building your author platform even if you’re not published yet, part two: paradigm shift




I mentioned in my livejournal that I found most information on platform-building for fiction writers to be unsatisfactory, and it’s been interesting to think about why.

The advice seems to be as follows: start a blog! get on Twitter! get on LinkedIn, Myspace, Facebook! build a website!

There’s not a lot of info on what to do after that, how to make it so that people will care that you’re at any of those places. Agents and editors will say, Start a blog, but they won’t tell you how to grow an audience, especially as the so-called blogosphere becomes cluttered with more content than there are readers for it.

So we start a blog which we might update once a week or less. We might invest some money in a fancy website. We set up profiles on various media sites using an image of our book as the profile photo. We start a Facebook fan page and invite all our ‘friends’ to be our ‘fans’. We plug our book in online forums.

Does this work?

…Maybe not so much.

One writer grumbled, “You might as well stand on a street corner and hawk copies of your book to people passing by. You’d sell just as many copies.”

Except what I described above is, I think, the Internet equivalent of just that — standing on the corner and hawking your book. It’s old-school marketing in a new-school world. The philosophy is: push your book in front of as many eyeballs as possible and hope that a percentage of those eyeballs turn into sales.

For a writer to develop an online author platform I think the first thing required is a paradigm shift (the Big Shift” as John Hagel calls it).

It’s not about push: pushing your book in front of as many readers as possible. It’s about pull: pulling the right readers to you.

It’s about attracting and gathering your tribe of Ideal Readers because of what you can do for them, not what you’re trying to get them to do for you.

People do not want to be sold or marketed to or “networked”. They don’t want you to ‘friend’ them if all you’re trying to do is get them to buy your damn book. They don’t care about your book. The last thing they want is author spam. I’m not saying that old-school advertising doesn’t work, or that there’s no place for it in an author platform; of course there is. But it belongs mostly in the offline world that complements the online world.

And we’ve learned to tune most of it out.

Unpublished writers will say that there’s no point in developing their author platform because they don’t have a book to sell yet. But that can be an advantage. You can reach out and connect with people without having that underlying agenda to scare them away.


The more I think about it, the more I dislike the term ‘author platform’. It doesn’t get at the organic nature of what you’re trying to grow.

A platform can’t be hammered into place. It is nurtured over time. Most people who start a blog give up within six months, not understanding that a blog won’t bloom a readership overnight. It’s a drip-drip-drip kind of growth.

Your blog and your Twitter are like your pets. They require daily attention and care. You can’t just dump kibble on the floor once a week and then forget about it.

An author platform shifts and evolves. You want to attract the right readers for your work, and you want them to come back again and again. You have to give them reasons to come back, which a static website doesn’t do.

An author platform isn’t about your books. It’s about you.

Or rather: an author platform is you, and you are it.

Something happens when you spend a lot of time online: the various social media sites that initially seem like so much chaos start to converge. There’s a growing sense of serendipity, synchronicity: a wave of motion and energy that you start to feel a part of, and through it you develop a sense (if not always to be trusted) of who your audience is and what they respond to.

So maybe instead of author platform you want to think about yourself as an author presence or author wave: sunlit and inviting, so that people see you from a distance, paddle up on their surfboards, ride you in to shore.

from WIRED: TED interview:”Tribes” author Seth Godin says People, not Ads, build Social Networks

Internet Writing Journal: Best Author Blogs (“all frequently updated and interesting to read”)


Dec 7, 2009

21 comments · Add Yours

You make a good point about Ideal Readers, because I’ve come to find that I’m more likely to add a blog to my RSS if I enjoy the blogger’s books (talking about novelists here), but not so much the other way around.

I also think that social networking might be a waste of time for people who won’t invest enough effort in it. There’s a ‘tipping point,’ of sorts. Below that point, you’re better using that time elsewhere, and over that point, your marginal return is positive until a maximum point.


There’s a book called GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL that came out recently, all about developing an ‘author platform’ in your earlier days as a writer. Although some of it seems geared towards nonfiction authors, there is still a lot there for fiction writers too.


…yanno, I suspect a certain someone is supposed to be off the internets and in revision mode so I can read her debut novel hopefully soonish. *g*


That was actually one of the books I was thinking about — I was disappointed in it, although maybe I should go back & give it another shot — but for fiction writers there was just one sliver of a chapter about finding a ‘hook’ for your blog (which was excerpted in Writer’s Digest) — and the rest didn’t really have to do with building a presence/getting known online, which was what I was interested in — it’s a smart book, but seems old-school PR.


But I think that’s the thing — you can’t be social networking if all you’re looking for is some kind of return on it, because people pick up on that. Your emphasis has got to be on what you can give — social networking has got to come from a general sense of abundance and generosity and sharing — about making yourself valuable to the community rather than trying to extract value from it.


