Platform Development for Authors

Hey writers!

If you’re here, you’re probably looking for ways to grow online as a writer, so you can reach more readers. There is so much to unpack about platform and platform development, I wanted to put some of it down in one place, so it will be the most useful for you! What follows is an adapted version of my SCBWI workshops! Grab a cup of coffee, and let’s get started.

Looking for my Social Media Playbook? You can find that here.

What is this platform business?

So, platform. What IS a platform? Why do you need one? And most importantly, what is your platform? Let’s tackle each of this.

A platform is a combination of all the ways you’re visible in the world, and in most cases, online visibility is a big portion of this. A platform is how you appeal to any current, future, or potential readership. If the ocean is the world of readers, a platform is your sailboat to get them on board. And the best part is: you won’t need to “make up” this platform. It’s already there. You’re just shining a light on it so others can see it a little easier.

Do you need a platform? Here’s the thing. I’ve often read that only nonfiction writers really need a platform. But let’s look a little deeper here: if you’re online or out in the world in any way with your words or presence, you already have a platform. It exists whether you care for it or curate it at all. It’s speaking for you right now, in the handful of tweets or Facebook posts you’ve written. You’re already known for something, whether it’s a general vibe or something more specific. Maybe your platform is just a whisper right now, but it could already be yelling its face off, too.

So, instead of asking if you need one, the question becomes: since it’s there already, am I being deliberate about it? Am I intentionally sending out the right messages to my readers? When well curated, your platform brings you opportunities and presents a solid interpretation of you and your work. When it’s not intentional, you risk the wrong messages getting out there, which can muddy your presence at best, or at its worst, drive away the readers you want.

One thing is certain: having a solid, genuine platform that expresses who you are and what you write will never hurt you. It can only help. And as you’ll see as we continue, it doesn’t just help readers find and understand you, it can also help you learn more about what paths you want to take in your career.

The Mechanics of Platform

Having a well-established and genuine platform does two things: it separates and elevates. In other words, your platform establishes you as a) recognizable, and b) an expert.

*Self-talk interlude*

This is a good time to take a minute and reflect on your feelings about that last statement. I often teach workshops about platform development, and many people have anxiety about the ‘expert’ part! They don’t see themselves as qualified enough, or ‘expert’ enough to really stake their claim in their platform. A common imposter syndromey phrase is “but who am I to do ____?”

And while it’s true that you can’t call yourself an expert at brain surgery unless you actually are, you aren’t operating in the world of brain surgery. The beautiful thing about being an author is that you get to pick the themes, worlds, and interests you express in your platform. Whether you’re a mother, or a part-time bookseller, or an artist, or a professional mermaid, you get to incorporate those very real parts of yourself into your platform, and that is how you are an expert! You’re building a platform as “[Your name here]: Author.” You’re the only expert on that, right? Remember, the inner workings of your platform already exist. You’re just drawing them out intentionally for others to see.

This is all you need: an authentic peek into your real life and interests. That’s really enough to start building your platform from where you are. So if you find yourself feeling that imposter syndrome sneaking up, remind yourself: you can only be an imposter when you’re pretending to be someone else. You aren’t an imposter by being yourself. And that’s all you’re doing! Keep that in mind as you move forward.

A Platform is an Ecosystem

Your platform doesn’t need to be something that is stagnant or fixed. It can change, it should change as you continue to grow as a writer, but also as a person. Your interests and intentions have probably changed in the past couple of years, right? Including your ever-changing interests and options can only strengthen your platform, so don’t feel like you need to everything squared away once-and-for-all!

Remember how I said that your platform can also help you sort out your career path? Here’s where that comes in. If your platform is working for you, and you find yourself facing a potential opportunity or challenge, it becomes a lot easier to decide what to do. You can ask yourself “does this potential book/person/job/whatever lead me in the direction of my goals? Is it aligned with the platform and message that I express every day?”

If it is aligned, you have yourself a good indicator of whether it’s a smart move. If it doesn’t, you’ve got some food for thought there. But—and here’s the fun bit—say you are enchanted by this potential opportunity, but it doesn’t exactly jive with your current platform. This is where you can do some soul-searching and make additions or modifications to your platform to include those aspects you’ve been leaving or, or not giving enough attention to.

