era of the author platform

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1

If this blog has a purpose, it’s to explore the question of how to be a successful professional writer in the twenty first century.

Part of that sums up in two words: author platform.

I’m not sure when I first heard the term, or realized it now applies to me. My understanding of ‘platform’ used to be that it was something only nonfiction writers had to worry about.

To publish a work of nonfiction, you had to be a recognized authority in your niche. You needed a pre-existing audience and accolades to win you more audience. Which is what a platform is: the number of people who will pre-order your book or buy it as soon as it hits the shelves (and Kindles).

Fiction writers, on the other hand, who deal with the amorphous shapes of make-believe that can’t be packaged or sold quite so neatly, had some leeway. They could build up their audience bit by bit. Book by book. Until they hit their tipping point and spilled into the mainstream and became a household name.

Or not.

Now, of course, that whole idea seems quaint. You’re no longer just a writer of fiction scribbling away in your attic but a writer-marketer-entrepreneur, whether you like it or not. You’re supposed to have an audience before you have a book to sell them.

The unnerving thing is that editors want and expect this; the amazing thing is that it’s possible at all.

2

I lived in Silicon Valley for five years, and I was with a man for ten who became one of its more prominent figures.

After the dot.com boom went bust – which everybody predicted, yet which seemed to catch everybody off-guard – my husband (now ex-) and I were part of a small migration south to Los Angeles.

These thirtysomething men who had emerged from the bust-up with their millions intact embarked on new lives. They applied themselves to movies, nonprofits, space technology, hedge funds, renewable energy and sometimes even other dot.coms.

I sold novels and attended conferences and led workshops and made writer friends.

My social world tends to split in half, with the techie types (and their wives and girlfriends) occupying one side of the sphere, and publishing and literary types occupying the other, with maybe a handful of environmentalists tossed around to confuse things.

The tech/business side contains estates, nice cars, designer clothes, luxury hotels and high-end restaurants.

The publishing/literary side…not so much.

The world of technology moves fast fast fast.

The world of publishing…not so much.

Which brings us to the current state of affairs: new (and more established) writers are talking about author platform in communities like this one and saying, “I guess that means I need to start a blog, right?” while a different kind of community is trumpeting Blogging is dead! Social media killed it!

And the writers say, Social media? That’s, like, Facebook and Myspace, right? And maybe the Twitter thing?

They say, I don’t really get the Twitter thing.

And then there’s me, who became aware enough to be slightly embarrassed by the fact that her ‘blog’ was a Livejournal, yet stayed at LJ…

…because, despite its reputation for being “juvenile”, Livejournal is where so many of the writers are.

I’m generalizing, of course, but it’s an interesting time, and not a little ironic, when such powerful tools of change are put in the hands of those who seem too uncomfortable to use them.

3

I had a strange introduction to social media.

Around this time last year, someone hacked into my wireless and took control of my computer (or rather, shared control with me). This person then began showing me around the Internet, teaching me– or attempting to, since I was newly divorced, stressed, emotional, malnourished and sleep-deprived, not to mention totally clueless, and this was happening around 2 in the morning – how to be a bit more savvy online.

This happened a few nights in a row and then never again. I bought a new laptop and called in the Make It Work guys to make my network more secure (“Anybody,” the guy told me, “could have hacked into this,” to which I said blithely, “Anybody did”).

‘Anybody’ sparked off a deep and continuing curiosity in me, a new way of thinking about publishing, the Web, and what I want to accomplish as a writer.

I still don’t know who that late-night companion was and have given up trying to guess. It could have been a number of different individuals; it could have been some bored kid next door.

But I would tell that person, Thanks.

4

Blogging isn’t dead, if only because too many writers are finally figuring out how to import their Livejournals to WordPress.com (and notice I stress the .com, since the .org is still beyond us).

What certain social media types seem to forget is that, in the end, blogging is still about writing – and reading — in a way that Twitter and Facebook and Friendfeed are not. There’s so much emphasis on conversation and networking, on these fragments and slivers of expressions of self, and so little on how some of us might need something more…sustained.

Human beings are wired to connect. Our brains program us to mimic and mirror each other, to plug into the universal powers of empathy. Status updates and real-time conversations are forms new technology takes to fulfill a primitive need.

But we also connect through storytelling.

There’s a reason why everything from feminist consciousness-raising groups to AA groups to various kinds of group therapy involve people sitting around in a circle telling personal narratives to each other. There’s a reason why some people write memoirs and other people buy them.

Storytelling heals.

Storytelling takes the things that shame us and holds them to the light of perspective and shared experience. We discover that we are not alone. And it can be hard to do that in 140 characters or less.

5

I think that’s what writers need to remember when they start building their platforms and posting their blog entries. You can write the most experimental, challenging, difficult novel you want, but when you blog, you aren’t writing for yourself. You are writing for the reader.

