the secret ingredient to a strong author platform

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I have come to believe that an author platform is its own cool thing. It isn’t something you can just slap on top of your novel – a coat of promotion, a sprinkle of marketing – but a living, growing entity in its own right.

It needs to reach into many different places. You can’t just sit on your blog like a spider in its web and wait for the pretty flies to come. You need to find your readers across the different platforms – and you need to re-imagine and re-purpose your content to fit those platforms.

This requires work and time. An editor at a webinar advised her listeners to take half of your writing time and dedicate it to platform. Gone are the days when marketing your novel was something that happened after the fact. Now it has to be baked into the process.

Now it requires big meaning.

And by this I mean a big idea, a theme, an obsession, a vision, a mission statement, a full-fledged manifesto/a. Call it what you will. I like the phrase ‘big meaning’ because meaning is what we seek and make out of our lives, fleshed out through our creative work.

A sense of meaning is intrinsic to happiness. We need to love and work in meaningful ways. When we’re depressed, we say our lives have no meaning.

If an author platform is to be truly powerful, it has to mean something to you and to others.

It has to represent something that taps into your deepest values. Your intellectual and emotional sweetspot. Your core.

It has to be juicy.

This is because it needs to inspire you on those days — and you will have them — when you’d rather poke your eyes out than blog or tweet or do anything that has anything to do with social media. ‘Should’ just won’t cut it: as in, I should do this because I need to do this because I have to build a platform because everybody says so. Dammit. That line of thinking leads to discouragement and burnout.

There has to be pleasure in the process. And if the pleasure isn’t always there, it helps to have a sense of purpose that goes beyond selling your books and yourself; goes to somehow making the world a better place.

Which makes your platform something that other people can buy into. Because then it’s not just about you, it’s about them, and the satisfaction and stimulation it gives them, and even the sense of identity they get through aligning themselves with your mission, your vision, your particular point-of-view.

Meaning is the crack cocaine of the Internet. If you can provide that, you’ve got a world at your fingertips.

Which helps you create your author-brand. I know that ‘brand’ is a bit of a dirty word, tainted by many many years of one-way corporate-speak, but think about what brand is: an evolving set of ideas and associations that represent you when you yourself aren’t anywhere around.

Your brand is like your avatar, your alter-ego, your signature style, walking around the ‘Net and growing or shrinking according to the conversations that other people have about you (or don’t).

When you know the meaning behind your brand, it’s easier to streamline and focus. You’ll know what to share, or include, or jettison, or edit out, and what not to bother with in the first place. You will know what is relevant to your brand. This enables you to find the method in the madness of the stuff that’s on the ‘Net; what to build on, deepen, collect and curate for your readers.

But most of all, it’s your big idea, your big meaning, that generates and feeds your content ecosystem.

(Full disclosure: I just really like to use that phrase. ‘Content ecosystem.’ It gives me a bit of a thrill. I don’t know why. I’m just like that.)

Because your platform cannot live by your blog alone. Or your Twitter stream or Facebook page or Youtube channel. You have your hub, your online home, the place where you lure and catch your readers (and their email addresses), but moving out from that you have all the other places that form your social media framework.

(For example, the mighty online Obama presidential campaign reached out to a network of millions through 15 different platforms. Each vehicle you use – LinkedIn or Tumblr or Ning or Goodreads or whatever – creates its own little network, which links up to all your other little networks, which can create something very very big.)

And those different platforms require different forms of content. But you can take your big content – long blog entries, or ebooks or whitepapers — and break it into smaller chunks and bites and tweets. You can take your small content and explode it into something more in-depth. You can transcribe your podcasts and post on your blog; you can tweet cool quotes from your video interviews; you get the idea. Your content feeds your content feeds your content.

And it’s all fueled by your big meaning.

Your big idea.

Which generates and grows your content.

I was doing yoga at a Big Sur retreat called Esalen when the big meaning for Tribal Writer popped into my head (somewhere between the chanting and the naked people in the mineral baths). I saw it simply as this, an image emblazoned across my mental mindskin:

art + entrepreneurship

Tribal Writer is about creativity, craft and platform, but ultimately it’s about learning how to become a creative entrepreneur. Being entrepreneurial is part of how I define being a twenty-first century writer (combining self-publishing with traditional publishing). I’m early in the journey…but it is a journey, and one I’m psyched to be on.

