Many writers wait until they've completed a novel—or a screenplay or a short story or any other significant piece of work—before attempting to build an author platform. Here's why you should make expanding your audience a daily practice.
There is a mentality that I see consistently with authors that always puzzles me. Maybe they’ve just finished a book. Or maybe they’ve signed with a literary agent. Or maybe they’ve just sold their novel to a publisher and they’re excited to get started on those edits. But the response is almost always the same when I ask them this question:
What’s your platform?
There’s usually a long pause, followed by the intention to begin building some form of author platform when they reach the next step in the process.
If they’ve just finished the novel, they’ll say they need to find an agent before they start marketing.
If they’ve found an agent, they’ll say they want their publishers help. Isn’t that the publishers area of expertise?
And if they’ve got their contract and advance, they’ll say once they finish their recent round of edits, or once they get their book cover in, they’ll cross over to that dark-side known as marketing.
It’s like, we have this idea of what it means to market a book, how to sell a lot of books, and most of our ideas are based on a fallacy—and a lot of negative connotations.
Learning about modern marketing has almost become its own kind of marketing. It has its own language and terminology. And for most writers, that language comes with some cringe-worthy baggage.
We hear “target audience” as “group of suckers who buy our books.”
We hear “branding” as “lying about how cool we are.”
We hear “building your audience on social media” as “blasting your book cover 100 times so all your friends buy it.”
But the real fallacy here, in my opinion, has a lot more to do with what we authors think success looks like. In our heads, success is something that just happens, like a lightning strike. It’s as if we think the Rowlings and the Kings of the world built their audiences in a few tiny moments of massive growth. They won the marketing lottery. One day they had no fans. And the next they had millions.
But the truth is, a following is built, quite literally, one person at a time. That isn’t to say there weren’t instances of large gains. But for most bestselling authors, the large increases alone wouldn’t have ever held sway if it weren’t for the daily small gains that built up over time.
You see, I’d argue that every bestselling novel that has ever existed had at least two things in common: A completed novel that is subjectively good, and a lot of people to buy it.
As authors, we tend to put the onus of the first on our shoulders and assume someone else will cover the second. But if we’re not passionate enough about our own work to make the small gains, how will anyone be passionate enough about it to put our book cover on the side of a bus or on a billboard in Times Square?
It is my opinion that doing just one of these two things, writing my book, is as silly a methodology as someone saying “today I will write my entire novel.” Novels are written one line at a time, not in a single day. So how silly it is to complete a novel and then say, “Today I will find my audience.”
Audiences are built one person at a time, one day at a time.
For most of us, writing never goes quite as we planned it. We expect our book will be done in six months, and it takes nine. We expect our edits will be done in three months and it takes six. That’s just part of the process of writing. But very rarely do I find a writer who uses that time to their advantage, no matter what stage of the publishing process they are in.
My last novel took me a year and a half to write, despite all my plans to finish it in six months. And when it was finished, I was confident that I had written something good enough to acquire representation. Here we are two years from that first sentence, and I still have not found the perfect fit. It’s possible I won’t. Of course, this won’t stop me. I’m hard at work on a new novel that will most certainly be the one! But what if I had used that time to build my author platform—to gain one new prospective fan a day?
It could be as simple as joining an X-Files forum, and just chatting with people about something I love. Or maybe joining a book club that focuses on thrillers, or perhaps a writing group.
Because those people, those individuals that you meet and befriend and connect with, those will be your first readers. They will be your champions. And if you’re not meeting those people now, while you’re still working on that novel, you’re still going to have to meet those champions later. And it will still take time and effort to meet them.
So take the time today, now, wherever you are, to meet people and engage with them. Not because you have some grand design to force them to buy your books. Just because you want to talk about The Expanse, or Artemis, or Iron Gold (holy cow I’m on a space kick right now). Take some time to deliberately meet one new person each day, and your publisher will be thrilled with you later.
MNBrian is a reader for a literary agent, founder of the PubTips writing community on Reddit, and author of Habits & Traits, a twice weekly newsletter geared towards helping authors navigate the world of traditional publishing.