I actually really agree with you.

I think it’s good for beginning writers, maybe. Or for people who have NEVER blogged or done anything like that before. I wasn’t going to buy it, but was just too curious to pass it up when I saw it for a good price. Heh.

Also, I have a friend writing a nonfiction (self-help) book, so I thought I could always pass it onto him if it wasn’t for me. He has it on his to-read pile right now. ;)


This was beautifully written and insightful. Actually, it was also quite inspiring. I like the point you make on allowing growth of the presence to grow naturally, organically. I quote: “think about yourself as an author presence or author wave: sunlit and inviting, so that people see you from a distance, paddle up on their surfboards, ride you in to shore.”

Beautifully put. Many thanks,



I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘author platform’ too. It conjures images of shooting a rocket (or a missile) at people–yeow! The expectation is that you are trying to hit a target by launching from a secure location.

Some people want or need to be fired at though. So while I think sales should no longer be the goal but one of maybe three, with a few hybrids thrown in, we come back to making contact. Pulling them in, inviting readers who want what you are saying.

Hard to do, because its counter-intuitive–we’ve been told it’s rockets or nothing. Like learning to balance in a kayak–you have to lean into the tip of the kayak towards the water with your paddle, not lean the other way (you’ll fwump right over).

I mean, yeah people are going to find out what you’re about pretty darn quick. If you’re pimping books and just phoning those blog posts in it’ll show. Our minds respond to organic constructs and psychological templates–you’ve got to work on credibility, which only comes if you mean it.

Make the connection. That’s the goal.


“You can’t just dump kibble on the floor once a week and then forget about it.”

Bingo. this is the BEST post on author platforms (or author wave) I’ve read. I cringe when authors (pubbed and unpubbed) flog their posts and schill their books w/o interacting with anyone. I “unfollow” quickly when I detect the same tweet seven times in a day.

I’m so glad I found THIS blog! :)


To be honest, I have very mixed feelings about this. I’ve considered starting a blog for over a year now, and I keep coming back to the same basic question of opportunity cost: what will I be sacrificing in order to spend time blogging? What will I be gaining? Some of the answers are tangible and knowable, others are not. The photo you’ve used here is of a surfer surfing a wave; I think a more appropriate image would be someone standing in front of the door to a room that is entirely dark.

Having said that, I’m a huge fan of your blog and your blog writing. I’m glad that, whatever else you’re sacrificing to make time to blog, you’re making those sacrifices. But I also know that you’re undertaking some changes in your fiction writing, trying some things you’ve never tried before. It’s going to take practice to get good at the new skills you’re learning. Practice takes time.

At the same time, I think that blogging exercises muscles that fiction writing doesn’t use, and I suspect there’s a productive feedback loop between these two disciplines. At the very least, I think it never hurts to practice explaining what you’re thinking very, very clearly. Certainly, even outside the context of the 10,000 hours, one can only benefit from writing more often rather than less. Assuming that in fact blogging helps you to write — and practice writing — more rather than simply taking time and attention away from one’s fiction. And assuming that moving one’s fiction forward is the ultimate goal. Lots of variables here.

The question of whether starting a blog will help a writer get a novel published is an entirely different matter, and rather hideous to contemplate.

It’s a heady feeling, is it not, to sit in a workshop and have the instructor point to you and say, “this person is doing it right.” Congrats!


I love to blog — it’s an extension of my writing practice, it doesn’t replace it — and although it requires near-daily time & effort, it takes up as much time as, say, one television show. (I don’t watch TV, which frees up a lot of time.)

I should clarify — I don’t think a blog is nearly enough on its own (when it comes to ‘platform’, etc.) — I think it’s the beginning & the center. But you have to want to do whatever it is that you do do — have a passion for it….There’s no one right way for everyone in any case, you have to recognize your strengths and interests & tailor them accordingly…I love blogging, I love twitter, so those two, for me, are no-brainers, and don’t feel to me like I’m sacrificing anything, partly because I find them such rewarding & fulfilling activities in and of themselves…I”m grateful for them. I’ll be building out my presence from there. Knock wood.

And just to say — I’m not sure the instructor meant I was doing it *right*, just that I was doing it *at all*. :)

I’m also curious as to what ‘new skills’ re: my fiction-writing you think I’m learning? Frankly I don’t really see it as acquiring skills I don’t already have, so much as what I’m trying to accomplish with them — and, as always, improve in my general understanding of the art & the craft.


