Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don’t Be Part of the 5%: Master The 5 Crucial Author Platform Skills

For the past several months, I’ve been working on the Publetariat Vault. Among the hundreds of authors who’ve registered for Vault membership, about 5% are completely overwhelmed by the listing form. They refuse to read or follow the instructions on the form, or think 17 required fields are too much to ask, or don’t know how to create a synopsis or excerpt in pdf, rtf or txt format, or don’t know how to upload files to the site using the typical “Browse” + “Upload” button combo. And they’re kind of pissed off that we’re asking them to do all of this in the first place, they’re walking away from up to 5 months’ free listing time on account of tech frustration. A couple of years ago I would’ve said the 5% are absolutely right, such a form is too demanding and no author should be expected to have that level of tech savvy. But the bar has been raised, and nowadays any author with a strong platform has all the skills necessary to easily complete the Vault form. The rest can no longer afford to be part of the 5%. It's not fair, and it has nothing to do with quality writing, but it is the reality.

Any author who’s not yet heard the term “author platform” could only have been lost at sea or living in Amish country, but even among those who know it, I’m finding the term is often not fully understood. Many authors, both aspiring and published, indie and mainstream, think succeeding with author platform means having a blog or author website. And maybe they Twitter a little, or have a Facebook or MySpace page. They also often think author platform is something that’s very difficult and/or expensive, and only applicable to published authors.

They are wrong, on all counts.

Author platform encompasses everything you do both to promote your work and to establish yourself as a “brand” in the marketplace, and ideally, it begins long before you have a book to sell. Even if you intend to go the totally mainstream route of writing the best damned manuscript you can and then querying agents and publishers, you can no longer expect to get a pass on author platform. I’m currently working with Writers Digest on the publication of a revised and updated edition of my book, The IndieAuthor Guide, and when our talks began the very first questions they had for me were all about my author platform. What websites do I have, and how much traffic do they get? How many pageviews, how many unique visitors? How frequently do I blog? How frequently do I have public speaking engagements, and where and for whom have I done such engagements? Do I maintain an email newsletter or membership list, and if so, how large is it?

If you’re lucky enough to get a request for the full manuscript from an agent or publisher, are you prepared to answer all these questions? Because if you’re not, you’re not ready to have your full ms requested. And if you’re intending to self-publish, you should be asking these questions of yourself already.

Lucky for all of us, the minimum skills needed to do a pretty decent job with online author platform are few, and easy to master. The way it works is, with each new skill you acquire, new online promotion and publication options are opened to you. And when it comes to author platform, you want every available option at your disposal.

You must know how to use webforms to comment on articles or blog posts online, create and maintain your own blog, create and maintain a fill-in-the-blanks sort of author website, or have a Facebook or MySpace page.

If you also want to provide an online cover image of your book, or an author photo, you must either know how to create digital images (pictures a computer can read because they’re stored as a computer file; if you use a digital camera and know how to get the pictures off your camera and onto your computer, you already know how to create digital images) or have the images supplied by someone who does know how to create them, you must know how to use a graphics editor program to resize the images as needed to meet the file size and dimension requirements of the various sites on which you intend to share them, and you must know how upload files to a web server using a “Browse” + “Upload” button combo.

All the skills mentioned thus far are also needed to self-publish your work in hard copy formats via an online print service provider such as Createspace or Lulu, and to self-publish in various ebook formats via online ebook conversion services such as Smashwords or Scribd.

If you want to make excerpts of your work available for free viewing on your blog or website (which is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of growing readership), on top of everything else you must also know how to create an excerpt of the full work and output that excerpt to pdf format.

Let’s stop and take inventory. If you know how to use webforms, how to create and resize digital images, how to upload files to a web server and how to output your work in pdf format, you’ve got most of your self-publishing and online author platform options covered with just five basic tech skills. You can have a blog and a fill-in-the-blanks type of author website. You can comment on blogs and articles all over the ‘net. You can publish your work in multiple formats and make it available for sale online through various outlets. You can make excerpts of your work available online. You can Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn to your heart’s content---and you can do all of these things for the cost of nothing more than your time and the price of a single author copy (in cases where you're self-pubbing in hard copy)! You'd be a fool to turn your back on such an embarrassment of author platform riches, but that's what the 5% do every day.

