Book Festival Experts Offer Advice on Building Author Platform

virginia festival of the bookSo, once you’ve published a book, platform building and marketing strategies are the next things to tackle on the to-do list. At the Virginia Festival of the Book, this past March 23rd, several authors and experts discussed the best ways to build platform and market books.

First up, we’ll discuss platform building. Platform is more or less all the things that make up your author persona. It includes everything from social media to your work to your general reputation in the author world. Platform building is one of the strongest parts of your marketing strategy, but it’s also the most difficult, the experts said.

“Your platform is part of your job as a writer,” said Bethanne Patrick, author of An Uncommon History of Common Things who built a large following (186k) tweeting as @thebookmaven. “Many of us would rather be writing and researching. But it is not optional. It is something that has to be done.”

Many authors are especially wary of social media, viewing it as a huge time-suck. So, when you’re too busy, what thing do you give up? Gigi Amateau had a humorous response: “The thing you stop doing is the laundry. You go to Target and buy about six weeks of underpants,” she joked.

Amateau, author of numerous children’s books, then offered some serious advice. “Author platform is the inverted pyramid,” she said. “The biggest part of the platform is the books. It is where I’m the most authentic, vulnerable, and risk-taking. That’s the biggest part of my platform. The second priority for me is engaging with my community in person. The third little piece is where I would put online. I think there are ways, even as introverts, that you can fall in love with that.”

Jane Friedman, former Writers Digest publisher who now teaches digital publishing at the University of Virginia, agreed. “Platform grows out of your body of work. That’s where it all starts and ends,” Friedman said. “The hope is it grows organically out of that. This isn’t like drawing a line from point A to point B. There is a lot of serendipity involved. The most important thing is consistency and seeing your efforts pay off. You’re not going to go home tonight and nail your platform and then not have to do it any more.”

Denise Kiernan, author of the nonfiction book Girls of the Atomic City, expressed similar sentiments. “People are a little too anxious to look for a magic bullet, like if I get 500,000 Twitter followers it will be OK,” Kiernan said.

Most panelists agreed authors shouldn’t try to force social media, saying doing so would make it appear, well, forced. “Just be sure its something you like to do,” Kiernan said. “Some people like Facebook better than Twitter. Some people like to go on blog tours and write for them because they like that network. Experiment and go with what you enjoy most.”

Keeping that in mind, Friedman said that platform builds over time as authors put out more work. “An author’s long-term career is rarely tied to a single publisher or a single book. Your platform or career should outlast that one single book or deal.”

One audience member posed the question of whether an author should focus on trying to appeal to the broader market or go deep into a narrow pool of readers. “Coming from a publisher who was a niche publisher, I have seen the power of going deep,” Friedman said. “Assuming you are going to be going back to that audience, the rewards grow with each passing book. It is easier to start narrow and then broaden your reach. The are things you can do to cast a wider net, but I would go after the true fans first.”

Another thing authors should do — and sadly, it has to be said — is be nice. “No whining, no jealousy or anything that is just bad personhood,” said Sharyn Rosenblum, a vice president at William Morrow who spent many years as an in-house publicist. “Have a positive attitude and don’t be cranky.”

Maud Casey, a literary fiction author, agreed. “The lesson here is we’re people. You’re forging relationships with human beings,” she said. “Bad personhood is not a good idea in general, and especially in within the publishing community. Be kind, be curious.”

Part II will look at some specific marketing strategies recommended. [Meanwhile, if you want to start building your own author platform, check out our article Setting up Your Empire.]

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

25 thoughts on “Book Festival Experts Offer Advice on Building Author Platform”

  1. Great post, RJ. I like that the panel agreed authors shouldn’t “force” social media. So many articles about building a platform really emphasize blogging, blog tours, etc., but if that’s not a natural fit for the author it just looks forced (and is not very likely to work).

    1. Thanks, Melinda. Trying to force it will not reap rewards un social media. You can’t fake connections. What I haven’t fugures out is what happens when what you like best us ineffective. I like Facebook, but the company has basically made author pages invisible, so your fans are unlikely to see you or interact.

      1. As someone who hates Facebook, I’m probably biased here but I’d say stick to those areas you like…. AND CAN CONTROL, such as your own blog/website etc. I find making connections is much easier on my blog because the people who comment are people interested in some form of writing, hopefully a bit of mine. But the writing shouldn’t be all ‘me, my book, me’. My goal with my blog is to communicate about all the things I’m passionate about – including music, politics, other people’s books I’ve loved etc.

        I figure in about 10 years time I should have a nice little niche for myself. 🙂

  2. Thank you. So it’s keep writing and publishing, be nice and do what you enjoy most out there. Good to know. I was feeling too stretched and have backed off on a few things.

    Can’t wait for part two.

    1. You got it, Yvonne. It’s a straightforward plan, and it’s supposed to work when you keep at it. I think the hardest part is the waiting. They keep saying it doesn’t happen overnight, but I think as people, we like to see results, and it’s hard to keep at something and see results that aren’t commiserate with your efforts. But maybe social media is like learning to read. My son’s teacher said you do all these things with students to teach them and they still don’t get it and you can feel like you’re failing, but you stay positive and keep doing it and then one day it happens. It all clicks and there’s an “explosion of reading.” So hopefully there will be an explosion of platform (in a good way).

