How to Build a Successful Author Platform
Sally Collings is a dedicated book proposal writer, as well as former non-fiction publisher for HarperCollins. Her clients are represented at a number of agencies, including Park & Fine Literary & Media, Talcott Notch Literary, and Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, and published with top houses such as HarperBusiness, St. Martin’s Press, Simon & Schuster, and Chronicle Books.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. To work with Sally on your book, head to her Reedsy profile.
I originally am from Australia, worked in publishing there, worked in publishing in London. There I worked for a book packaging company, so one of my main jobs was to write book proposals. We would pitch them to publishers like St. Martin’s Press, Simon & Schuster. Back in the day when Barnes and Noble had their own publishing imprint, we would produce books for them as well. So we would pitch the books and then we'd produce them. Then after that, I worked for HarperCollins as an acquisitions editor. So I was on the other side of the desk acquiring from proposals. So I've written them, I've bought them, I've critiqued them and now I pretty much write them fulltime.
A lot of people do not like writing book proposals but I love them. I love the combination of creativity and the commercial aspect. So today we are going to be focusing on nonfiction. But I think in this day and age, every author can benefit from what we call platform. So let's plunge in.
What is author platform?
So let's kick off with author platform. There are so many definitions floating around. I've pulled up three that for me make some sense. And what I would recommend for you is just to think what resonates with you. Because above all, you need to be excited about your own platform. Excuse me. So theme one, here's a definition.
The platform is everything you're doing online and offline to create awareness about who you are and what you do, boosting your brand visibility, making it easier and faster for your audience and the wider general public to discover and connect with your brand and books.
Now, I like that. That's fairly succinct. I know some people have some sensitivity or don't really connect with the term brand. So let's move on and look at something, another way of looking at platform, from Chuck Sambuchino:
Platform, simply put, is your visibility as an author. Your personal ability to sell books through:
- Who you are
- The personal and professional connections you have
- Any media outlets (including blogs and social networks) that you can utilize to sell books.
So the thing that might stick with some people there is the idea that you need to sell books because a lot of people would say, "Isn't that the job of the publisher?" We'll get to that. So here's a third definition of author platform. I like this one because Jane Friedman is amazing and very, very clued into publishing, and this is succinct.
It's an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.
Simple. So here's how I like to think about it: Platform is the foundation under your book. It's all the people holding you up. It's you collecting people. So let's look at it this way.
The platform is partly a personal thing. It's what you are doing, but it's also how people are getting their eyes on the subject that you're writing about. If you're writing about eating disorders, part of your platform is all of the websites, the community discussion boards, the magazines, the articles that talk about eating disorders. But more pointedly, it's how you are talking about eating disorders. Whether you're commenting on someone's blog posts, writing blog posts yourself, running a podcast, writing articles, talking at your local library or health center. It's all of those things. It's very much to do with people.
Platform is part of your book proposal, of course, but it's also an enduring activity. When you're promoting a book and getting in front of people, it never ends.
When you look at a book proposal, you might see a section in there called "Author Platform," or you might see a part called "Marketing and Publicity" or "Marketing Plan" or "Author Promotion." Those are all different ways of referring to kind of the same concept. It's all of the things that come from the author's side as opposed to the publisher's side.
I write for nonfiction books, their proposals tend to run anywhere between 40 and 80 pages long. They seem to get longer and longer every year as agents expect a little bit more. But you should expect that your platform section should run between two and five pages. I've seen it run 20 pages if people have a whole lot of activity that they want to talk about. I think if you've got that much to say, probably just hit the highlights in five pages. Just say that you have a more detailed plan available on request so that you give enough information that it's clear that you know what you're doing and you're doing it, but not so much that the agent drowns in it. If you only have a page worth to say, I would suggest you need to work up some more author platform activity. That's perhaps the litmus test. If you only have a page, you maybe need to be doing more.
Myths and Misconceptions
So, let us take a look at some of the myths and misconceptions. I've got five just to kick us off here.
Myth #1. If a book is well written, platform doesn't matter.
