I write this post to myself, but I hope it resonates with you as well. I write it because it’s the number one thing I hear about from authors. It’s an angst, a stress, a great big worry. What do we do about platform?
In the early 2000s, I remember hearing a talk from a Christian publishing insider about the importance of building an author brand. The logic came from corporate America, that when you reach for a Coke, you know what to expect. To veer wildly off from what you provide causes something called brand confusion. This has never rubbed me the right way, and it bothered me then, too. What if God changes your course? What if your life experience veers, and you now have something to write that differs from what you wrote in the past?
I do understand the necessity for publishers to make money. That’s their primary aim, even in Christian publishing. If they don’t sell their product, they won’t be in business. Branding is one way to ensure consistent sales.
After branding discussions, the word PLATFORM began circulating around 2007 on the Christian writers conference circuit. I know because it was the year I returned from church planting overseas. I remember the stress that the concept caused me, the worry of whether I had enough people know me to justify me staying in the industry as a writer. From that point on, there were many times I wrote to my prayer team, “This may be my last book.” Whereas my books used to wholly be evaluated on the concept, the potential audience, and how well I wrote and articulated the book, now it mattered how “famous” I was.
Thus began the angsty years which continue to this day. I know I’m not alone in this ambivalence and frustration.
In 2012, Michael Hyatt captured the current zeitgeist of the publishing industry and wrote the book Platform.
I read it, learned from it, and applied its principles, as did many of my author friends. Why? We wanted to keep writing, and this was the new normal. When we wrote proposals, we would share our numbers, mainly email list numbers and how many people followed our author page on Facebook.
From that point forward, there have been a few explosions. Instagram grew up, and publishers took notice of the engagement there. YouTube channels started mattering. Podcasting blossomed. A myriad of other socials followed: Twitter (X), TikTok, LinkedIn (which had been around a bit longer), Substack, Snapchat, Threads, Discord, and a plethora of others. Honestly? It feels like social media whack-a-mole out there. You hear about a new “thing,” get a profile, then dread that you’re going to have to put content on it, especially if it takes off.
Traditional Used to be the Only Way
Back when I started publishing (2004 I landed my first two contracts), there were two options–expensive (and ugly covers) self publishing or traditional publishing. So I went the trad route. And I’ve mostly been on it every since. But the beauty of today is that there is much more power in the hands of authors. If the platform requirements stress you out, you can cheaply and easily get your content out there. The question becomes–can you sell it?
So, if you want to make a living at writing, people do have to know you. If you simply want to get your message out, you don’t need to worry so much about platform. If you’re a novelist, you don’t have to fret as much about it as well.
So the question becomes: what do we do?
Can we change an entire industry?
I’m finding it hard as a literary agent to create much movement in this area, though I could point to outliers who sold lots of books (the late Sarah Young comes to mind) who had nearly no initial platform. And I have anecdotal evidence from editors I’ve talked to who have lamented that their Instagram star of several hundreds of thousands of “followers” tanked in their sales figures. A following on a platform does not guarantee a sale, we’re learning.
Truly unique, well written books can find a niche, though they have a harder time selling in today’s climate than they did in the 90s. Why?
Because then, most Christian books were sold through Christian bookstores. People went into those stores, looked up a book on subject matter, and purchased it. Today? It’s exceptionally crowded on the Amazon marketplace, and there are few Christian bookstores left (and many are populated not by books, but by trinkets).
So now this issue is discoverability. How can new authors be discovered? Is building a social media empire the only way to woo a traditional publisher? I believe there are stronger ways to curate an audience, which means a change in terminology.
Presence, not platform.
The girls over at Writing Off Social and Thomas Umstattd of Author Media and the Novel Marketing Podcast have been talking about this issue. Both maintain the importance of building an email list–a tribe of people in your niche who really love your content. This coupled with any way you can meet with your audience in a human way (podcasting, speaking) is a terrific way to sell books. When I look at a potential author to agent, I do admit being constrained by low numbers. But if that same author has spent time curating a viable email list (with strong open rates), I am far more tempted to take a second look.
Why? Because marketing is really about knowing someone, trusting them. It is based on permission. And what better way to know someone than to hear their voice or experience their writing voice consistently in a newsletter?
So I’m personally shifting from the word platform to the word presence. What can I do to help others? How can I reach those who really want to hear/see/read my content? And most importantly: how can I bless those in my fold? And how can I do so without losing my mental health or my precious, limited time?
I am a better writer when I’m writing for those who actually want to read what I write. I am a better creator when I skim social media rather than doom-scroll it. Thanks to this book by Cal Newport, I am realizing that I need space and time to create truly unique written work:
I know I have a modest platform compared to many of the celebrity authors getting offered living-wage contracts. There was a time when I would chase gurus, bend over backwards to join the latest craze, but I’m not only tired of it all, I’m also wiser. I realize that if I am to be published again, it is up to the Lord to open that door. And if it is shut, he has something else in mind. I simply don’t want to make it to glory and hear something to the effect of, “Well, you built a big author platform, but you didn’t trust me.”
My best advice to those of you trying to be traditionally published in the Christian publishing space is this: pray.
Ask God to show you the avenues of PRESENCE that will best help others in your audience. Let go of anything that is no longer serving you, or is bringing you harm. Work hard, yes, but work hard at things that actually bring YOU a return on your time investment. Think about your audience as your congregation and seek ways to serve them simply and powerfully. Ask yourself, “What would help my friend today?” And then, do it.
We live in a spiraling world toward de-humanization, with some authors resorting to AI to write their books and others blatantly plagiarizing content. We are viewing audiences as a commodity rather than a blessing. We trip over the gods of commerce in order to be seen and recognized. There’s a crisis in the American church, which is fueled by the Christian publishing industry–where form often triumphs over substance, where platforms mean more than simple, daily ministry. We are enamored with celebrity.
I have talked to several editors in both spaces–in the general market and the Christian market, and I’ve learned this: the general market (NY publishing houses) have less of an interest in platform than the faith-based ones. Our industry seems to value it more, which makes no sense to me. Shouldn’t we be less enamored with famous people? Shouldn’t we value good work more than follower numbers?
I believe there will be a corrective in the coming years. I dare to hope that our industry will once again value orthodox theology, beautiful writing, Christian maturity & substance, and discipleship books far, far more than we chase after the instagram star or the TikTok sensation of the moment. Perhaps there will be a reckoning.
But even if not, Christian authors still have a choice. We can do our best, deep work in the quiet spaces of life. We can be counter cultural, spending more time with actual people than curating a persona online. We can entrust our careers to the One who matters most. We can remember the math of the disciples–it took 11 followers of Jesus to upend the world for the better. Little is much in the hands of our great big, famous God. We can understand the emaciating power of fame and how it corrupts us. We can seek first the kingdom, rather than chasing our own.