Devoney Looser

Professor of English at Arizona State University

Writing a Book or Article? Now’s the Time to Create Your ‘Author Platform’

Full newvitae selling books

Image: iStock

"How did you find me?" The caller had contacted me with an unusual professional opportunity, and I was curious where he had found my name.

"Well," he said, in a tone that seemed a little sheepish, "I Googled ‘Jane Austen professor,’ and your name came up."

That admission may have felt awkward to him, but I was thrilled. It was clear evidence that the author platform I’ve created and maintained is working.

What is an "author platform"? A year ago I had no idea. The phrase is defined by Jane Friedman — co-founder of "The Hot Sheet," a newsletter on the publishing industry, and "Electric Speed," an e-newsletter for writers that I read carefully — as "an ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach."

I realize I’ve already lost some academic readers by using the word "sell." Many of us went into higher education to avoid selling ourselves, our souls, or some widget. We were going to be about the love of ideas, not filthy lucre. That also meant being above the business of plugging our own research findings. Perhaps we mistakenly thought our ideas would sink or swim on their own merits, or maybe we imagined that selling books would be our publisher’s problem.

But take a look at the number of titles published in a year by any given scholarly press, and compare that to its number of publicists. You’ll quickly see why the assumption that a publisher will handle every aspect of marketing your writing is mistaken. If you want more than just a few people to read what you wrote — and you should because you’re also an educator — then you’re going to need to do some promotional legwork yourself. Done well, that labor will look suspiciously like sales.

Few academics produce scholarship with any expectation of a positive cash flow. Some of us are fortunate enough to have research obligations built into our salaries and workloads; many others do the work absent that dedicated time and advantage. But all of us know we’re lucky if royalties provide a windfall in the low three figures. What most researchers want, beyond buyers, is buy-in. We hope readers will share our sense of the importance of our findings. We want to convince an audience that our arguments have value. We are focused not just on sales but on "reach."

The newfangled term for how you plan to reach a larger audience, within or beyond academe, is author platform. Having an author platform means you are not only publicizing your next article or book, you are seeking the right readers for it. You are thinking long term to actively manage the ways you put yourself forward as an authority. You’re working to pop up in someone’s Google search for your area of expertise.

The best predictor of a book’s success is the involvement of the author, or so my publicist, Kathryn Marguy at the Johns Hopkins University Press, taught me. She did amazing work on my behalf in the months before and after my book, The Making of Jane Austen, was published. I was lucky to benefit from her expertise, but I also took her advice seriously and rolled up my sleeves.

Parts of author-platform building proved fun for me (I enjoyed writing the script for my book trailer on YouTube), but a lot of it was drudgery. (I still struggle with SEO — search-engine optimization — for my book’s website, and I have no idea if I’m doing it right.) Many of my efforts seemed to come to nothing.

Perhaps the most challenging part for me was figuring out just how much time to give over to this work. Creating and maintaining an author platform could become a full-time job, if you let it. Don’t let it, because you don’t want to end up all platforming and no authoring. But adding some platform-building tasks to your daily routine could increase the potential reach of your ideas and arguments.

Most effective author-platform strategies involve social media. Your motivation should be to find your best potential online networks and interact. These may include, Amazon Author Central, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, LibraryThing, LinkedIn, Humanities Commons, Pinterest, ResearchGate, ScholarlyHub, Tumblr, Twitter, or YouTube. Determine which ones you’re willing to join. But don’t just show up and announce, "Here I am!" and — à la Thomas Jefferson in the musical Hamilton — ask, "What did I miss?" Your presence shouldn’t be a one-way street, repeatedly blasting press releases about yourself and your work. The object is to convey that you’re eager to be a part of the broad conversation and then demonstrate that consistently.

So where do you start?

Share daily snippets of your research findings online. Offer praise to someone whose work you admire. Submit research news to an alumni network or professional society. Improve your website. Add a link to your email signature. Tell colleagues when you ask the library to order their books. (Later you’ll invite them to consider requesting yours from their library.) Do something each day to connect and amplify, sticking your neck out as an author-expert.

Some faculty writers may balk at the time, the trouble, or the capitalist trappings of that effort. I can assure you that your scholarly publisher will not balk at any of it. Publishers care deeply about audience, impact, and sales, because most are run like businesses, whether or not they are for-profit operations. Submitting a top-notch book manuscript to them is unquestionably still required. But publishers are increasingly seeking authors who are not only ideas-smart but marketplace-of-ideas smart.