So think about the millions of books that already exist. I often make the comment that there are too many books in the world, but there's always space for another good one. Your book needs to be find-able amongst all of those millions of books, and that's what your platform helps with. It helps your readers find you. So you might have excellent credentials, which means you have a well-written book. But if no one outside of your immediate academic or professional circle has never heard of you, again, people just can't find you, and they can't connect with you. People need to feel that they are connected with you so that they'll shell out 20 bucks for your book. You probably know yourself. If you read an article about an author, you get engaged with the idea, and you're more inclined to go and buy their book.
For agents and editors, a platform shows that you're already connected with your readers: you know who they are, you know what they're interested in. This isn't theoretical, you know these people.
Myth #2. Your publisher will build your platform
So yes, your publisher will put work into promoting your book. Usually, very short term — just within the month that your book is released. That is unless you hit a best seller, in which case it will be more enduring. Your publisher will also do very specific things, and what they will do depends on the publisher, their size, their scale, their own approach. But you can expect them to do things like:
- Create promotional materials
- Send out advanced reading copies of your book
- Trade advertising
- Placing your book in publishing catalogs
- Blasts through their own social media
- Online advertising
- Specialize promotions
Those are the kinds of areas where your publisher has expertise and will back you up. But as I say, it's short term, and there is a whole other section of author activities that you can and should be doing.
Myth #3. Building a platform is a burden
Now because you're sitting here participating in this webinar, that might be something that you feel. You might feel that this is just hard work. I would really like you to flip that thinking on its head and think about platform. See it differently. See it as your litmus test for your book.
Are you excited to talk about that book? Do you want to be connecting with people and talking about the subject? Or do you feel a little bit cringy? If someone was to introduce you as the author of this book, would that be something you feel proud of and excited by? Do you want to be talking about the subject?
Use the ideas about platform to test these things out.
I recently was working with an author who had a book in the spirituality/self-help space. She said to me, "Look, I don't feel comfortable with walking in a room and saying, I have written a book about Korean philosophy." What I do feel comfortable with is saying, "I've written a book about mindfulness drawing on my Korean heritage." It's a different spin, but it needed to be something that she felt excited to talk about. Same for you.
If you feel like it's a burden, try to flip the thinking on its head.
Myth #4. Authors should concentrate on manuscript before platform
Now, this is something that people often ask me as a question. They say, "Should I be doing my manuscript first or working on my platform first," to which my answer is, "Yes, you should do both." They should. There should be a synergy there, a confluence.
If you have set yourself six months or a year to write your manuscript, maybe you need to stretch that timeline out so that you can be working on your platform at the same time. See it as a way though to hone your voice, to test out ideas, and see what readers and listeners are interested in. See it as complementary to the manuscript, not an extra thing that you have to do.
Myth #4. Platform is all about social media
Well, no, and we'll see this in a moment. The platform has many planks. Social media is one of them. If that is where you hang, spend your time, you feel comfortable, you know you're halfway there. Especially if you're already talking about the topic of your book. That's part of the platform that you've already got happening.
If you hate social media and think it's a time suck, that may not be the place where you need to be spending your time. There are plenty of other places. All I would ask is that you give it serious consideration before discarding the idea of being engaged in social media for your book and for your author platform.
What are agents and editors looking for when we talk about author platform?
They're not looking for just pie in the sky. What they want to know is that you are going to be an energetic partner in the pursuit of getting a book in people's hands. I like to think of the publisher and the author as a partnership. You're both contributing to this common goal of making a book a huge success that many, many people will read. So the secret of a great author platform, certainly in the view of agents and editors, is not that you tick every box on the list of activities. They want to see that you're engaged in a few solid ways of connecting with readers right now. They want to see that you have an idea of ramping that up once your book becomes a reality.
So you need to do that by showing that your ideas are not just pie in the sky. So, for example, you might say, "When I get a publishing contract, I will blog regularly." No, that won't cut it. Agents and editors want to hear that you have a blog: "Here are the numbers, here are how many people subscribe to it, here are how many people engage with it." You need to show that you are going to ramp that up and maybe provide a particular perspective, maybe through competitions, and so forth when your book exists. They're looking for clear ideas, clear future plans.
Statistics and figures are great. So there's a difference between the statistics that are important and valid and the ones that just smell a bit of BS. So it's a little bit like saying that your book will appeal to every woman age between 35 and 50. Well, no, they're not all going to buy it. That may be your demographic, but it's too sweeping.
