What it is, why it matters, & how to build your own.
I remember when I first learned what an author platform really was – and its extraordinary power to deliver readers, sales and publicity.
I was writing non-fiction for HarperCollins at the time (I’m quite proud of this book), and I shared an editor with the mighty Ben Goldacre.
If you haven’t come across Goldacre’s work, he’s the guy behind Bad Science and Bad Pharma – essentially a scientist’s quest to expose poor quality science across the globe. He’s a campaigner for truth and loves nothing better than exposing fraudulent ‘scientific’ claims for what they are.
He was early into the blogging arena, and quickly built up a substantial worldwide following. That following was big rather than huge, but it was passionate. These were people who cared about the same things as Goldacre, and loved the fact that he was making a noise about them. (The blog is here, by the way. The design now looks rather elderly.)
Goldacre didn’t use HarperCollins as a marketing operation. He used it as a fulfilment one.
To paraphrase my (somewhat stunned) editor, Goldacre effectively walked in and said, “Here’s the manuscript. I’ve arranged these online promotional activities. I’ve got this many science editors from the major international newspapers agreeing to review it. I’ve got endorsements from all these famous people. Now can you please get this thing printed up and into bookshops.”
Now, OK, I’m sure it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but you get the point.
HarperCollins provided the sales network, but it was Ben Goldacre who actually brought the readers
Half a million books sold . A further best-selling book to follow. A hyper-successful career as public speaker and campaigner.
And more than any of that? He changed the world. The British government recognised the truth in much of what Goldacre was saying, and used him to reshape the way they fund and support science.
You want to know what an author platform is?
It’s that. It’s what Goldacre did.
It’s owning your audience.
Or, if you want a more formal definition, then author platform can be defined as the ability to deliver readers, through having direct and effective channels of communication with them.
And please note, the issue here – the thing that this definition makes central – is your ability to deliver readers. It’s not how many Twitter followers you have, or how many likes you’ve acquired on Facebook.
The fact is, the scale of your platform is measured in terms of the number of people who, when you say “Buy!” will go right ahead and buy your book.
Platform vs Authority
While we’re still on definitions, it’s also worth distinguishing between your author platform and your authority. Authority is about how much kudos and respect you have acquired in your niche. It’s a measure of your knowledge.
Platform is about your communication potency. It’s about your ability to reach – and influence – readers in your niche.
So, in the popular science space, a Harvard Professor of Physics might have super-high authority, but zero platform. Equally, the host of a TV science show might have great platform but relatively low authority.
Both routes can generate sales.
Ben Goldacre had a huge platform . . . and he sold a lot of books.
Daniel Kahneman had no platform to speak of, but he did have a Nobel Prize – so, when he wrote his Thinking, Fast and Slow, people wanted to read it, and it too became a global bestseller.
Authority and platform at the same time? Not many people can bring that. Jordan Peterson – psychology professor and YouTube sensation – can. This guy outscores him in both dimensions, though.)
If author platform equals your ability to deliver readers, then it’s sort of obvious why it matters.
But depending on what type of author you are, the specific issues vary a little.
Tradtionally published non-fiction
If you are a non-fiction author seeking traditional publication, then most literary agents will demand to see evidence of either:
Indeed, it can sometimes seem that if you can’t provide evidence of excellence on one of those two issues, then you simply won’t be able to sell your book.
Luckily (for most of us), that’s just not true.
When I sold my This Little Britain – a book of popular history about Britain’s role in the world – I had no platform at all. Nor did I have any authority: I didn’t even study the subject at college..
But what the heck? I had a great concept. I loved my subject. I could write well. I could make people laugh.
My agent and I laid three sample chapters in front of a bunch of publishers, and we had a blow-out book auction that netted a two book £175,000 ($250,000) book deal.
That wasn’t thanks to my platform, or my authority, just plain good writing.
The fact is, quality sells.
Traditionally Published Fiction
When it comes to fiction, there will, of course, be some authors who bring a platform with them: oftentimes, celebs wanting to cash in by writing a book that relates in some way to their celebrity. For example, a political reporter writing a political thriller, or a reality star ‘writing’ romance. (The inverted commas are needed there because those books are often ghostwritten. If you’re a reality TV star, why would you actually need to write anything? You can get staff for that.)
