Platform Evolution

Here’s a graph from my Twitter Quitter post:

A basic premise of independent authorship is that authors should establish their own platform in order to reach out to readers and potential customers. I believe in that premise. What constitutes a platform, however, remains undefined.

Implicit in the idea of an author’s platform is the creation of an online presence. Because the internet has become commonplace it’s easy to forget that an independent platform for individual artists would be impossible without it. (Prior to the internet an artist’s platform was limited by geography. Bands were limited not by their music but by their touring range.) While the advantages and opportunities provided by the internet are astounding relative to the pre-internet age, the internet is still a communications medium devised by human beings, with inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding how the internet works in a business context is an ongoing process. Two days ago the New York Times put up a paywall, attempting for the second time to derive revenue from its own online platform. (The first attempt failed.) That one of the most prominent newspapers in the world is still struggling to monetize content despite almost unparalleled visibility and economic muscle is a reminder to everyone that the platform question has not been answered.

Depending on your perspective, the tendency of the human mind to cherry pick information can be seen as either a bug or a feature. In the context of online platforms, it’s easy to see successes like iTunes as indicative of potential and promise when it’s actually the result of a unique set of circumstances. Finding gold in a stream may spark a gold rush, but only a few people will stake claims that literally pan out. The internet is no different. As I noted in a post about the future of publishing:

In return for making distribution almost effortless and almost free, the internet promises nothing. No revenue. No readers. Nothing.

Possibilities are not promises. Possibilities are chances, which is why I always say that writing for profit is gambling — and gambling against terrible odds. Determining what your online platform should be, and how much time you should devote to that platform, is an important part of nudging the odds in your favor.  

Lowering the Bar
Platform-services consultants, like marketing consultants, will always tell you that you can never do enough. Because the time you can devote to your platform is limited, but the time you should devote is infinite, these people will offer to bridge that gap on your behalf, for a fee. Because the internet is driven by technology, and because anything less than a cutting-edge platform means you’re falling short, platform consultants will also offer to sell you myriad apps and solutions, all of which they will teach you about, maintain and upgrade for a fee. (The New York Times was convinced by these same people to spend $40 million dollars on a paywall that can be easily circumvented.)

Approaching your platform as a vehicle of infinite possibility constrained only by your own feeble lack of determination is a recipe for failure. You do not have an infinite amount of time and resources to devote to your platform. Even if you did, there’s no guarantee that such a commitment would equal success. From part IV of my marketing and sales series:

In the real world, if you really did grab a pick and shovel and head out into your backyard to strike it rich, your friends and family would rightly think you a loon, no matter how deeply felt your convictions were. Why? Because it’s common knowledge that gold isn’t plentiful everywhere. Rather, it’s concentrated in veins of rock or in waterways that hold gold from eroded veins of rock.

If you try to dig in the wrong place it doesn’t matter how much time or money you spend, or how cutting-edge your tools are. You’re not going to get any gold even if you have infinite resources. Because the internet obviates geographical limits it seem to negate all limits, but as the NYT’s second attempt at a paywall makes clear that’s not the case. The internet is not an infinite vein of gold waiting to be exploited if only you’re smart enough to pick the right mix of apps, site functionality and marketing techniques.

(This false premise echoes the happiness industry’s determination to blame everyone for their own failings. If you’re not a happy person it’s your own fault: stop whining and try harder. If your platform isn’t racking up clicks and sales it’s your own fault: stop whining and try harder.)

Platform Motivation
I think the right question to ask is how each independent author’s platform can most effectively dovetail with that author’s individual goals. If you’re the kind of writer who wants to write a lot of books, slaving yourself to a complex or time-consuming platform is going to keep you from reaching that goal. (I’ll elaborate on that in a moment.) If your writing goals are more modest or limited — and if the work you’re producing is itself part of a larger goal — then creating a more complex platform might make sense. For example, if you’re a public speaker or have a primary profession, authoring a book might help you further those pursuits even if the work itself never becomes a bestseller.

I think it’s also important to be conscious of the motivations behind the voices championing the idea of a platform. As a writer I think you should have a platform in order to make yourself visible. Making yourself available online allows people to find you and your work, and it allows you to have information or products waiting for them whenever they choose to arrive. Without a presence on the web you are invisible and mute, no matter how many pages you crank out.

Publishers, agents and editors want you to have a platform, but for slightly different reasons. To them your platform provides a metric by which they can measure your popularity in an uncertain marketplace crowded with aspiring writers. The measure of dedication you show to your platform also indicates how interested you might be in doing the things those people would want you to do in order to maximize sales. Given that they only make money if you make money it’s understandable that they would have these interests, but those interests do not put writing first.

In my case, for example, the decision to quit Facebook and Twitter was made after considerable deliberation about what was best for me as a writer, including assessment of the workloads involved. I’m fairly confident most publishers, agents and editors would see my choices as a mistake, if only because I’ve made it harder for them to assess my platform relative to other authors. Staying active on those sites would please them, but it would make my writing life more difficult without any demonstrable payoff. (If I write a runaway hit I can always join those sites again in order to capitalize on that success.)

Platform Criteria
So: how to juggle all of the available platform options? Well, after testing some of the options I’ve changed my own platform weighting as follows:

  • Creating and publishing new work is more important than any platform activity by at least an order of magnitude. If there’s a choice between writing and working on my platform, I’m going to write. Doing so emphasizes the proper ratio of time I should spend on my platform.