In terms of platform, if you're writing about diabetes, let's say 16 million adults are living with diabetes (I'm pulling these figures out of the air). That's your demographic. Your platform is that you have 15,000 people who subscribe to your newsletter about diabetes. So those kinds of specific numbers that relate to what you are doing that are provable. If someone asks, "Show me a screenshot of your subscriber list," you can do that. Those are the kinds of figures that agents and editors are looking for.
How much is enough? Do I have to have huge social media numbers to impress agents and editors?
So everyone will see different figures here. Last month I was at the San Francisco Writer's Conference listening to agents talk and presenting some of my own projects there. One of the agents there this year said he wanted to see 50,000 hits a month on an author's website before he would get excited. Another agent told me that she wants to see 10,000 subscribers on an email list and 1,000 followers on Twitter. Hey, but that was in 2017, and that was one agent. Point is everyone will say things, but let's talk specifics.
One of the things to know is that it depends whether you're talking about memoir. That is one end of the spectrum where platform is not quite as important. Your writing expertise is probably the most important thing. On the other end of the spectrum are business books. These require a very large solid, engaged audience. So the numbers are slippery.
How to start building your platform
Focus on now and focus on the future.
So we all need a platform no matter what publishing model you use. Whether you're looking to publish independently or whether you're looking for a traditional publishing deal, you need a platform. So there is no cookie-cutter solution. But I have here a list of 14 channels that are useful to consider in your author platform that you can start to build now if you're not already building them. So it's a list of 14. Do not try and do all of them. If you have three of these well and truly tackled, then you're in a good place. So let's have a look at this list.
Facebook page likes. So if you are on Facebook, if you have a page for your, either your book or for you as an author (I like to keep it separate from my personal page because I'm going to be talking about different things). You don't need to have a completed book to have an author page. You can start to post content that gets followers involved and engaged. You can invite your readers to bring along other readers. You can run contests, you can run polls, you can start discussions. Anything that will get people engaged in your topic.
Online group members. Another useful author platform. More and more authors are using groups instead of Facebook author pages. They feel more interactive. They're a great way to have discussions around a topic. Many people who run courses will include or run a Facebook group as part of the course. And I'm going to talk about online courses in a moment, but that is a great idea. It again helps you to learn more about your readers and what really interests them because they'll tell you.
Instagram followers. So if your target audience is younger, or your subject lends itself to visual treatment, Instagram is where it's at. Almost two-thirds of its users are under 30, and they definitely are very active and sharing what they like there.
Pinterest followers. Similarly, Pinterest is useful if your project is very visual, in particularly lifestyle, travel craft, cooking. Pinterest, I believe, leans very much towards females, and people there are very active again in archiving and sharing the things they like. So make sure you are regularly getting images on Pinterest if that suits your idea or your book.
LinkedIn connections. This is, for me one of the most important places to connect because this is where business people are. So for me, a lot of my work is with consultants, business founders, business executives. So I find LinkedIn is the place to be. It's the community for business professionals. It's expanded so you can write articles, you can post videos. An important thing with all of this social media is that you can very easily cross-promote things. So you can use platforms like Hootsuite to post in multiple channels.
YouTube subscribers and views. YouTube is the second most popular search engine. More than two billion people are using YouTube. Now, a lot of authors will think, "Video is not so much my thing." I've started to use it a lot. I just use small videos to post an idea about the thing I'm talking about, knowing that people gravitate towards video. It gets me comfortable with speaking in front of a screen like I'm doing now and it meets people where they are. So if I create a short video, I'm going to be putting it up on YouTube, I'm going to be putting it to LinkedIn, I'll be posting it to my Facebook author page. So I do one thing and post it to all of those channels, and I just keep track of how many people are looking at. I find that LinkedIn gets the most looks and responses for me, but it may well be different for you depending on your demographic.