But the vast majority of times, debut authors will bring exactly nothing by way of platform. Yes, maybe a couple of thousand Twitter followers. Yes, maybe a blog – ‘My Writing Journey’, that kind of thing. But those things won’t impress publishers. (What would be impressive? Well, I think you’d need to look at monthly blog traffic in excess of 100,000 visitors. Twitter followers in the several hundred thousand.)
So for ordinary writers, the short message is: just don’t worry.
If you have a huge following – great; publishers will like that.
If you have no great following – doesn’t matter; publishers weren’t expecting one anyway.
If you just don’t like and don’t get on with social media – don’t worry; publishers will just find other ways to promote your work.
That said, there is a caveat here and it’s a very important one. It actually has the potential to alter and enlarge your entire career.
How come? Well, just consider the following question for a moment:
How do self-published authors sell their work?
After all, indie authors don’t have the ability of Big 5 houses to get your book into bookstores across the land. They can’t get newspaper reviews. In fact, most of the options open to Big 5 publishers are closed to indies.
Yet these guys now sell more adult fiction than all the Big 5 houses combined. So something’s going on there . . . and that secret sauce is something that absolutely any author should be interested in concocting for themselves.
More on that subject coming right up.
How to build your author platform
How indies do it – and how you can do it too.
When self-publishing first became serious business, back in about 2010 or thereabouts, the new breed of indie authors had to figure out how they were going to crack this exciting new market.
Pretty quickly, it became clear how not to market your book. Failed approaches include:
Yelling about your book on Twitter
Yelling about your book on Facebook
Blogging a lot
Guest blogging a lot
Taking out full page ads in the New York Times
Hiring a trad publicist for $5-10,000+ to do all the things that a trad publicist does
Arranging book signings
Arranging book tours & multiple signings
Hand-selling your book, bookstore by bookstore, across the country
Hiring a zeppelin to criss-cross Manhattan, while a troupe of performing monkeys scamper along below handing flyers to passers-by
Now, in truth, I’m not absolutely certain that the last of these methods doesn’t sell books, because I’m not sure it’s been tried. (The zeppelin gambit has probably already been used a few times by now. But zeppelin and monkeys? That’s cutting edge.)
Instead, the indie community has come to cluster around a few techniques which do, absolutely, 100% guaranteed sell books. (If done right, and if the books are good enough, and so on.) Those techniques are:
Distributing free or very low cost books
Emails, sent direct from author to reader
Featured deals on Bookbub and similar. (more here, if you’re interested.)
Advertising on various online platforms (notably Facebook, AMS and Bookbub).
These techniques only partially work for trad-published authors.
On the free/deeply discounted book idea: just try running that past your editor. Her laughter may be loud and demented enough to crack glassware.
On the featured deals on Bookbub : well, yes, trad publishers do make more use of those than they have in the past. But they don’t always use them well, and, in any event, you’ll only enjoy those once a year or so, and the benefits won’t flow mostly to you.
On the advertising: yeah, right. Publishers do extremely little online advertising, and it won’t be worth your while to do any at all, because you can’t make ads work if someone else is collecting most of the revenue generated.
Which leaves emails.
Which sounds sad.
And kinda hopeless.
Except that email marketing is one of the most potent tools ever invented and you have it in your power to do it exceptionally well.
A well-built, carefully curated email list is, in fact, one of the most potent author platforms it is possible to build. And you can build it. And I’ll show you how.
How email marketing works for authors
Here, in a nutshell, is how email marketing works:
You sell an ebook.
In the back of the ebook, you say to your readers, “Hey, I’ve written a great story. Would you like a copy of it for free?”
They say yes, because they love your writing, so they click through to a page which collects an email address (with all appropriate consents, of course)
You email them the story (a process which can be easily automated), so they’re happy
But you have their email address and that reader’s permission to email them
When you have your next book out, you email that reader, saying, “Here’s my book, and here’s where you can buy it.”
That reader is happier than a Trump with a Cheeseburger, because – remember? – that reader loves your work, is thrilled to hear from you, and would love nothing better than buy your latest release.
This is permission marketing at its purest. You’re not marketing to people who resent being marketed to. You’re marketing to people who love your stuff! Who get genuinely excited when an email from you plops into their inbox! Who actually contact you asking you to write faster, because they’re impatient to read your next release.
