What is an Author Platform?
That quote is from top literary agent Mark Gottlieb.
In the most basic terms, an author platform is your ability to reach people who may buy your book. This may take the form of social media followers, speaking engagements, or publications in literary magazines. There are many ways to demonstrate that you have an author platform – and just as many ways to build one.
An author platform important is because, if you want to publish traditionally, publishers favor books with built-in audiences. If they know you have 100,000 true fans, it takes a lot of the risk out of giving you that coveted publishing deal.
Fiction and non-fiction writers usually have different platforms – and the emphasis on platform is not equal. We’ll get into that in a moment.
This article comes from a video interview with top literary agent Mark Gottlieb who broke down his advice concerning author platform, social media, and the numbers game in contemporary publishing. Gottlieb’s agency, Trident Media Group, has ranked number one in sales in Publisher’s Marketplace for over 10 years, so he knows a thing or two about making authors and their work sound enticing.
Listen to the Author Platform segment of the interview here.
Reassuringly, Gottlieb mentioned that he’s also had to find ways to depict an author’s platform in a favorable light. He says:If you
“There have been instances where we have constructed a platform with an author in the eyes of a publisher … we say this is the platform that’s being built around this author, this is the community that’s going to come together and support this book, this will be the tide that really lifts the book up.”
Fiction & Non-Fiction, Siblings but Not Twins
The approach to building an author platform for non-fiction and fiction have similarities and differences. In non-fiction, you are speaking on a subject and simply need to be an authority. Non-fiction authors must be prepared to show publishers speaking engagements, relevant credentials, endorsements, contributions to sites, and any previous self-published work and number of copies sold. More on that below.
In fiction, agents and publishers look for awards, readings, participation in writers workshops, endorsements from award winning authors, a credible MFA, and published works in literary magazines. Gottlieb says:
“If fiction were to have a platform it would be a lot of the awards and accolades associated with an author.”
The type of writing you do should match up with the communities and participation you have.
Whether you’re working in fiction or non-fiction, a social media with a large following is an attractive outlook to a publisher, as it represents instant marketing reach. Of an author with a substantial social media following, Gottlieb says, “If just a fraction of those people buy the book we’re in great shape.”
Author Platform Building for Non-Fiction
For non-fiction, your author platform tends to be more important. This is not as true for narrative non-fiction because it relies more heavily on the art of storytelling, but it is true for memoir. Unless your memoir is extraordinarily unique or timely, it’s challenging to pitch it to a publisher without knowing that an audience is already interested in your life story (cue all the celebrity memoirs we see).
As for the other non-fiction writers, there’s no need to despair over your paltry social media following. Gottlieb says, “Platform isn’t everything. Obviously, it needs to be a great idea because non-fiction is idea driven. You need to be an authority on the subject matter.”
However, if you’re prepared to build an author platform or you suspect you might have one you’re not entirely aware of, consider all these elements:
If you've been a speaker at events or you're booked as one, don't forget to mention it. Speaking events, including book readings, can sell a good number of copies.
This is the obvious one. If you have a good following here, you know it. If you don't, try focusing on one or two social media channels. There's no need to cover them all. On the other hand, have you tried Litsy? It's a platform for book related shares specifically.
Endorsements from experts
New York Times bestseller authors help tremendously, but you can get creative. Think about experts in your field such as professors, scientists, psychologists. See Ruby Karp's example below.
Contributor to sites or publications
Talk up your bylines, all those articles you published and forgot about will really count here. This is especially useful if you have an ongoing relationship with the publication and can rely on a future mention of your book. If the site is relatively unknown, but they have an impressive number of daily visitors, mention the statistic along with the name of the site.
If you’ve previously self-published “tens of thousands of copies at a decent price,” it will be meaningful for publishers, says Gottlieb.
Constructing a Non-Fiction Author Platform for a 15 year old
Gottlieb shared the story of how he worked with his author, Ruby Karp, to favorably present her author platform. This was Karp’s first book and she didn’t have a fanbase or a real social media following to show publishers. (She was 15 years old for Pete’s sake!)
However, she had worked with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and had connections to people with a following. Karp got an endorsement from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Poehler’s was eventually added on the cover of her book and said, "This book is filled with juicy young person wisdom."
Karp also wrote for a site called “Hello Giggles”, which she and Gottlieb mentioned as a source of support for her upcoming book. They included other publications that Karp had written for and mentioned her Ted Talk.
According to Gottlieb, the support from the theatre and comedy communities was a huge help in showing publishers what kind of voice and community Ruby could access to help move copies of her book.