For example: previously, my platform included a lot of science content, because as a zoologist and author, that’s a big part of my life and work. But, as I moved ahead in my career, I realized that I was inadvertently leaving out a big portion of my life: my love of art, specifically plasticine, sculpture, and illustration. It felt like I was keeping a part of myself hidden that really didn’t need to be hidden.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? But guess what happened when I made a conscious effort to include more posts that include these genuine interests? People didn’t get confused. My ‘brand’ didn’t get muddled. Instead, I began to reach an even greater number of people, particularly those in that fun, niche arena that love both science and art. It’s helped me make new connections with readers and friends (and even editors), and as a bonus, I’ve been able to continue fine-tuning the art itself, with lots of feedback from the outside world. Win-win. It’s not forced, it’s just the usual growth that happens as you experience different things.

By allowing your platform to grow and change with you, you leave a little space for yourself to grow as well, you can breathe easier knowing you’re representing yourself with honesty, but this also sends out a great message to your readers: you’re a whole, real person that’s into a bunch of cool, interesting stuff! If pie-making is a big part of your life, don’t worry that it’s “weird” to talk about it. Because those weird things are what help you stand apart. Own it. (More on that later.)

Authenticity and Privacy

One of the main questions I hear is, “Am I being authentic if I hold something back?”

Short answer: Of course not.

Long answer: When developing your platform, it’s totally fair to keep parts of yourself “just for you”. This isn’t you being inauthentic. You contain multitudes, right? The person you are with your mother isn’t going to be the same ‘you’ that attends parent-teacher conferences, or meets Oprah. We all wear different personas for various situations, but they are still a part of us. I promise you, you are way more than one black and white version of yourself. This is why I hate the advice of “just be yourself”, because my response to that is “Okay, but which one?” We are all so incredibly complex and wonderful in so many ways, it’s okay to take some time to figure out which facets of yourself you want to express for your platform. You want your platform to be the real you, but it won’t be the whole you, because that’s just impossible.

In the case of your online identity, it makes complete sense to express parts of yourself with intention, geared to leverage your assets, and meet new, inspiring people who just might one day want to read your books, work with you, or learn with you. So feel free to take stock of your creative and personal life and ask yourself: what’s smart to include in my platform? What feels better to keep to myself? There are parts of my life that I don’t share online, because a) it doesn’t serve my overall goal, or b) to do so would be at odds with other parts of my platform that are much more important. (This is where my snarky comments about misguided celebrity health advice is often categorized.)

Deciding on Who You Are (Online)

When faced with the decision of what approach to take in platform development, it helps to keep four questions in mind:

1) What are the meaningful themes/subjects behind my writing and life? [this one targets your potential content to share—and by ‘meaningful’, I mean to you!]

2) Who is my audience? [this one helps you develop that content in palatable ways]

3) What tone does my writing and life take? [this one keeps you genuine and honest]

4) What is my “big dream”? [this one keeps you on target for the long haul]

Let’s go through these one by one, using myself as an example. Once you have a well-rounded view of these answers in my case, you will definitely see how this parallels the development of my own platform, and I bet it will help you isolate your own!

So, what are the themes/subjects behind my writing?

My writing typically includes humor, adventure, science, animals, curiosity, and creativity

Who is my audience?

My audience is kids, parents, teachers, nerdy artists, and other creative and curious people.

What tone does my writing and life take?

In general, the overall lens through which I see the world is intuitive, optimistic, intelligent, and witty. I’m also a goofball. These are all qualities I value in others, and work intentionally to develop in myself. They’re also words others would use to describe me.

What is my “big dream”?

For this question, it helps to see what’s already out there. Who do you look up to? What organizations or people really seem to capture the vibe you’d love to express? Are there any authors that express a similar vibe or feel that resonate with you? In my case, I want to be viewed as a trusted, informative, and entertaining source of creative thoughts, often with a science bent. For this reason, I jive with organizations like PBS, Discovery, and other similar outlets and channels. I’m a zoologist and picture book through middle grade author, so this also sits well with my overall goals as a writer.

Looking at these answers, it becomes clear: it stands to reason that my online content should be positive, clean, educational, and entertaining. It also makes sense that my content could revolve around any number of subjects, like creativity, curiosity, science, and the like. (Hint: if you’re really looking to streamline, you could even break these areas up and devote one tweet a day to each of them, therefore encompassing all facets of your interests into your platform in one easy way. Just sayin’.)

