Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Platform and the profession

Tonight I'm giving a lecture (with Brian Keaney - it's one of our double-acts) on living as a professional writer. I'm not going to tell you what we'll say, partly because we don't know until we plan it over a coffee at 5pm and partly because the students might not come if they can read it all in advance. But what we won't be doing is insisting that it's vital to have a platform to succeed as a writer.

No one seems to have any idea whether a platform - as in a regular blog, twittering away, a Facebook author page and all that shiz - makes any difference to book sales. It's a general assumption that it's vital if you are marketing self-e-published books. After all, how else are you going to get any publicity? But for mainstream publishing? Publishers like us to do it, but unless you already have a significant following, does it make much difference? It's an impossible question to answer, of course, because there's no control: we can't compare sales of book A with and without the author's platform.

I have a Facebook author page but pay relatively little attention to it. I comment on new books, occasionally on books in progress, occasionally on reviews or mentions. I can't really imagine anyone is interested. I have never asked all my friends to like it. That seems to me both rude and pointless. I wouldn't go up to someone (except a very close friend who would give an honest opinion) and say 'do I like nice in this?' or 'do you like me?' So why would I do it online?

And I have a blog, obviously. But this blog doesn't identify me. OK, it's not hard to work out who I am. It used to be a lot more secret than it is now. But when one of my editors identified me from the writing style alone, I gave up on the pretence that it's actually anonymous. Besides, this blog doesn't promote my books. Occasionally, I even anti-promote them. I once suggested people did NOT buy my books unless they had actually checked that they wanted them, as I thought the Amazon write-up missed out crucial information and I don't want people to be disappointed. (The books in question were short.)

If anything, this blog reduces my income. At least one publisher has said he'd never consider publishing someone who called themselves Stroppy Author. I can't decide whether to rise to the challenge and try to sneak a book to him or whether to say 'I wouldn't want to be published by someone so cowardly and insecure.' But actually, he's a very fine publisher, so probably the former. And I have argued with publishers more than once about things I've posted here (not recently, but it happens). Publishers like an author to have a platform, but they don't like it to be built on their own books. It's a sort of virtual NIMBYism. That all makes my platform a negative platform - more like standing in a hole in the ground.

Does it affect sales? Who knows? My best-selling book has sold over 350,000 copies. I have never mentioned it on this blog. I don't think the two are connected (though maybe if it's a negative platform, they are!) I think, rather, that it's a popular sort of book that will always sell. And some others are not. And no amount of shouting about them will make people suddenly want them. So I don't. I hate shouty things anyway. I can just about cope with being publicly facetious in text but I always turn down requests for radio or TV. To my shame, I didn't even return the call to the last TV person who wanted to talk to me.

So I'm not really qualified to talk about platform. As I said at the Society of Authors the other day, I have a kind of e-agoraphobia - fear of the virtual market place. Perhaps I would be a mega-bestselling author with lots of money if I didn't. But then again - I think I'd just have pissed off more people. Even more people.

But to the point. When new, young writers ask how they should be building their platform, my answer is 'You shouldn't. You should be writing decent books.' Or, as Nicola Morgan puts it, Write the damn book. No one likes to look up to a platform, anyway. We all prefer to peer down into a hole. I'll be in there.

Please, all you pro-platform people, put your case so that my students can get a balanced view!
Nicola - please add a link to your stuff on platform as I can't find it!


  1. The platform thing is the last bastion of procrastination and so a necessary part of many a writer's "process". But I do believe it will sell books to the extent that the individuals who make up your platform like and support you. But if the book is crap then that's where it ends.

  2. Anne, here are a couple of links (except that you'll have to copy and paste them before they are actual links):
    1. From my Help! blog, the full list of platform-related posts is here: http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Platforms%20and%20pre-publication

    2. A post that feels particularly relevant to what you are talking about: http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/networking%20for%20authors

    Here's what i think in general. A platform is crucial. However, a platform doesn't only come from social media and online stuff such as blogs. It comes from every single time a person hears you say or do or write something memorable, including a book. It comes from each time you do a good job for a publisher and they ask you to do something else. And it comes best when you just work hard and do your natural thing, whether that is public-speaking, writing books, blogging and tweeting, or a combination of them.

