Do literary agents really care about your author platform?
You don’t have to trawl the net long to discover articles recommending that authors work hard to build up their online and social media presence as part of the whole get-an-agent, get-a-book-deal campaign.
And, no question, it never hurts to have a reasonable web presence. That kind of thing will never count against you, but how much work should you really put in?
First, though, a definitional issue – two different concepts which are often confused.
Authority is anything which answers the question, “Can you demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about?”
Authority is most obviously relevant in non-fiction. If you were writing a popular science book, for example, you would probably need to be (a) an established academic with obvious authority gained from traditional academic sources, (b) a science/technology journalist, or (c) something quite like either (a) or (b).
But the issue applies to fiction too. So, for example, if you are writing a fictional account of the war in Afghanistan, it would be fantastically helpful if you had served there, or been an embedded journalist, or something of that kind. You don’t need that kind of experience, but it would certainly add to your attractiveness.
Example of an author with authority: the classic example is Stephen Hawking – a near-Nobel prize-winning author of massive intellectual kudos and authority. But does he Tweet? Of course he doesn’t. And no one cares.
Platform has to do with the size and quality of your online footprint. That footprint might be via a website or blog, or through social media, or through leadership of some organisation with obvious reach. And whereas authority is to do with status, platform is, in the end, to do with numbers: how many blog followers do you have? how many people follow you on Twitter? that kind of thing.
You don’t need to figure prominently on every kind of platform to have heft. You might, for example, have a huge Twitter following without having any particular website to which you regularly upload content. Of the literary agents on this site, for example, Juliet Mushens is notable for the size of her @mushenska following – and she’s earned that following without being (say) a senior agent at a massive and well-known agency.
Example of an author with a strong platform: Ben Goldacre is a doctor, so claims reasonable – but not exceptional – authority. But his online and media presence is massive (and long predated his successful books.)
Ben blogs, he tweets, he has a print and broadcast media presence. His publisher once told us that most authors came in saying “what can you do to market my book?” He used to come in saying, more or less, “This is what I’ve arranged to market my book [there followed a long explanation of what was already sorted, then], Please make sure my book is available in every bookshop, and I’ll take care of it from there.”
If you are writing fiction
If you’re writing fiction, authority simply isn’t usually relevant. It can be (a war reporter writing about the war in Afghanistan; a historian writing about medieval Venice), but those things are certainly the exception. no publisher would expect an author to come armed with those things.
(Which doesn’t mean you can ignore your research, of course. A horrible factual error is still horrible, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. A failure to get key facts right will always undermine you.)
Likewise, it’s relatively uncommon for platform to make much difference in fiction. Twitter followers don’t usually translate easily into readers. Divide your follower count by 100 to get an optimistic view of your possible extra sales. It would probably be more realistic to divide by 1000. Twitter is a tool for chat and engagement. It is not an obviously successful method of driving sales, particularly if your Twitter stream hasn’t been built on a particular interest in the product you’re trying to sell.
The same probably goes for blogs. The Jericho Writers’ website notches up monthly traffic of about 80,000 visits. When I bring a book out, I do mention it on the blog, but I certainly don’t get as many as 800 sales. I would think those 80 extra sales were probably more accurate. Given that a few tens of sales are essentially meaningless to all but the most micro-publisher, you would need extraordinary traffic to make a real difference.
And then too there are some happy situations where a novel and an online presence simply mesh in a way that produces happy sales results. For example, would Tim O’Rourke’s novels have done as well as they did, if he hadn’t been indefatigable on Facebook and Twitter? We doubt it. But then again, his teenage audience demanded that kind of engagement in a way that your (let’s say) serious work of historical fiction simply wouldn’t call for. All that said, there are always exceptions. For one thing, anyone with a strong print or broadcast media presence will derive a strong benefit from it. Would Rachel Johnson have sold some not-terribly-amazing novels if she didn’t have a long print record and weren’t the sister of a famous brother? Well, maybe, but not for much money and they wouldn’t have sold half as well as they did.
If you are writing non-fiction
If you’re writing non-fiction, then literary agents will care a lot about both things: authority and platform. You don’t have to come armed with both, but most titles will need either:
Reasonable authority and excellent platform: Ben Goldacre’s books would be a prime example of this approach.
Superb authority and modest platform: I mentioned Stephen Hawking, but another fine example would be Daniel Kahnemann and his Thinking, Fast and Slow. Google that book title and you won’t get a single author generated page on screen: no Twitter feed, no website, no blog. But who cares? The guy has a Nobel Prize, some awesome ideas and he writes beautifully. Twitter, Schmitter.
(Oh, there’s one more combination worth mentioning. You could try combining superb authority and a superb platform: that would also definitely be fine. These Freaks are a good example of how well that could work.)
If you have neither platform nor authority, that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker: you just need to find alternate approaches to your subject. My own This Little Britain was a work of popular British history, yet I could offer no authority and no relevant platform. My solution: to write the book in a funny, popular and accessible-t0-all way. The brightness of the execution meant that publishers overlooked the things they would normally demand in a history book.
What this means for you
If you are a Nobel Prize winner, who writes beautifully, has a million Twitter followers and your own cable TV channel, then really none of this applies to you. Someone is going to buy your book, and you deserve it.
If you are writing non-fiction and have reasonable authority and/or platform, then make sure your book is very well written and offers a new angle on whatever you’re writing about. You’ll do fine too.
But 90-something % of the readers of this post will be (a) writing fiction and (b) worried that they have a meagre social media presence. If you’ve digested anything in this post, you’ll have worked out that you don’t need to worry. Zero online presence just doesn’t matter – at least if the book is good enough.
But if you do have the start of an online profile – that’s still a plus. It doesn’t mean much to publishers in terms of sales, but it does mean a lot in terms of your attitude, willingness and commitment. So if you’ve been energetic in publicising your self-pub work, for example, you should definitely tell an agent about it in your query letter. This kind of thing would go down very well:
“My first book was a self-published work of largely local interest, but I arranged book signings in 12 stores locally and sold over 300 copies in doing so. I have spoken at a number of literary festivals, have done a couple of interviews on local radio, have built my own website (mywebsite.com), and am currently growing my Twitter following (which currently stands at 2000 followers). I would expect to be highly active in assisting a publisher’s marketing campaign.”
That kind of thing works well, because you’re not boasting about your (relatively modest) sales, but you are demonstrating that you are active, engaged and entrepreneurial.