If you have written a book (or completed any extensive creative project) people will be asking for your URL, and you’ll be hearing all about how you need to “grow your platform.” But is this true? And if so, how early in the process should you get started? Here’s my take as a marketing professional with over a decade in the publishing industry.
What It Means to “Build Your Platform”
When you hear the phrase “building your platform” don’t think of a tall shoe, think of a stage. Before you own your own site, you are reliant on other people’s stages (websites) to show off your expertise or share your thoughts. Think of a poet who goes to a bunch of different open mics, she’s promoting herself on different stages in the community. One day she decides to start her own open mic. It’s her stage, and she can run it however she pleases. That’s building her platfrom.
Your Site as a Business Card
If you don’t want a blog, and just want a static website, your site serves as a virtual business card. If all you want is a few pages with samples of your work, an About page and a Contact form, you are not likely to build a following. That is fine, sometimes a simple website is all you need. The site I have for my communications company doesn’t have a blog, because I don’t have time to properly update it, but it serves the purpose of explaining my business. This is the first step in establishing your brand.
A static website allows you to control the conversation around your book, and to create a marketing funnel that will guide readers to your sales page. However, when marketing experts claim, “you need to be blogging” or “you need to build a platform” they are not describing a simple website.
Building a Platform
When you get to the point where you are looking to grow an audience, you will need a more active website. If you build a site and start a blog but never share the posts with anyone, no one will see it. Moreover, it’s not enough to create content and share it with your friends and family. You need to be active in the community that surrounds your book. That is, if you’ve written a mystery book it’s not enough to write a few blog posts that you share with your family, you need to be reaching people in the community of mystery readers and writers. Or take nonfiction: if you’ve written an exercise book, you need to be active in the fitness community. This should be obvious. How can you be an expert (or in the case of fiction, a leading voice) if you aren’t active in the community you write about? Poets go to open mics. Tech writers go to code conferences. But somehow there is a disconnect about this when it comes to the Internet.
Your Community Comes Home to You
Networking on the Internet is no different than in the real world; you have more opportunities but the thought process is the same. The best way to do this is to offer things that community is interested in. This could include: contests & giveaways, reviews in your genre, related author news, or thoughtful essays, to name a few. You don’t need a website to build this audience, it can be done with social media and an email list. However, if you build your audience via Facebook and Twitter, those are your platforms and you are entirely dependent on those platforms. They own your contact list, they benefit from all the traffic you generate, and they control how you are able to market your book—if at all. None of this seems like a big deal when you are happily building community on a social network or other forum you love. I even know a novelist who got a six-figure book deal out of a story that started in the comments section of an economics forum where he was a popular user. He wasn’t contributing to “build an audience,” he was building an audience because people wanted to read the contributions he created in that community. Despite building his audience on this forum, today he writes on his own site.
Four Signs You Don’t Need a Website Yet
You’ve Never Written a Guest Post or Done an Interview
I don’t mean to suggest that writing on someone else’s site are essential boxes that must be checked off on your way to having a website. However, if you are so new to your community that you haven’t done any outreach to anyone, it may be wise to get out there and get to know people in your genre before starting your website. Put another way, what does your community want to hear? What sort of things would you want to share with your readers? If you’re sure you need a site I can help you answer that question, but ideally you should already be writing the kind of content your readers will want.
You Don’t Know any Writers or Readers in Your Genre
This is a continuation of the previous point. If you don’t know anyone else who reads or writes in your genre, who are you going to tell about your latest post? Again, you are not building a website to sell your book to your friends and family. You need to be reaching out to the audience of readers and writers that is relevant to your work. Before you invest in a website, it would be wise to join a Facebook group, web forum, subreddit or other community related to your genre.
You don’t Have Enough Writing to Provide a Decent Sample of Your Style
You don’t need to have a finished book, but you do need to have enough writing to make it worth sharing with your community. For example, if you’ve filled two notebooks with poetry but don’t feel comfortable posting that poetry online, you probably aren’t ready for a site for your poetry. Or perhaps you’ve written 200 pages of a novel, but haven’t finished the first chapter. If you plan to share those chapters in order, you don’t need a website until chapter one is finished.
You Aren’t Available for Gigs or Speaking Engagements
You don’t need to have a book to sell, but do you have some professional services to offer for sale? That is, if someone was in need of a writer, would you be for hire? Or could someone hire you to speak about the topic of your book? It is absolutely worth building a community for its own sake, but it can be costly and time consuming as well. It makes more sense to build your own site when you can use that space to promote yourself as a writer.
Five Signs You DO Need a Website (or Blog)
You Are Self-Publishing
Stop right there: if you are self-publishing you absolutely need to have your own website. Those looking to get published traditionally can at least rely on the legitimacy of their publisher to represent their books. But if you self-publish, it’s all on you. If someone googles your book and can’t even find a professional website to represent it, what does it say about the quality contained in your book? If you aren’t willing to invest in the most basic of promotion, what are the odds you have invested in the best editing and research for that book?
You’ve Completed a Draft of a Book
Notice that I didn’t say “you have published a book” or even “you have finished your book.” When your book is done is the time to start selling it, and you don’t sell to a community you’re not engaged in. Ideally you should be building your platform long before your book comes out. Before a book is published, a new author is usually in search of an agent or a publisher, and either is going to be looking at your website to see if you are actively engaged in promoting your work. You want to be building your audience before you are sending your book out to publishers and agents, which could be a year or more before the book ever sees print.
You Have Written a Lot of Great Related Content
If you have been writing essays or blog posts regularly, e.g. as Facebook or Reddit posts, you are throwing away a lot of traffic. You are growing an audience, but that audience still belongs to the site where you are posting. If you know you are going to eventually want your own site, and you already have the discipline to regularly create good content, why not start growing your platform sooner?
One key word here is related. If you are writing one day about horror movies and the next day about gardening and the week after that about the smell of baby farts, each of those posts would not have the same audience. Unless your voice is central to your writing style (e.g. memoirists, humor essayists) you need to have some consistency in what you are writing about to make a site worthwhile.
You have a Branding Problem
This is one particular case where you’ll need an author site, even if it is just going to act as a business card for your writing. That is the case where the Google results for your name or book title are not to your liking. A good example of this is if someone else with the same name as you comes up often in searches for your own name. In that case it is crucial to own a domain with both your name and the additional search term people would associate with you. For example, George Washington might own GeorgeWashingtonAuthor.com.
You Are Getting National Media Attention
I once had a client hire me to develop all the content of her site in a hurry. She was in a rush because she wanted her site live before she was featured in a major nationwide magazine. This was a smart move, because that kind of PR will bring her a potential audience over night. It would be a shame for her to throw all that traffic away. If you’re going to be featured in any nationwide media, such as a morning show or glossy magazine, you will wish you had a website when it comes out.
Ultimately, the answer to, “when should I start building my platform?” is “as soon as possible.” However, it is not really necessary until you are sure that you are either growing a fandom around your work or you have something you are planning to sell. Hopefully this page has helped you get a sense of where you are in the process.