    But first, yes, WRITE THE DAMN BOOK!

  3. Here are my thoughts on having a platform, for what it's worth!

    1 A platform is just another way of networking. It takes time and effort but can be unexpectedly rewarding.
    2 As with networking - smile! By which I mean don't do it if you absolutely hate it, because that will come over and the result will be negative rather than positive. It is incredible how much you give away about yourself, as mentioned above.
    3 yes - write the damn book! It is a form of procrastination so do it AFTER you have done your writing for the day.
    4 Not sure the results are quantifiable but I do think it is useful to have some kind of platform. People do want to know about the people behind books these days and starting up the discussion must be positive in terms of getting the word out about your books and what you do.

  4. This is heartening to read (both original piece and comments) as I'm not a natural blower of my own trumpet, and have never fully understood this 'platform' thing anyway. I've never looked forward to writing a blog post - it feels like work in the way creative writing never does - but I generally enjoy it while I'm doing it and am often pleased with the way they turn out. Time spent on social media is enjoyable, but kind of empty, too - and never feels fulfilling in retrospect. I've no idea how all this translates into book sales. It often feels like writers talking to other writers. Agree that an author ultimately stands or falls in terms of his or her reputation with publishers, and it's the quality/saleability of the product that ultimately counts.

  5. Well, I guess if I didn't know who the Stroppy Author was, I know that her first name is Anne now...

  6. I completely agree with Stroppy! Platforms are for trains. Publicity departments in publishers' offices are PAID to do the work to get your book out there where people will notice it! A blog is fine and if you do accumalate fans, they'll enjoy reading what you write and following you on Twitter but selling books? Do not think that's how people buy books! I love twitter and regard it as an ongoing cocktail party where you don't have to speak to any bores if you don't want to! Am also unwilling to go on there and say BUY MY BOOK! I will put up a link to anything published and leave it at that. Again, others ought to be tweeting like mad from the publisher if they think it works. And THEY ought to put up links to good reviews, NOT the writer!

  7. Platforms are for trains, love that... and they hardly ever stop at mine! Or they're for X-Factor wannabes and politicians, not authors. An author's platform is (or should be) all folded up neatly inside their book to be explored by readers who want to be there.

    I fear I'm a bit like you, Stroppy - since what publisher wants an author with a platform called "Reclusive Muse"? If yours is a hole, mine is shrouded behind an enchanted veil! But there's a fine line between telling people your new book exists and shouting about it non-stop. The first is necessary. The second is just sad.

  8. I read Stroppy Author's comment to a Guardian Books blog on publishing post by Stephen Page dated Monday 7 January 2013 and entitled: "Penguin Random House merger begins a new chapter for publishing". I'm not a writer in the usual sense, say as meant on this blog. I'd rather call myself a discerning reader: as if I had a network of trusted book-enthusiasts to consult about books to read on topic such-and-such. It's disheartening to learn that, according to rumour, Amazon has some dodgy book reviewers, as in they might have a stake in how they review what they review... With respect to publicity agents, sure they know about publicity techniques, but how well do they know "major/minor" literature? It occurred to me that published authors might make better reviewers than the average reader or publicist, at least some of the time. This formula has been used in Canada for the annual "Canada Reads" contests/events. One signal feature is that when it gets to the "final 10" or "final 5" contenders for 1st prize, each book has a "well-known" Canadian author/personality as its "advocate", speaking for his/her book, as is done in debating clubs. So, for example, in 2012 the winner was the book: "Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter" by Carmen Aguirre. Finally, in France there is the wonderful website franceculture.fr, which has many radio programs, podcasts and web-pages (in French) dedicated to literature and the arts.
    David Bernier

  9. I'm not qute sure what point you are making, David. Professional writers have been book reviewers in this country for a very long time, forming the backbone of reviews in the broadsheets, but the broadsheets have cut their reviewing budgets so they have been squeezed out.

  10. Thanks for replying, Stroppy Author. I didn't know that. I like to read about history, cover-ups and espionage. I often find books for sale on-line with no reviews or few reviews, and perhaps more so for reviews by professional writes in the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and so on. David Bernier