At the beginning of a book project, clients almost always ask the question that they’re embarrassed to ask: What is a platform, and why do I need one? 

Picture this: You’re a musician and you’ve been playing music for years. You finally get to play the stage you’ve been dreaming of since you started your career as a musician. The day arrives and you’re so excited you can’t even bear to open your eyes and look out past the bright lights. You sing and play your heart out, giving the best performance of your life. When the set is finished you stand at the edge of the stage, spread your arms wide, close your eyes, and fall forward, waiting for the crowd to catch you and carry you off in triumph. 

Only, you faceplant, because there is no crowd. You didn’t build one. 

That’s a little dramatic, but this is the predicament most first-time authors create for themselves. 

The other day a newbie author asked for help getting an agent – her fiction book was finished, and she had dreams of landing a major publisher to get it out in the world.  In the process of learning about her work and her book, I asked her about her platform – did she have one already, or did she need to build one? The response: “What do you mean by platform?”

Oy vey. My heart sunk for her. 

If you’re just starting out, you might not have a platform at all. This is okay – you can build one – but it becomes a massive problem if you’re trying to get your book published by a traditional publisher now. This is what most authors do – they pull their heads out of the final draft and say “Okay! Now let’s start figuring out how to market.” 

The truth is, marketing your work needs to start well before your book is finished, and having a platform is crucial to your success as an author. Think of it as the stage and the audience which you have (hopefully) built for yourself. This includes assets like the following: 

  • Number of social media followers on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook;
  • Your reputation as a professional speaker and the frequency that you’re booked. Also take into account the kinds of crowds you speak in front of as a speaker – professional organizations, corporations, universities, etc. – and whether they are your ideal reader;
  • Email lists and the number of subscribers you have; 
  • Number of podcast listeners and downloads you have if you run a podcast;
  • Number of blog readers or other publication opportunities you might have;
  • Media reach, as in how often you’re published in major industry-related magazines, blogs, newspapers, etc.
  • Access to other influencers with any of the above. 

It may be disheartening to hear, but the major publishers look as much (if not more) at the health and reach of your platform as they do at the idea of the book. Think of it like this:

Well-developed platform = higher likelihood of book sales. 

Undeveloped or non-existent platform = peanuts for book sales. 

A publisher’s number one goal is to make a profit on the books they buy. They want to earn back their advance and then some, so they have to gauge whether or not an author will be able to sell their book. They use the size of the author’s existing platform as a major factor in determining whether they will make money off the book. 

Here is the ironic and painful part: Having a platform is no guarantee that you will have major sales numbers. I can think of at least one major author with reach, a healthy platform, and tons of influencers in their network who sold less than 2,000 in the last three months (which is considered lackluster performance in the traditional publishing world, especially since this author has written previous bestsellers). On the other hand, I’ve worked with other authors who had small platforms of only several thousand but still managed to sell 20,000 books in three months. 

It’s nearly impossible to measure the ROI of a follower when it comes to book sales. However, publishers have to take a gamble on the author and they have limited ways of evaluating the deal. Platform size is an indicator of the ability of the author to build an interested audience for themselves. Unfortunately for authors, this means that having no platform makes the likelihood of a book deal much, much lower. 

“But Sara, isn’t it the responsibility of the publisher to sell the book?” you might be asking. Alas, dear writer, this is not a part of the deal any longer. 

The amount of marketing and sales attention your book will get is minimal. In fact, it’s better to plan on getting zero help from your publisher, and then be pleasantly surprised at whatever help you get from them. 

Even the authors with big names and established reputations have to plan and execute their marketing strategies themselves. Plan on any help a publisher provides as merely a bonus gift that will complement your own efforts. They get some help from the publisher, but it is up to the author to move the books. 

The right time to build your platform is long before you write your book. The right time to plan your book marketing strategy is at the same time that you’re planning the outline of your book. You need plenty of time to marshal whatever forces you need to make your book successful.