How does author platform work?

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How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?

The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.

I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.

As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?

In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.

To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.

The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.

Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.

It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps.  What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?

10 thoughts on “How does author platform work?

  1. Thought-provoking blog post, Clare. I sometimes wonder how sensible it is to expect authors to be their own brand when not everyone is suited to the public eye. But we live in a world where celebrity for any reason is a measure of achievement, so I suppose writers have to play the game if they want their work to do well. I have actually gone off one or two writers after hearing them speak and finding them unbearably pompous, so it can backfire too! V jealous that you met Rachel Joyce, she’s one of my favourites at the moment

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anne! I think lots of writers are naturally reserved because writing is introspective, and they struggle with the performance aspect. But social media has turned the most banal daily events into a performance so it’s sink or swim these days. Rachel Joyce was lovely in person, even though I only spoke to her briefly. Loved Harold Fry and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

  2. I’ve noticed that common questions to writers for features are about when and where they write – people always seem to be interested in that question.
    I’ve noticed in my own press coverage that reviews of my books create more of a surge than a feature on my lifestyle though.

    1. Since I wrote my post I saw another publishing guru say that author platform advice is a ‘tsunami of shit’! Ha ha, can’t keep up. I agree that reviews are the most valuable. Radio interviews are probably also good, especially in Ireland. Blogging, I’m not so sure.

  3. I love reading personal essays by authors because the best of them really let you get inside the mind of the genius. Your post really made me think about online presence though. Do you think it’s best to build a following before or after you publish a book?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Skyler. I know some people blog about their writing journey from early in the process of writing a book, and I’ve read and enjoyed some of those blogs, as well as learned from them. In theory people end up feeling curious and suppportive and will buy your book. But I would only go down that road if it comes naturally, not if you have to spend hours crafting posts. If it’s taking too much time from progress on your manuscript it’s not worth it. The answer is also different depending on whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction or expecting to self publishing or find an agent / publishing house. Apparently agents like to see that you are active on social media and have followers (not my favourite term) but unless you are a TV chef or something with millions of followers, I don’t see it as a make-or-break factor.

  4. You said: “As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book.” I feel that way most of the time. But I can think of a few times that interest in the author has spurred my interest in the book. Attending a reading by Jane Fonda sparked my interest in buying her autobiography, a book I would never have bought otherwise. And I enjoyed it. But she’s an actress. She puts on a very good show.

    Reading Amy Tan’s book of essays, The Opposite of Fate added to my interest in her work–although you couldn’t say that a book of essays is part of her platform.

    I’ve read books written by friends and by other bloggers I know, but generally I like to read books recommended by respected reviewers in publications like the NY Times and the Seattle Times. I take the advice of book store owners and some people I know and respect, and I read books by authors whose books I’ve read before. So if everyone was like me, it would be hard for new authors to sell books based on their platforms.

    1. It is quite a blanket statement to say I don’t feel curiosity about the author of a book. Can I take it back? Because really it depends. In your case, for instance, I bought your wonderful book Tiger Tail Soup because of what I’d read about you on your blog, and now that I ‘know’ you, from a distance, I remain curious about your work and life story. The same can be said of several independent authors I’ve got to know online. And whenever I read a memoir, I’m obviously curious about that person. Plus I love to go to author talks to learn something and get a sense of the writer’s personality.

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