About Platforms

By John Gilstrap

In my experience, nothing triggers a panic response in an author more quickly or profoundly than the mention of building a platform. According to the social media hive mind, if a writer hopes to sell his or her first book, they must first have a strong social media platform. How, exactly, does that work, you might ask. How does one build a fan base for a product that does not yet exist?
For years, I dismissed this notion as foolishness. You write the book, you sell the book, and then you flog the book to get your name out there. It’s all common sense.
Except it’s not. I reached out to my editor at Kensington Publishing, as well as to my agent, and they both confirmed with a sigh that an evaluation of a writer’s social media platform does, indeed, play into the decision buy the rights to their work. On the positive side, both assured me that the absence of a strong platform does not work against a writer, but rather, the presence of a strong platform works strongly in a writer’s favor. So, all ties go to the strong platform.
So, this got me to thinking. What is a platform, exactly? And since it’s important to have, how is one constructed? Surely, it’s more than posting desperate pleas on Twitter and Facebook. As far as I’m concerned, people to bombard me with requests to buy, buy, buy(!) are blacklisted from my bookshelf.
I have no idea if what follows is true, but it makes sense to me. I think that people think too hard when it comes to all things platform based.
A platform is not a group that will be guaranteed to go out and buy your book. In fact, the harder you push for a direct sale, the more harm you do to your cause.
A platform is merely a group of people who are interested in YOU. Members of your church, fellow Rotarians, and book club buddies are all a part of your platform. Your poker buddies. The other workers who share your shift. At its center, building a new platform is synonymous with keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances. In the early days, it’s discomfiting to ask for email addresses, and permission to send them an occasional newsletter–too many flashbacks to the days when your college roommate got that insurance sales job right out of school. Mary Kay and Amway, too. You’ve got to get over that. True friends will understand what you’re trying to do.
So, this book is not yet done. What do you send to these people on your list? Progress updates. Here’s a little secret that’s not a secret at all: Almost everyone has dreams that they have not pursued for one reason or another. For good or ill, they will live vicariously through your journey. A blessed few will share your updates with friends who will share it with even more.
As you move farther down the publishing path, you’ll attend conferences in your genre, and there you will make contact with agents, editors and fellow writers who will expand your platform even wider. They may never buy one of your books, but you’ll have made connections. Even if they don’t read your genre, maybe their friend or their mother does. 
One thought about conferences. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: When attending, try to resist the comfort of hanging with fellow rookies. Join in with the group you aspire to belong to. This is a business meeting, after all, and successful people have more help to offer than those who have not yet achieved their goals.
You’ve got to have a writer’s website. If nothing else, use it as a long-lasting repository for all those newsletters you’ve written. Make your website interesting, helpful. Mine isn’t fancy, but I think it’s entertaining. Everyone who visits it is given an opportunity to join my mailing list and to subscribe to my YouTube channel–and, of course, to buy my books. Personally, I don’t believe in a lot of flash on a website. I want mine to be informative. I don’t add to it as often as I should, but there’s still a lot there.
With your website in place, develop business cards. The point of business cards is less to advertise yourself than it is to receive the other person’s card in trade. When that happens, you ask, “Do you mind if I add you to my mailing list?” Ninety-nine percent will grant permission, and now you’re golden.
Change your email signature block. Every single email I send–irrespective of topic or recipient–closes with links to my website, YouTube channel and newsletter list.
I personally have been steadily moving away from Facebook and Twitter. Twitter in particular is a cesspool of negativity and anger. To a lesser extent, Facebook is the same way, but my timeline is a way to stay in touch with friends around the world. I’ve moved most of my most active Facebook participation over to my author page, where I talk almost exclusively about books and writing–the business side of my life.
Now here’s the caution: According to the various analytics, my outreach efforts reach hundreds of thousands of people every year–far more than the number of books I sell. In fact, when all is said and done, I have no evidence that any of this effort has sold a single book.
So, TKZers, what do you think? Is this what platform building is truly all about, or have I missed something/everything? I’m really curious to hear y’all’s input.
By way of shameless self-promotion, I’ve added a new video to my channel:
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

23 thoughts on “About Platforms

  1. When my first short story was accepted for publication, the publisher said, “You need a blog and a web page.” So I created them. They’ve evolved over time (thank goodness), but when I hear of an author (or anyone) I’d like to know more about, searching for a website is the first thing I do, and the first place I look. If the first hit is to an Amazon page, I keep scrolling until I get to the website.
    Like you, I use Facebook almost exclusively via my author page. My profile posts are only seen by my filtered lists of family and close friends.
    Does social media sell books? Probably not. But it does get your name in front of people, which the marketing gurus says is important. One of those “touches.”
    And yes, my email signature line links to my newsletter signup page. You own those names. Facebook owns your followers.

