Building a Platform

Maybe you heard, but Gotham held a Nonfiction Conference recently, where one of the panels was on building a platform because it’s a thing people tell writers they need to do. But they usually leave out what a platform actually is, or how to do it.

And so, first-time authors make a lot of mistakes. In a panic to “build a platform,” new authors have started blogs where they posted excerpts from their manuscripts, which they almost immediately had to take down. (Agents and publishers want unpublished work, and a blog equals publishing.) They’ve started Twitter accounts even though they hate social media, or a newsletter because someone told them they should, sent out a trickle of tweets or issues, then abandoned them not long after.

What all these missteps have in common is an assumption that having a “platform” means having 25,000 social media followers, or a buzzy TikTok, or a Substack (which, according to publishing guru Jane Friedman can be dicey for authors). 

You can see how someone who spent years finishing their first novel might panic if they thought that’s what you need to sign with an agent.

Good news: It’s not.

“With platform, what’s most important is — make yourself easy to find,” literary agent Jennifer Chen Tran said at the conference. “Hang out in the places and spaces you feel comfortable.”

Making yourself easy to find can be as simple as building a website with WordPress or Squarespace, she said. If you use and like social media, great! Do that. If not, don’t.

Author Elissa Bassist said at the same panel that when she (unwillingly) started a platform, she “just did the things I wanted to do and tried to avoid the things I didn’t want to do, while feeling very guilty about that.”

For Elissa, that meant blogging, then editing a humor column at The Rumpus, where she published and ultimately befriended other writers. It also meant doing improv, attending shows, attending readings, making friends.

Also, and perhaps most important: “My therapist at the time was telling me to prioritize my mental health,” Elissa said. “I was just trying to have fun.”

Graphic novelist (and Gotham teacher!) Teresa Wong said she took a similar approach when she started pitching her first book Dear Scarlet. She already liked playing around on Instagram, so she started a project of posting a new drawing a day, for a whole year. She started a Substack, not because she thought she needed one, but because, during lockdown in 2020, “it was a chance to write and draw about the clothes I missed wearing.”

“Nothing ever blows up or reaps rewards right away,” Teresa said. “My goal was improving my skills, not really … becoming an influencer.”

If you’re still struggling to picture what this would look like for you, here’s a hypothetical, using my friend Sherry. She’s a little online, but not a lot. She posts pictures of her kids, and sunsets, on Facebook, but most of her online activity centers on knitting. She’s such a skilled knitter that pattern designers ask her to test out their new ones, the more complex the better. She attends yarn festivals and trade shows, so she’s very active in the fiber arts online community Ravelry. And she’s got an insta full of photos of complicated knitting patterns she’s tested and how they turned out, along with beautiful shawls and sweaters of her own.

When she gets ready to start pitching her sci-fi novel, (note my choice of relative adverb there, Sherry), the last thing she should do is try to start a Substack about speculative fiction, or start a Twitter or Threads account and start posting about books and craft. She’d be starting from scratch, and trying to interact with people she has nothing in common with — yet.

It would make more sense for her to weave (pun totally intended) posts about her book project, or her writing, or what she’s discovering on her creative journey in among her posts about mosaic shawl patterns or roosimine knitting. She could post about ways her two creative pursuits energize one another. She might even start connecting, online or in the world, with other writer+knitters and together they could launch a speculative fiction reading series, where every story has to touch on or mention the fiber arts in some way.

Is this all sounding a little silly to you? Good! I am a little silly, and Jennifer Chen Tran says above all, in this platform thing, “Just be yourself.” And also:

“I want you to know you’re doing awesome, and keep doing the good work and the hard work and if you need to step away for your mental health, it’s OK to take a break.”

Hear, hear.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

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