How Much of a “Platform” does a Writer Need?

Completely unnecessary? No, an author’s platform is useful. (More on that at the end.) But I think the writing community has been fed a lot of lies. See if this story sounds familiar.

The Rotten Agent

I’ll never forget the first time I met with an agent, because I was nervous. I don’t really get nervous, so it’s easy to remember the times when it happens.

I sat down across from him, an agent with an IMDB page and an entourage of lackeys. He shoved food into his mouth and gestured for me to start, even though he was reading a newspaper. Undanted, I launched into my exciting pitch, hoping to talk louder than his chewing. Also, my leg shook and my voice trembled, which were all new experiences for me. So, I thought, this is what being nervous feels like. I don’t care for it.

It was really obvious this guy wasn’t paying attention. Finally, I stopped jabbering and said, “What do you think?” He wiped his mouth, leaned forward, and growled, “Tell me about your platform.” That last word he snarled while staring me down, like he knew my answer would disappoint him.

This was the only question I wasn’t prepared for, so I staggered, but only for a second. I told him my social media stats, which happened to match any average mid-list, traditionally published author. Not too shabby for an unpublished writer, but he didn’t care. He said, “I might know someone who would be interested,” and waved me away, already in a conversation with someone else. (Naturally, I never heard from him again.)

I stomped back to my hotel room and threw my conference swag against the window. My platform?

You’re Not Supposed to Have a Platform Yet!

Who’s your favorite unpublished author? I’m guessing it’s “no one,” because…unpublished writers don’t have fan clubs. They’re not famous. That’s how it works.

Mind you, it’s different in non-fiction. A neurosurgeon who cures a president by removing a Jesus-tumor shaped isn’t going to have any trouble selling books.

But it doesn’t work that way for fiction writers. Looking back on my terrible meeting with that agent, I can see that he was the person out of touch with the industry, not me. (I don’t want to sound too bitter, but there’s a reason that guy hasn’t sold a book in a long time.)

A Platform Won’t Sell Books, Anyway.

I have 5,000 Twitter followers, and while a few of them bought my book, it wasn’t enough to justify how long it took to build that following. Some well-placed ads could have generated more sales.

And while there are some writers out there with impressive social media numbers, they got those fans after selling books. That agent who dismissed me years ago was trying to put the cart before the horse. Good books can lead to a respectable following, but it can’t work the other way around.

The Reclusive Writer

After making the rounds at conferences and following countless writers on social media, I was shocked to discover one of the most currently popular fantasy books (Senlin Ascends) was written by a guy I’d never heard of. His name, Josiah Bancroft, didn’t ring a bell.

So I checked him out online. This didn’t take long, because he’s barely online at all. He interacts with fans on Goodreads, but that’s nearly the extent of his platform.

And he writes really slow, putting out a new book every few years. (I’ve heard people say that indie writers have to publish six or seven novels. Another lie. Write at your own pace.) This guy is breaking every rule we’ve been told to follow, and somehow he’s outselling his peers.

Now consider Brian D. Meeks. In his book about mastering Amazon ads, he recalls the time he released a sequel and forgot to tell anyone. His mailing list and social media contacts were completely unaware, but his launch still went great. (He doesn’t recommend this approach, by the way.)

Meeks is also outselling his peers, and while he’s developed a following, he didn’t start out by building a platform. He started by selling books. (It didn’t hurt that he was already a wizard with marketing. Check out his book, Indies, it’s very useful.) It wasn’t about the platform; it was about the writing.

Building a Platform isn’t a Complete Waste of Time

I just released The Lost Legends, my first publication, and across several social media platforms I sold a handful of books. (My worst nightmare was that no one would buy it, so having a small platform keeps that from happening.) And milking some reviews out of the readers made my book look even better. Also, it has an incredible cover. (Seriously. Look at it.)

So, platforms are useful.

But building a career is about the books. The indie authors making a living have slowly built a devoted following, one book at a time, and those books are the platform that matters most.

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