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.

35 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: PUBLISHING

35 responses to “A few thoughts about platform

  1. So Berke Breathed has a webcomic now? I did not realize. I heard he was going to have a comic, but it never showed up in the paper so I figured the deal fell through.

    • Sam L.

      I heard it was a webcomic, and I looked for it. Found it. Read it a few times and concluded that he hasn’t changed, but I have, and I haven’t gone back.
      (My lost youth, etc., etc.)

      • Draven

        yeah, he’s still cracking the exact same jokes, taking the exact same swipes at conservatives he did thirty years ago…

        And i grew up and grew away from that.

  2. Hmm. Yeeesssss . . . . all I have to do is figure out where and how to try to build what sort of platform.

    I need to be more active outside my circle of friends and fellow authors for starters. Must think on this.

  3. paladin3001

    Multi-staged effort. Write, write, write, Blog, blog, blog. Publish, publish, publish even if it’s indy. Final bit, don’t be an ass. 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the need for “quantifiable proof of audience”. However, that follows from one’s platform – without a platform, you have no audience. Egg, meet chicken. Chicken, egg.

    In my case, I deliberately started blogging, taking it very seriously and putting major amounts of time and effort into it, several years before I published my first work of fiction. My intention was to build an audience who liked the way I wrote, long before I had a book to offer them; because, when I did, I wanted them to be eager to read it. I wrote about the process here:

    https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/07/24/guest-post-by-peter-grant/

    It was an essential part of my preparations, and established my ‘platform’. By the time I needed the latter, it was ready to go.

    I don’t know that Facebook or other social media can provide the necessary platform, because one’s lost in the crowd. There are too many faces on Facebook! I think one needs a more stand-alone sort of platform, to distinguish oneself. Publishing short stories or articles in genre-specific outlets is certainly one way to go about that. I think blogs still work, provided one can get the word out about them and attract readers – not so easy, today. Any other suggestions?

    • I think that the blog and social media (including facebook) can create a synergy that builds on itself. At least, that seems to be what’s happening for me. It’s easier to do short commentary and start conversations on FB, while the blog lets me take my time and write long. I don’t like twitter, I use it as a mirror. I haven’t been able to build traction on sites like MeWe or Gab – they aren’t easy for me to hop on and chat with folks.

    • I started as a blogger, and people who are more market-savvy than me say that I unconsciously hit on a great marketing bit when I did my first book – a memoir about my oddball family growing up in the 50s and 60s. The book was mostly my blog-posts about family stuff, which seemed to be enormously popular among the blog-fans, who hectored me un-endingly about doing a book. (I still have the ebook version out there – https://www.amazon.com/Our-Grandpa-Alien-Celia-Hayes-ebook/dp/B00C917P6K/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 )
      So – I wish I had a bigger shadow audience out there, But I’m working on that, in doing local markets and person-to-person selling.

  5. I want Andy Weir’s platform: Write a great book, get discovered, get paid, keep writing.

    Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

    • He had multiple webcomics first, and I think Casey and Andy was pretty huge. 🙂

      (I never read it–I followed Cheshire Crossing a while instead–but a bunch of my webcomics friends followed it religiously.)

      • Yeah, but that was pretty tiny. When publishers talk platform, they think a lot bigger than that. His real platform, the breakout that got the big attention, was the book itself. His webcomics and his fiction got the book its first readers, but word of mouth took it from there. It was all very organic, not planned like publishers expect.

        • The size of that first reader group has a huge effect on the amount of word-of-mouth push, and the possibility of a breakout.

          Having a reasonably sized following on several diverse platforms seems like it would get the widest dispersal of recommendations.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          I understand there was an actual GURPS Casey and Andy.

      • Wait.. he has a book?
        I followed Casey & Andy for some time…
        Ho-leeee- cats.. THAT book?
        The SAME Andy Weird.
        Day-yamn.
        Yeah, ox sl……(wait for it)…..ow.

  6. One thing I’ve been thinking about as I prepare a new website is what would I, as a reader, want to see when I check out a new author’s blog?

    For me (and can only speak for myself here), if I’m attracted to the series or standalone novel I’d like my intro to that writer be heavily focused on the work. Some background info, behind the scenes stuff, deleted scenes, thought process, a bit on the author’s worldview as it relates to the work, sketches if they’ve got them, inspirations.

    But not many authors do things like that, normally when I go to a new author’s website I find a conversation going on that makes no sense to me. One is the near constant political conversation (ermigod trumpbushpalin! Reeee!), and the other is a writer teaching other writers. Always strikes me as odd (a blogging place like MGC is different because that’s the focus mostly). Is that who those writers think their fans are? Other writers with the same slant on the political horseshoe?