Want to learn how to be a more attractive author-prospect for major scholarly presses? Study their marketing questionnaires. Here are three good examples from the Johns Hopkins University Press, the University of Chicago Press, and the University of Minnesota Press. Those documents show what promoting a book from a strong author platform looks like.

Notice the questions they pose. Minnesota, for example, declares itself "very active in social media" and asks, "How ‘connected’ are you?" Chicago asks you to name blogs and bloggers who might take an interest in your research. Following and interacting with those digital movers and shakers before asking them to take an interest in your book would be wise, right?

Some of what you do to increase your scholarly visibility will be done the old-fashioned way — in person. A decade and more ago, when you published a book, you might have set out fliers about it on a table at your favorite academic conference. The preferred method today involves handing out a book business card. Trade authors use them regularly, but academic authors have been slower to adopt the practice. My forward-thinking scholarly press designed a colorful card featuring the cover of my book (which is beautiful), with ordering information on the back.

Although I try not to be too obnoxious in handing out my book business cards, sometimes I fall short. If a listener shows the least bit of interest in my book, I pull out a card and say, "Here’s what it looks like. Isn’t the cover beautiful?" A card is more portable than a flier. People usually don’t mind humoring me by taking one, and I feel a lot less like I’m distributing takeout menus. Plus, it’s a free bookmark. The book business card led to my dentist buying a copy for his Jane Austen-loving sister, thus proving his worth as a medical professional and a sibling.

Word-of-mouth may work, too. I’ve enjoyed giving in-person lectures to Jane Austen societies, at colleges and universities, in libraries, and to community groups. At those events, someone would inevitably ask me, "Are you on a book tour?" At first, I would say no — because I thought a book tour implied that my publisher was paying for my travel. And it wasn’t.

But I quickly learned that the right answer to "Are you on a book tour?" is always "Yes." If you are away from home talking about your book, then you are on a book tour. One successful speaking engagement may lead to another, with the tour extended by popular demand.

You might also talk with other scholars whose reach and impact you admire. Last year, I approached a successful academic-crossover author and asked what else he thought I should be doing. His advice was, "Start an author newsletter." So I added a subscriber button on my website and began using the no-cost TinyLetter template to organize content. I strive for bimonthly contact, providing a behind-the-scenes, personal sneak peek into my research and methods. Newsletters give readers the latest information on your subject of mutual interest. They learn from you (just like teaching!), and they may be willing to help spread the word about your latest work.

It’s never too soon to start building an author platform, especially one that reimagines your ideal audience. One scholarly editor I know maintains that most academic authors don’t ask themselves tough questions about their intended readers early enough. Graduate school trains scholars to write for other scholars, so that’s our default mode. Yet when we finish book projects, and hit submit, we happily declare to prospective editors, "My subject will be of great interest to students and an educated general audience."

Few of us bother to test that claim. Here’s a tough question to ask yourself: How many general readers have looked at your work at any step of the way? If your answer is none, then find some. If you’re hoping that your work is going to be picked up by students, test your manuscript with some. Pay a few to read and evaluate it. Have them tell you where they’re most and least engaged. Listen to their concerns. Recast. Rewrite.

I’d love to see a future in which anytime academics published an article or a book, we would amplify our findings on social media or in a popular medium with a tie-in essay. We would connect our arguments to something topical or timely — say, through an essay for The Conversation or the Los Angeles Review of Books. We would approach influential websites interested in our topic and pitch a guest post. (In my areas, 18th-century studies and women’s writing, I would look to The Rambling, 18th-Century Common, Romantic Circles, or ABO Public.)

To me, this work is hustling, not hucksterism. I believe in the value, originality, and importance of my research. I’m also convinced that academics who devote more energy to interacting with audiences beyond their colleagues and classrooms are doing a public good. The academic author platform is a low-cost, low-risk way to make that possible, which could bring rewards — both quantifiable and not.

Of course, you could just keep doing your faculty work, in and out of classrooms, because you value ideas and are committed to advancing knowledge. That’s noble. But I hope you’ll consider how your hard-won expertise could go even further if you’d promote your ideas — and yourself as valuable authority — more deliberately and widely.

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