Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Author Platform: Friend or Foe?

Over the past few weeks I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the importance of author platforms for increasing book sales. One of the main concepts of the author platform is to create an instant audience for your books through those who follow you via social media, whether it’s your web site, blog, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever. Consulting editor, Alan Rinzler has a great article on The “New Author” Platform – What You Need to Know . Along those same lines, children’s author and SCBWI regional adviser, Kathleen Temean has some great ideas on her blog post today on how to drive traffic to your web site. Additionally, well-known blogger and literary agent, Rachelle Gardner talks in her blog today about why author platforms are so important to agents and publishers.

These are just a few examples of great articles on the how-to’s and importance of the author platform, and I will definitely continually refer to them as try to build up my own platform. But as I read these and so many other articles like them, it makes me wonder if publishers and agents are slowly putting themselves out of business with the increasing emphasis that they place on authors creating their own audience and promoting themselves. It’s obvious that the days are long gone when an author could sit in seclusion, cranking out new books and then passing them off to their agent or publisher to market and sell. But if more and more of the marketing and promotion responsibility falls to the author, what role does that leave for the publisher and agent?

I have long been an advocate of going the traditional publishing route versus the self-publishing route. One of the main reasons for that has been that I’m not an expert in book distribution, promotion and sales. While I enjoy speaking at conferences and doing school visits, I want to be a full time author, not a full time marketer. But if traditional publishing continues down its current path, that might be exactly what I need to do to be a successful author.

Of course, another important role for the traditional publisher and agent is to be the gatekeeper, to make sure only the highest quality books make it to market. But with the exponential rise of epublishing, are they really needed as gatekeepers anymore? Word of mouth and social interchanges of discerning readers have the ability to determine which books are worth reading or not. In many ways, traditional publishers and agents are being seen by many authors as road blocks to publication rather than vehicles to publication.

It reminds me of an interchange I had with an author friend about a year ago, in which I was suggesting that she steer clear of the self-publishing route and go with a traditional publisher. She basically said, “Been there, done that. It was a financial fiasco.” She then told me that due to the publisher’s standard royalty rate that she didn’t make nearly as much money as she thought she could. Inwardly I thought, well that’s just the way it is; the publisher gets their cut, the distributor gets their cut, and retail gets their cut. That’s life. But then she told me about her author platform of more than 30,000 dedicated followers who would instantly buy her new book whether or not it came from a traditional publisher. She built up her author platform so well that she really didn’t need any more of what the publisher had to offer her.

Along similar lines, an article two days ago in the New York Times talks about how Amazon’s vision of end-to-end publishing services has publishers running scared because it leaves them completely out of the publishing loop. For authors that have built up a popular marketing platform, Amazon offers a compelling and more profitable option than the traditional route.

Although, I’m still an avid proponent of the role that traditional publishers and agents can play in regard to author success, as the ebook industry evolves and as publishers and agents shift more and more of what used to be their responsibility to the author I have to wonder what role they will leave for themselves, if any.

What are your thoughts about the growing emphasis on the author platform and self-promotion?

How do you see that increased emphasis affecting the role of publishers and agents?


  1. You left out one aspect. As publishers and agents focus more and more on the author's platform and marketing participation, they are (of necessity) focusing less on the quality of the book.

    Which means...they are no longer acting as gate-keepers of quality. Rather, they are becoming gatekeepers of platform and marketability...which the buying public can decide for themselves...

  2. Joe, great comment. More and more you hear that a book has to be of publishable quality before it hits the agent or editors desks, which further diminishes the agents and editors role. But don't get me wrong, I still feel strongly that agents and editors can and do play an important role, but it seems that they're trying to work themselves out of a job.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and actually popped over to your site DUE to your remarks on Rachelle's blog. To some degree, even as authors, we do market ourselves, even in the way we write. At least for that elusive "debut novel." What I mean is that we might write one book, then find it doesn't fit the market, so we (after querying incessantly and finally throwing in the towel) give up and write something else, something we KNOW is more marketable in topic/style, etc. Thus the massive influx in YA fiction after Stephenie Meyer's success w/vampires. I think it's a mistake to jump on a train on the caboose, so I'm trying to think outside the box when I pick subjects for my novels. Plus, I just want to write something I'd want to read, y'know?

