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Penny C. Sansevieri Headshot

Why Having a Platform May be the Only Way to Sell Books

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Some years back, the industry starting tossing out the word "platform" like confetti during Mardi Gras. Everyone was using the phrase and it quickly became the word du jour. Publishers wanted authors with platform. Books by authors with a platform were easier to sell to their market and therefore, easier to promote. Problem was, everyone was using it (platform( and no one was defining it. During the first twelve months that word really hit everyone's radar I got endless questions from authors about what a platform was. No one really understood it or why they needed it.

Truth was, five or ten years ago a platform was only good if you were a high-profile non-fiction author. Fiction authors relied on their genre, their readers, and hopefully, their reviews. But having a platform was also a tricky thing because what it consisted of varied from genre to genre and was also often left to a publisher's discretion. None of it was terribly objective. Publishers, who were particularly keen on an author platform, would often select books to publish based on certain criteria but that criteria, and what their "must haves" were when it came to an author platform, were undefined and ever-changing.
Cycle forward now seven years or so. Everything has changed. Publishers are no longer gatekeepers of publishing and hence, no longer the main entity to define a platform. Now, however, other challenges emerge.

Not only do we live in a world where anyone can publish but we also live in a world where even if you can't write a book (or don't have time) you can hire someone to write it for you - and voila: suddenly you're a published author. There is an inherent problem with this model which is this: in order to gain any kind of attention for your book, you're going to have to have a platform.

I see this on author calls all the time. I often get authors who come to me with books they've written or had ghosted and they have zero momentum online. Meaning little or no blogging, very little in social media, and in some cases, no website. Now, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with writing a book, having one ghost-written, or publishing a book if you're a platform virgin. But you must realize that not having a platform will present you as a newbie, to a certain degree, even if you've been in your market for dozens of years.

For fiction authors it's the same thing. The fiction market often relies on reviews either from professional reviewers or from readers. With the flood of books hitting the market that's become a tougher road. But if you have fans built up (yes, fans are considered a platform) and you're active on your website and in some form of social media, you're years ahead of most authors hitting the market.

So, let's break this down for you. What does it really take to build a platform? Surprisingly, not much. We often want to make a task harder than it needs to be. Truth is, 80% of the authors I either meet at events, speak to over the phone, or write me personally are just lost when it comes to this area. So lost in fact that most of them just do nothing. Feel like you belong to this crowd? You're in good company. Lack of understanding often brings inaction or, in some cases, the wrong action.

What is a platform, really? To break this down, a platform is not who you know but who knows you. When you think of it this way you'll understand that a platform is really a series of actions that get you in front of your reader. To use another analogy they are the legs of the table you stand on that raises you above the crowd. What will your "legs" be? But wait. If you run ads are they considered "legs"? Well, no. While I can't comment on the effectiveness of ads for your particular market, I do know that consumers don't favor them. They do, however, favor organic activities. What's organic? It's when a reader finds your content naturally. When it's not pushed on them in the form of an ad. Organic could be a blog post you wrote, your social media, guest blogging you've done, etc. Consider these:

Social Media: Of course I was going to start here because it's the easiest and simplest way to reach your reader. Well, ok, maybe for some it's not. Social media requires work but most authors misunderstand what I mean by "work." It doesn't mean you need to work every social media platform out there. It means you need to find the one (or several) that you feel best serve your market and use them consistently. By consistently I mean daily. Post one thing, engage and move on. If you can spend hours noodling with social media that's great, but if you can't, do a few really effective things and move on. Being productive and busy aren't the same things. If you spend two hours on Facebook cycling through your friend feeds without posting or commenting (maybe you hit Like) you've just wasted two valuable hours of marketing time. Social media doesn't always require the kind of time you think. More isn't better, it's just more.