Now, if you also want to Twitter, you’ll want to bone up on web abbreviations, emoticons and hashtags. If you want to be able to add cool little widgets (e.g., hit counters, ‘my Goodreads bookshelf’, BookBuzzr, etc.) to your blog, author website, Facebook, MySpace or other online pages, you’ll need to be comfortable copying and pasting snippets of HTML or script code from the widget provider into the desired location, but even then, someone else is providing the code and all you’re doing is copying and pasting it the same as you’d do with any ordinary text. The best part is, most such widgets are available for free! If you don't know how to use them, you're missing a huge opportunity to jazz up your platform at no cost.

When you’re ready to graduate to the master class, you can learn about RSS syndication and how to set up a simple web form on your site or blog to allow your readers to subscribe to your email newsletter, but this is nothing you need to think about right away.

For now, just focus on mastering the 5 crucial author platform skills and get yourself out of that doomed 5%.

Addendum: Regarding the Vault form, I'm the first to admit it's a lengthy form. Authors will need to spend half an hour or so pulling together all the information they need to create a listing, and an additional 5-10 minutes to complete the form. However, the form includes very detailed instructions for every section and field, required fields are limited to those items publishers have said are most important in making acquisitions decisions, and authors participating in the Vault's current promotions are getting several months' free listing time. I'm sure those who go on to strike deals with publishers or producers will feel it was well worth filling out the form.


JFBookman said...


Very helpful and I haven't seen Author Platform approached from quite this angle before. These are questions all authors, no matter how they intend to publish, should be able to answer.

Any author who’s not yet heard the term “author platform” could only have been lost at sea or living in Amish country

Not my experience, unfortunately. I ask this question of all new author clients, and mostly what I get is the "deer in the headlights" stare and I know there is massive education needed.

As has been pointed out repeatedly, even major publishing houses are asking more and more of their authors, and those who want to publish and actually get a contract or some readership are going to have to accept that in today's online, DIY world, either you will need a bit of expertise OR you better find someone affordable who can help you out.

Anonymous said...

Hi April

I've seen a lot on the web recently about author platform, but in every case I can remember it has been from the perspective of a non-fiction author. Now, it makes sense that you need some level of credibility to back up a non-fiction title, but what about fiction? How can you establish a platform as a novelist when all you have to prove yourself with is the work-in-progress that you are preparing to submit to agents?

(I should add that I do have a website and blog - over four years old, but not much traffic - and I'm gradually building up my activity on social media. And as a web professional, I don't have any problem with the technical skills!)

Tamsyn Murray said...

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with this. The problem is that's it's all too easy to spread yourself too thinly over the web so that you risk losing control of your platform: no-one is interested in information which is out of date because you can't update everything. So my advice would be to choose wisely. A webpage (at least) is essential and Facebook/Twitter can reach a lot of people quickly.

April L. Hamilton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
April L. Hamilton said...

Also, Harwood, Sigler, Lenahan and Boyd made at least some of their work available to readers online for free, and that was also a critical component of their success. After all, how can you build readership if you're not offering anything to read?

April L. Hamilton said...

Had to delete & recreate this comment, blogger doesn't let you edit them...

Anne & Tam -
Yes, it's just as crucial for a fiction author as for a nonfiction author. Perhaps it's even *more* crucial, since fiction is a tougher sell to publishers and readers alike than nonfiction. The most effective approach to platform is community-building.

Check out this wonderful romance community, which is run by romance reviewers, but has romance authors participating in their discussions and activities too:

Also look at crime author Seth Harwood's site. He built up his site, podcasting and online community *long* before his book was published, and having that audience already in his corner was key to getting a major publishing deal:

Horror author Scott Sigler also built up a community and audience before the book deal:

But you don't have to build your own community, you can become an active participant in pre-existing ones. Authors John Lenahan and Boyd Morrison didn't build up big online communities of their own before getting deals with major houses, but both were very active in pre-existing online communities. One released his work in podcast form and participated in the community, the other released his book in Kindle format and was very active in Kindle reader communities.

As you can tell, whether you start your own or become very active with pre-existing ones (and not just to promote your book, you've got to be part of the give-and-take in a genuine way), community is important. I should probably write a blog entry about this.

Good luck!

Leahsandra Powell said...

Excellent work, April. Thank you for such clear, concise instructions. I'll definitely be following this blog, and RT'ing on twitter.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for the support, JFBookman & leahsandra. =')