  3. Sometimes I think that’s just what we need: permission to lay off the things we’re worried we need to do but really don’t want to or have the time to do.

    Before my husband took the bar, he took a course on how to take the bar. One of the most valuable things he learned in the course was what not to study. The course makers had analyzed the previous bar questions and determined what stuff you had to no cold and what stuff you could just skip. The instructor told them prisoners and students have no rights and not to waste any time studying those parts of the law for the purposes of the bar.

    When you have permission to let go, you can focus on the things that matter most.

  4. Excellent post, and a good reminder that none of us–not even the “overnight successes”–do it all in one fell swoop. I see it as constant building, from the books to the forums to the blogs to the tweets and stumbles. It all moves me/us forward. Thanks, RJ; this is a very thoughtful and realistic response to all the get rich quick scams.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. And good point about the get rich quick scams. There are so many out there that an author can start to feel like they’re doing it wrong if they don’t publish a book and have thousands of followers and downloads in a few weeks. Slow and steady wins the race.

  5. Good stuff, RJ, thanks. Going deep into a niche, and then broadening out from there, is more or less what I’ve been trying to do.

    I’m with you on Facebook, btw. I prefer that to Twitter, but it’s frustrating that my posts go to so few people.

  6. Awesome suggestions. I enjoy working on my platform but in the end, it’s the writing that I enjoy the most. There are several ways to semi-automate social media. I say semi-automate because you want to engage when possible. I just added a new social media outlet to my growing list and it’s yielding great feedback. There’s more out there than Facebook and Twitter! :o)

    1. Good points about the semi-automation. Using social media schedulers (like Hootesuite) can help a person have a presence without sucking them away from their writing several times. But, you do need to chime in live and respond at some point.

  7. Forgive me, but I just hate seeing people treat Jane Friedman as a publishing expert. The fact she teaches it a college is absurd. Two years ago she had never published any of her work at all. She was a magazine editor she had a huge platform without every writing or publishing any books at all.
    After years of fighting against SP and pimping the worst of the vanity mills for WD, the put her high school poems on SmashWords and two weeks later kicked off her first $90 expert webinar on how to publish.
    So when she gives advice on going deep into your published books, evaluate it as coming from somebody who DOESN”T HAVE a body of published work, and hasn’t even put books up on KDP and CreateSpace. Her seminar on how to self-publish was basically, “How to choose a predatory vanity mill from among WD advertisers.”
    I can’t see a single reason any actual writer should pay ANY attention to her advice on publishing.

    1. Wow, Linton, you have some strong opinions there. Jane used to be publisher of Writers Digest and comes from that background, rather than an author background. So, you’re welcome to take or leave what she said based on your evaluation of her experience. She was not the only speaker there, so others who came from an author background offered practical tips.

      I felt Jane had some really insightful things to say about the publishing landscape. When writing, you always cut some stuff, and one thing she pointed out that did not appear in the article was that people’s idea that if they get traditionally published they’ll get the benefit of the publisher’s marketing expertise isn’t really well thought out. Publishers have never and still, to a large extent, don’t market to readers. They market to bookstores, librarians, Amazon, other distributors who all interact with their end customer. But, if you look at their marketing schemes (trying to get Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly reviews that only book buyers at big stores and libraries read), they’re all geared toward selling to their resellers.

      1. You kind of miss my point. Being in charge at WD is a negative thing, from writers’ viewpoint. And is not the kind of work experience that has anything to do with books. She was a very major foe of self-publishing up until the time she saw how she could soak writers by pitching it.
        Again, where did she suddenly become a book publishing expert? Publishes one Smashwords book of poems then does a webinar on publishing… which touted WD-advertising vanity mills?
        I don’t want to argue about it though, and I wasn’t really addressing you, just warning those who read this to watch out for taking her seriously as a source of advice. She got a big name and talks nice, but everything she says is second hand, frequently paid for, and not to be trusted.

        1. BTW, what she is saying about trad publishers there is a very sudden 180 turn from what she said at WD, where they kiss up to the publishing industry. As soon as she figured she could get out of there and trade on her name (which came courtesy of WD–not a platform she had to build, and she seems to know nothing about platform building) she switcheroo’ed on it and what she says about now is mostly cribbed from long-time SP writers like Joe Konrath.

  8. Like everyone else, I really enjoyed this post, RJ! The bottom line in all this marketing hoo haa seems to be that it takes time, and none of us are super-human enough to be consistent with things we hate, even if they’re ‘good for us’. No way in the wide world could I eat brussell sprouts without gagging, so why should I do the kinds of social media that have the same effect on me!

    1. Thanks, AC. I love the brussels sprouts analogy. And I do hate brussels sprouts (as an semi-related aside, I’ve never actually met a person who likes brussels sprouts–or at least who admitted they liked them). 🙂

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