In 2010, when I first dipped my toe into the publishing world, the biggest mystery to me was—besides figuring out the difference between a query and a synopsis—this thing called a “platform.”
At the time, I was writing about killer mermaids. I didn’t know how I was going to go about becoming enough of an expert on the subject that a potential editor would take me seriously. Imagine my utter relief when I learned that it was only the non-fiction writers who required a platform. All we fiction writers had to prove was that we had an imagination, a way with words, and that we understood the shape of a story.
That blissful world is no more.
These days, even debut fiction writers are being asked by would-be editors about their platforms. What they’re really asking is: How big is your built-in audience? Or, put another way, how easy will it be to sell your book?
“Influencers” are all the rage these days and anyone with style, personality, and a decent camera has the potential to become one. As an author, think of yourself as a niche influencer with just one product. According to Joe Gagliese, co-founder of Viral Nation, there are influencers and micro-influencers. Even a micro-influencer needs at least 10,000 followers. (Vox 11.28.2018 interview). How many of us can boast that kind of following? And even if you did, how do you know if your followers are actually seeing your posts?
One way to increase the odds of being seen is to study the social media algorithms and the best use of #hashtags. I won’t go into that now. There are plenty of articles online. Google them.
What I’m really interested in is how fiction writers turn themself into experts. Like, what if I really had been an expert on killer mermaids? How would that have improved my debut year sales? Writer Kristin Nilsen is tackling that question on the front end, rather than in retrospect.
Nilsen wrote her first middle grade book, Worldwide Crush, in 2018. It’s the story of a seventh grade girl, her complicated relationship with her mother, and her heartbreaking obsession with a teen heart throb. It was born from Nilsen’s own memories of the deep and sometimes painful love she had for Shaun Cassidy in the late 1970s.
Nilsen did everything right. She studied her art, she joined a critique group, she workshopped the book’s chapters, and only when it was ready did she begin to query. As a result, it took her no time at all to get an agent who loved it. Then they began to submit. Unfortunately, the overwhelming response was: “I love this, but—” So many of the editors said they themselves had never crushed on a celebrity; therefore, the premise wasn’t relatable.
Nilsen knew her experience was more universal than those handful of editors believed. So on May 23, 2019, she set out to make herself an expert on celebrity crushes. Her instagram account MyCelebrityCrushStory  was born.
There, she not only posts concert clips and audio files (Davy Jones singing “Girl”  to Marcia Brady, anyone?), but more importantly, stories submitted to her by her followers about their own celebrity crush experiences.
For example, there’s Carolyn, who wrote about her devastating interest in Manly Wilder’s pioneer pants on Little House on the Prairie.
Or Abby, who crushed on Anni-Frid (the first “A” in ABBA), kissed her poster every night, and fantasized about the singer going with her on family vacations.
But I digress.
Nilsen’s rule for herself is to maintain authenticity. With every post, she stops and asks herself, Does this really reflect who I am? Authenticity, she says, does not necessarily equate with a meteoric rise in followers, but it does help immensely with retention. “And if I’m not being authentic,” she says, “I’m not having fun. And if it’s not fun, it’s work. I don’t need more work in my life.”
Here’s what she’s learned during her first few months:
Authenticity. Being authentic also means using the social media platform that you like the best. For Nilsen it’s Instagram, but she knows most of her audience (and by that she means mothers who actually buy the books for their teens) are on Facebook. To help develop a Facebook following, she’s brought on a partner who engages with Facebook in an authentic way.
Patience. Be realistic and patient. Growing a dedicated and involved following can take years, not weeks.
Interaction. Comment, repost, and engage with like-minded accounts. Their followers may just find their way to you, too. For example, Nilsen follows the hashtags for Davy Jones, Shaun Cassidy, Andy Gibb, David Cassidy, Rick Springfield and more to like and comment on posts and comments she finds there. “It’s slow but it’s working.”
Invitations. Invite your friends from your personal page to follow your professional page/account.
A Wide Net. Research and use hashtags in your own posts that are designed to attract like-minded users. FYI: Instagram lets you use as many as 30 hashtags, but 9 gets you the most traction and visibility.
One thing that may surprise you is that the degree of engagement is becoming just as important—possibly even more so—than sheer numbers. Because, let’s be honest, what’s the point of 10,000 followers if nobody’s listening?
Still a fledgling account, MyCelebrityCrushStory has a long way to go before Nilsen becomes even a micro-influencer, but the engagement and enthusiasm of her followers is steadily growing. She says, “It’s something I’m proud of, and it encourages me to think I’m on the right track.” Her hope is that when she goes back on submission, she can point to the ultimate size and engagement of her audience and prove that her premise is more universal than not.
The final word is this: having a platform still isn’t “necessary” for fiction writers, but if a traditional publisher is on the fence about you (i.e., the dreaded “I love this, but…”), having a following may be the thing that tips the scales in your favor.
So what about you? Maybe you’re writing about a race car driver, or a gourmet chef, a water color artist, or a pole dancer. What could become your fictional field of expertise? Let me know in the comments!