J.M. Reep

Literati In Platforms

In Commentary on July 12, 2009 at 11:08 pm

The big buzzword in publishing today is “platform.” If you’re a new writer who wants a deal with a big publishing company, you have to demonstrate that you have a platform.

Platforms have always been around in one form or another, I suppose. Basically, a platform is your base — your network of readers and fans that you have developed, especially the network you’ve developed on your own. Creating a platform used to mean publishing short stories or articles or poems or whatever else you could get into print. It was the list of publication credits that one included in one’s query letters to agents and publishers.

But just because you had amassed a long list of publication credits before you wrote your first novel didn’t necessarily mean you had a fan base. This was especially true if most of one’s credits were from literary journals. Often, the only people who bother to read literary journals are other writers trying to figure out how they, too, can get published in that same journal.

For the most part, building a fan base came after a book was published. Book readings and book signings were the most effective ways to interact with large numbers of your audience or expand the size of that audience. If your publisher offered enough support, you might even have opportunities for radio and television interviews. That was pretty much it.

Today, though, building a fan base — your platform — before you get published is much easier to do thanks to online social networking tools like blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and so on. It may take time and dedication to build those platforms into something substantial, something that would interest an agent or a publisher, but it can be done.

Constructing a platform, in and of itself, is a good strategy which makes sense, but the problem that I have is how publishing corporations are relying more and more on writers themselves to build their platforms. One of the arguments for teaming up with a publishing house is that the publishing house has marketing and distribution resources that are unavailable to the individual authors. Sure, a published author still must shoulder some of the marketing responsibility — he can’t just sit back and expect the publishing house to do all the work for him — but the author’s job was made easier because of those resources. Now, though, in this age of the platform, authors are being required to take on more and more of the marketing responsibility. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first reason has to do with the nature of social networking. Whenever corporations try to get involved in social networks, the result is awkward and inauthentic. It is the individual who has the power in social networking. Thus, readers on Twitter, for example, don’t want to hear from an author’s publisher, they want to hear from the author! It’s not unlike a book signing. The “magic moment” at a book signing comes at the instant where the reader gets to meet and talk to the author. At a book signing where there are lots of readers in attendance, the author doesn’t have time to talk for very long with very many people. But when a reader “friends” an author on a social network, there is an opportunity for much deeper interaction. In that respect, the traditional marketing strategies that were once used to build platforms are no longer effective. They were superficial; they aimed at bringing as many people as possible into a bookstore — it didn’t really matter who those people were. Relationships weren’t important. Today, they are.

The other reason has to do with the decline of the publishing industry generally. Publishing corporations are losing money and downsizing operations, leaving them with fewer and fewer resources to devote to marketing new, unknown authors. Indeed, it seems that most of the money and attention is going to well-known, established authors and celebrity authors. It’s a superficial strategy that may bring in money in the short run, but doesn’t solve publishing’s long-term problems.

So whenever I hear agents and publishers prattle on about “platforms,” I feel a bit suspicious. Are they advocating platforms because they recognize how fundamentally book marketing has changed? Or are they advocating platforms because it helps them save money to have authors do all the work?

And if it is up to new authors to do all of the marketing work themselves, just what do they need publishers for?

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