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What is an author platform, and how does it change over time?

By Desiree Villena

“Author platform” is one of those nebulous terms people use to describe an author’s marketing power. Most people don’t pause to define it, as it’s such a widely used concept, but that doesn’t make it any less hard for debut authors to wrap their heads around!

Crucially, I believe it’s important to clarify that having an author platform is not a binary state where you either have it or you don’t, but rather an ongoing process, ever in flux. Through my work for Reedsy, I’ve learned a lot about author platforms — and I’m hoping to share what I’ve learned with you today. To do this, I’ll be looking at Barack Obama’s career as a case study to show you how author platforms are ever-changing. But first, let’s define the term and discuss why author platforms are so important.

What exactly is an author platform?

Author platforms are hard to pin down, as they take many forms, but a strong author platform usually means having some or all of the following:

● Contacts in the right places (for press coverage or endorsements);

● A wide reach through a popular social media account, like Twitter or Instagram, or a well-maintained mailing list;

● Some degree of public recognition (widely or in your field);

● A successful publishing record;

● Authority or expertise in your field, or at least first-hand knowledge of your subject.

In other words: your platform is your ability to reach people and sell them your book because of your position in society and your industry.

Why are author platforms important?

By definition, your platform is the base from which you will operate to sell your books. Without a platform or an attempt to build one, you can write a fantastic book — only to throw it into the dark depths of the Internet, with no one to witness it or read it. Together, all the elements of your platform work together to provide you with increased visibility and credibility, helping you reach more readers and appeal to them.

A robust author platform can help you get a publishing deal

If you’ve decided to go the traditional publishing route, having an author platform can really work your favor when it comes to securing a literary agent or publisher. That’s how the traditional publishing ecosystem works: for a publisher, investing in you and your book means taking a leap of faith, so it’s your job to convince them you’re worth it.

In this situation, a large digital following, fame, or a strong publication record are all testaments to your work and personal brand. Lacking these doesn’t mean your book can’t succeed, or that it has no merit — but publishers are understandably risk-averse, so evidence by way of an established platform always improves your chances of getting a book deal.

It’s important to clarify that for fiction writers, a strong platform is mostly a nice bonus to have in addition to an intriguing book. For anyone writing a nonfiction book, however, a platform is essential. In this case, the identity of the author will often function as more of a selling point than the content of the book, and is the first thing a prospective agent or publisher will look at.

Your author platform isn’t just necessary for finding representation, however; it’s also a vital part of your marketing efforts. Once you find a publisher, they’ll help you organize some promotional activities, but it’ll be up to you to grow and maintain your platform beyond this. That’s why so many established authors stay active on social media, run their own mailing lists, and speak at conferences. Publishers do help, but authors ultimately need to take matters into their own hands to keep their platforms alive and well.

Self-publishing: no platform, no readers, no fun

Author platforms are just as important for self-publishing authors! Since you don’t have a publisher’s help to market or publicize your work, you’ll be solely responsible for reaching and growing your readership.

Without a platform, you can be assured of no early sales or reviews, and you’ll simply disappear into the Amazon abyss, next to that half-written short story someone accidentally published on Kindle Direct Publishing back in 2014. If you do self-publish without a platform, your only real marketing option is to pay for your book to be advertised, which can be expensive and less sustainable in the long term.

Barack Obama: a case study of an evolving author platform

Now that we’ve established the importance of having a strong platform at various stages of publishing a single book, let’s zoom out and consider a more macro view of an author platform over the course of an author’s career.

As you can imagine, most first-time authors will start from nothing. But your author platform is something that will keep growing organically as you progress with your literary career — hopefully gaining new readers, contacts, and accolades — and so perseverance is key.

Let’s take a look at Barack Obama’s publication record as an extreme example and see how his platform changed over the three times he published a book:

B1. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995)

When Obama published his first memoir in 1995, he was a 33-year-old law professor at the University of Chicago, and had been contacted by an agent after he became the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review. This was before he entered politics, and his memoir sold approximately 7,000-8,000 copies before going out of print. At the time of publication, he was not yet a household name, and the reach of his platform was limited.

2. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts of Reclaiming the American Dream (2006)

In 2004, Obama — then an Illinois Senator — rose to national fame after winning the U.S. Senate Democratic primary and delivering the keynote address at that year’s Democratic National Convention. By 2006, when his second book was published, the media was abuzz with speculation about whether he’d run for president — and his book was endorsed by one of the world’s most influential figures, Oprah Winfrey. In other words, his second book was a guaranteed bestseller (and indeed, stayed on the bestseller list for 30 weeks).

3. A Promised Land (2020)

Barack and Michelle Obama’s recent joint publishing deal earned them a record-breaking $65 million advance. Crown, the publisher of Promised Land, anticipated such high demand for the book that they printed 3 million copies in its first run alone. What does that tell us about Barack Obama’s current author platform? As a former US President, he’s globally recognizable and has wide-reaching influence, so his publisher (correctly) assumed that millions of people would want to hear what he has to say.

I hope this specific case study makes the changing nature of author platforms and the importance of continuing to cultivate them, even after publication, a bit easier to understand. Of course, Obama is not a full-time author, and his changing platform was the result of his rising political career. But he’s still a helpful (if very extreme) example of the power of platforms, especially for aspiring nonfiction writers.

The takeaway here is not that you have no chance of success if you aren’t as famous as Obama — in fact, quite the opposite. Everyone starts somewhere. The key is to take the first step, and keep trying. Good luck!

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