The Truth About Author Platforms

A few years back, proving your platform meant whipping out your big black book of press clipping. You know, the ones that proved you could get into the media at will. Not any more.
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It's the rally cry of publishers...

Want a book deal? Show me your platform.

If only they knew how easy it's become to fake a monster platform in a 2.0 world...

A few years back, proving your platform meant whipping out your big black book of press clipping. You know, the ones that proved you could get into the media at will. Not any more. Now, publishers want to see a different set of metrics.

But, many publishers don't realize that in today's digital world ... platforms can be faked.

Why and how, you ask? The answer to why is money. Bigger platforms lead to the attention of bigger publishers and very likely bigger advances. The how, though, is a bit more complex.

When editors and agents talk platform, what they are really asking in the 2.0 age is:

  • How many people are on your email list or subscribe to your blog?
  • How many followers do you have on twitter?
  • How many Facebook friends or fans do you have?
  • How much monthly traffic do you get?
Problem is, the answer to all of those questions can be easily faked. Here's how...

The art of building a big, worthless list.

There are a million ways to drive people to your email list. Most often, it involves some variable of creating valuable content, then adding an opt-in form on a landing page, web-page or blog page and relying on some combination of advertising, organic search and social media to drive traffic to the page with the form. The value and relevance of your content, bundled with a strongly worded offer and even a relevant giveaway to incentivize subscribing will build a nice sized, genuinely interested list. But, it'll take time.

So, what if you wanted to build your list to a giant size faster in the hope of landing a bigger deal?

No problem. There are plenty of ways to essentially buy a list that appears to be yours, but has very little loyalty or genuine interest in you or what you write about. Two examples include co-reg and bundling irrelevant yet irresistible offers.

Co-reg, which is short for co-registration is the fine art of paying to have an offer listed on someone else's confirmation page that asks a viewer to sign up for your list at the same time they're signing up for someone else's list (there are many variations on this, too). You usually pay 25 cents to a dollar for each name. At 25 cents a name, then, you can buy yourself 50,000 subscribers for $12,500 fairly quickly. Plunk down $40 large and you've got a seemingly monster 100,000 person list.

Problem is, lists built this way are often one ER room "clear!" away from needing to be resuscitated. Not always, but often. Because they're based not on a deliberate decision to get more of what they came for, but rather a spontaneous decision not to uncheck a box that subscribes them to your list.

Bundling an irrelevant yet irresistible offer with a request to subscribe nets you a similarly large, but worthless list. Here, you offer viewers the chance to win some outrageously appealing prize for simply subscribing, even though the prize bears no relation to the topic you write about. I wonder how many people, for example, would pony up their email addresses for the chance to win a Macbook Air, roundtrip flight anywhere in the world or $1,000 amazon gift card? Hmmm, let's just say thousands of people would be tripping over each other. And, if you let people accumulate more entries by not only subscribing, but then evangelizing your giveaway across social media, your list grows even faster.

But, here's the problem ... just like with co-reg, the list gets giant fast, but it's often useless, because the people don't really want to be on your list or care what you write about. They just want to win a prize. So, when it comes time to market your book, you're efforts fall largely on deaf ears. Plus, by then, you may be considered a spammer and reviled by the larger social media community for pushing people to pimp your earlier list building efforts.

So, if publishers are looking to reduce their risk exposure by going after writers with bigger lists, it's not enough to know the size, they've also got to know:

  • How those lists were built,
  • What the average open rate is (responsiveness),
  • What the average click thru rate is (engagement), and
  • What the unsubscribe and spam notification rates are

But, what about traffic?

Doesn't a high traffic blog or website betoken a popular content creator?

Maybe. If the traffic is generated largely by direct links, organic search and social media linking to high-value content. BUT, just like you can buy names for your list, you can also buy traffic. Pay per click is the most popular option, but let's looks at an even less well known play. StumbleAds, for example, will include your page in it's database. Then, for 5 cents a pageview, your page gets displayed when a web surfer clicks on a browser button that auto-feeds new pages which are supposed to be relevant to a stated preference.

This can generate a ton of pageviews for you in a short period of time.

But, the truth is most people speed-click that button like an ADHD 11 year old playing Asteroids in a 1979 pizza shop. The pages fly past in a second or two, and though the viewer did not consciously seek out the specific website or page, it counts as a hit in your web stats. Five grand will get you 100,000 views. And most of those people will never come back. They'll be largely worthless from the standpoint of building a loyal devoted community of potential book buyers. But, they'll bump your stats nicely.

So, publishers need to drill down beyond unique visits and pageviews and ask:

  • Where is your traffic coming from?
  • What is the bounce rate?
  • What is the average time on site?
  • What percentage convert to your list? And,
  • What percentage come back and how often?

Same thing with twitter.

Ever hear the word "churn?" It means something nefarious in nearly every context, save the rarified art of making butter by hand. On twitter it means following large numbers of people, knowing that a certain percentage will follow you back even though they couldn't give a damn who you are, simply because they want to be known as someone who "autofollows" so more people will follow them. Then, a few days later, unfollowing anyone who hasn't followed you back and starting over.

Twitter hates this, but they still permit a certain below-the-threshold level. And, churning can build a ton of followers fairly quickly. But, again, a following created largely through churn is a following that doesn't have significant value in the context of marketing your book. Because they're not following you in panting desperation for your next morsel of linguistic loveliness, they're following you because they want more followers themselves.

Other examples and tactics abound, but I think we're all getting the point here.

Numbers do not automatically translate to engagement and value from a book marketing standpoint.

Nor do they reveal what is often the more powerful aspect of a 2.0 savvy author's platform ... who else they know.

When I launched Career Renegade in January 2009, I had a smallish, but incredibly devoted blogging and twitter community. Generated by real, live hard work, a quest to create and share high-value content and build interesting conversations around it. But, I'd also developed a deep set of relationships with many people, including a largish handful of influential bloggers whose platforms made mine look silly. And, because these relationships were genuine and not merely built for the purpose of commercial exploitation, when my book launched, many of them enjoyed it and shared their thoughts on their blogs, exposing it to millions of viewers.

You can't fake that. And, you can't measure that up front. It didn't appear in any numbers.

So, two pieces of advice...

  1. Authors - build a real following of people defined by mutual adoration and a shared love of the content, the conversation and the ideas you bring to life. And, spend time developing, genuine relationships with like-minded people across the social web.
  • Publishers - if you're purpose in signing writers with platforms is to lower your risk of loss and increase potential book sales, stop chasing numbers and start asking where those numbers came from.
  • Kapish?

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