Why Authors Should Develop Robust Independent Platforms

It is no secret that traditional publishing is a risky business. For a publisher to sign an author, they have to know if the book is going to sell well; they have to have a realistic idea of how many readers will actually want to buy the book. That number is the starting point for all title profit and loss statements. For authors who are well known and have found reasonable success in their previous projects, a publisher does not have to think too hard before drawing up a contract. But for authors who haven’t been published before or who aren’t well known for the subject matter or genre they want to publish, it is a lot harder to get a publisher to take a chance or even take notice. In MFA vs NYC, Chad Harbach writes of the American literary sphere, “Reputation in this world depends directly on the market and the publishing cycle, reviews and the prizes, and so all except those at the very top have little reason to hope for a durable readership.”[1]

How is a new author to bring a book to life in such a field? There was a point only a few decades ago when Harbach’s statement applied and it was very difficult for newer authors to find a willing publisher. But now the internet has the ability to instantly connect a person to large groups of people, making developing a platform for oneself to build a durable readership a real possibility. Creating their own platform is a method that authors can, and should, employ to increase their visibility in the field and give their work a better chance of being published and selling well.

But what exactly is a platform? For an author, a platform can take many forms—a blog, a podcast, a column in a publication, Twitter, a YouTube channel, newsletters, a web series, regular updates on a writing platform like Wattpad—but its main goal is to develop and maintain a loyal audience that is invested and interested in the kind of work the author produces. An excellent example of an author’s platform is Writing with Jenna Moreci, a YouTube channel that the indie author Jenna Moreci uses to provide writing advice, promote her latest book, and conduct giveaways as part of her marketing plan. She currently has over 190,000 followers.

An author that has such a platform is a win-win situation for a publisher. When a good book comes with a built-in readership, the publisher sees less risk and is likely to sign an author for further publications— because if the author is skilled, it’s a guaranteed success. But it is even more advantageous for authors. As nobody but an author can tell you, the process of writing a book is a long, time-consuming, and isolated process that requires multiple drafts. Having a platform provides a way not only for authors to build a readership but also to hone and experiment with their craft in the company of eager readers.

Take Wattpad for example, where authors write their stories or post their drafts chapter by chapter, building a readership as the story gathers steam. With the readership comes the opportunity for authors to engage with their readers and vice versa, as illustrated below in the comment section of The Vision by Biswajit Patnaik (Patnaik87).[2]

This kind of reader-author collaboration and engagement allows writing to become an active process, giving the author’s work new perspectives to evolve with. The interactions further strengthen the readers’ investment in the author’s work, thus creating a more durable readership through the rising marketing trend of micro-influencing. Micro-influencers are personalities that have a small but highly engaged and devoted following, which in publishing terms translates to a niche audience that can be easily targeted.

At this point, we can acknowledge the argument that stories that are already published online won’t sell as books in the traditional market. However, Wattpad has proven that this argument doesn’t hold much weight anymore by brokering hundreds of publishing deals for their authors for books that already have millions of reads on their platform. Wattpad’s publishing partners include big names like Penguin Random House UK and India, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Sourcebooks[3]—clear proof that authors that have a built-in readership are very attractive to publishers. Publishers find fresh talent on Wattpad so often that the website now has a whole help page titled ‘What If I’m Contacted By a Publisher?’ Earlier this year Wattpad also launched its own publishing division, Wattpad Books, with the release of six initial titles, which already existed on the website and 20 more slated for release in 2020[4]—further proof that books that find an audience online can find an audience in print.

Another important advantage of developing a platform online is that unlike publishers, authors have direct access to data about their readership. In some cases, this may require know-how of using tools like Google Analytics, or installing analytics plug-ins on a browser, but for established platforms like Wattpad[5] and Medium[6], authors can easily view their reader demographics and interests as well as when and how often their posts are read. This data can be invaluable to publishers when it comes time to market and plan publicity for their author’s books.

In addition to making the writing process more interactive, having an independent platform also allows authors to experiment with new ideas or genres that a publisher might be too hesitant to take a chance on for fear of lacking a clear audience. If the author’s experiment, in the form of podcast episodes or a series of blog posts is received well by their readers, the author is then more informed and can be reasonably sure that a long-form publication will also find a willing audience.

Having engaged readers and fans can even be a source of motivation or inspiration as evidenced by Neil Gaiman’s 2.7 million followers. Gaiman, author of American Gods, created A Calendar of Tales in 2013 by tweeting thought-provoking questions to his followers for each month of the year and using their responses to create 12 short stories. After trying to find a way to collaborate with readers for years, the author stated of the creative project, “I love the idea of getting some kind of feedback and I love the idea of taking what I made and giving it back to people, almost like some kind of ping pong match.”[7] Released as audio narrated by Gaiman himself, the project invited readers to provide illustrations to the stories and these were eventually built into a digital ambient experience by The Neighbourhood that readers could immerse themselves in while listening to the stories they contributed to.[8]

As an author, Gaiman can be considered to be at the very top of his genre in publishing, however, for most authors, publishing is not a glamorous profession. Developing a dedicated readership is not akin to simply being famous or making clever jokes in 240 characters or less. For authors, a platform with a durable audience takes time to build and requires the regular contribution of valuable output. It is also a process that is unique to the author, as it depends on a combination of the author’s personality and their subjects and themes of focus. However, with different types of media vying for consumer attention, for authors to make a career of writing, it is a necessity to build and maintain one’s own audience rather than relying on a publisher to do it effectively. Its existence, or lack thereof, has a direct impact on how effectively a book can be marketed, how willing publishers will be to sign an author, and how much money an author can make. As Jane Friedman, publisher of The Hot Sheet newsletter says [of author platforms], “If you find and nurture it on channels that you own, and on your own terms, that’s like putting money in the bank.”[9]


Bibliography

[1] Harbach, Chad. MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction / Edited by Chad Harbach. First ed. 2014.

[2] “THE VISION – The Mystery of the Missing Lady… – Page 7 – Wattpad.” https://www.wattpad.com/707043479-the-vision-the-mystery-of-the-missing-lady/page/7.

[3] “Wattpad studios – where original stories live.” https://www.business.wattpad.com/studios/

[4] Wattpad HQ. “Wattpad Launches Wattpad Books, a New Publishing Division to Bring Diverse, Data-Backed Stories to Book-Lovers Everywhere.” January 24, 2019. https://company.wattpad.com/blog/2019/1/23/wattpad-launches-wattpad-books-a-new-publishing-division-to-bring-diverse-data-backed-stories-to-book-lovers-everywhere.

[5] Wattpad Help Center. “Understanding Writer Analytics.” http://support.wattpad.com/hc/en-us/articles/206018496-Understanding-Writer-Analytics.

[6] Medium. “Statistics.” Medium, January 4, 2015. https://medium.com/@Medium/statistics-2971adaa615.

[7] Campbell, Lisa. “Neil Gaiman Partners with Blackberry” February 5, 2013. https://www.thebookseller.com/news/neil-gaiman-partners-blackberry.

[8] “A Calendar of Tales.” The Neighbourhood. July 20, 2016. https://www.the-neighbourhood.com/work/projects/a-calendar-of-tales.

[9] Friedman, Jane. “A Definition of Author Platform.” Jane Friedman (blog), July 25, 2016. https://www.janefriedman.com/author-platform-definition/.

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