And if Tribal Writer is part of a larger platform – my Justine Musk author platform – then the big meaning that drives it has to do with empowerment, including creative empowerment, including this idea that once you yourself start to find it, it’s your duty (and privilege) to share your process and tools and knowledge with others. Everybody wins.

Did I know this when I first started blogging, or took my first (mis)steps into the world of social media? Well, no. I didn’t think in these terms at all; author platform was not a phrase that applied to fiction writers until a relatively short time ago. Finding your big meaning is part strategic thinking, and part following-your-instinct as your social media life takes root, and grows and shifts in your hands. It’s about listening to the voices that emerge through your work, the voices of your deeper self, and giving them the respect they deserve. It’s about paying attention to your life, your past, your self, the things and themes that tend to obsess you, or that surface and resurface within the ongoing narrative of your life. It’s about figuring out what you’re truly driven to write – and not what you feel you should write.

Chances are that you at least have an inkling of your Big Meaning, and that’s all you need to start. Go in the direction of your inklings, which lead to other inklings, which lead the way. You’ll promote your own work while you’re at it.

Dec 9, 2010
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27 comments · Add Yours

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I get ready for my book launch next year, and this post is really helpful, fantastic stuff. I want to spend more time on the blog, but I need to figure out where the passion is going to come from, and I need to do so by sometime in January.

I’m thinking it might make sense to craft a premise or a mission statement for the blog.
It doesn’t have to be set in stone, but at least it gives me something I can use as a way decide is an idea worth pursuing and posting.

I also love, love, love the term “Creative Entrepreneur”. That really describes what I’m working towards, and gives me a defining role outside of simply being an “author”.

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Finding ones “big meaning”. That’s awesome! I hope to be able to find it. Still looking.

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Well said, Justine. I think we’ve all learned how to block out “Buy my book.” And, in the end, don’t we want to change the world, not just sell books?

Scott Nicholson
Disintegration

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I love how the meaning of Tribal Writer came to you in a moment of repose (even if it wasn’t a quiet one). That seems to me how big ideas work – they come to you when you’ve set the stage for creativity. And I agree with you about juicy, about meaning, and about deep engagement with the platform you build. When it’s authentic, it pushes you to discover and connect and explore.

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This is an inspiring post – particularly in light of our (brief) discussions on Facebook about meaning. It’s hard for me to operate on a daily basis without thinking about meaning and the big picture and I do, indeed, get depressed sometimes and wonder what it all means – but having my blog and developing a nascent platform has eased some of that constant tension.

This is inspiring because it provokes to me work harder on the platform side and to explore other forms of social media with an actual goal in mind of further development and reaching out into the world…

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This topic has been eye opening for me. It has made me want to further hone my meaning. I don’t think I’ve looked at my online pursuits in that sort of light.

But I’m sure I’ll stumble upon it, if I haven’t already.

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Very cool blog article! I didn’t “get” what you meant by your tweet/facebook post yesterday. Now I see what you’re saying.

The question I have is how connected does your “big idea” need to be with your published works? You and I are in similar spaces in terms of fiction (dreams/paranormal/suspense/supernatural), yet Tribal Writer doesn’t necessarily connect with BloodAngel or Lord of Bones. It’s been amazing to watch your journey as a novelist and now you’re a social media expert of sorts. Are your published works going to go in that direction? (obviously these aren’t questions I expect you to answer here but hoping they’re part of future articles).

I’m trying to apply your advice to my situation. I’ve been providing content for my budding tribe in the paranormal realm. The FB group is in the thousands, hundreds of whom are active, others who I know to be active in their paranormal endeavors. We have discussions, play games, review paranormal shows etc. So then should I only write blogs/tweets etc along those lines? Or do I share my personal journey the way you have? I’m always kind of surprised how readers are interested in my stuff but then I worry about being overy ego-centric.

Why is this stuff so haaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrd?

Thanks for paving the way for all of us.

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justine ~
thank you for saying this: Did I know this when I first started blogging, or took my first (mis)steps into the world of social media?

that really gives this relative newbie some hope that as i stumble along, i’ll find my way, too. your post is insightful and gives shape to the idea of finding one’s own big meaning through the process – i can definitely feel it shifting in my hands over time.

thanks for your good words.
~ julie

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This is great! I was just thinking about this. I am not necessarily actively perusing the “author platform” but art + entrepreneurship is important to me. I do get burnt out by the hustle. Gotta find people to read my stuff. Forever reaching out into the ether for readers and for all that. I guess I have to think of it this way — a means to spread my message.