    • I grew up in the era of the manual typewriter and film strip projectors. When you saw the A/V cart in the classroom with the movie projector on it, you knew it was going to be a good day. (By the way, why were teachers incapable of making sure there was a loop in the film before it passed through the gate?)

      I remember wondering aloud why on earth anyone would need a personal computer. Then, why on earth would anyone need a website?

      I never was an early-adopter. Nowadays, a website is, I think, the most important element of any business’s marketing plan. If a company–or an author–doesn’t have one, I consider them to be illegitimate.

      • I remembered the loop! Although I liked turning over the responsibility to the kids from A/V (especially since where I was teaching, we didn’t have our own projectors.)

  2. You read my mind, John.
    As a fiction author who has done all that you suggested above (except for the business cards), I frequently wonder if my blog is drifting like an untethered astronaut – doomed to die alone and in silence.
    Faith is a huge part of platform it seems. Faith and hard work.

    Faith that we aren’t doing all this needlessly and hard work to prove to ourselves that we really do want this dream.

    • My first editor told me, “John, exactly three things push books onto the bestseller list. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

  3. Your view of platform will be guided by where you want your books to end up.

    If your dream is to be traditionally published, then yes, you have to put up at least the appearance of a platform to have a shot at landing an agent and a publisher. This is much more important in the non-fiction world (where “platform” really originated). A publisher wants to see a built-in audience they know they can target. But about fifteen years ago they started floating platform as a “requirement” for fiction writers, which to me seemed like a needless burden. I mean, you have no following and you start a blog…which requires a LOT of content…about what? And who is going to read it? Meanwhile, all this writing energy is being sucked out of the aspiring scribe, who should be concentrating on his fiction.

    It’s really about appearance to the trad world. Does this author look like someone who can potentially, and significantly, market their work? (Because **unpsoken** they’re not going to get any marketing money from us…)

    Those who go indie (the right way, that is, as a business, not just toss-it-out-there-and-see-if-anything-sticks) will have a different view of platform. For them, it is about owning a list. Everything will be focused on building a readership, not just through novels but short form as well, and retaining those readers through an email list…and, just as important, knowing how to nurture said list in an age of “newsletter fatigue.”

    In either case, by far the most important thing is being able to write a book people love and want to talk about…and doing it again and again and again. Platform and pizzazz cannot save crummy writing.

      • I do use Twitter, but I’ve never seen it as a great seller of books. I try to post good, fun content and every now and then post about a book. I use a 90/10 rules in that regard.

    • As a late-budding writer firing short stories on all cylinders and trying to write a book that will get picked up, I look at all the social media platforms as gigantic time suckers. Big hungry leeches that keep me from the real work (and pleasure) of getting something on the page that makes me feel good, a story that roars. Blogs make me yawn, frankly. I use FB and the bird to keep friends and contacts all over the place informed, but that’s it. The blandness (or, worse, the rant index) of most posts is appalling. And knowing that people have platforms “because they have to” or “because it’s good for them” makes these as attractive as grandma’s spoonful of cod liver oil. I’ll resist as long as I possibly can!

  4. Mr. Gilstrap, what a timely post. As a relatively new published author, the word “platform” is synonymous with someone yelling “Fire!”. I run like the dickens.

    I once heard it said that platform is to an author as stage is to an actor. Ya gotta have something to stand on to share your craft.

    I’ve ceased thinking about it like I have to bring hammer and nails to build it. My platform, I think-correct me if I’ve missed the boat-is, as you say, connections I make with other people. My platform has to be about the other guy…no one wants to be a fan of someone who doesn’t care about them. So, whatever I post on SM or in an email has to be about “them”…encouraging, asking questions, uplifting, concern…not “selling”. Marketing happens organically if I genuinely care about readers, fans, and friends. But I do have to approach it with a plan.