Blogging: Here's another, often misunderstood marketing tool. Blogging is (or it can be) the single best way to grow your platform. Why? Because it's your voice and your expertise on your site. Do you need to blog daily? If you can, that's great. If you can't, that's fine, too. Blog twice a week. The problem I see with people trying to throw a lot of content out there just for the sake of pushing content is that most of it is garbage. Have you noticed this recent trend? Lots of people writing lots of stuff, but much of it isn't worth your time. Don't be one of those people. When it comes to blogging, less can be more. If you're writing something that's incredibly helpful, insightful, or engaging but you feel you can only do that twice a week, that's fine. Frankly, I'd rather see one thing that totally inspires me, rather than 10 things that don't. For fiction authors, don't cop out on this, either. You can write in character if you want, give away snippets of your book, discuss some unique ways to do book research or talk about the publishing industry because so many of your readers may be writers, too.

Goodreads/Library Thing: It's becoming more apparent that the way to find readers is to go to where they are. These two sites have millions of readers and in an upcoming piece I'm going to write about how to work these platforms to your advantage. Though know this, much like social media you should be on there daily if you can be, or a few times a week if that's not possible.

Speaking/events: We all know that bookstores are shrinking and so is event space, but if you want to do speaking it's a fantastic way to draw in an audience. If you aren't on the speaking circuit and don't know places where you can do events or talks consider some unique sites. I've written a lot about author events in non-bookstore venues such as Hallmark or card stores, restaurants, kitchen or cooking stores, grocery stores or markets, gyms, gift shops, etc. If you have a book that ties into one of these areas, or perhaps one I didn't mention consider going after them for an event. Likely they've never done a book event in their store so you'll have to educate them. Offer to bring your own books (selling on consignment often works well in these venues) and if doing a talk isn't in the cards because of store traffic, consider just getting a table and signing books. But, in either case, bring your mailing list sign-up sheet and encourage folks to give you their email address. Offer them something as an incentive to sign up. I never, ever, ever do a single signing or speaking event without bringing a sign-up sheet and giving folks something for free to encourage getting an email.

Website/mailing list: Everyone who writes a book needs a website. Period, end of story. If you think your book will sell well without one, you are mistaken. And look, I know that when you publish it seems that everywhere you turn someone has got their hand out for money. Yes, if you hire good people to do great work for you it will cost you money. But that's really the ticket: hire good people to do great work. Your website doesn't have to be this mega-fantastic site but it should be well-designed (read: please don't design your own site, create your own book cover or cut your own hair. I've done all three and it wasn't pretty). You should have a mailing list sign-up. I know you may have a million reasons why you don't want one but I'll give you one major reason why you should: Platform. When you capture emails you are making your website work for you. It not only becomes your 24/7 sales tool but your re-marketing tool. Our newsletter (which we've had for years) has become one of our #1 ways to market. We get in front of our reader every two weeks with helpful, insightful information and they remember us. How will you get your reader to remember you?

Blockbuster world: I've written pretty extensively on why I feel we need bookstores and why I don't want them to close but the biggest reason I think bookstores are important is that we don't want to live in a blockbuster-only world. Imagine what it would be like if the only bookstores were in Wal-Mart, Target and airports. What would that mean for your book? Well, likely it would mean that if you weren't a blockbuster, your book would never be on any of these shelves. You may argue that even with stores your book isn't on any shelves. That's true for a lot of us, and even with Barnes & Noble and a lot of independents it's hard to find a home for your book on a bookstore shelf. This is why platform is even more crucial. Consumers are driven by big names and those big names are driven by their platform, in some cases their readers. Consider the success of certain books from unknown authors that were entirely reader-driven. Welcome to the new world of the blockbuster. Reader engagement is crucial - now more than ever you must engage with your reader. You can do that via your blog, on social media sites, in places like Library Thing and Goodreads and via speaking events and your mailing list. Readers are gold, they are your platform.

Now it's very likely that you read through this piece and thought, "my reader isn't in any of these places." I'd be surprised if that was true but if you are sitting in a very niche market or have devised other ways to get in front of your reader and grow your platform, then good for you (and please share these in the comments section of this article)

The point is that developing your platform is a fancy way of saying: "Get in front of your reader as often as you can." Figure out how to reach your individual reader, and you've now figured out how to build your platform. In an age where everyone can publish (and it would seem that everyone is) the thing that will define you and separate your message from the noise will be your platform. Without it, yours may be the best book that no one has ever read.