    I’m not saying they’re wrong, but over the course of the last decade I’ve stopped going to most author’s blogs because of that nonsense. I don’t want to see their self importance (people with one or two books giving out ‘You Musts’ as if their advice is made of the purest diamonds is something I find wildly pretentious), and I don’t need them to tell me I’m not allowed to read their work. Though, to be fair, if they directly tell people not to read their work due to politics, their politics is likely to show up in their work quickly and obviously enough for even a dullard like me to get that message.

    If I like a writer’s work enough to seek out their website, I’d like the experience to reflect the work. And since I usually like an author’s work based on how much fun I had reading it I want their site to reflect that fun. Light, fun, personal stories and reflections on life? Awesome. Political diatribe that is more about how holy they are than what they actually believe? (And they want you to know they are Wholly Holy).

    The problem for me is, I think I’m wrong. I think political statements, a lack of censorship of thoughts, a dialogue with the readers of the blog, might actually be better for building a community than what I’d prefer as a reader. I find with my comic I tend to censor my political leanings, not out of fear but out of caution. I’ve met people who read my work with the benefit of knowledge of my right wing politics, and I’ve met others with no idea of my politics and the work reads differently to those two sets of people. The ones aware of my politics look really closely for something to be offended about rather than reading the story for the statement I’m actually trying to make with the story. Those with no knowledge come much closer to my actual meaning. Because of that I feel I’d be doing the work a disservice (and after 1500 strips and over seven years of work I try to avoid anything that might damage it) if I blogged politically.

    The main problem is that caution tends to make me pull back on what I blog about and rather than risk writing about a topic that will probably get political as I type, I choose not to write a blog post at all. However, content that can divide a community is also content that can solidify a community around you.

    I dunno, I have no answers, only thoughts. My new site will be focused primarily on the series I’m working on as it launches but I’m having long arguments with myself as to whether or not to be free in my communication. To blog with loosened fingers. Will it hurt the work? Will it help build a community?

    Steve

    • TRX

      I hit a number of writers’ sites, mostly to urge them to write the sort of things I like to read.

      A writer’s site – his business-of-writing site, which *should* be different from his personal site – should at the very least have:

      a canonical list of his works
      how they fit into series, if applicable
      which books are still in print
      how to buy a signed author copy
      information about works in progress
      approximate delivery dates for in-process works
      links to online versions of his work for purchase or free

      Comments about backlists, rights, foreign markets, translations, cover art, special editions, etc. would also be appropriate.

      Talking about all the exciting conversations happening on your twitter account, in facebook, on irc, or your mailing list is *not* appropriate. I went through the trouble to find your web page; chances high I’m not so thrilled at your awesomeness I’ll chase you across the internet like a cat chasing a laser dot.

      I think you see a lot of politics, cat stories, appliance failures, etc. because most writers feel they need to talk about *something*. Which is valid; I sometimes hit sites where the author hasn’t said anything in a year or more. Retired? Dead? Doesn’t care any more? Who knows. If you’re only going to update it once a month – and surely any working writer can find *something * say that often – put it on the masthead so visitors don’t give up and go away.

      Whatever you say online about your politics, religion, or sports preferences will probably gain you a bunch of followers who vehemently agree with you. It’ll also cause about as many people to give you the virtual middle finger and never buy any of your stuff ever again. Right now, my guess is it’s pretty much a wash. I have a nice little list of formerly-favorite authors now who felt they had to insult my race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. They have a right to say whatever they want; I have the right not to support it with my money.

      It’s not “censorship”, it’s the same kind of self-control an employer expects in the workplace. You go off insulting him and you probably won’t see any more of his money either. But you can be secure in your righteousness while you’re filling out employment forms.

      • I include a lot of history on my blog because so much shows up in my books, in various guises. The cat shows up because people keep asking for more cat photos. *shrug* The customer is always right in this case.

        • TRX

          I’ve only been watching your blog for a few weeks. You have a good balance between writing-related information and general commentary.

          So far I haven’t seen you slagging off large percentages of your potential readership because of their place of residence, ancestors, religion, or skin color. You’ve managed to avoid calling for political deviationists to be put into concentration camps. You’ve even refrained from explaining in tedious detail how the world would be a better place if everyone would just STFU and do things your way.

          Too many writers don’t have that much self-control. They have a soapbox, the Word must be free. And then they shoot themselves in the wallet.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      I’ve been considering starting a blog of my own and I’ve wrestled with the same question. I might keep the politics down to a few Puppy blogs in my blogroll, at least at first. But the first time I guest at ATH, I’ll want to link, and then it’s political.

  7. What will it take to attract Baen’s attention?
    Nothing, you can’t attract it. I asked about this at LC and I was told that I still would have to go through the same process as everyone else (i.e. slushpile) but I should mention in my cover letter what my sales are and how many books I’ve got out there.

