3 Common Author Platform Mistakes -- Plus How to Fix Them

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When you hear the word “platform,” do you feel dread or excitement? Do you see social media and blogs as forced self-promotion or as an opportunity for conversation with readers? It’s an important question these days.

More and more, the theory of an author platform—the idea that an author should communicate directly with readers both before a book and between books—is seeping into all genres of publishing. Ten years ago, an author platform wasn’t even a thing. Five years ago, it was important for practical nonfiction authors. Five years from now? Well, my guess is that it will begin to matter more and more for fiction, too. Bestselling authors like John Green, Jennifer Weiner, and Maureen Johnson are showing what can be done when the wall between author and reader is torn down.

(This guest column by agent Maria Ribas. See a complete mini-profile of her here.)

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Maria Ribas is a literary agent at Stonesong, specializing in nonfiction in the areas of food, interiors, business, health/diet, personal development, psychology, and memoir. She began her career on the editorial side, first at Simon & Schuster and Harlequin Nonfiction, then at Adams Media, where she was an associate editor before becoming a Literary Agent. For practical nonfiction, she enjoys working with bloggers, experts, business owners, and media influencers who understand how a thoughtfully produced, proudly promoted book can grow their brands and their businesses. For narrative nonfiction, she’s looking for journalists, bloggers, and writers who understand how to bring a subject to life in unexpected ways. She writes about platform-building, publishing, books, and what she’s cooking at http://www.cooksplusbooks.com.

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Yet there’s a widely held conception that building a platform should be uncomfortable, awkward work. That it’s just something you do because your publisher told you to, or because you want to sell more copies of your book. Publishers are certainly guilty of framing platform-building in this way, and unfortunately, I think that this mindset shortchanges writers. It turns something that should be fun into plain old work.

And don’t we all have enough work to do?

In reality, the acts of building a platform (blogging, tweeting, sharing too many cat photos, being a real, unpushy human) can be one of the most rewarding parts of your day as a writer. The writing life can be so solitary, but platform-building can open a door to a whole new set of online friends, plus all the connections, feedback, and emotional support they can bring.

Platform-building is not about getting up on your soapbox and asking people to buy your book. It’s actually not about promoting your work at all. The true purpose of a platform is to create a community of like-minded readers—to find the people who like dystopian YA, or historical romances, or the paleo diet just as much as you, and then finding ways to help them. It’s about serving, not selling.

Unfortunately, I see hundreds and hundreds of queries where authors dutifully include links to their websites and social media, but the links lead to less-than-impressive pages. And without fail, I see the same mistakes over and over again. Here are the three most common mistakes authors make with their platforms, along with ideas for how to work around them:

(How successful writers are using the Internet and social-media to sell more books.)

Mistake # 1: Ghost Town Blogs -- Many writers hear the directive that they need an online presence, and then they get right on setting up an author website, only to promptly abandon it. These poor websites turn into ghost towns—you can almost see the tumbleweeds blowing through the year-old blog posts and outdated book listings. And I get it—many authors can barely squeeze out time to work on their manuscripts, much less write blog posts.

The Fix: Figure out what works for you and commit yourself wholeheartedly to it. Can’t muster up the energy to write one or two blog posts a week? Try vlogging for five or ten minutes every week. Don’t enjoy Facebook? Maybe Twitter or Instagram is your place. Love quick, image-driven posting? Tumblr might be perfect for you. Just like with exercise, you have to find the activity that is fun and rewarding for you, or you’ll never be able to stick it out through the tough days.

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Mistake # 2: Unpolished Design -- This is such an overlooked aspect of an author website, and yet it makes such a huge difference. When I click to an author site and am greeted by a page that looks outdated, sloppy, unprofessional, or just otherwise unattractive, it puts up a big red flag that an author isn’t quite sure how to market and package themselves. These days there are so many beautiful, polished themes and designs you can find—many of them free—that there really isn’t an excuse for having a subpar website.

The Fix: If you haven’t updated the look of your website in over two years (or ever), you’re likely in need of a redesign. This is easier than ever now that there’s an enormous amount of free and nearly-free design templates. You don’t need much tech-savvy to install these, and they typically drop right onto your existing site seamlessly. A simple Google search for “free website templates” will get you some great options from trusted vendors.

(In the middle of querying? Here are some helpful tips.)

Mistake # 3: Unhelpful Posts -- No matter what channel you’re using to reach people, remember that your purpose is to help others, not to find ways to get others to help you. Writing that is long, overly personal, whiny, or generally unhelpful to anyone but you is best kept in a journal. Writing in a journal is like talking to your best friend; writing on a blog is like talking to another writer at a conference. You want to be relaxed and be yourself, but you also want to stay on topic.

The Fix: Make a list of where your areas of expertise are and start brainstorming how you can share that expertise with others. Do you love reading online articles about writing craft? Maybe Twitter would be the perfect place to share those with other writers. Do you know the ins-and-outs of self-publishing? Blogging might be the best way to share your learnings with other indie authors. Before posting anything online, do a quick check-in with yourself. Is this helpful to others? Is it furthering the wider conversation? If I saw this posted from someone else, would I be happy that I had found it?

When these three mistakes are smoothed out, you’ll find that platform-building will become more rewarding and more effective. And when you’ve find a way to enjoy the process itself, you’ll be able to stick with it, even through the tough moments—just like with publishing itself.

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