Twitter followers. Similarly, if you're a Tweeter (Twitterer?) and if you already do it, use it for your book to start talking about the ideas that are important to you. Now, if you're self-publishing, you're going to be looking for quality. You're going to be looking for Twitter followers, and this is true of most social media, who are engaged, having conversations with you. If you're hoping to get a contract with a traditional publisher, you are looking more to build numbers, which can be a challenge because you may be tempted to look at platform building services. What you want are authentic followers who will be interested in your ideas. Bots tend not to be enduring followers who engage with you. And there are actually some tools like Twitter Audit that will help you filter out the bots and auto-followers that you're accumulating along the way.
Email lists and email subscribers. So how many email addresses do you have? A regular email newsletter is a great way to keep your topic in front of the people that you're connected with. We all have a lot, too much that appears in our inbox, but if you provide an email newsletter once a week, once a month, that's on point, short, pithy, interesting, that's a way to engage with people. There are tools like MailChimp that will help you to set up a newsletter quickly and easily. So this is a great way to get your ideas in front of people.
Make it useful, so it's not always just promoting. That's true of all of your platform activity that although you may be doing it because you want to build a platform, get a book deal, and sell books, people want to know that you're authentic and you're interested in engaging in these ideas. If you are a prolific writer and you know you're going to do it regularly, blogs are great. If you're going to be sporadic about it, consider deeply whether it's really the right thing to do. I personally don't blog. I do like to guest blog. I like to be a guest occasionally and get in front of other people's audiences because it's a way of cross-fertilizing and just talking to people that aren't already listening to me.
Online courses. One of my new favorite things. It's straightforward these days to run an online course. There are platforms like Teachable that will enable you to set up the course. It'll look great. You can create video or not if you want, you can do slide shows, and they will also help you with ideas about promoting it. Again, if you run an online course, people subscribe, you could do it free or pay. You are starting to engage with people and just hearing how they respond to the ideas that you have.
Speaking engagements. If you are comfortable with speaking to a live audience, this is something that agents and editors love. Their first thought is back of the room sales, by which they mean selling the book at the engagements.
Agents and editors will be looking for specifics. If you say that you are active on the speaking circuit or anything like that, they will want to know how many speaking engagements you've done in the past year, how many you have booked in for the next year, how many people on average attend each event. They want to know how many people you're talking to in the year. So you need numbers for all of this.
Influential contacts. Who are you? Do you have famous friends? Because they're gold. If you have some people who are influential and they may be big household names, that would be great. Or they may just be influential in the particular sphere that you're working in. If you can, get a testimonial or a promise of a foreword that's great. You might get someone who is well known in your field to write something about you and your book, even though it doesn't exist yet. They can say something like, "Sally Collings is a font of expertise in this particular area. I can't wait for her book to come out." If it's someone that is impressive, agents and editors are going to like that a lot.
Industry leadership. Maybe it is worthwhile to be president of your local chamber of commerce or the state representative for the Woodworkers Guild. This only not only reinforces your expert status, but it also means that you're building loyalty within that community. If you are in a leadership position, those industry groups will support you by putting out the word about your book. They may even buy copies. So all of these things are helpful.
Media interviews. Media coverage is, of course, great. If you can write and place articles either in trade, regional, national, any publications, this is great. The bigger, the better. But remember, you don't have to be the one that writes the article. You can offer yourself as an expert to comment on areas. There is a service called Help a Reporter Out (HARO). That's a great secret weapon for securing media interviews. It's a free subscription service that journalists use when they're looking for experts to talk on a particular, to be interviewed in a specific topic. So that's a way that you can connect with journalists to become the go-to person in your subject area.
So those are 14 channels you can build now. 14 is a lot. If three of those are things that you feel comfortable delving into and engaging in, that's great. And for everything you do that's from that list, break it down into:
- what you're doing now and
- what you can and will develop in the future.
Think about now, think about the future. Talk it out.
Talking it up in your book proposal
So in talking about the platform in your book proposal, lead with your best ideas. Consider other topics:
Blog tours. This is the same as a book tour, but online going around other blogs and appearing as a guest)
Serialization. Are there extracts from your book that could lend themselves to serialization, either in large magazines or specialist magazines?
Podcasts. Do you have one? Should you have one? Can you appear as a guest on a podcast?
Collateral. If you have the skills to create collateral around your book, that's a great idea. So if you are a designer and you can come up with postcards, bookmarks, posters, if you have the skills or the resources to create videos, that's great.