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Terrific post as always, Justine. I’m curious though: In your opinion, does an author’s platform ever involve anything other than stuff done on the internet? I guess another way of asking: Did authors have a platform before the internet?

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Awesome comments, people. Thank you.

@Andrew — I think a mission statement makes a lot of sense. Strategy is good. :) You want to think about who your audience is and what you want to give them, and how and where this overlaps with your own interests/passion.

@Dan — you’re a man in search of a meaning! but aren’t we all. :)

@Scott — I think wanting & trying to do some social good makes us better at what we do. and definitely more motivated.

@Rose — yeah, you can’t force creative insights, but you can set the container for it…I’ve been forcing myself to step away from my work on a regular basis to give my mind time to mull over stuff, ideas time to incubate….Otherwise you get too narrowly focused on whatever it is that you’re doing, & you’re not as effective.

@Alex — me too, I can totally relate :)

@Julie — process is so important. and feedback is so immediate & important that you don’t want to spend too much time planning, overthinking — you want to get your thing out there and then keep tweaking and experimenting along the way.

@Adam — you absolutely will, and it’s probably coming together for you already, you just can’t see it yet…

@Stephen — I had kind of a writerly identity crisis (ie: divorce & ensuing public drama) and it’s changed the way I think about my future writing. Blogging has been a way to reinvent myself as a writer in many ways. I want to stay in or near the supernatural/thriller area, but with greater emphasis on realism, on psychology. There’s always been a disconnect between my blogging and my published work, and yes, I am trying to close that gap; the novel I’m working on now is a lot like my Livejournal in terms of subject matter, characters, etc.

Tribal Writer is kind of headed in its own direction. I think it will help some people discover my fiction, sure — draw them into my world — but I started it just to have a place to learn and talk about this kind of stuff, which (at the time) I wasn’t really seeing happening anywhere else. Now I’ve developed new ambitions for this site…so it will be its own thing, kind of a spin-off from my “master platform” (which I’m still developing and hope to launch “for real” sometime in the new year).

@Shenee — yeah, exactly, if you just think of it as a ‘hustle’, it’s going to get old. you need that bigger higher purpose — it won’t just inspire you but also pull others to you, so ‘the hustle’ gets easier

@Jeff — absolutely, the ideal platform is offline *and* online. If you check out Chris Guillebeau — The Art of Nonconformity — http://www.chrisguillebeau.com — he’s the perfect example of someone who started his platform online & is also building it offline through his World Domination book tour and meet-ups, & conference he’s organizing, plus he’s been writing for magazines and dealing with traditional media, etc. He’s become a bestselling, traditionally published author along the way, as well as a successful online entrepreneur. He rocks. (Full disclosure: I’m actually hosting an after-bookparty for him tonight and I’m psyched. :) Face-to-face is *so* important. Online & offline should complement each other; it’s not a question of either/or.

And — there were absolutely platforms before the ‘Net — for *nonfiction* writers. But the nature of a platform was very very different. 1: It was, in the way of all traditional advertising, about one-way communication: blasting your message out to as many people as possible in hopes that a tiny percentage would be interested & buy your book: it was about “push” (you were pushing your message out at people). 2: so much of it depended on the traditional media, & there was very limited access to it, so you had to become a recognized expert *first* and then build your platform. (Now you can start building your platform even as you develop your expertise, & take people along the journey with you.)

Now, ‘platform’ is interactive. It’s also about “pull”. Instead of playing the numbers, you refine your message and let the power of your message attract your ideal readers. You still have to get yourself out there — as many places as possible — but your goal isn’t to push your book at people, it’s to make it as easy as possible for them to discover you, your work, and also to *share* it.

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Great post! First time I’ve run across your blog but it’s been bookmarked. Love the “Meaning is the crack cocaine of the Internet” bit.

