A few thoughts about platform
The longer I go in this field, the more convinced I become that nobody has a truly comprehensive picture. Trad pubbers insist that New York is still the only road to brick-and-mortar stores, which lend brick-and-mortar credibility. Yet there are indie writers making several orders of magnitude more money than even the more well-off trad pub midlisters. With indie stars often getting plucked for trad pub eventually anyway — because indie is now the farm system where trad pub looks most closely, for all the hot new horses. Yet, for every indie author who rides a successful indie career to substantial trad pub paychecks, there are ten thousand other indie authors and trad pub authors alike, each dwelling in obscurity.
“Platform!” we all yell in unison, with almost prophetic urgency. Of the many industry buzz words to come and go these past two decades, platform is the one that continues to resonate. Because it’s plainly obvious that authors with sufficient platform, can perform at levels dramatically higher than those with little or no platform.
But do we ever stop to consider: what exactly is platform?
The most common response to the question typically focuses on blogs and article-writing — cough, not unlike this very example you’re reading right now, cough — which generates eyeballs for the author’s effort. And the potential for fiction sales — should the people attached to those eyeballs decide that the blog or article author is interesting enough in a non-fic setting, to risk coin on the author’s skill in a fic setting.
This type of platform is the path of least resistance, as evidenced by the millions of author blogs which now blanket the internet. Early adopters seem to have done best. Though there does come a point of sharply diminishing returns, I think. Because sooner or later, it’s the books and stories which matter most. Not how loudly or proudly an author can hold forth on topics like politics, the fic biz itself, cat pics, or any other subject.
It was this thought I found foremost in my mind while discussing my publisher — Baen Books — with a new, outspoken, and conservatively-minded indie firebrand, who was wondering what it would take to attract Baen’s interest.
“More than just being a partisan,” I told him bluntly. Because that much is true. Baen — being just about the only trad pub label in Science Fiction which isn’t observably anti-conservative — gets fairly mobbed with manuscripts and inquiries from prospective conservative and libertarian authors. I myself would not have earned more than a glance from Baen, had my pedigree in Analog magazine not preceded me. Even the good word of mouth, proffered by friends already being published beneath the Baen banner, would not have counted without those short fiction credits to form a foundation.
In simpler terms, I didn’t have a popular blog to show, but I did have quantifiable proof of audience.
And that is the root of it, my friends. Quantifiable. Proof. Of. Audience.
Which is not a bulletproof magic carpet, mind you. Just ask the trad pub office that shelled out for the Snooki book. Or the poor Dorling Kindersley people responsible for the print run decisions on the infamous Phantom Menace novelization.
Platform is just smoke. It is not (yet) the fire itself.
So . . . what’s the use? If platform cannot be a guarantee, why dig for it? And if not blogs and articles, what else?
My favorite trad pub comic strip artist of all time, is Berkley Breathed, of Bloom County fame. He re-launched that title roughly two years ago, to the delight of all of us who’d signed on with Bloom County during its original 1980s run. Breathed’s skill is as sharp as ever, and it’s a delight to see the man applying his talent to our present social and political climate. More remarkable still, though, is the fact that Breathed is doing his new work in the digital flow of commerce — like a grand old titan of legend, come back to show all the zillions of younger web comics scribblers how it’s done.
Breathed — correctly recognizing his long-established platform, left over from previous comic strip efforts — converted on that potential. His typical daily offering is now guaranteed many thousands of shares, with tens of thousands of likes, on Facebook alone. And he’s releasing a treasury of new material to boot, which is being sold at San Diego Comic Con this very weekend.
It took Breathed decades of work, to be able to come back to his platform, and find it sturdy.
Just as it took Mike Rowe years of Dirty Jobs outings to become the modern voice of working-class dignity and values.
If Mike had resorted simply to doing blogs, without actually going out and getting his hands (and much else on his person) filthy, I am not sure he’d be able to go before Congress, or a national audience, and convincingly speak on his chosen subject. Just as authors who ply their trade in military fiction (any genre) stand a better chance with crowds, provided those authors have some form of military pedigree to boot.
Because people want some kind of bona fide — pronounced Holly Hunter fashion, from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I obviously can’t tell any of you what will work, in your search for bona fide.
Plenty of people attempt artful dodgery, especially in academic circles. Pay a prestigious university to give you a prestigious degree, and you can potentially sail your way through intellectual circles — which have always been easily impressed by schoolhouse credentials.
Other arenas will accept nothing less than the scars on your hands and the crookedness of your nose; from how many times its been broken. The kind of stuff that can’t be faked.
Because Lord knows, in the wordsie gameses, fakery is a fine art. It’s not what you have that counts, it’s what you can make them think you have. And so forth. Perception, perception, perception. And some people are incredibly good at crafting perception, often while constructing cults of personality.
But is that it? Get a few thousand loyalists together under your umbrella, set up a Patreon, and never look back?
I’m not convinced it has to be. Though I fully understand all the sensible — from a business standpoint — reasons why the above scenario continues to be played out over and over again. Good money really is where you find it. Especially in the digital age, when the old barriers against “vanity” anything, have crumbled. And artists of all varieties are working feverishly to expand into new markets. Especially artists who were shut out — by their reckoning — of the Old Way Of Doing Things.
I suppose the best advice I can put to you, is to do something you would have been happy doing anyway. Even if nobody was going to pay you for it.
Because you’re fired up, or you feel a calling, or you simply discover a talent for (mumble, activity of your choice, mumble) which stands out from what’s being done by others. Doesn’t matter if the thing is explicitly about fiction, or publishing. I often think lately that we as authors are too prone to spending too much time talking to each other, including selling to each other, that we forget the real market is outside of us. Beyond our small borders.
I’ve got a good friend down in Los Angeles who’s busted her ass trying to break in big-time with Hollywood. She faces all the same problems authors do, but accentuated to an extra degree. Just because Hollywood is a place of even greater disparity than publishing, and I sometimes fear she too has fallen prey to spending too much time among her own crowd, going to great effort for the sake of a purely internal audience — disconnected from the universe beyond.
So, if you can craft a platform that is visible beyond the publishing industry horizon, you’re on the right track. Get the attention of the people who don’t spend every waking minute fretting about contracts and royalties and the futures of trad and indie publishing both. Get the crowd that doesn’t care about any of that. Those are the eyeballs you need more than all others. Belonging to men and women, girls and boys, who are simply looking for an enjoyable read. For an hour. For an afternoon. A week. And so forth. Get their attention, keep it, and grow it, and you can be sure that your platform is not just strong, but capable of standing up to the weathering of time.