But you ARE sacrificing time you could be spent writing fiction, or teaching a workshop somewhere, or networking in some tangible way with other writers or publishing cogs, or reading, or anything else. Cormac McCarthy spends his time hanging out with scientists: it directly informs his writing. Less time spent doing that would mean his writing would change, maybe “suffer” in some way. Even if it’s “just” an hour a day. You’re also turning your attention away from other areas of focus during that time and in the time you spend thinking about the blog, the website, the platform, and everything associated with it, which I’d venture to say is more than an hour a day. It’s consuming focus that could spent on something else. Is this good for your fiction writing? Bad for it? Are those even relevant questions? I don’t know the answers, but I know that redeploying one’s attention always results in unpredictable outcomes, some good, some not good at all.

I’m glad you’ve chosen to devote some of your attention to writing your blog. I benefit, happily.

New skills: we’ve spoken of your trying to incorporate some stylistic and structural elements that work so well in your blog posts into your fiction.


Faboo, Justine! An excellent and practical series. Spread the gospel of People do not want to be sold or marketed to or “networked!”

I think it’s easier to avoid that if you start building your platform/treehouse/Sarlacc pit before you’ve got something to sell. That way you learn about blogging/twittering/whatevering for it’s own sake. I’ve been blogging since 2002 and built my current, more writing-focused site in 2008. The latter is purpose-driven, but it’s not really a pushing tool because I haven’t got much in the way of “product” to push.

That said, being…let’s say, “lightly published”…makes identifying my own contributory value more problematic. So far I’ve just been writing what I write, hoping that my observations of my situation will resonate with or be helpful to people in similar situations. Still, over the past several days I’ve had to counsel myself, “Patience!” because had I lost sight of why I was blogging and it started to feel phony and pointless.

Dan–I had a piece of flash fiction posted on McSweeney’s in May that began life as a Facebook update. Since then it’s been translated into Spanish and published (in a magazine printed on real paper made from dead trees) in Mexico and Spain. I got paid for it, too, at an excellent per-word rate. I also have a couple of works in progress that started out as blog posts. So I’d say that my own “unpredictable outcome” has been pretty good so far.

I think it’s a matter of discovering which kind of writing generates creative flow and force, and that will change from day to day. Lately my blog has been a distraction, and I’ve had to loosen up a bit and get silly with it. Now it’s fun again and gives me ideas, instead of being serious and draining.


(Oh dear, was that bragging? I don’t feel braggy. The “Facebook—>paid writing!” equation made me pretty damn happy, is all.)


Here are some questions I don’t have answers to: will writing a blog help you get your novel published? Can having a platform help you sell books? Will writing a blog make you a better fiction writer? A happier fiction writer? A happier person? Will the time spent building and managing a platform detract from time you might spend doing other things that make you happy? That improve your fiction writing? From time spent writing fiction? Will paying attention to your platform distract attention from other things you might pay attention to? What are those other things? What are the consequences of this attention shift?

Some of these are midlife questions. At my age (I’m 44), I look back and realize just how much time I’ve wasted, and how bizarrely misplaced my focus was. I never for a second thought I was focusing on the wrong things, but too often I was. I was not nearly as smart about this stuff as I thought I was. I frequently find myself asking myself Colin Marshall’s question: how is this choice I’m making penalizing my future self?

By the way, Ian, this post of yours in your blog is priceless. Justine, I’d love to hear your thoughts:


Yes, exactly.

What Paul said. :)


Thank you. Comments like yours mean a lot to me because I’m always pushing the edges of my comfort zone when I write about this stuff….I really need the conversation.

Glad you found this blog too!


I appreciate your posts, Dan, and I’ve been mulling them over and suspect I’ll use them to spark off some blog posts…

Yes, I *do* think a lot about this stuff because I like to, it’s fun and stimulating for me…Which doesn’t mean that you have to (part of the value I can bring to the conversation is, hopefully, that you & others won’t have to undergo the same kind of learning and trial-and-error process I’m still undergoing…)

More and more I think an effective author platform — fuck it, I’m just going to start saying ‘author wave’ from now on — is integral to the person…It is whatever you can’t pay someone else to do for you…Which means you have to find some way to make it relevant and meaningful for you in and of the process itself, if you know what I mean….Yes, publishers will say that you absolutely need a blog in this day and age (and more), but if you can’t find a way to do it that fully engages you and makes it a meaningful use of your time — and thus the reader’s — you might as well not bother, because it *will* be a waste of time.

Blogging, for me, is a form of social networking & a kind of ongoing workshop…I was in the YA section of the bookstore the other day and ticking off to my boyfriend all the author names I recognized (on the front tables) from the interactions I’ve had online…That interaction & conversation & relationship-building has become a huge reason why I’m online in the first place (although it wasn’t when I started for the simple reason that I just didn’t know).