    As I said above, writers who crank out books probably need less of a platform relative to other writers. Why? Because after you establish even on an online toehold, your growing body of work becomes the greatest expression of, and attraction to, your platform.

  • Becoming a better writer is more important than bettering my platform by at least an order of magnitude. Because I’m never going to be able to drive sales with my celebrity I need to make sure I can compete with my content. Here’s how I put it in the conclusion to my series on marketing and sales:

    Writing is a qualitative act. It matters whether you suck or not. As such I believe mastery of craft is the most reliable predictor of critical or commercial success for the great majority of writers. There will always be people who succeed despite a lack of authorial gifts and there will always be good writers who are overlooked in the marketplace. But if you’re determined to play the percentages and protect your own authorial vision, nothing pays off like focusing on being the best writer you can be.

  • Both Twitter and Facebook demonstrate the same inescapable truth: if you have celebrity you’ll have more success at exploiting those sites; if you don’t, the road to cultural currency (to say nothing of sales) becomes much, much more difficult. The written word is the root of any storyteller’s celebrity. It is the engine of an author’s success in every way, including platform success. I agree that authors should launch their platforms before they launch their books, but the success of that platform will be defined largely by the success of those books, not the other way around.

  • All platforms are not the same. Some authors focus on issues, some authors focus on readers, some focus on both. (Zoe Winters wrestles with these choices here and here.) I’m at the point where I want to write and self-publish more fiction, and engage more readers. Again, however, my success at doing so will come from spending more time writing things for people to read, not more time working on my platform.

  • After a year and a half I can say with conviction that an author can have no better platform than their own website and blog. If you want to extend that locus through other sites like Facebook and Twitter, that’s fine. But you should have your own home base and you should own it. It doesn’t have to be a complex site, and probably shouldn’t be if you want to protect your writing time. And you should always protect your writing time.

Everything I’ve learned over the past year or two says that an author’s platform should be smaller rather than larger. Everything I’ve learned also says that authors should concentrate on writing rather than augmenting their platform. You do need to have a presence. You don’t need to obsess over it.

The Platform in Context
Launching an online platform is like staking a claim. You hope you pick a good spot but you also know you have to compete with everybody else working the same territory. However much time and money you decide to devote to your platform, some of your competitors will have more money, some will work harder, and some will have trained professionals helping them.

Treating your platform like a competition with others is tempting but it’s a big mistake. I’m convinced that the people who visit my site and read my words are less concerned with how my platforms stacks up against other sites than they are with how well I deliver on my promises to them. I certainly don’t want my site to look amateurish, but beyond that low bar my focus needs to be wholly on my readers.

Because the internet potentially allows an author to connect with everyone on the planet it’s tempting to try to drive readers to your platform. I’ve come to believe that doing so is a waste of time. You should approach your platform and presence as something long-term and make it easy for readers to find you when they’re interested. The best of all possible worlds is one where readers promote you and your work by word of mouth, and apart from celebrity-driven successes I can’t find any examples to the contrary. Bottom line: it takes time, so plan accordingly, including emotionally.

One of the most oft-quoted remarks about the obstacles facing independent artists comes from Tim O’Reilly:

Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

This idea has also been heavily promoted by anti-DRM advocate Cory Doctorow:

That’s because my biggest threat as an author isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. The majority of ideal readers who fail to buy my book will do so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free electronic copy.

The problem with this claim isn’t that it’s false, it’s that it’s meaningless. Obscurity is also a far greater threat to authors than smallpox, grapefruit and linoleum. If nobody knows who you are, yes, that’s a big problem. But ignoring the costs of piracy doesn’t solve any author’s obscurity problem. In fact, based on my Twitter experience, I don’t think anything can solve the obscurity problem because it’s baked into the online cake.

The internet made information available 24/7. It also made it possible for anyone to distribute digital content. Now, with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, it’s effortlessly easy for people to express every stray thought in their heads. As a result, the wall of noise that any content provider must compete against has grown exponentially. We’re at a point where every single person on the face of the earth is a direct competitor. There is no longer any distinction between the people who make content and the people who consume it.

The fact that everyone seems so deeply invested in expressing their own thoughts means fewer and fewer people are listening. Attention has become a commodity as critical to the lifeblood of a writer as obscurity is daunting:

Many of the filters earlier generations took for granted, the ones imposed by the absence of real-time communications and efficient transmission and storage, have now been eradicated by the advent of internet and digital media.

The only possible solution to the obscurity/attention quandary is not to play. No matter how great your celebrity or big your platform, there are limits. Just ask Roger Ebert. (There are also good reasons to believe that Facebook and Twitter are overvalued financially and culturally. Just ask Warren Buffett and Vincent Eaton.)

Picturing Your Platform
When I first thought about my own platform I imagined it as a kind of soap box. It was my spot in the public square of ideas. Later, I also came to think of my platform as a retail space. It was my shop and display.

Now, however, I’ve come to see my platform as a launching pad. It’s how I try to put stories and ideas and conversations into virtual orbit. Some of the things I launch may blow up on the pad, some may go to the moon, and the fate of some launches may be unknown for a long time. And nothing I do to my platform will change that.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.