    All this rambling to say that you're right--quality can be sacrificed on the altar of "what's hot" in blogging/twittering trends. BUT it might be the way to get the foot in the door. I'd love to write all experimentally, like James Joyce, but there's just no way on earth agents/pubs are going to look at that today. I have to market myself, and blogs are a part of that.

    Do I love blogging? No, I'd rather be writing a book. But I know the people who read my blog love knowing where I'm heading next in my wanna-be writing career, and they support me every step of the way. Plus, I meet other cool writers this way, and have fodder to talk about from agent's blogs (hee).

    Good luck to you in your endeavors. Thanks for the heads-up on self-pubbing--definitely considered it for my first novel, but I'm looking for something bigger with the second.

  4. Heather, thanks for joining the conversation. I agree that today authors need to promote themselves and blogs can be a great way to do that. But when editors and agents determine what books they pick up based on author's platform, in the short term they might be closing the door on certain authors, but in the long term they're actually closing the door on themselves if all authors need up having to develop their own platforms in order to succeed. When that happens, the big platform authors might find they don't necessarily need publishers anymore.

    My hope is that publishers and agents won't lose focus on great books in lieu of great platforms.

  5. I agree with you 100%, and the points you bring up here are part of the reason I've decided to self-publish. This is a great post. Going to tweet it now...

  6. I found this post very interesting, as I have been thinking along the same lines myself. I've published several books with traditional publishers, and never doubted the need to have them until my latest, a novel due out in November.
    Publishers today aren't putting much money into promotion, plus royalties are such a low percentage of profits. It's easy to get "lost in the crowd" with a traditional publisher if you are not a big-name author or mega-seller.
    So we do most of our promo and marketing. Suddenly, it occurs to us, "What do I need a publisher for?"
    Well, we need them still for legitimacy, to get reviews from respected review journals, to get our books into libraries, to be widely distributed - and to save us from the costs of printing and producing our own paper copies.
    But the trend towards having an author do so much of the legwork is definitely making publishers less important, and when ebooks become even more popular and accepted than they are I do think traditional publishes are going to be scrambling.
    There will always be a place for good editors, but if their services can be bought freelance, that's another edge of the wedge into traditional publishing.

  7. Shelia, well spoken. Publishers currently have a key role in the overall publishing process. But as the digital landscape continues to change it would serve them well to focus on the strengths that they can do better than anyone else. One of those strengths is the marketing reach that they provide. Another strength is turning a good book into a great book. Or perhaps a great book into an even greater book. But if they relegate those strengths/responsibilities more and more to the author, I wonder what role that will leave them with.

  8. I have recently self-published for many of the reasons mentioned here. I'm thrilled with the quality of the book, but am definitely finding it hard to get my book reviewed and to feel a part of the publishing community. Another down side to self publishing is the relatively higher cost of copies. A single print on demand copy is affordable at $30, but add shipping and taxes and the book could become out of reach for many possible buyers. The author can't expect to add too much to that price in terms of profit and still find some buyers. If someone has managed to build an audience base of 30,000 people for their blog or website, though, I say go for it!

  9. Ken,

    Thought I would stop by and check out your blog. I really like this information. Anytime you want to be a guest blogger on my site, please let me know.

    Hope our path cross.


  10. Kathy, thanks for visiting my blog. I'd by happy to be a guest blogger at your site sometime. I've always found your blog to be a great resource for authors.

  11. Thanks for the good info. Author as marketer does seem to be the new normal. I think it's important for the author platform to be organic and not salesy. It's hard to wear these different hats, though, especially when squirreling away and writing would be preferable! Thanks

  12. After years with a traditional publisher, I'm asking the same questions you raise!