Real examples from book proposals that sold
I'm going to move on to the last section, which is some extracts from some actual proposals that have sold to agents and to publishers. So here are three that I've worked on recently. I've stripped out the identifying details just to preserve my clients' anonymity.
Case 1. Business author
[name] delivered approximately 70 speeches, seminars, webinars, and presentations in the previous year on the topics to be covered in the book.
That's really important because if you currently speak, as another client of mine does, this other client is a jewelry designer. He speaks about jewelry but wanted to write a book about professional development. His audience didn't want to hear him talk about that. They wanted the jewelry. So make sure that your speaking is relevant to the topic in your book. So my business author could promise that he does 70 speeches a year.
xyz.com, the leading site for sales and marketing for services firms, has 107,000 active subscribers. Firm websites – www.[name].com and www.[name].com – receive 25,000 and 24,000 visits per month respectively. [name]’s company e-newsletter reaches just over 58,000. Several sales-focused tip newsletters reach another 16,500 for a total reach of 74,500.
His website has just over a hundred thousand active subscribers. His company has two websites, and they get 25,000 visitors per month, each. He was able to promise that he has a company e-newsletter that reaches just over 58,000 as well as specific tip newsletters. So the total reach there was seventy-four and a half thousand people. So for a business author, he really wants to emphasize those high numbers.
[Company name] authors publish approximately 30 new articles per year. Articles regularly appear in industry publications such as American Management Association’s MWorld Magazine, TrainingIndustry.com, T&D Magazine, and a variety of industry associations.
Within his organization, he has many people contributing articles each year, which is an opportunity to promote the ideas of his book.
Case 2. Natural beauty author.
So this person is all about television and that media-based form of publicity.
[author] is well-positioned to market and publicize his book extensively. He will work closely with his publicist, [name], to aggressively pursue publicity opportunities and fully utilize his many high-profile media contacts.
So the first promise is that he has a publicist to aggressively pursue publicity opportunities. I don't like the word aggressively, but hey, it gets the message across.
[author]’s blog, “[blog name]” [link] has over 15 million page views and is the most read blog by a plastic surgeon in the United States.
(Side note: plastic surgeon and natural beauty, not sure about that. Anyway!)
See [author]’s demo reel and find clips to his many televised appearances on his YouTube Channel: [link]
So if you're providing something like article demonstrations of your platform, make sure you put links in your book proposal.
[author] is connected with all of the following influential people, whom he could ask for a blurb and/or publicity assistance through their various connections:
1. Rachael Ray
2. Dr. Mehmet Oz
3. [etc etc … it’s a long list!]
This author had a collection of influences who he knew or could tap for support. It was a fantastic list. So that was front and center because that's gold.
Case 2. Personal development author
Offer to publisher: I will run a two-day workshop for executives, editors, and marketers so they can capture the essence of our work and benefit from it as a team.
We will launch a website for the book, where we’ll offer free opt-in resources in different formats (written, audio, video), including interviews with people who’ve [applied the teaching], free webinars, and more.
The [author’s company] corporate website is currently being redesigned for improved user experience. We will be ramping up our publishing, creating short video series and written posts twice monthly.
We have an email list of close to 16,000, including people who have expressed interest in [author’s company] as well as people who have taken the [author’s] course, which means we automatically add hundreds of new emails monthly. We will pre-sell the book to our list, offering bonuses, limited-time deals, and more.
This was quite a corporate audience. This author has an exciting promise or offer for the publisher. He would run a two-day workshop for their executive editors and marketing team so they could capture the essence of their work and benefit from it. Interesting. I like it. They promised to launch a website for the book and had some concrete resources and various ideas. My only doubt about this point is that it's a little bit promise-y. It could be pie in the sky.
However, they already have a very active corporate website. They could have made more of that in this section, but they make it clear that they know how to adapt what they're currently doing to accommodate the needs of the book itself. And an email list of close to 16,000. They had some great ideas about pre-selling it, free bonuses, limited-time deals, and so forth.
There's so much to say. I'm going to wrap it up there. Have fun. Because the author's platform needs to be very personal. People can tell if you're having fun with it.
Sally Collings is a dedicated book proposal specialist on Reedsy. To work with her on your next project, visit her profile, and send a request.