Author Platform Building for Fiction
Gottlieb stresses how important the story and the strength of your prose is in fiction. Your author platform doesn’t count quite as much as it does for non-fiction. (Feel free to celebrate with a little prosecco right now.)
Therefore, an author’s platform in fiction is more about the credibility markers that show an agent or publisher that your writing is probably at a high standard. Gottlieb says:
“In the case of fiction, obviously the quality of the writing needs to speak for itself, the nature of the story itself but some of the things that help fiction, if you were to say that fiction had anything of a platform, it would be…”
Awards and accolades
Research awards that exist in your genre or your career stage. There are myriad awards for first books, self-published books, short story collections, you name it. If you can mention that a story or book of yours was a finalist or an award winner, it lends credibility to your work. Don’t hold back on submitting any other books you have to be considered for awards.
If you have a previously published work and you did readings, mention them! If not, work on booking some at your local bookstores. If you’re a first-time writer, make it a habit to visit your local bookstores, to tell them about your upcoming book and to get them to commit to a reading.
Participation at writer's workshops
If you’ve attended workshops, share those. It shows that you’re serious about developing your craft and that you’re likely to have relationships with fellow writers (which may be leveraged one day).
Participation at conferences
List any conferences you’ve attended. It demonstrates that you know about the publishing business, have likely solicited advice from agents, and are well versed in the process of pitching. You’ve also probably listened to author panels so you’ll be prepared if you have the opportunity to speak on one.
Endorsements from award winning authors
This is a tricky one with a low response rate, but it’s not impossible. You simply need to be persistent. Below, we discuss how a first-time author with no connections got blurbs from The Dalai Lama and Seth Godin.
If you have an MFA, you should certainly include it. Once again, this shows a commitment to your writing and it suggests that your craft is highly developed.
Published in prestigious literary magazines
Such a credit signals to an agent or publisher that your literary output stood out to editors of a magazine who see an untold number of submissions. This lends credibility to your work and suggests you’re more likely to get an excerpt published during a future book launch.
High book sales if you've self-published
10’s of thousands of copies will impress publishers, says Gottlieb. Not many self-publishing authors can claim that number. However, it may be worth showing a high number of five-star reviews (for advice on how to get them, click here).
The Power of Endorsements for Fiction & Non-Fiction
Gottlieb believes in the power of endorsements, even at the early stages of pitching a manuscript. I was surprised when our NYBE author, Mark Madonna, reached out to us to request an endorsement from some of our published authors. It was only during my interview with Mark Gottlieb that I discovered he’s Mark Madonna’s agent – and the request for endorsements originally came from him.
Gottlieb explained that publishers take endorsements seriously when a book is being pitched to them, and even further upstream, agents like Gottlieb pay attention to endorsements within query letters.
They help both agents and publishers understand what kind of community you can tap into.
It’s not easy to get an endorsement at the querying or pitching stage. Most of the people who are willing to provide blurbs prefer to do so when there’s a galley copy available.
However, as with Karp’s example, there are clearly exceptions. Gottlieb recommends getting involved with writer’s workshops and conferences so that you can ask fellow writers to “provide a few kind words.”
As was mentioned above, Akshay Nanavati managed to get several jaw-opening blurbs for his book Fearvana from luminaries such as The Dalai Lama, Seth Godin, and Jack Canfield. He didn’t have any connections and it was his first book.
Nanavati emailed personalized videos to his wishlist endorsers explaining why he was reaching out to them specifically and what he hoped to achieve with his book.
The key is to reach out to people outside your network in an authentic way, and persist in your attempts even if you don’t hear anything back from most people. The Dalai Lama does not give out many endorsements, so if Nanavati managed to receive one from him, it shows that if you commit to this strategy, you can make it work.
Don’t think of platform-building as a game or a chore. Through your own efforts building your platform and showcasing your numbers, you have the opportunity to better understand your own work and your audience, which will make you a better prospect to potential publishers and hopefully a better writer.
Before you present an idea to a potential agent or publisher, be ready to show your platform and community who will promote and sell your work.
That noted, if you have a strong idea and/or manuscript ready to go but haven’t fully developed a platform, you may simply want to dive in and go for it. Perhaps test the waters with an agent first. Gottlieb says:
“Sometimes a book just speaks for itself and the platform isn’t entirely necessary. It’s just such a unique strong idea. A book like that can come from anywhere. A platform helps, it’s just not a be-all-end-all.”
Now, let’s turn it over to you. Research shows that making public commitments makes it more likely you’ll carry through on your intentions. Which author platform building strategy are you prepared to focus on first? Let us know in the comments!