Should you publish your novel to build your platform?

Here’s a phrase I’m hearing alarmingly often: ‘I’m going to self-publish my novel and use it to build my platform’.

Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.

Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.

Non-fiction

You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.

But novels?

Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.

The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.

Successful self-publishers

There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn  – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.

Relationships rock

Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.

So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.

And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?

You might as well, um, query with it.

Yes, query

Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.

If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.

‘But every agent has different taste…’

Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?

‘But it takes time…’

You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.

‘But everyone’s publishing…’

I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.

But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.

Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?

Build the relationship first

Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.

Thanks for the pic, Scottnj

While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.

So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments

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  1. #1 by kevinonpaper on February 12, 2012 - 9:46 pm

    Good words. It’s tough to remember that our platform is me, and the product is, well, a product of me. It is not me. Maybe in a bygone age, people knew you by your product, but commercialism has led to the erosion of trust between consumer and producer. They want to “look you in the eye” so to speak. Ah, but now there are so many other issues. Do you know who you are? Do you feel comfortable putting you on display…etc.

    • #2 by dirtywhitecandy on February 12, 2012 - 10:29 pm

      That’s so true, Kevin. Although our books contain so much of ourselves, it’s easy to get the two confused. Readers do it too!

  2. #3 by marthareynoldswrites on February 12, 2012 - 10:09 pm

    It’s like you should have said, “HEY MARTHA!” at the beginning. :-). Thanks for the post.

  3. #6 by thatwritinglady on February 12, 2012 - 10:11 pm

    Great post! I’m trying to build a platform to help sell my nonprofit’s book of lesson plans, and this is very helpful.

  4. #8 by Pete Denton on February 12, 2012 - 10:26 pm

    Good advice. When I’ve finished my novel that’s the route I’m planning. Query first and keep building relationships in the blogging world.

  5. #10 by Sally on February 12, 2012 - 10:33 pm

    True what you say about non-fiction being easier to build a platform with, Roz. Good post.

    • #11 by Sally on February 12, 2012 - 10:33 pm

      Oh, drat. Was supposed to change my email/name thingy. Oh, well, next time!

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 12:06 pm

      As I discovered, Sally, having built a platform for writing advice!

  6. #13 by Tahlia Newland on February 12, 2012 - 11:53 pm

    Great post, Roz and I agree (mostly). Blogging has helped my writing skills a lot and I wouldn’t have learned my craft to the degree I have now if I had published my novel when I first started blogging. I thought it was ready for publication but it wasn’t. The process of querying and being rejected made me keep refining my work and I recommend that anyone writing their first novel does it that way before rushing into self publishing.

    Even if you don’t get a publisher, if you get rejection letters that indicate that your writing is okay, or at least is not the reason you’re being rejected then you can confidently Indie publish. There’s plenty of Indie authors who have gone that route because their agent couldn’t find a publisher, but having that agent is also proof that their work is good enough to be published. That’s not to say that if you don’t have an agent your work is no good, just that having tried to get one stops you rushing in before you’re ready.

    However, if you have an affinity for Indie publishing and you’ve learned what you needed to know first time round, then I don’t think it’s necessary to do all that after your first novel, but you do need good beta readers and editors to make sure that what you put out there is the best it can be.

    The other time I wouldn’t bother with the traditional route are projects that clearly wouldn’t interest a publisher eg short stories and things that are radically outside the box. They don’t interest publishers because they’re hard to sell, and that’s even more reason why you need your platform first.

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 12:11 pm

      Hi Tahlia
      Many excellent points. Even if you aren’t suitable for the current publishing market, you can tell by the reactions you get whether your work is ready. Agents and publishers will always tell you that. If you never seek those reactions, you won’t know.
      Of course, you could pay an editor like me – but that costs you a lot more!
      Good point also that once you’ve done this with one manuscript, you will have learned so much that you can judge your work far better. And yes, we all need outside feedback.

      • #15 by Tahlia Newland on February 14, 2012 - 12:10 am

        Good point. I’ll ask my agent to have a look at my outside the box project. I actually want to Indie publish it anyway, but as you say, I can still get feedback from her and the more feedback we get, the better.

