No More Platform Anxiety, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?

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23 thoughts on “No More Platform Anxiety, Please

  1. Excellent advice. I want to be Bill Murray. The “business side” of writing can be a challenge, especially when you’re a new author.

    It always comes down to THE BOOK. Traditional publishers have advance sales staff to talk up the book & generate advance sales. They have marketing efforts to support the book. A new author gets a jumpstart, but the success of that launch depends on word of mouth and consistency in the writing. Tried & true.

    Smaller houses rely almost entirely on the author & their cultivated platform & even ask for a marketing plan before they buy. That’s a lazy business strategy on the part of the publisher, if they’re relying solely on a new author. At the end of the day, it should be a collaborative effort to promote the project, with the house utilizing their OWN platform.

    Have a good Sunday, Jim.

    • True enough, Jordan, though the houses have not been very successful in their own platform-building efforts. Recall Book Country, started with all this publicity and fanfare by Penguin. I think it lasted a year. If a publisher wants the author to do most of the marketing, then a new royalty scale should reflect that.

      • EXACTLY. I look at a publisher’s effectiveness on social media. It surprises me how many are inept & don’t use hashtags, for example. They only go through the motion of posting. Crazy.

  2. Maybe it’s my advancing years; maybe it’s laziness; maybe it’s because I no longer suffer from FOMO syndrome. I have my website and a Facebook author page where I’m active, as well as a more-or-less quarterly newsletter. It’s all about understanding that social media is SOCIAL. It’s about engaging people, not selling books. Choose one you enjoy (and preferably where your readers are) and focus on that. I have accounts with Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, but those are secondary, tertiary, and sub-basement.
    As has been said here and elsewhere many times. The best marketing strategy is to Write. The. Next. Book.
    I’m going to a local writers’ conference that focuses on the business side of things this week, hoping to pick up a few more pointers.

  3. Something happened when I had my sixth kid. My give-a-damn busted. Maybe Dean Wesley Smith was a bad influence, too, talking about just writing what you want to write. I’ve gone back to writing the character-heavy genre-benders I always loved, and making art about them. I’m out on Tumblr and Deviantart, showing off artwork and connecting with readers. It works for me because it’s fun. If it’s not fun, I stop.

    • showing off artwork and connecting with readers. It works for me because it’s fun. If it’s not fun, I stop.

      Those are the three most important points for social media, Kessie. 1) content; b) connection; c) fun. Perfect combination. Nicely put.

  4. Thanks for the post, Jim. It’s this subject that has made me decide to indie publish, write what I love, push to get several books out, then put more effort into platform.

    And on the subject of word-of-mouth, there’s a new book on “endings” being released 2/18/2019. Something about the ending making the reader want to read another book by the same author. I think the author is James Scott Bell. Anyway, I have it on preorder. Make that book “resonate” and you’ll get the word of mouth publicity you need.

    Thanks for the post and the links.

  5. Hi Jim,
    I used to have far more platform anxiety than I do now. Way back in early 2012, during my first tentative stab at self-pub, I spent months blogging and working on building up a platform, while neglecting the project I was working on. Big mistake. When I went indie in earnest in late 2015, I focused on the books first. It wasn’t until later in 2016 that I began building a platform–my author newsletter, using instaFreebie and giving away short stories.

    Like many, I have an author Facebook page, but no group yet. Something I’d like to set up, but just haven’t gotten around to yet. My platform is still mostly my newsletter. I enjoy Twitter, but aside from a new release or a Book Bub mention, don’t use it directly to build my platform. Instead, I use it to keep in touch with other authors, and my other love, board gaming.

    I’ve definitely learned that platform building can detract from the most important thing, getting out the next book. I need to get better about putting my next newsletter in advance of when I need to send it out, so working on it doesn’t eat up actual writing time.

    • Dale, your account is right on, and is mirrored by so many other authors I know about. What you’re focusing on now is perfect, IMO.

      I recall a story from the 1990s, before social media. A first-time author spend $35,000 on a fancy website and print ads and whatever else money could buy. Only problem was the book, according to the reviews, wasn’t all that good. So all that moolah went down the drain.

  6. Thanks for this post. It helps put things in perspective for me. Although I post to FB, Twitter, and Instagram, I’m a little uncomfortable since it feels like self-promotion.

    I get more out of emailing my newsletter subscribers. That feels more personal. I recently ran a puzzle contest for my subscribers with an amazon gift card as the prize. I sent out a clue each week until someone solved the puzzle, and I got to know some of them better as they sent in guesses for the solution. I’m not sure that’s going to get me any more followers, but it built up relationships. And it was fun.

    • Building up relationships is the right way to put it, Kay. If you do that, you build trust, and thus a little self-promo is accepted. I use a 90/10 rule…90% content, 10% promo.

  7. Fantastic advice, Jim. I used to put unrealistic pressure on myself to make sure I checked into Facebook and Twitter daily. Now, if I have time to make it to Facebook, great. If I don’t, then I don’t stress about it. I’m lucky to hit Twitter a few times per week. Writing the next book is more important. With my blog, I post on the weeks I don’t post here. So far, that schedule works.

    What are your thoughts on e-zines? Some marketers claim they’re the best way to communicate with your readers, but they seem like they’d take an awful lot of time to write an effective e-zine.

    • Sue, I don’t see much difference between an ezine and a blog or newsletter, except that it seems to be more work. The well-nurtured email list, it seems to me, is by far more effective. People are time squeezed. Short, entertaining newsletters (or, as I prefer, emails) both build relationships and sell books.

      • Could you write a post on how-to write an effective email? Knowing what to say and how to say it makes all the difference.

        In the meantime, I’ll sign up for yours. 🙂

  8. Good post, and it comes at a time for me when I am contemplating severing the Facebook cord, which is my own “social” connection now. I was always resentful of the time it took away from my real life and now, with FB’s amorality exposed, I am even less inclined to stay. Here’s a link to an excellent review of a new book by a guy who was on FB’s ground floor and how he sees “Zuck.” Not pretty. Here’s one nut graph of many trenchant ones:

    “At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself “a platform.” Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/29/books/review/roger-mcnamee-zucked.html

    • My anecdotal evidence suggests many an author is thinking along your lines, Kris. I have a Facebook author page but haven’t done much with it. It’s there. It doesn’t take away from my writing, which is the most important consideration.

  9. What a perfectly timed message. Platform anxiety had become the thief of joy in my not-yet-published writing career. I have been working to change my mindset away from considering it a place to collect numbers. Now when I approach any of the places where I try to be engaged, I remind myself I need to focus on something, not everything. I need to invest in the people and content on that something. And I need to always give more than I take. I am finding that when I keep those things in mind, I come away from “platform time” with a much greater sense of peace and accomplishment. But it does take effort to tune out the voices saying numbers, numbers, numbers. I love the quote from Jane Friedman’s article. Thank you for sharing an encouraging word for the unpublished writers!

  10. I’m late to the conversation, but it’s not closed so… Thank you for this post and comments. I’m a debut novelist working on revisions of my WIP. I have made the most of many resources (including James Scott Bell’s books on Plot and Structure and Writing your Novel from the Middle – I’m also a fan of Donald Maass on emotional craft). I have confidence that my work is developing and have some interest from real life people who know I’m writing. It’s great to hear that the demand to show a platform isn’t necessarily going to stop me in my tracks.

    At the moment I’m considering self-publishing through a hybrid and starting an email list to create interest with people who know what I’m about. I’m glad to know Facebook isn’t the be all and end all. I look forward to reading Sue Colletta’s article referenced above.

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