Publishing is obsessed with your follower count. Should you be too?
What your author platform means for your chances at landing in bookstores
Let’s talk about platform.
As a writer of nonfiction, It’s a word that you’ll hear all the time when trying to get published — “you need a strong platform if you want your book to do well.” “Your platform is the only way to guarantee publishers will look twice at your book.” Platform is a nonfiction writer’s key to success.”
Eventually you start to get the gist that this is important — and it is! Platform is what sells your books, makes you an attractive prospect to agents and publishers, and keep readers, new and old, engaged with your work. Basically, platform is to nonfiction authors what promise is to fiction authors; it’s the incentive agents and publishers need to take you on.
Publishing industry polymath Jane Friedman explains that when you’re a fiction writer, agents and publishers assess your viability as an author “based on the quality of your manuscript and its suitability for the current marketplace.” When you’re a nonfiction author, however, a big piece of your puzzle is to have a large and loyal enough built-in audience that publishers feel confident your book will find success with the readers you intend it for. Your manuscript is absolutely still important but as it’s often not complete at the time you would be submitting nonfiction proposals, you have to give agents and publishers a good reason to take a chance on you beyond “I promise my book will be good!”.
In a sense, platform takes precedence over your writing samples during the nonfiction proposal submission process.The goal of a platform is to sell yourself as an author and authority so that your book, when it’s released, has the community and credibility that you’ve built around your name as a giant green flag for readers (AKA buyers).
For a concrete definition, just think of platform as the infrastructure of your public presence. It includes everything from your social media to your collective body of work to your attendance at workshops and conferences to your professional network, and anything else you do to make yourself visible and accessible to the public.
Given this description, you could get the sense that all a good platform needs is some of Kardashian-grade marketing tactics and an iron will to get people to like (and listen) to you. If you have a certain amount of followers and a big enough name, you’re guaranteed success as a nonfiction writer and the dollars will flow freely...
Caroline Calloway is an Instagram influencer (Instafluencer?) who gained a massive following in the 2010s for her candid, funny, charming posts about basically her entire life. School, travel, friends, boys, you name it, and there it was in the form of a tasteful picture and ~authentic~ caption. She was living a life that hundreds of thousands of people wanted to live, and they all followed her on Insta to tag along.
In 2015, Calloway signed a book deal with Flatiron Books for a memoir called “And We Were Like.” The book was going to parallel the content of her Instagram, and was to be ghostwritten by her best friend at the time Natalie Beach (spoiler: not best friends anymore), who had been ghostwriting her captions on Instagram for a while at that point.
I won’t lie, Calloway had all the makings of a great platform.
First, she had the numbers. Calloway started up her Instagram by buying roughly 20,000 followers and grew her following so that by the time she started working with Flatiron she had around 300,000 followers (today she has around 700,000). Those kinds of numbers are a huge plus for agents and publishers — it basically screams “Hey! You’ve got at least 300,000 people that might consider this book right out of the gate!”
Second, she was curated. Calloway had a specific aesthetic that draws a specific crowd — they wanted to hear about boys, art, foreign places, beautiful things! And that’s Calloway’s whole life; she posted so much and so often about these things that her followers got the impression she was an expert at living (and loving, learning, etc.). Calloway’s deliberate focus on her “area of expertise," e.g. living a good and interesting life, made her appear trustworthy and knowledgeable to readers so that they became invested in what she had to say. Her target audience was well-defined and she knew exactly the things they wanted to hear from her and exactly how to talk about them.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Calloway recognized the importance of giving back to the community she built. She was consistently interactive with her followers and engaged with them in the comments section as if they were friends and offered support and advice regularly. She understood that as much as her audience supported and uplifted her, to maintain that sense of fellowship she had to contribute something positive and useful to them, too.
But as time went on, Calloway kept crashing into deadlines that she wasn’t prepared for and eventually her publisher withdrew the book deal after she lost interest; Calloway said in an interview that “[she] realized the boy-obsessed version of myself [she] planned to depict as [her] memoir’s protagonist was not one [she] could stand behind.
Calloway had the platform, she had the influence, and yet she doesn’t have a book today. What went wrong?
The real answer is that Calloway’s book deal was sort of built on a house of cards. She started off with buying followers, and then her friend was ghostwriting her captions — which explains some of that incredible growth she saw in her early days — and then when the time came for her to sit down and write her book, she passed that off to Beach as well. In the end, she wasn’t capable of taking the deal seriously and writing her book, and it all fell down around her.
Flatiron didn’t know someone else was writing her life when they took an interest in her; they looked at Calloway, they saw someone who had a great presence, a large following, and plenty of character, but didn’t anticipate that what she was doing so successfully on Instagram wouldn’t translate onto paper. They, and Calloway too, fell into the trap of thinking good platform = good book. But as a writer, you need to have the platform and a strong message that you can deliver on; having just one or the other won’t cut it.
Writing a book takes drive and talent, but also discipline and a knowledge of the craft, which Calloway just didn’t have when she said yes to the book deal. See, people like Calloway are really great at putting themselves out there and being the person that people want to listen to, but only in a superficial capacity that just scratches the surface of what a writer needs to become a successful published author. That’s not to say she’ll never write a book; just that she wasn’t ready when that opportunity arose.
If you feel like you might be in Calloway’s boat, maybe spend some time testing how comfortable you are doing the work before jumping at an opportunity. But if you know you’re prepared to take yourself seriously as a writer, you have the community and presence, and you have something worth saying, then don’t be afraid for a second to put yourself out there.
Platform is absolutely something you should dedicate time and energy to. Discovering your audience and all the ways you can connect with them and contribute to them does wonders for the growth of your book as you continue writing, and you’ll find that working on your platform alongside your manuscript will help refine the shape and direction of your book — a sort of fine-tuning that agents and publishers will pick up on. You should care about your platform because not only does it make you palatable to your audience and your publisher, it will help build your career and open you up to new opportunities.
But at the same time, you have to take care to avoid making the mistake of overestimating the importance of your platform in comparison to the rest of the work that goes into writing and publishing a book. You have to be smarter than publishing, because contrary to what the majority of the industry will tell you, platform isn’t everything; publishing hasn’t figured this out just yet, and until it does, we’ll keep seeing Calloways (and Kardashians, for that matter) getting book deals that either don’t sell or flat out never get written.
Platform may be the swing, but actually bringing your book to life is the follow-through.