  7. #16 by Teresa Cypher-Willowlive on February 12, 2012 - 11:56 pm

    Hi Roz…a great post–and timely for me; I had begun to ask that question–which comes first. Even so, I wonder about how much is enough–as far as platform building goes. At what point do we go ahead and publish? And I completely agree about relationships. I love it when someone leaves a comment on my blog. I love the interaction. I enjoy getting to know other writers and readers. Otherwise, I may as well just go ahead and pay for advertising because amassing followers without interaction is a sort of hollow–hoped for promotional tool. All the best.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 12:28 pm

      Thanks, Teresa! Ah what a question – how big does a platform have to be? It could always be bigger, you could always wait longer. Everyone’s numbers will be different – some people will make a blog grow quickly, some won’t.
      It’s easier to answer when it’s time to self-publish the novel: not before you know that’s your best option.
      Anyone else got an answer?
      You also make a good point about interaction. I love being able to make real contact with likeminded souls on Twitter, Facebook and here on my blog. It seems a natural extension of what we do on the page anyway.

  8. #18 by Very Tessa Tangent on February 12, 2012 - 11:58 pm

    You’re reading my mind again! I’ll carry on slowly and painfully learning about blogging and platforms – and won’t send my novel out too soon. Thanks…

  9. #20 by Bill Greeves on February 13, 2012 - 12:58 am

    Great post as usual Roz. Here’s my question though – I have a fairly sturdy platform for my non-fic work (government social media) which I continue to work on as my first non-fic work finishes the publishing process. But now I am turning my attentions to the platform for my fiction work, which is completely disconnected from my non-fic work. Do you suggest completely independent platforms and relationships? I am struggling here. I don’t want to turn off my non-fic relationships with details about characters and plot and alternately, I don’t want to annoy my fiction friends with government social media blather. Suggestions?

    • #21 by Sally - aka Saleena on February 13, 2012 - 11:13 am

      Bill, that’s my situation precisely. I had a good base for my non-fiction but that readership is not especially interested in my fiction, which is virtually unconnected.

      I would suggest that you look at the non-fiction elements in your fiction (those that are in your previous non-fiction) and use those to help promote it to your non-fiction audience. Write blog posts that (gently) link them up (if you have a blog) or put them in your email newsletters or Facebook or whatever you use. I’m guessing that you will have something connected to prior non-fiction books in there, no matter how tenuous that connection is. It’s something I’m trying at the moment, though the results haven’t come through yet!

      But otherwise yes, I think you will probably also have to build a separate audience. I’m trying to do that even while I run my crossover experiment.

  10. #27 by Debra Eve (@DebraEve) on February 13, 2012 - 5:47 am

    Have to agree with you on every point, Roz, including the fact that Amanda [example of everything] is an example of luck and timing (as well as hard work). I’m trying a feedback loop with platform-book-platform-book for a series of nonfiction books. So far, so good and so far my book stays high in the Amazon rankings, but I could never see it working for fiction.

    • #28 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 12:39 pm

      Debra, fiction is so different, isn’t it! And yes, you’re right to make the point about Amanda and her hard work. Overnight success after years and years.

  11. #29 by Glynis Smy on February 13, 2012 - 8:51 am

    Good point. I think platform building first, it is working for me. I am into my fourth year of platform building. My support out in the writing community is amazing. I have spent those years writing 2 novels, but not published yet. Now I am being asked when will my book be ready by my friends around the world. The feeling is a good one. My answer? When I am brave enough for the negative reviews, or any time- sometime. :D

    • #30 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 12:43 pm

      Glynis, you may have answered Teresa’s question above – about when to self-publish. If your community is starting to thump the tables, perhaps that time will be soon…? But I know you’ve had a lot of exciting developments behind the scenes, and evaluating them all takes time.
      As for the negative reviews, they’re always going to happen. That’s when you need to know that your supporters didn’t let you put the book out without honestly telling you whether it was ready!

