking it, then regular communication with your readers in this manner can turn your email list into a sales generating machine. It’s a by-product of having an open, healthy, and meaningful relationship with your readers. Or creating community, if you prefer that formulation.
Author Platforms and Social Media
You might think this view of an author platform leaves out a lot of stuff — and it does. Deliberately. You don’t need to be on Facebook. It’s not essential that you have a Twitter following. You don’t have to have an Instagram account. And it’s certainly not a necessary condition for success that you be active on Pinterest or anywhere else for that matter too.
That’s not to say that social networks can’t be incredibly useful, they just aren’t imperatives.
Of course, it can be wise to invest time into building a presence at any social network where your target audience hangs out — or at the very least to be passively available on these networks if that’s where readers wish to connect with you. But I want to remove some of the pressure from the equation as some authors spread themselves far to thin, or berate themselves for not “maximizing the opportunities for exposure on LinkedIn” or whatever’s trending this week.
I think authors should take the opposite approach, in fact.
Instead of asking what you can do for Twitter, ask what Twitter can do for you. Rather than wondering how much time you should invest in Instagram, question whether your readers are truly active there, and if putting more effort into that specific venue is the smartest way to grow that audience further.
For example, newer writers often ask questions like “Should I have a blog?” when it’s completely the wrong way to approach this.
A better way for them to frame that question might be “Will I be actively using content marketing as part of my strategy to reach and retain readers?” And even when the answer is in the affirmative, usually something like Facebook or email (in particular) is a better tool to achieve those goals.
That’s not to say blogs don’t have uses of course, he says on his blog. I’m obviously a huge fan of blogging. I enjoy it and it helps me achieve my particular goals. Just keep in mind that my needs aren’t necessarily your needs. Or in any way typical either. *gnaws pterodactyl drumstick*
What Is The Best Use Of Your Time?
Let’s say you have a basic website and newsletter sign-up in place, and are focusing primarily on producing new books, what should you do with any time left over?
There are often periods in the day (evening for me) when you aren’t physically tired per se but you might be creatively zapped after several hours in the word-mines. This can be a good time to catch up with some platform building tasks; there are always a few things I can do which don’t require as much brainpower or headspace as writing fiction.
So, assuming you have the must-haves set up, and your priorities straight, where should you spend your remaining time?
Once you have removed the pressure from your platform to be (primarily) a sales-boosting gizmo, and instead approach it as something you are going to use to deepen relationships with readers (whether that’s current readers or potential ones), that clears some of the mental fog surrounding this issue.
I was speaking this morning with an author who doesn’t see the point of being active on Instagram as she doesn’t think her Ideal Reader uses it. And you know what? That’s an excellent reason to skip Instagram. But, as I said to her, if she wrote PNR or NA or Contemporary Romance, it might be different.
You can approach most social channels the same way, whether that’s Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Twitter. Are your readers active there? Is it somewhere you can reach them? If so, is it worth, at the very least, being passively present so they can connect with you?
Being passively there doesn’t take very much effort, and will give you a sense of whether it’s worth devoting more time to actively building up a real presence there. It will also give you a sense of whether that’s something you would actually enjoy doing — a rather important part of the equation.
One particular channel is different though.
The World of Facebook
The biggest social media network on the planet has had a torrid time in the press over the last couple of years, leading to many high-profile departures and calls for boycotts. However, key metrics don’t seem that affected: Facebook still had 2.32 billion monthly active users as of the latest figures I saw (31 December 2018). This was an increase on the previous quarter, in case anyone thinks it’s trending downwards.
Even more telling: 1.15 billion of those users log in daily; again this figure is up 9% year-on-year. In other words, it’s not just where your readers might be, it’s where everyone’s readers are every single day. The only real exception might be among the younger demographic, and those related genres mentioned above. You can reach that segment via alternatives like Instagram, and the following mostly applies.
Back to Facebook.
I think the same winning principles for email are relevant to social media too — the likes of Facebook is a wonderful tool for deepening relationships with existing readers and enticing potential readers to check out your work. And the great thing is you achieve both goals in the same way: by regularly sharing content that your target audience enjoys. That content acts both as a magnet for new readers and sticky-paper for existing ones.
Just don’t fall into the trap of sharing content that is enjoyed by a general audience. It’s easy to post cat videos and dank memes, and hoover up the resulting likes and shares. But that will attract (and retain) a generalist audience. You don’t want that. You need a niche audience — one specifically interested in your niche. This means sharing content that only that audience will enjoy. And if that repels everyone else, then that’s a good thing.
You need to divest yourself of the old broadcast model of promotion, of highway billboards and radio announcements and TV ad spots… and number-chasing. That model doesn’t work on social media and it won’t work for you. It’s easy to fall for the Million Follower Fallacy.
Instead, think of yourself more like a laser beam; spread yourself too thin and you’ll lose all power. You need to be focused.
The very first step with Facebook is to have an enticing page that people will actually want to Like. Here’s my guide: How To Make A Pretty Facebook Page
There is a lot more you can do with Facebook, of course, even aside from the giant topic of advertising. If you want more on using Facebook as a content marketing channel and building up a tightly focused group of Likes that are exclusively interested in your niche, read this email I sent to my list last year: Content Marketing With Facebook
By the way, that email is part of an ongoing series on Facebook that I’m doing with my newsletter. Sign up here if you don’t want to miss the rest (you’ll also get access to previous episodes!).
Author Platform Takeaways
As a writer, you need tools to reach readers, of course, but you must work hard to retain them also. Book advertising is by far the most effective tool for reaching new eyeballs en masse. And email is easily the best at retention.
However, social channels can be very effective at the latter and pretty helpful with the former as well, particularly those social networks with viable advertising options like Facebook, as you will get all sorts of symbiotic benefits. For example, Facebook Ads generate spillover Likes, and growing your Likes makes advertising on Facebook easier and more effective.
A basic author platform, when pared back to the author essentials, only really needs to consist of a website and a mailing list, and you should consider the latter a vehicle for deepening relationships with readers, rather than viewing it primarily as a sales tool. (And it will be much more effective at generating sales if you take this approach.)
I’d also strongly recommend throwing at least one social channel into the mix — and Facebook is the obvious candidate, given both its ubiquity and also its power as an advertising channel, although there are alternatives.
Most important of all: don’t do anything if it makes you miserable. Any antipathy (or inauthenticity, for that matter) will shine through. If you’re not enjoying it, there’s no point. Or in the words of the great Swedish philosopher Roxette, listen to your heart.