Please welcome former WU contributor Jane Friedman  back to WU today! Jane has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. She’s the co-founder (with WU’s Porter Anderson) of The Hot Sheet , the essential industry newsletter for authors, and has previously worked for F+W Media (home to Writer’s Digest) and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press); Publishers Weekly wrote that it is “destined to become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in publishing careers.”
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses, Jane has delivered keynotes and workshops on the digital era of authorship at worldwide industry events, including the Writer’s Digest annual conference, San Miguel Writers Conference, The Muse & The Marketplace, Frankfurt Book Fair, BookExpo America, LitFlow Berlin, and Digital Book World. Find out more at janefriedman.com .
A Smarter Author Platform for the Digital Era of Publishing
Author platform, in its simplest form, is an author’s ability to sell books. What that platform looks like, or how it works, varies from author to author: Some are big names who can attract attention with any book they release, others have figured out how to harness a local or regional fan base to spread word of mouth, and still others know how to use digital media for visibility.
But by far, digital media—and social media specifically—is the most prevalent and straightforward way that authors are now visible to readers and sell books. In some ways, this has changed publishers’ expectations—and what authors need to do regardless of how they’re published—but in other ways, the game has remained exactly the same. It’s just that now there are more game expansion packs, more players to navigate, and more rules that tend to change in the middle of game play.
Stop Focusing on Social Media Numbers and Look at Your Lead Gen Strategy Instead
When social media was still relatively new, there was a lot of focus and attention on the numbers. How many followers do you have? How many likes? How many shares?
While numbers are still a surface-level indicator of your platform strength, it’s too easy to boost social media activity in an artificial way, leading to numbers that are fairly meaningless. (Even with my own 224,000 followers on Twitter, which is 100% organically grown, a good portion consists of fake accounts that contribute nothing to my platform.) This is why there’s been more attention and focus lately on email newsletters—which indicate more highly engaged readers or followers, not casual or fake ones—and authors collaborating to cater to rather specific audiences or markets, such as Tall Poppy Writers .
A strategic author should evaluate their platform strength on three levels:
- ability to reach new readers,
- ability to engage existing readers, and
- ability to mobilize super fans.
Social media can be disappointing when it comes to uncovering new readers if you aren’t spending ad dollars, but it does a great job at engaging people who are already aware of you and your work. Discounts and freebies—regardless of where they’re offered—tend to be better tools for finding new fans. I often hear from authors who feel they aren’t reaching new readers, and it can often be blamed on a lack of good lead generation. A lead generation tool is a way to entice new people to your door, and usually represents the easiest or most frictionless way for a potential reader to try out your stuff. This is why BookBub deals are so sought after: They represent marvelous lead generation.
If you struggle to reach new readers, think about what you have in your arsenal, or what you could create, that could be a valuable lead gen tool. Novelist Scott Sigler has long used free, serialized audio versions of his work to lure people in. Bestseller Rupi Kaur uses Instagram. Some authors have been successful on Wattpad. Virtually anything can be a great lead gen tool if you find that sweet spot between audience, content, and quality.
How Social Media Is Most Useful (Even If Not Trustworthy)
Social media is constantly in flux. The platforms evolve and may restrict who you reach or how you engage, plus who uses them changes over time. However, social media does make it easier to reach the required threshold of three, four, five or more impressions that you need to make on a reader—so they first have awareness that your book (or lead gen content) exists, then are compelled to take action when they feel like they’re seeing it everywhere. (Remember the old advertising cliche says that your brand needs to appear in front of your customer seven times to be remembered? Same principle.)
Authors who have multiple ways to make an impression are by default in a stronger position—they’re both more protected from social media platform changes, and have the ability to get more touch points out there. This doesn’t mean you have to be active on every social media channel; however, you do want to build as many impressions in as many places as possible, to break through the noise. You’re more competitive when you can be creative, experimental, and diverse in the types of moves available to you.
Better Market Insights for Long-Term Growth
What’s often overlooked—in our race to improve our numbers—is that digital media should make you smarter in identifying how to best grow your platform. Once you’re active on Twitter or Facebook, or have Google Analytics installed on your website, you have actionable information about who you’re reaching, where you’re reaching them, and how to reach more and reach better. This allows for more strategic efforts in the future—you can build and place better ads, run more effective giveaways, and identify the most important influencers for your readership based on past performance.
Some of the easiest ways to start:
- Use your website, Facebook or Twitter analytics to pinpoint geographic locations that would make the most sense for events or for print retail initiatives.
- Use tracking and affiliate links to identify where you reach people who are most likely to take advantage of an offer (Twitter? Facebook? people who end up at your website through search?).
- Use website, Facebook, or Twitter analytics to identify important qualities about your readership—e.g., what other books, movies, or TV shows they love. Can you create content or advertise in such a way to reach the audiences of those books, movies, or TV shows?
At the end of this article, you’ll find some nuts-and-bolts advice to help you research your audience through digital tools.
IRL Carries High Value
Marketing strategies almost always work better when they combine online and offline engagement. One in-real-life event stays with people longer, is more likely to be talked about and shared, and is the equivalent of dozens (possibly even hundreds!) of online interactions. Professional marketers and publicists still advocate for “in real life” activities to activate and extend the strength of your platform—everything from traditional book signings to speaking engagements, to any event that can help lead to word of mouth or anchor a publicity campaign.
Plus, there’s still very little that can replace meeting peers and influencers at events, which increases the likelihood of collaborative action later on. One of the fastest ways to grow your own platform is to team up with someone (or a group of someones) who reaches the same audience you want to reach.
Your Next Steps
Publishers (and authors) know that a social media following doesn’t equate to book sales. Instead, an engaged readership that spreads word of mouth leads to book sales. As you think about how to build your platform for the next stage of the digital era, use analytics to identify how and where you get the best engagement, and what tools help you find the right readers, rather than the most readers. Ultimately, this is the most powerful feature of digital media: its ability to target just the right person who will enjoy your books.
Here are specific articles that can help you find new readers and grow your platform:
- SEO: How Much Does It Affect Novelists? (The Hot Sheet)
- Audience Research Needn’t Be Costly or Time Consuming (Digital Book World)
- Researching Reader Intent to Fine-Tune Book SEO  (Digital Book World)
- Finally, A Social Media Strategy That Puts You Right in the Middle of Your Target Market  (ConversionXL)
- How to Hack the Amplification Process  (Moz)
Thoughts or tips to share? The floor is yours.