This helps me in many ways, because now every time I am prompted to share something online, I have this built-in test. I can ask myself “is this thing I want to share positive? Clean? Educational? Entertaining?” If it’s three of those, but also has a not-so-G-rated vibe, I know to maybe question whether it will send the right message for any readers. (Bearing in mind that, if I was constantly wanting to share something that wasn’t in line with these targets, I would see that as a reason to step back and re-tweak the ol’ platform!)

A Good Example of Platforms at Work

You’re probably familiar with Ellen Degeneres and Chelsea Handler. Both talented comedians. Both lovely women. (Both blonde, even!) But imagine they were answering those four questions. Can you see how the answers would shake out to entirely different choices, which result in a completely different platform?

Ellen is a daytime comedian, who reaches that audience. For obvious reasons, she tends to keep the ‘crasser’ side of humor out of it, and if she does stray close to that line, you’ll notice she does so in a positive, quite sneaky way. Her platform and vibe is upbeat and clean, and she’s known as a trusted source of entertainment.

Chelsea is equally talented, but primarily works in night time television, and as such her audience is a lot different. She can literally say things that Ellen can’t, because she’s baked that type of humor into her platform. She is just as trusted and reliable as Ellen—in both cases, you can be assured you get what you expect with them!

Now, do you think this mean Ellen doesn’t have bouts of annoyance where she wants to rant in a negative way about the state of our world? I bet she does! But, she’s smart and knows better than to dilute her platform and brand in such a way. Likewise, I bet Chelsea enjoys the odd adorable cat gifs, but knows that to dwell on them in her online persona might not make a lot of sense to viewers who expect something different from her.

All of this is to say: there are as many ways to express a platform as there are people on Earth. You get to be the one in charge. So yes, do be yourself, but pay extra attention to what parts you shine the most light on.

Who You’re Looking to Find

This is a good time to step back and point out something that’s often missed. You’re not in this ‘platform development’ game to sell books. You’re not even in it to gain a zillion followers. You’re in it to find your people. The people who relate to what you’re saying, or think you’re hilarious, or have inspiring ideas of their own that propel you along your path. You’re in it to just be out there, because being out there is far better than staying hidden. After all, out there is where all the cool opportunities, challenges, readers, and friends are.

This is liberating for several reasons. For starters, you can stop chasing. I’ve mentioned this in my Social Media Playbook post, but it’s worth reiterating. If you find yourself desperate for a certain person or group to follow you, do yourself a favor and let it go. (I say that with love!) It’s just not a goal worthy of your awesomeness. Trust that by building your genuine, amazing platform that the right people will come to you.

This brings me to another biggie: not everyone will like you! Or more specifically, not everyone will resonate with what you’re sharing. And this is a good thing. If you have people that take a look at your online world and say “hmm…not really for me!” that means you’re expressing yourself clearly, weeding out those who don’t need to join your particular party. Wish them well and let them go on their way!

For example, since we’ve gone through those questions above, you’ve now probably put together that I would share a lot of animal-related, positive stuff online. This includes photos of ducks in cupcake-wrapper tutus! But, I know for a fact that not everyone enjoys ducks wearing cupcake-wrappers. Or science! Or even cute animals! (What?! I know. So weird, right?) But it’s true—and it’s spectacularly great that they’re able to recognize relatively quickly that maybe I’m not for them.

Because this also means that the people that will resonate with what I’m sharing have a fighting chance of finding me and recognizing we’re on the same team.

This is why, once you’ve done some soul-searching and know the areas and interests you want to express for your platform, I hope that you don’t feel hesitant about any of them. I mean it—no matter how weird or strange or obscure (or seemingly unrelated!) your interests are, if they are a part of you, there’s a good chance they belong in your platform and will help people find you.

For example, if you’re a YA author and baking pies is a huge part of your life, post those pies! I would bet you within days you would find yourself chatting with other pie-loving YA authors! If you’re passionate about dinosaurs, share that obsession with us! You really can’t go wrong, provided you’re sharing something that has meaning to you.

When it comes to what to post to build your platform, the biggest question you have to answer is: is this really important to me?

