The term author platform has recently entered common usage among writers, but there is some confusion surrounding what author platforms actually are. No wonder, as there is a lot of online chatter about author platforms, with each website or voice giving a wholly different definition. These different definitions leave authors in a confused state asking, What really is an author platform? How do I build an author platform? In this article, we’ll break down what author platforms really are, why author platforms are essential for all writers, and how to build an author platform.
What is an author platform?
There are many definitions of author platforms floating around the internet. Some are helpful, but most miss the mark. Definitions typically sound like this: “an author platform can be defined as the ability to deliver readers, through having direct and effective channels of communication with them.” The respected publishing industry commentator Jane Friedman notes an author platform is “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” Likewise, indie-publishing guru David Gaughran defines an author platform as “a writer’s collective presence on the internet.”
While these definitions are all important for reasons I’ll explain below, many of them ultimately fall short and distract writers from the single most important element in an author platform: an independent and meaningful body of creative work.
Or, to put it another way, the most important pieces of an author platform are books.
That’s not to say that “direct and effective channels of communication,” “an ability to sell books,” and “an online presence” are not important. They are very important, especially if you’re seeking to land a traditional publisher and make a career out of your writing.
But writers and authors would be misguided to work on their “direct and effective channels of communication,” their “ability to sell books,” and their “presence on the internet” without having, or at the expense of building, an independent and meaningful body of creative work.
It is perhaps a good idea to think about an author platform as the name suggests: a literal platform upon which an author stands. The bigger the platform is, the more visible the author is in the crowd. But in this example, the platform the author stands on is constructed out of his or her body of creative work. Sure, some can stand on the shoulders of others and make some noise, but the strongest foundations are those comprising independent and meaningful works.
Secondary components to an author platform
Your author platform revolves around your books. It is your creative work, but it is also your professional portrait as a writer, your subject-matter expertise, and your credentials and reputation.
If having “direct and effective channels of communication,” “an ability to sell books,” and “an online presence” means little without a body of creative work, then the inverse is also true: a body of creative work suffers without those things. This is where the other elements of author platform comes in.
Elements of an author platform
While an author platform is primarily about an independent body of creative work, it also involves presence, visibility, and reach. Here are some of the key elements of author platforms:
- An independent and meaningful body of creative work
- Your credentials, qualifications, and subject-matter expertise
- A professional author website
- Internet presence
- Social media presence
- Traditional media presence
- There are other elements of author platforms, but the ones listed above are some of the most foundational.
An independent body of creative work
Without an independent body of creative work, all else is futile. We’ve already discussed why having an independent body of creative work is important, but let’s break down the term a bit.
By a “body of creative work,” I mean any meaningful creative output. As this article deals with author profiles, the most important output is books and anything built using the written word.
By “independent,” I mean a body of work that doesn’t rely on one platform not owned by the author or creator. The reasons the author should not rely on O.P.P. (other people’s platforms) is best illustrated by a story.
Do you remember that social media “influencer/celebrity” who posted a tearful video to YouTube bawling that she’d need to get a “9-to-5 job” after her Instagram page was taken down? This is what I call a creator with “dependent” body of work. Love or loathe “influencers,” she was creating a body of work with her Instagram posts. The problem is that they were living on someone else’s platform. The rug, perhaps a metaphor for a weak platform, can get pulled out from underneath the creator with one flick of a switch or one algorithm change.
Sure, people can get rich on O.P.P. There are gangs of YouTubers and Instagrammers making a
living killing on those platforms. And while the platforms seem stable, all it takes is an algorithm or a policy change, a new feature, a scandal or, say, an antitrust violation claim to see the light.
Depending on one social media platform, one book publisher, one online retail marketplace, etc. — and especially one you don’t control — is exposing yourself and your livelihood to risk. Ownership and diversification are key.
Social media can be helpful in ways we’ll explain below, but just remember that books are the most important element in author platforms.
Presence & social media
You’ve no doubt heard the term “social media platforms” referring to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Friendster, and MySpace. No? Don’t remember the last two? The fact that the last two are no longer with us illustrates the first principle of author platforms: author platforms are not social media profiles.
I won’t say that they have nothing to do with social media, as social media can help amplify your message and extend your reach. As Jane Friedman says, a healthy social media presence could be a sign that you are doing something right. But an author platform should not be necessarily conflated with O.P.P. — other people’s platforms.
Your social media profile isn’t your message. Social media helps people discover you, and it helps you spread your message. It is misguided trying to gain “visibility” on social media with nothing to show.
But presence also includes general internet presence and traditional media coverage. Getting mentioned in a major publication, on a niche website, or writing an article for one helps with presence, visibility, and reach.
A professional author website
But you want to control your presence as much as possible, and that’s why having a professional author website is important. We’ve already written an article about building professional author website, but the foundational elements are:
- Your own domain (YourName.com)
- A professional-looking theme
- An email list
An author website gives you a cockpit from which you steer your author platform. It is wholly under your control, unlike social media platforms.
An email list
An email list is one of the most important elements of your author platform. It helps you collect the email addresses of your super fans. And using something like a “reader magnet,” which is basically something you use to entice visitors to give you their email addresses, your email list can balloon.
Why do you want an email list?
On social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, your posts do not appear on your followers’ timelines in the order that you posted them. The algorithm buries your posts and shows them to people it thinks want to see them. And if users don’t log into their social media accounts in a few days, they will not see what you previously posted unless they visit your profile. Users don’t get alerted when you post, and it is easy for your voice to drown in the noise.
Now imagine that when you announce something like a new book, you send that announcement directly to the email inboxes of all of your followers. If they don’t check their email in a few days, your email is sitting there waiting. That is power.
How to use an email list
Though I think David Gaughran’s definition of author platforms misses the mark, I do like what he says about the reasons for building an email list: to “deepen connections with readers” and not solely to “drive direct sales.”
What he means is that email lists that only shill to subscribers to buy this or buy that, without treating them well, engaging with them without always asking for money, or giving them anything useful or interesting for free, are not effective. How many times have you unsubscribed from an email list that doesn’t give you any value but instead asks you for some?
What is an email list good for then?
An email list is an excellent way to engage your readers, to keep them happy, and to keep you on their minds. If you do that, alerting them you have a new book from time to time won’t be much of a problem.
It amazes me how many authors don’t have a professional author website. And a vast majority of the ones who do don’t have an email list. I know, I know. They’re probably busy writing books. But it is a set-it-and-forget-it component on your website that helps you stay in touch with your audience and build your platform.
If you want to learn more about how to build an email list, check out our author website article.