  12. #31 by Elle @ Mistakes & Milkshakes on February 13, 2012 - 4:31 pm

    Great post Roz! I guess my question is — how do you build a platform if you’re writing fiction and you DON’T want to write about writing? At this point I feel like my blog isn’t so much a platform as a map of my insides! :D Which maybe isn’t the worst thing — I do sort of feel like the people most likely to pick up my eventual fiction are the people who already like my writing — rather than the people who like my thoughts on [insert random authority blog topic here].

    • #32 by dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 9:14 pm

      Thanks Elle – I love that phrase ‘a map of my insides’! In an oblique way, isn’t that what all our novels are anyway?
      You’re right that writers tend to pick writing as their subject (says she, shuffling her feet). But if you don’t have another ‘topic’ it’s a bit tricky to find something else. My novel deals with music and ideas of reincarnation, but other novels I write are likely to have different preoccupations and subject areas.

  13. #33 by Ren Cummins on February 13, 2012 - 4:36 pm

    At the same time, we could be talking a bit of “chicken and egg” here, too. There are even more people talking about writing their novel than the ones talking about having actually written them, and I just never wanted to be someone who wanted to talk about doing something if I hadn’t in fact done it.

    Additionally, in this new age of democratized creativity, the journey of self-publication can be its own intriguing process – – and a very firm reminder that there are not only as many paths to success as there are people walking it, but that there is truth in the saying that if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain.

    But mostly, I agree with you. Great blog, thank you for sharing! :)

  14. #35 by jennymilch on February 13, 2012 - 7:32 pm

    This is *great* advice, Roz! I’m going to tweet and share it with as many as I can. I love how you’re not coming down on either side of trad or indie pubbing, but advocating investing as much time in honing your craft as possible–and seeing the people you meet add up along the way. A balanced, nuanced approach.

    If you get a chance and can stop on by my blog today, I have a correspondence with an emerging writer post up that touches on some of these same issues. It’d be an honor for you to read! http://www.jennymilchman.com/blog/

    • #36 by dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 9:24 pm

      Thanks, Jenny! I’m hoping that 2012 is the year when we stop seeing somany boundaries between the different routes to publishing. We should all focus on treating the reader as well as possible, as you say. I will certainly head over to your post – I’ve got a tweet that needs filling!

  15. #37 by Janet O on February 13, 2012 - 7:51 pm

    I self-published my novel after querying, placing in lit contests and no pick up by agents. I felt it was the best fit for THIS PARTICULAR novel, but I’m still querying agents. I do have a platform but self-pubbing was not the point of creating it. I wanted to reach readers about an important, but not well remembered bit of history.

    • #38 by dirtywhitecandy on February 13, 2012 - 9:26 pm

      Janet, that sounds eminently sensible. I self-published my first novel (or the first one written as me), but my second one is on editors’ desks and it was put there by my agent. We can do it both ways – whatever suits the book.
      And as for how I started my platform… it was with no other motive than the thought that it would be nice to try blogging. Actually, I’m talking a bit more about that in an interview tomorrow, so if you’re interested, do pop back.

  16. #39 by Daniel R. Marvello on February 14, 2012 - 12:43 am

    I’m a non-fiction writer and a fiction writer, like others who have commented here. Platform makes complete sense in the non-fiction world, but really had me scratching my head when the time came to build a platform for my fiction writing.

    At this point, my fiction “platform” looks more like the Swiss Family Robinson tree-house. I blog about writing experiences (which appeals to my writer buddies), about my fiction world (which hopefully appeals to my readers), and about my publishing-related projects like the Magic Appreciation Tour (which appeals specifically to “magical fantasy” authors).

    Although I started building my fiction platform long before I published my first book, it hasn’t gained much traction, probably because of the multiple personality disorder.

    As for querying, I never did that. I used beta readers and critique partners to get far more reliable (if less expert) feedback on my writing. I decided that I cared more about what the readers think than I do about what the masters of homogenization think.

    If I decide I need an expert opinion, I’ll hire someone like you. Until then, I have “Nail Your Novel” to keep me on my toes.