If it is, than it’s worth sharing, no matter how weird you think it may be. (Sidenote: notice how a lot of these things aren’t directly related to your book(s)? This is because a real platform involves sharing yourself, not just links to buy your book!)

The Ramifications of Claiming Your Inner Weirdo

A funny thing happens when you are sharing all the random, yet authentic parts of yourself intentionally. People will begin to remember you. And sometimes, they will even associate you with things in their own lives. I recently shared this story with the lovely Jenn Laughran, in her podcast, the Literaticast, and it’s worth mentioning here because it’s a great example of how your platform begins to work for you, even when you’re not there. I’ll preface this story with the fact that one of my recent books is called ‘Pink is for Blobfish’ and has a delightfully slimy blobfish on the cover.

So, Donald Trump. (Just hear me out!) Most of you remember months back, when Donald Trump was running for President. Well, a popular meme was circulating at the time, that was essentially a picture of his face, plastered next to a picture of a blobfish. You know, to convey the parallels between the two. This is interesting in so many ways we won’t get into today, but the cool thing here is: I had about thirty people send me that meme. Emails, tweets, instant messages. All of them saying “Hi Jess! I saw this online and it made me think of you and your book!” (italics mine.)

Leaving politics completely out of it, this is a seriously amazing and awesome thing. This meant that in their daily, busy lives, when these people came across this jokey image, they not only thought of me or my book, but they were also kind and invested enough to take a moment to send it to me. (So cool, right?!) A book cover is ultimately a big component of one’s platform, and I’m fortunate enough that mine are perfectly in line with the nerdy, positive, entertaining vibe that I’ve developed. And in this case, it was obvious that to some people out there, that platform was memorable and interesting enough to inspire them to get in touch.

In the case of these emails from readers, this was also a wonderful opportunity for me to chat more with each of them, and even offer up a signed bookplate or some other perk for their kindness in thinking of me. Experiences like this can’t be forced—they’re simply a product of enough time, and the right message resonating with the right people. And it is totally available for anyone out there in their own way.

But Jess, What exactly am I supposed to be sharing online to build my platform?

I hope that all of this platform talk has gotten you itching to share something online. But if you’re completely stuck on where to begin, my suggestion is: let your passions drive you.

I know, it sounds totally cheesy. But you’re a writer, so you already know a good deal about following your heart to lead you to the right character, or the right storyline. Listen to your gut. The bottom line is: if you’re building an authentically you platform, it won’t feel like you’re making anything up. It won’t be forced. It should never be work to know what you care about, because you already know. The only real work is making the leap from not sharing anything to sharing something. And that’s a pretty fun leap to make, to be honest. Plus, the opportunities are endless. You can share tweets, images, essays, videos, artwork (even if you’re not a ‘professional artist, by the way), poems, rants, recipes, music…the list goes on! Whatever you share, if it has meaning to you, it’s worth sharing.

Hot Tips and Tricks

If you’re still a little fuzzy on the actual content you’d like to share with others to build your platform, there are lots of areas in your life that offer potential hints.

If you’re a visual thinker, take a look at some of the pictures and images that have meaning to you. This can be art in your own home, or stuck up to a Pinterest board, or buried in your journals. Anywhere, really. What sticks out to you? Do you surround yourself with nature? Cars? Babies? Dogs? Cheese? (Don’t laugh—my very first interaction with my agent was a conversation about cheese! It can all be meaningful!) Once you’ve isolated a few images that strike meaning to you, play around and see if you can think of any fun ways to share these interests. I like Twitter for this, because it’s quick!

What do you when you’re not writing? This one is so obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to see what’s staring you in the face. How do you spend your day? Do you love unwinding with a good movie? (Share your favorites!) Do you sew made-to-order costumes for dogs? (Your people would love to see those.) Do you literally sit and do nothing because you’re exhausted? (You aren’t alone there—be real and express that!) It might seem trivial, but I firmly believe that what you spend most of your time doing not only matters, but can also one day become a book or opportunity! Don’t for a second think that your downtime interests are going to bore others, because they won’t. They may not resonate with everyone, but you’re not out for everyone, remember? You’re out for your people.

What do you write about? You’re a writer, so don’t tell me for one second there isn’t a whole world going on inside the noodle of yours. What subjects or themes seem to stick by you, no matter what? Dig into those and express them online somehow! This paves the way for readers to get an idea of what to expect when they read your books, but also helps you build your online personality, especially your values.