Check out my Zombiethon happening all month long at http://www.jenniferxjoseph.com – after December my blog goes back to its regularly scheduled programming. :)

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thanks – this is the most satisfying post I’ve read on the whole author platform thing – which often just seems like disguised marketing to me. this puts the heart – and meaning! – back in. Thanks!
Ann

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Just getting started and worried about spending too much time learning how to do an online platform, but no more! I’m a month away from publication of a magzine article that took months, and at least a year away from having a memoir ready to go … so your article is extemely encouraging. Thanks, new friend.

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I love this: It’s about figuring out what you’re truly driven to write – and not what you feel you should write.

I struggle w/ this. All. The. Time. Thanks for reminding me to stay true to ‘me’! That is the hardest part for a writer. I tend to write and think ‘What will others think about this’? when really I (and we all, as writers) need to ask ‘Is this voice true to me?’ I believe Bill Roorbach in his book, Writing Life Stories, says it best: “Who makes you cringe most, censor yourself? Kick that person out of your writing room, forcibly. Write up a restraining order, if necessary. Call the cops.”

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Justine,
Great blog post, it has me fired up for an anthology project I’ve been planning. I love what you wrote, “A sense of meaning is intrinsic to happiness. We need to love and work in meaningful ways. When we’re depressed, we say our lives have no meaning” and also “art + entrepreneurship = Tribal Writer”

I carry these two quotes around with me, I am adding yours to the list:

Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.
~Rita Mae Brown

I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you’re an idiot.
~Steve Martin

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JJ — zombies! (I wrote zombie story I’m really proud of in the anthology ENCOUNTERS WITH THE HUNGRY DEAD, edited by John Skipp). I will check out.

Ann — it’s marketing in a different & much better sense. I think of it as ‘unmarketing’ — content that has value in and of itself, and promotes your stuff *indirectly*. which means you need something *else* to talk about. which is where big meaning comes in.

Dougald — thanks back, new friend! I would say online platform is only going to get more important, not less, and authors who start early will have an automatic advantage because the process requires *time* — you can’t rush it, you can’t take shortcuts, and you learn as you do, as you go along

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I found your blog extremely thought provoking and I agree with it. I am a new writer and sharing information like yours is very educational. Writing, like anything else in life, is something you must love to do it well. And you must have and believe in your own message.

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Good point about creating an author brand. I advocate the use of Internet voting. I have around 100 FB friends and 95 followers on Twitter. I’ve just completed my manuscript — “Internet Voting Now! Here’s Why. Here’s How.” I’m sending query letters to every agent I can find who claims an interest in politics. I don’t know anybody on the inside. I’m worried about scams and predators. Can anybody recommend an agent who won’t cheat me, and who will get me published with a great publisher?
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Internetvoting@gmail.com

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It’s about figuring out what you’re truly driven to write – and not what you feel you should write.

Yes! Thank you for saying that. It’s soooo hard to narrow that focus when the most pressing need is to pay the bills. And never mind the full-time job that sucks up most of your life; there are still all the admonishments about varied income streams, writing for websites, etc. that give you a start and something to put in a query letter in the credentials paragraph. I know what I want to write (fiction, mostly crime but other stuff too) and I don’t resent having to do commercial writing to get there. It’s all stepping stones. I’m just hoping the drive doesn’t get sucked up into the need.

PS – you got to go to Esalen? I’m jealous. I always wanted to go there!

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Thanks – what helpful advice for those of us who are newer to social media!

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This is excellent! Thank you for writing about the connection between meaning and art and platform. Again, fabulously said. I look forward to reading more again soon. Thank you!

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Thank you for all your insightful articles concerning this topic! Very well said! I found you through a link on Jane Friedman’s blog, and it’s easy to see why she recommends you.

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I’ve been doing a lot of research with regards to platform building and this has been one of the best blog posts I’ve come across.
As with everything, authenticity is the key. If I am authentically who I am, even on social media, then there can be no other Twitter/FB presence like me, b/c there is no other person just like me. I’m building relationships, not just a network of potential buyers of my novel.
I’m new to Twitter and still learning the ropes, but articles like this help. Thanks!

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hello!,I love your writing so much! percentage we keep up a correspondence extra approximately your post on AOL? I need an expert on this area to resolve my problem. May be that’s you! Taking a look forward to see you.

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I think we all need to stop blogging and start writing. No amount of social media will sell your book if the writing isn’t good.

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Of course not. That’s a given. And if you can navigate the Internet as well, then you truly are the captain of your own fate.

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