    • #40 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 15, 2012 - 1:48 pm

      Hello, Daniel! Knew someone would have a more contrary view… :)

    • #41 by Daniel R. Marvello on February 15, 2012 - 4:20 pm

      Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to be contrary.

      I think it is a matter of managing expectations. I don’t see anything wrong with publishing your book and then starting to build a platform around it, as long as you understand that your book isn’t going anywhere until *after* you are successful at getting the word out to the right audience.

      It can sometimes be hard to clearly identify your market until after your book is done. Some argue that you should identify your market first and then write the book those readers want to read, and for non-fiction I heartily agree, but I think that’s a fool’s errand when it comes to fiction. Many writers write what their characters tell them to write. Pesky concepts like “theme” often aren’t apparent until the work is done. Sure, you can decide on a genre before you start writing, but the nuances of what you put into your novel are what truly identifies the audience who will appreciate it.

      You are actualy a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I doubt MMoaFL would have ever happened if you were trying to “write to the market.” And look what happened after you released the book? You started a new blog with posts related to music, effectively building your platform after your book was done. Bazinga.

      • #42 by dirtywhitecandy on February 15, 2012 - 9:26 pm

        Touche! Actually you’re quite right that that’s what I did with MMOAFL. The platform I had before was for writing, but I honestly hadn’t a clue what to do about my novel.

        The Undercover Soundtrack idea came later. I originally intended to let the MMOAFL blog be a static website, then I co-wrote a piece about writing to music and suddenly thought it would make a good series.

        This could be translated as don’t do as I do, do as I say! But the MMOAFL blog wouldn’t go anywhere if I didn’t have other contacts to tempt over. So the Nail Your Novel platform – and the looser contacts that spin out from it – are building its readership.

  17. #43 by Carol Riggs on February 14, 2012 - 1:10 am

    Great advice. I’m sorry to see some authors race out into the indie/self-pub route, often before they’re ready. There’s something to be said for the clout and marketing of a traditional publisher. But for some people who like more control over their books and marketing (and who don’t mind doing the extra marketing), the indie/SP route may be better. I’m still aiming for traditional publishing…maybe because I’m stubborn–or because I want to prove I can. ;o)

    • #44 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 15, 2012 - 1:36 pm

      Thanks, Carol. Even if a publisher doesn’t do much to market you (which is sadly the usual state of affairs now) you still get a lot more kudos for it than you get if you publish as an indie. Unless, of course, you have other resources to reach readers.

  18. #45 by Anne R. Allen on February 14, 2012 - 5:41 pm

    This is such important advice, and very nicely put. This whole thing is driving me crazy. I’m watching more and more writers put carts before horses. They have no blog, no social media presence, not even a website and they throw a first novel onto Amazon and can’t figure why it doesn’t sell. Build platform (which means “build relationships” as you say) THEN consider self-publishing. By that time you should have at least two books, plus a well thought out marketing plan. Otherwise, it’s like auditioning for a Broadway musical after three dance lessons. You’re choosing to fail.

    • #46 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 15, 2012 - 1:33 pm

      Thanks, Anne. Absolutely – for many writers it seems to be their goal. It’s as if they imagine putting a book out causes magic messages to tingle on Kindles up and down the land. It doesn’t. Publishing a book with no way of supporting it is like a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it.

  19. #47 by Wendy A.M. Prosser on February 15, 2012 - 9:05 am

    Roz, you are so right! Have patience, don’t rush, take time to ensure that all we create is as good as it possibly can be before we unleash it upon the world, whatever the route.

    • #48 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 15, 2012 - 1:30 pm

      Thanks, Wendy. It is so tempting to rush, but you can’t unpublish. Even if you can correct the Kindle version, the imperfect ones are still out there and someone will judge you on them.

  20. #49 by Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos on February 18, 2012 - 5:42 pm

    I did it backwards, I guess. Published my novel, then set about to create a platform. Started blogging, got active on twitter. The exciting part about creating a good platform is that you can be real and be yourself. If you are people will check out your books, so you don’t have to be a spam bot. I guess my point is building the platform is important, but don’t think that if you have a book out there that’s it’s too late. You can build it anytime in the process and your book sales will follow. At least they did for me.

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