Go for keywords. Here’s a fun experiment: ask someone who loves you what words they would use to describe you, then turn those words into nouns. If they call you ‘adventurous’, begin looking for ways to add a little ‘adventure’ to your platform. If they say ‘curious’, brainstorm how you can integrate a little more curiosity into what you share. If they say ‘determined’, maybe a weekly, well-timed inspirational tweet of determination to help others would make sense for your platform. You catch my drift?

What are you obsessed with this week? This is a repeating question in that awesome podcast I referenced a few paragraphs back, and it also happens to be one of the most solidly inspiring “what the heck do I talk about” prompts when it comes to platform development. What exactly are you obsessed with right now? I don’t know about you, but I tend to cycle in and out of tons of daily, weekly, or monthly interests. Since you’re a writer, your obsessions will likely fall in line with the topics found in your book. Is there something you can share about your research? Your experience with a given subject? What has you excited this week? When in doubt, share something that makes you feel inspired, because chances are, it will inspire others too. Platforms are all about feelings, and everybody loves to be inspired.

Think beyond the books! You’ll notice that most of what I’ve mentioned here doesn’t really relate directly to your books. While it is great (and essential!) to post about your books, I’ve noticed that my eyes tend to glaze over when someone is just repeatedly harping about them, especially when it’s peppered with ‘buy’ links. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can only get traction online by posting about your books. In fact, I’d wager that most people who do buy your books don’t do so because you’ve told them to in a tweet. Instead, they probably like who you are as a person, enjoy your posts and thoughts about other stuff, then make that connection to you when they’re in a bookstore and see your lovely name or book cover in front of them. Again, this is not why you’re building a platform. This is a bonus, sure. But do keep in mind: the majority of your platform shouldn’t revolve around particular books, rather the overall themes and you-ness of those books! Done properly, your platform will encompass all of your works, so let your personality pave the way.

The Leftovers

Congrats! You’ve made it through this long post! I hope it helped you begin to get a handle on what a platform is, but most importantly, what your platform can be. Because everybody is different, there is no straight forward answer. But to summarize, I would say the most important things to remember are as follows:

-Be intentional. Don’t leave your platform up to chance. Take some time to figure out what has meaning to you, and how to share it with others to leverage your online world.

-Leave space. Don’t expect to get a “platform plan” in place and never look at it again. Let it grow and tweak it as you and your interests change. Because your platform ultimately should express a very real you, it makes sense that it will change along with you.

-Let your inner weirdo shine. I mean it. The more authentically yourself you are, the more you’ll feel like a weirdo. I promise this won’t last long, because soon you’ll have other weirdos joining in. Then it’s a real party, and you’ll know you’re on the right track. If someone doesn’t resonate with what you’re putting out there, wish them well and get back to focusing on those who do. Treat them well!

-Know yourself and trust your gut. This one’s a biggie. Only you can decide what type of social media will work best for you. Let yourself play around and trust that you’ll find your way.

-Give it time. You’re planting a garden here, not an art installation. It takes a long time to build traction in this industry. Which brings me to my second last point…

-Start now. Don’t feel like you need to wait until you’re published. Start now and let your platform grow naturally, so you’re not forcing anything. If you’re feeling that imposter syndrome creep up on you, go back and revisit the section above about dealing with that. (But the Coles’ Notes is: you are definitely worthy of sharing your thoughts now. As is. Whether or not you’re a published author. I mean it!)

-Finally, have fun! I’ve shared a lot of pretty in-depth stuff here, and it’s easy to get overloaded. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, take a break and pick one thing that sounds seriously fun for you to do. That’s all you need. We’re in “you can’t see the whole road but you can see the next few feet” territory with this stuff. Enjoy the ride!

Good luck! As always, you can get in touch with me via email or Twitter! I’d love to hear from you!

More Useful Links for Authors

Want to dig into this some more? Visit my Social Media Playbook for Authors here!

Are you querying and need some pointers? I’ve got you covered here.

Drafting a new book and in need of a pep talk? I’ve got some handy pep talks here.

Want to ask me a question directly? Find me on Twitter here!

Looking for my books? Here’s a list with all sorts of fun extras.