    This year is going to be about finishing two novels. But, in the cracks around the edges of doing that, I plan to spruce up my website (maybe move it to WP), write more emails, blogs, micro-blogs, and guest post on some other authors’ sites. And learn, learn, learn.

    I try to remind myself that I’m only here for a bit longer, and that the human thing is much more important than selling another book. (One more would be nice, though…) 🙂

    • I think yours sounds like the most sane approach, especially with regard to social media. I can’t stand it when people constantly beat their buy-my-book drum. I don’t think you can construct a platform quickly. Your friends/fans/followers have to do a lot of the work for you.

  5. You guys have been a great resource for me, so I’m going to share a secret. A platform-building secret. Are you ready?

    One word: Quora.

    As in quora.com. It’s the Q&A platform that’s become quite popular. It allows you to ask interesting questions and—more importantly—answer (and comment on) interesting questions with knowledge and a bit of brilliance. And, importantly, you exhibit your credentials every time you answer a question in your well-researched field/genre. And also in your profile. All with links to your books, website, etc.

    Example: My last novel was a Time Travel Fiction that centered on Neanderthals. Obviously, I had to do a lot of research about Homo neanderthalensis. So I started answering questions about Neanderthals with the weight of my research behind me. And providing links to my sources. And also happening to mention that I was writing a book about it. And eventually providing links to said book(s).

    Did all of that sharing help sell my (Indie) books? I have no idea. But I do know that my latest Time Travel Fiction novel is in the Top 100 in all three of its subcategories on Amazon (Top 50 actually) and my daily sales dashboard has no broken teeth.

    Plus, I just enjoy sharing my hard-earned knowledge about my subject matter with others who are interested. That, alone, is its own reward.

    • Thanks for that, Harald. I get a Quora digest every morning about topics that interest me, but I’ve never considered posting on it. It does seem to be pretty well-mannered.

      • Yep. Certain areas can get a bit crazy (e.g., evolution vs. creationism), but in general, Quora is pretty well-behaved.

        And yes, the key is to create your list of Topics you’re interested in (Kidnapping, Suspense, Police Procedures, etc.), and Quora will feed related questions to you for answering.

  6. How-to articles on writing don’t sell books unless you write craft books or offer online teaching courses. Even then, newbie writers tend to be cheap and won’t buy them. I will continue to write about writing because I am a teacher down to my soul, but I’m under no illusion it will sell any books or even get a click-through to my books.

    Successful self-pubs rarely have domain name websites. Instead, they spread themselves across various media platforms starting with Facebook. Free books, usually the first in a series, require that readers sign up for a newsletter. Promotions tend to be through group-created events that are promoted via newsletters.

  7. OK, I make websites. And I also send out email blasts. Your platform should include a website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and probably YouTube. The good news is there are tools that will allow you to post to multiple sites with a single click so your locked at home, what is a good read? question will appear everywhere and you only need to type it once.

    Your website should be what is called responsive. That is no matter what size my screen is, you look good. Design for mobile first. Google started preferring mobile sites to standard screens about two years ago. Stay away from Wix and other free sites. You want your site to sell your books, not their service. The same goes for WordPress. For about $30 a year you can be mybook.com not mybook.wordpress.com.

    I like MailChimp for news letters. They have tools for uploading mailing lists as well sign up lists. You can look like a million bucks for an hour of writing. You also get back great reports. Who knew you were big in Austin, TX? Mail Chimp does.

    My children would slap me if I didn’t say this. Facebook is for “old people”. That is over 35. If you are looking for a YA audience, you want to be on tictoc and instagram.

    • Clarification on your “stay away from WordPress.” I’m thinking you mean the .com, and not the .org. Is that correct? I use WordPress for my site, but I own my domain.

  8. I am a reader not a writer, but here are some things that have made me want to read and buy a new author’s book.

    * The author has a book review site where they talk about their personal opinions on other authors’ books.
    * The author joins five or six other authors to form a blog. Each author takes a day to post about anything. It’s even better when half of the authors are well-established authors. They will automatically bring in a fan base.
    * Established authors do video interviews/chats with new authors. The new author’s name gets on the radar of the established author’s fan base.

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