(Okay. You’re writing for yourself and the reader.)

Otherwise you won’t have any, and if a blogger blogs without a readership, I suspect it sounds a lot like one hand clapping.

And the reader, at least initially, doesn’t give a damn about your book. Or you. The reader wants information, diversion, a bit of entertainment over coffee, maybe a glimpse into a life different from her own. The reader doesn’t want to be sold or marketed to.

The reader wants to connect – and not with some profile photo of a freaking book, but a real human being.

Blogging takes a lot of work. It’s a major time suck. You don’t make money blogging; if you’re lucky, and good, you put yourself in a position where the money comes some other way. And if you don’t make the blog about something other than yourself, it’ll be hard to maintain the stamina and the interest to post as often as you need to without burning out.

The author platform has become a kind of art in itself.

The author platform is no longer about promotion, at least not by the old definitions. It’s about extending yourself all the way out there in a way you don’t have time or energy to do. But somehow need to find.

It’s about having something to say that will keep people interested, not least of all yourself.

It’s about turning yourself transparent. It’s about putting stuff out there that skates the razor’s edge of saying just a little too much.

It’s about being fearless and generous and stubborn as hell.

Nobody said it would be easy.

But then, neither was writing your damn book in the first place. Right?

Oct 29, 2009
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5 comments · Add Yours

Yup. The author platform is increasingly part of the accepted wisdom about moving your career forward as a writer. But like a lot of ideas that editors have about what causes readers to hand over cash in exchange for books, I’m completely unconvinced. That doesn’t mean you have a choice. But like a lot of necessary evils one submits to as an author with an editor, it pays to be clear — with yourself, when you’re alone and gritting your teeth over something that doesnt feel good — about why you’re saying yes to their request.

Blog writing — as you rightly point out — is a vastly different kind of writing than fiction writing, and I think its value cuts both ways: both as a violation of privacy that may not be good for an author, and as excellent practice in a different art form (a painter who takes up the piano). If you’re treating it as a valuable kind of writing, then be aware that you’ve just set out on another 10,000 hour journey, with all the challenges that entails. There are real dangers to publishing one’s journeyman work: I’m sure you’re glad some of your “practice novels” weren’t published, essential though they were in your development. Blogging can be problematic in this respect, even if readers are more forgiving. I suspect authors worry much more about this than editors do. I’m reminded here of Bruce Springsteen’s remark about how he refused to release an album until he was completely happy with it, even if that meant missing his contractual deadline and having to listen to the suits whine: record contracts come and go, but an album? That’s forever.

Reply

Before my current, writing-focused blog, I had another one from 2002-2007 that eventually devolved into a neurotic mass of overexposure (a regular reader once praised it as a “conceptual train wreck,” but eventually it became more wreckage than concept).

So I shut it down and took a year off, then started a new one with a narrowly defined subject (getting a novel published in a year) which soon proved to be too restrictive. First, because I had publicly set a naive and impossible goal for myself, and second, because my obvious failure to meet that goal meant that I was often writing about that failure or fretting about whether I should write about that failure.

I’ve relaxed since then. Now my material consists of whatever I’m doing writing-wise and whatever I find in the online writing world that catches my fancy, plus random bits whenever the mood strikes me.

I’ve made peace with the possibility of overexposure by asking myself whether what I’m tempted to post is related to writing. My rule for “revealing” posts is that I can write about my various neuroses only if they’re *closely* related to writing or the creative process. Otherwise, I step away from the keyboard.

I don’t know whether that’s a formula for blogging success (whatever that is) or not, but I do know that setting a few blogging boundaries has been good for my state of mind. I don’t worry about whether I’ve said too much, and I have more fun with it.

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Not to argue, but WordPress.org is definitely not beyond you. Lots of cool design doors open up when you own your platform. There’s a step-by-step DIY guide at http://www.goodlikekungfu.com/guide (free, no info-trade required).

Good luck platform-building!
Jenny

Reply

I’ve often wondered why I don’t seem to think that my blogging is quite as personal or revealing as others seem to think, maybe because I’m aware of my own boundaries in a way no one else could be and, unlike them, I’m aware of everything I don’t write (even if I kind of want to). What you construct online is just that — a construction, a persona — and I feel like I do have control over that, not so much how other people might take it but in terms of what (mostly) gets revealed.

Especially over the last year and a half or so, though, I’ve found that the more personal and daring I get, the better, bigger response from people, in a way that’s been very positive and supportive and healing.

At the same time, like you said, you want to avoid overexposure, and have some kind of focus for the blog — although I think the first is easy enough, so long as you focus on other things and people and not simply yourself…I like to write about who and what I see around me (blogging is in some ways my equivalent of travel writing, observing, etc.) and I like to write about writing…Time will tell how (or if) it all comes together.

I enjoy your blog, by the way. :)

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>>I enjoy your blog, by the way. :)

Thanks! :-D

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