THE BLOG
09/30/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Your Author Platform Is Not Your Social Media Following

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I've spent the past five or six years not only educating authors about how to build an author platform, but about how to position themselves in such a way that the platform they already have truly shines.

So this week, when I received multiple emails and links asking what I thought about an article on Creative Nonfiction called "Platforms Are 'Overrated,'" my response was that I was bummed out about it because the author, in equating platform to social media, is so incredibly limited in her scope and understanding of what a platform actually is, and she's promoting a defeatist attitude around the importance of building one.

Back in May I wrote a post called "Author Platform: Here's What All the Fuss Is About," in which I broke down the components of a platform like this:

social media: 10 percent
previous media: percent
previous books: percent
personality: percent
existing readership: percent
contacts: 10 percent
expertise: 25 percent
ability to execute: 15 percent

As you can see, I allotted only 10 percent to social media. The author of the Creative Nonfiction article is not alone in her misunderstanding about what makes a platform. But book industry professionals are not clueless. They don't believe that a book can be made or broken on social media alone. I'm sure there are a few exceptions, like the book Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern, which exists because the author had an extraordinary Twitter following. But this is not the norm, and it's a total impulse-buy book. Novels and memoirs and serious nonfiction will never get book deals based on an author's brilliant Twitter feed, I assure you.

I'm not sure where the idea got seeded that author platform equals social media, but it's time to dislodge that from your head if you believe it to be true. Social media alone is pretty ineffective at moving people to action. What moves people to action is content, and touching them again and again with really good content -- and not ONLY on your social media feeds.

I gave expertise such a high percentage of the pie because your expertise dictates your content. Personality is in there because your personality shines through in your writing. Your blog is part of your expertise, but also part of your existing readership. If it's popular great, but blogs also DO NOT make or break book deals. They're kind of like icing on the cake, or if you have a hugely impressive blog then that can carry a lot of weight. What's infinitely more valuable than how many followers you have on social media is how many people are in your database, and believe me, publishers know this, and they want that data. After all, those are your true followers, people who have actually given you their email addresses to hear from you. A big vote of confidence.

In my May article on platform, I wrote about how certain parts of your platform can tip the balance for you, and this is true. I wrote about two authors I've worked with who got huge advances, who had zero social media presence when they got their book deals. They got their deals solely based on other parts of the platform equation. I still come into contact with authors all the time who are getting book deals regardless of what I would call their very modest platforms.

One thing the author of the Creative Nonfiction piece and I agree on is that you continuing to write is paramount. I've written extensively about the fact that publishing a book is part of building a platform. Many authors today are in need of finding alternative publishing options (self, hybrid, etc.) because the barriers to entry to traditional publishing are so high. For authors struggling to break through, a first book is a calling card, and if it does well it will open doors to those of you who dream to publish traditionally in the future.

My two cents here is this. If you want to traditionally publish, platform is not at all "overrated" because it matters to the publishing industry -- to marketing and sales folks especially. To say it's bullshit is to take an entitled attitude. (Read this article by Steve Almond if you want a better understanding of what I mean by this.) And it's not about how many followers you have. Platform is about how many people you can reach and how authentic your connection with those people is. There are innumerable vehicles for reaching people (teaching, speaking, performing, interviews, multimedia, articles, guest posts -- and yes, social media and blogging too).

But how you get your message to people will vary, and the publishing industry is very savvy to this point. What you need to focus on is engaging your readership and audience in conversation. When you have a message people care about, and you present it consistently and well, people get hooked. They listen and they come back for more. This, my friends, is the simplest definition of "platform" there is. Be the voice your readers care to listen to and you will succeed.