You *can’t* blog just to promote yourself & your books. (I mean, you can, but you won’t get many readers that way.) You have to find something you’re passionate about, something you want to learn more about (‘the best way to learn something is to teach it…’). After all, a person cannot live by fiction-writing alone; we need to feed our fiction with a continuing stream of curiosity and stimulation and knowledge. Blogging can do that.

Again, you’re not selling books or doing PR, certainly not in the traditional sense; you’re creating an experience for the reader (and yourself) that becomes an author-branded experience because of who you are and what you represent…I need to think about this a little more in order to clarify it better…

I guess what I’m saying is: you’ll know you’ve found your own individual right-for-you way of engaging in the process when you are so jazzed by what you’re doing that you no longer feel the need to ask these questions, because ‘creating an author wave’ is about so much more than just self-promotion (and in any case demands a different way of thinking about ‘self-promotion’).


I have some of those answers, but they’re for me. Not universal truths at all. (One thing I do know: I used to do a lot of political blogging, and that made me downright miserable!) The aggregate result of those answers is that I find enough value in the exercise to keep doing it and explore ways of doing it that complement my current goals.

Another thing I know is that while reading through five years’ worth of posts from my old blog this evening, I was struck by the realization that I’m just not having very much fun at my new blog. Some of my older material has a liveliness to it that I haven’t been able to muster, and that’s a real problem. I suspect that my experiment of a narrowly-focused blog about writing and writing-related topics may be drawing to a close. As Justine mentions, that’s part of finding the “right-for-[me] way of engaging in the process,” just like the right-for-me answers I mentioned. The blog will continue, but what I choose to post will be different. I suspect I’ll return to my patented Conceptual Train Wreck format.

(BTW, the post in your link belongs to Lynn Viehl, all I did was comment on it.)

Also, there is a very tiny smiley face in the bottom left corner of this comments page. Keep your eye on it. It looks sneaky.


Thanks for linking to Lynn’s post, Ian. I can’t tell you what a huge impression her post has made on me. For one thing, I’m still reeling from the fact that selling a mere 64,000 copies of a mass market paperback qualifies a book for the NY Times Bestseller list. If that’s the case, then I’m completely wrong about the effectiveness of a blog in generating book sales, and publishers are certainly right to encourage authors to drum up sales by launching a platform, or starting a wave, or whatever.

There’s a certain synergistic effect of efforts like this: no one marketing component seems to be very effective by itself, but taken together they can move the market. A friend who worked in advertising told me once that people need to be reminded three times about a product before they buy. I also recall a story the very first builder I worked for told me, when I asked him whether the display ad he ran in the local newspaper generated much work for him. He told me that in twenty years he had never gotten a job from this ad, but during the one period when he pulled the ad from the paper, a couple of dozen people he came across in social situations asked him whether he had gone out of business. When he asked them why they thought that, they told him that they had noticed his ad had disappeared.

I love Justine’s blog, and I tell people about it and recommend it to people. At a certain tipping point, some of these people are going to buy her books. We’re all looking for filters, and loving someone’s blog-writing is a better filter than most when trying to decide whose writing to spend actual money on. I have people in my life — my father, for example — that, when they recommend a book, I buy it. (Of course, I’m always recommending Jim Harrison to people, and they inevitably hate his writing. I could be the worst marketing tool he’s got out there.)

It’s also obvious that someone could tie Justine to a chair and duct-tape her fingers together and she would find a way to blog and Tweet. This is a medium that completely suits her as a creative outlet, entirely apart from its usefulness as a marketing platform. I’m glad for that. In pre-digital times, it was virtually impossible to get a hold of this kind of work from a writer you liked — it was considered apocrypha and was published posthumously. I remember, years ago, finding by chance the published diary Jim Harrison kept while he wrote Dalva. This was, essentially, a series of blog posts in the time before blogs — informal, loosely-structured, highly personal, genre-less, utterly fascinating and engaging. And, by the way, a great advertisement for his book, had it been published ahead of the novel — just as Justine’s writing about The Decadents is a great advertisement.

This is a good topic. Insert smiley face here.


I understand what you’re saying. I agree with you.

Your blogging is profoundly creative. I read your posts and see you honing skills that are genuinely impressive — already highly developed, getting even better. Your blog content is very, very different from your fiction, and in no way does your blog feel like a marketing vehicle.

I think in part I’m reacting to the marketing aspect of the author platform. I don’t like being sold to. And I definitely don’t like the idea that editors and agents will use the lack of a blog as an excuse to not consider an author’s work for publication.

I’m very goal-oriented in my thinking about this: what’s the goal, what’s the best way of getting there? You’re very process-oriented: blog-writing is another aspect of your writing and your interests, each kind of writing nourishes the other, it all works together to move you along in your development as a writer and establish an audience for your books. I really can’t argue with that.


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