And email marketing is a lot, lot better than you think
Because, let’s say you work hard to create a mailing list of 10,000 names. And let’s say 3,000 of those buy a book when you ask them to. (The other 7,000 were maybe busy. Or never got your email. Or thought, “yep, I must buy that at some point in the future.” Or lost all their powers of taste and judgement and decided against reading your books.)
But still. You want to amplify your sales, not just sell to a smallish subset of the people you sold to last time.
Luckily, there is a very fine solution to that conundrum, and that solution has a name:
Amazon’s bestseller rankings are highly susceptible to short-term movements in sales. Which means those 3,000 sales can blast your title right up the search rankings, so it starts popping up in the search results of readers who have never heard of you or your book before.
Sure, most of those casual browsers won’t buy your book, but enough will. And before too long, you are making a heap of sales to brand new readers, who’ll read your book, and love it, and see that invitation in the back of your book (the one about getting a free story), and they’ll think, yeah, sounds good, and they’ll go get that ebook, and add their names to your mailing list, and the next time you launch a book, you’ll have even more firepower than you did before.
Get it right, and this type of author platform can be:
Easy to build (but you have to get the details right; this game is all about detail)
Cheap to build (there are few significant costs involved)
Versatile (it works for almost any type of author)
Durable (those readers will stick with you)
Self-sustaining (each new launch will bring new readers to your email list)
And best of all, this kind of marketing can be:
I self-publish my Fiona Griffiths books in the US and Canada only. (I’ve been trad published elsewhere.) I built my email list using the techniques described here. I do minimal amounts of paid advertising. I do very little of anything else either. (No book signings, no zeppelins, no monkeys.)
But last year I earned $100,000 from sales of my work in the US and Canada. If I wrote faster (or spent less time moonlighting for Jericho Writers), I’d earn a fair bit more.
That’s the power of email marketing. That’s an author platform that delivers readers, time after time after time.
Indeed, if I could only one bit of advice to about-to-be debut novelists, then it’s this:
Build your email list!
It’s the single most effective thing you can do to sell books. It’s the single thing that is most likely to future-proof your career.
You will be called upon to do countless other things in your career – those book signings, those festival appearances, and all the rest of it – but only two things matter. Writing books, and building your list.
How email marketing works for authors
OK. This post has gone on way too long – but at the same time, if you are serious about building your platform, then constructing a really good email list should be your first duty outside actually writing the damn book.
In fact, your priorities are, in order:
Write the damn book,
Collect email addresses,
Eat, drink and be merry.
Truly, nothing else matters as much as this.
How do you accomplish step #2 above? And accomplish it as fast as possible, as cheaply as possible, and without making yourself scream in frustration at any tech stuff?
Well, I said it’s about getting the detail right, and it is.
We’ve put a really detailed post together on how to self-publish. You can find that post here. If you are heading for trad publishing, then the material on actually preparing your manuscript for publication is irrelevant to you. But the material on email lists and websites and best-practice e-book construction does matter to you. Ignore the fact that the post references self-pub, and just home in on anything that relates to the collection and use of email lists.
Honestly? That information is just about the most helpful material we have anywhere on this website.
But it’s hard doing things from a blog post alone.
Which is why we developed a complete set of video courses on – well, everything.
You want to know how to set up your email marketing platform? We have a course on that. (And a filmed two hour tutorial with a heap of slides. And a ton of other supporting material.)
You want to know how to get published? We have a course on that. (Tons of tutorials, loads of PDF downloads, every topic expertly covered.)
You want to know how to improve your writing? Yep, we’ve got a course on that. (A very good one, with a bazillion stunned testimonials from writers just like you.)
You want a brilliant database of literary agents with super-easy search tools? Yep, we built one, just for Jericho members. It’s the slickest, most comprehensive tool of its kind in the world.
You want to pitch your work live online to literary agents? Yep, we got you covered. Each month, we stick a camera in front of some agents, we give them some work submitted by Jericho members and see what they say. Then fire questions at them. And you get to watch . . . if you decide to become a member.
You want tons of other stuff too? For free, within one low cost, cancel-any-time membership plan? OK, sure. We’ll do that too.
We built Jericho Writers as a club for writers like you. Our aim is to deliver THE best tools and resources in the world at an insanely attractive price. There are no lock-ins, and you can cancel yoru subscription at any time.
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)