    And honestly, I have very good sales. I do this full-time now and I pay all the bills (and I live in California where it isn’t cheap). I’m in the top ten percent. Yet, I was told that this will not earn me a pass. Perhaps other houses are different, and maybe if you’re in the top one percent you’ll get a bit more interest. I don’t know.

    But I think the days of being a successful independent getting you a contract are over.

    • “But I think the days of being a successful independent getting you a contract are over.”

      You’re forgetting something: Baen is in a buyers market. They are the only publisher that will publish non-Lefties (sunless you’re David Weber who is in the top 1%), and therefore they can be extra choosy.

      If we had any major non Lefty publishers other than Baen (Castalia?), it might be different.

    • A serious question: If someone is a successful independent, why bother with a traditional publisher?

      • To make more money and sales of course. If you’re already selling well, getting into bookstores will just push your numbers that much higher.
        Especially when you consider that a publisher gives you access to better editors and cover artists (cutting your costs down) and much more experienced and better marketing.

        • TRX

          I doubt book stores are ever going away completely, but their number is still shrinking.

          I now live in a town of 30,000 that has NO book stores, new or used. The next town to the north, 20,000, has no book stores. The next to the south. 65.000, has one of each; the used book store specializes in romance novels and the new book store is one of those places with cardboard displays of “best sellers” next to bins of old inventory on its way back to the pulp mill. And this isn’t Hooterville; this is the state capitol metro area.

          And another thing… you write SF, right? Have you walked into your local bookstores and looked at what’s on the shelves there? Before the last local store closed I realized I hadn’t bought anything from them in over ten years, despite making an occasional pass through every few months. Their SF shelves were more or less like this:

          old Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints (almost all in the public domain by then)
          shared-world fantasy anthologies
          Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins
          other movie and TV tie-ins
          vampire stories
          generic fantasy stories
          stuff that probably didn’t fit any particular genre, so they shelved it in SF
          “classic” reprints of ancient SF (some were losers the first time around, too)
          a dozen-odd SF books whose cover blurbs indicated they contained nothing I would ever be interested in

          “Nothing to see here, move along.”

          How much of this comes as pre-selected packages from corporate and how much the store selected its own inventory, I don’t know. But for values of “bookstore”, your competition isn’t the publisher’s catalog, it’s what the local sellers have on their shelves. Now, guessing what criteria they might be using, how likely is it they’d pick your books as a good fit to what they consider a proper selection from the genre?

          • I do go into the local B&N to see what’s on the shelves every so often. As for what’s there, that’s up to the publishing house salesmen, who sell to the bookstores and tell them what they should be selling.

            • TRX

              > local B&N

              There were two in my area a decade ago. None now. And from what I’ve read, the chain is still shrinking.

              Corporate mega-bookstores will probably be around another decade or two, but you’re going to be competing for a shrinking amount of shelf space and geographic coverage.

              • B&N are pretty much the only bookstores left. At least in California. All of the other small Mom and Pop’s were driven out with the $15 min wage. Same for the used bookstores, they’re all gone now too.
                I don’t think there is a bookstore within 200 miles of my house, that isn’t a B&N. There -may- be some indy ones left in the bay area, but the ones in the Capitol and SF are all gone.

                Why the government wants them all gone, I don’t know. But they are trying to do the same with fastfood restaurants here too. Then again, after the long depression we’re only now starting to come out of, we may see bookstores make a comeback as people have more money to spend (well not here in California of course, this place is turning into Venezuela / Detroit fairly quickly).

                As for competing for space, I’m not really worried about that at all. If I can sell as well as I do without any advertising, solely on Amazon. I think I’d do just as well in bookstores with actual people with advertising skill helping me. Remember too, that if people are offered more good scifi and fantasy, instead of preachy politically correct pap that no one wants to read, sales will go up and shelf space will expand. Because bookstores like making money.

  8. When you are building your platform do not neglect to understand the ground you are building it on. You have a good chance of having your platform come crashing down when the ground is ripped out from under it if you disagree politically with the owners and controllers of many platforms.

    See the folks that were building followings on Twitter that are now banned. The folks on Facebook that things have not gone well for. YouTube, Patron, the list keeps growing.

    Having a core place you are in full control of seems to be a prudent choice, use places other folks control when they are to your advantage but never give them a stranglehold on your connection to your audience. Owing your own domain name, a simple website and your own e-mail can be just a few dollars a month.

    I haven’t used my website for anything for several years now but it is there if I want it, the mail there I use daily because I control it and it isn’t feeding into someone’s marketing engine.

    • mrsizer

      If you want to keep your domain name, do NOT let it expire. There are bots out there that wait for that and snap it up so you have to buy it back from them – at significant markup, of course.

    • snelson134

      “Owing your own domain name, a simple website and your own e-mail can be just a few dollars a month.”

      Unless you own the physical box your domain name / website / etc is on, you haven’t secured squat. “Cloud” by definition means “not yours”.