Friday, June 17, 2016

How Can an Aspiring Author Build a Platform That Impresses an Agent or Publisher?

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It's not an easy feat for aspiring authors to sign with a literary agent these days. The competition is tough. Slush piles are high. And when a writer receives a rejection, it doesn't necessarily mean they're a bad writer. So how can you, an aspiring author, catch the attention of an agent or publisher?

For those of you who aren't aware, I've been working with Hartline Literary Agency as an intern for the past six months. It's been enlightening to see this side of the industry, to say the least. As I've helped Cyle Young weave through his slush pile, I've discovered more and more as to why, exactly, it's difficult for aspiring authors -- even the talented and experienced writers -- to land a literary agent. 

Agents receive floods of queries. This isn't just an excuse they give when they respond to your query six months after your submission. It's the hard truth. And unfortunately, responding to this flood of submissions is not an agent's primary job. 

When they do snatch an opportunity to comb through their submissions, they have to be strict about who they sign with -- otherwise, they'd take on hundreds of authors who share the same publishing dream as you do.  

So how can you, an aspiring author, separate yourself from the crowd? What are agents searching for these days?

As much as agents love to discover new talent, they won't sign with a client unless they believe the project has potential to sell to publishers. With that in mind, let's reframe the question: What is it that publishers look for when they receive a proposal?

Great writing + Intruiging premise + Strong platform

Of course, publishers only take on projects that they believe will sell in today's current marketplace. So if you can send them a project that fits the above criteria, then your chances of publication will increase.

Acquisition editors are becoming more strict about platform. In the past, only the non-fiction writers were expected to have a strong audience; now, the fiction writers are expected to have an established one as well. Yes, even before their book is published. 

What is a platform, exactly?

A platform is the total number of people you can reach when your book is published. It's your audience, your readership. The combined number of your followers online. Your "tribe". Potential customers of your book.  

I've even heard that some acquisition editors will choose a big platform over good writing. Why? Because, ultimately, it’s the number that will sell the book. Publishers have to stay in business. It makes sense that they wouldn't want to take on a project unless they know the book could sell well.  

In other words -- that book you've spent countless hours working on? If you hope it'll see the light of day, it's wise to devote just as much work into building a platform that will impress an agent or publisher.

Here are 5 ways this can be accomplished:

1. Blog consistently

If you post 1 - 3 times per week, blogging can expand reach to your target audience. Your blog is your cyber home, and it can become the area in which you discuss topics related to your writing, spark conversation, and interact with followers. Think of your blog as a virtual coffee shop you can go to and interact with your readers. 

Your blog is also an online portfolio of your writing. It can help you discover your brand -- which will, in return, expand your platform. Not only that, but if you do post consistently, you'll prove to prospective agents that you can write quality content on deadline.

But simply creating a blog and writing an occasional post isn't going to help. You must go into blogging with the specific intention to build your readership. If you'd like more advice on how to do that, check out my series on blogging -- Part 1 and Part 2.

2. Remain active {and interactive} on social media

Blogging is a passion of mine. I enjoy the process of sharing information and inspiration, then receiving instant publication and conversation with readers. 

Social media, on the other hand, took a bit longer to get accustomed to. As an introvert, I don’t have that natural tendency to spark random conversations or publicly display my life for others. However, social media is a powerful tool that allows writers to network with others in the industry and target core readership -- both of which can contribute to platform. 

You can use social media as a way to connect with readers. Your posts can inspire, entertain, inform, reflect, and educate. No, you don't necessarily have to use it to grant strangers an "inside peek" into your personal life -- but keep in mind that readers do enjoy learning about the person behind the books. It makes authors come across as more approachable. (John Greene is an excellent example on how to build a tribe on social media by remaining your genuine, authentic self.)

If you need more help on how to use social media to your advantage, I recommend Edie Melson's blog, The Write Conversation, as well as her book, Connections.

3. Discover and develop your brand

A brand is the reputation you create for yourself. It’s the image, essence, and impression that comes to your readers' minds when they hear your name. A brand combines an author's genre, personality, and unique characteristics in a way that sets them apart from other authors. 

At the same time, your brand can offer something of value to your readership, which is why it aids in building platform and selling books. If you can communicate your brand effectively through your online presence, then your readers will know what to expect every time they purchase one of your books.  

4. Focus on your readers

Going back to the example of John Greene: Another reason he has such a supportive tribe is because of the relationship he's formed with his fans. He didn't become a #1 New York Times Best-Selling Author simply by posting on his social media accounts and blog, My book releases in two days! Pre-order your copy now! Instead, he first focused on building a relationship with his readers. And it's because of that relationship that readers flock to buy his books as soon as they're available for pre-order.

We can accomplish the same through our social media accounts and blog as well. Rather than using our online presence as a means to post "commercials" of our products, we can instead use it as a way to connect with our target audience. Offer something of value to them in every post. Learn who they are. Cater to them, and make them feel special.

Why do fans love Taylor Swift? Not just because of her music, but because she establishes friendships with her fans. And of course they'll want to buy an album from one of their best friends! Never once have I seen her begging these fans to buy her album.

As you're discovering your brand, ask yourself: What is it that readers will get out of my products? Why will they want to return to my blog and interact with me on social media?

5. Generate a mailing list

Your readers might miss an occasional blog or social media post from you. But if they sign up for your mailing list, then that post can be delivered straight to their inbox.

This can be a powerful tool, but only if it's treated with respect. If you abuse your mailing list, then the frequent email blasts you send will come across as spam, and your readers will most likely unsubscribe.

When you set up your mailing list, use the same principles mentioned above. Ask yourself, what will my readers get in return? Why will they want to sign up? Is it because they'll receive an instant short story or coffee recipe? Is it because they're interested in hearing about the frequent YA book sales that you could include in your newsletter?

Treat your mailing list subscribers as if they're apart of your special club. Cater your email blasts and newsletters toward them, and watch as the size of your dedicated readership increases.   


Building a platform that impresses an agent or publisher probably won't come quick or easy. But if you keep at it, it can turn into a snowball effect: The bigger it grows, the more people you'll reach -- and the bigger it'll grow, etc.

Eventually, you might feel as though you're taking away from your book-writing hours. But if you can balance time management well, then the hours and effort you devote into building a platform will pay off. 

In fact, it may be the very reason why a literary agent selects your query out of their pile of submissions.


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Do you enjoy the challenge of building a platform? Or would you prefer to devote time into writing instead? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. This was a wonderful post Tessa, it had some very helpful info that I wasn't aware of before! I have a private blog with a handful of readers that I'm using as practice until I have a public one, but I'm sure that I'll enjoy building a platform when the time comes, just because it sounds like something I would enjoy :).

    1. I'm glad you found it useful, Savannah! I like the idea of having a "practice" blog to see what works and what doesn't. Very smart! =)

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Thank you! This is great information, though I dread the challenge.. I'd much prefer to just focus on my stories. I love writing, but I'm not a huge fan of socializing or marketing... or the extra editing I'll need to put into a blog (editing is my least favorite part). Ugh.. is outsourcing this part to a tech-savvy teenager frowned upon?


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