2015/03/27

Brand vs. Platform

Legacy publishers now consider an author's platform to be the single most important criterion for deciding whether or not to offer a book contract. "Platform" is of course one of those nebulous terms that's mostly used to inflate the speaker's perceived importance, like "statistically significant" or "equality".

Jane Friedman at least attempts a definition and settles on, "the proven ability to reach a target audience with visibility and authority". But this slippery term evades even her canny grasp, as she writes that a platform isn't about social media or blogging; then advises authors to build their platforms by being active on social media and blogging.

It's no surprise that legacy publishers have latched onto platform as their prime metric of author success. After all, the steep decline in adult sci-fi and fantasy has happened on their watch. Despite its chameleon nature, platform essentially boils down to a system of communications channels. That the self-styled custodians of literature now value the medium over the content provides a handy diagnosis of the industry's ills.

The publishing establishment's myopic obsession with platform smacks of ideology and the quest for prestige; not sound business sense. Forbes offers convincing proof of this assessment. To many hardworking writers' dismay, the best way to land a book deal is to already be famous (a clear example of platform over content at work). But look at how often celebrities whose name recognition even best selling authors would kill for release books that tank.

If platform is a flawed predictor of author success, what's a better alternative? David Vinjamuri provides a compelling answer in the same Forbes article: brand. "Brand loyalty is important," he says, "because it has a direct impact on profitability."

What's "brand"? According to Joe Konrath, branding is associating name recognition with positive experience. Though he wields a formidable platform, he places it at the service of his brand.

The Codex Group backs up Vinjamuri's claims with data showing that readers will pay 66% more for books by their favorite authors compared to unknown quantities. Maintaining a successful career as an author requires building a loyal reader base who will show up each time you release a book. Having a big megaphone won't help if you keep writing books no one wants to read.

3 comments:

  1. Some other brands to consider:
    James Patterson who is the Aunt Jemima of thrillers
    Tie-In Fiction, such as Star Wars or Forgotten Realms
    A publisher that gives a damn, like Baen

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    Replies
    1. Excellent points, all--especially tie-in fic. It's an open secret among the literati that Star Wars and Halo novels are what's keeping the sci-fi genre afloat. The fact that tie-in novelists are still mostly regarded as filthy mendicants is one reason I'm glad that Sad Puppies lobbied for Kevin J. Anderson to get a Hugo nod.

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    2. And your mention of Baen reminded me of a recent dustup between Brad R. Torgersen and John Scalzi, wherein Scalzi suggested that he could waltz into Baen and they'd hand him a deal. Brad pointed out that if Scalzi wants a Baen deal, he'd better have a pitch that will knock Toni Weisskopf's socks off. Because Toni's only interested in stuff that sells.

      Come to think of it, Brandon Sanderson's past rivalry with Scalzi illustrates the platform author vs. brand author distinction perfectly. Sanderson was an unknown hotel clerk when he first got signed, whereas Scalzi leveraged his enormous blog traffic to land a deal. Both started at the same publisher at about the same time. Scalzi got an early lead with his Campbell win (more evidence that the push behind platform authors is all about status).

      The difference between their careers since then has been illuminating. Sure, Scalzi's racked up a bunch of Hugo nominations and wins, but sales wise he stalled on the E list while Sanderson became Robert Jordan's heir and one of the three pillars holding up Tor.

      Sure, Sanderson's got the obligatory web site he posts at when he's got a new book coming out. And there's the popular podcast that's basically a side project, but Sanderson definitely puts brand first and uses his platform to serve it.

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