Chip MacGregor

April 20, 2015

Ask the Agent: What do I need to know about author platforms?


We’ve had a bunch of questions come in on the topic of author platforms…

What is the magic platform number publishers are looking for?

In my view, there is not magical number. Every project has its own goals. But it might help to keep two things in mind… First, that publishers are on an economy of scale. So a large house might need to see an author platform of more than 100,000 names, but a small house might only need to see a platform of 30,000 names. Second, remember that the potential readership of your book will be influenced by your platform. A literary novel needs a much broader platform to succeed than, say, a book of quilting patterns, which will sell to a very specific audience.

Is a platform basically a list of who I can reach via personal appearances?

No – a platform is simply the number of people you can reach with your words, whether that is via speaking, personal appearances, your blog, articles or columns you write, organizations you belong to, television or radio time you have, etc. All of those are points of contact with potential readers. It’s why I like to say a platform is simply a number – you add up the audiences for all the ways in which you reach out, and that’s your platform.

Does the number of impressions I get with my online writing count as part of my platform? Does my Facebook and Twitter feed count?

Yes on both counts. If you reach people with your words, it’s part of your platform as a writer.

My Christian publisher told me that the number of books I can be expected to sell is directly related to my platform. Do you find that to be true? And if so, what number are they looking for?

I think there’s a lot of debate over how your platform relates to your sales. I see a ton of author activity regarding Facebook, for examples, but I’ve yet to see much evidence that “having a lot of Facebook friends” equates to “selling a lot of books.” The same is true for Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Flickr, and FaceTwitFlikTumbLin. Look, I see a LOT of authors throw themselves into social media, and I’m just not seeing that it sells books. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; only that I’m not sure it really helps an author move many copies. Sure – the first question I get from publishers on any nonfiction proposal these days is, “What’s the author’s platform?” I need an answer for them. But I don’t let the conversation rest there, because there are other important aspects to having a hit book.

Some people in the industry won’t like this, but consider some recent bestsellers. I was at Alive Communications when my late buddy Lee Hough was trying to land Same Kind of Different as Me. The author had almost no network, but the book went on to sell more than a million copies. My client Ira Wagler’s memoir, Growing Up Amish, has sold 150,000 copies, though the author runs a building supply company in a small town in Pennsylvania and doesn’t do much of anything to generate a platform. Another client, Mindy Starns Clark, isn’t even ON social media, but is a wonderful writer who has had several bestselling books, and two #1 bestsellers. My buddy Cecil Murphey penned 90 Minutes in Heaven and watched it sell 15 million copies or so, and while the author Don Piper is a speaker, at the time the book released he wasn’t well known. We could say the same thing about The Shack, Crazy Love, Anything, One Thousand Gifts, and a bunch of other bestselling books – the industry is filled with books that have done well, written by authors who don’t have a big platform.

That doesn’t take away the fact that there are a lot of people on the other side of this argument. Joyce Meyer is on TV all the time, has a huge platform, and her books sell great. Joel Osteen pastors a giant church, and his books sell incredibly well (even though, you know – he keeps writing the same book with a different title). There are people like John Maxwell or John Ortberg or Eric & Leslie Ludy who have done the speaking thing, built up their platforms, and turned that into strong book sales. My friend Liz Curtis Higgs has spoken in more church basements and to more women’s conferences than just about anyone, and it was a long road for her – but she’s helped turn that into a series of bestselling books.

My point is that there is no “one right way” to build a platform… but at the same time, building a platform doesn’t guarantee a bestselling book. Some bestsellers (perhaps I should say “many” bestsellers) pop up because the writing or the message of the book simply meets a need at the time. Call it dumb luck. Call it karma. Call it the sovereignty of God. I don’t know why, but it happens regularly. And it’s why I’m not one of those who insists every author invest time in a blog, or spend hours on Facebook, or get out on the speaking circuit. There’s no one route all authors must follow.

====================Questions Book Cover

Hey, if you’re interested in asking questions of agents, pick up a copy of Chip’s new book, How can I find a literary agent? (And 101 other questions writers ask), which has just released with The Benchmark Press. Available in both print and e-book formats. 

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  • :Donna Marie says:

    Of course, there’s always Oprah’s Book Club 😉 Actually, I have friends who attest to the fact that even though they have thousands of followers of their blogs, it doesn’t translate into sales. Word of mouth does more, but the “how” and “who” of that is the question, I think. I’ve actually purchased books through high recommendations on blogs by reviewers, readers, teachers, librarians and other authors or illustrators.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard various experts spout a random number of theories on the “equation to sales” figure, Donna Marie. Authors like to think that a large percentage of Facebook friends and blog readers will buy their books — but in reality the percentage is normally fairly small.

  • Traci Hilton says:

    With so many writers wanting to see indie work go hybrid, what would kind of indie experience would agents/publishers consider a worthy platform to transition to a trad contract?

    (Your answer may be referenced in Dallas at ACFW. I have a feeling this question will come up at the indie panel!)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The danger of indie publishing for many is that the book won’t sell — which we see all the time with novelists. The writer makes a big deal of having released a book, but it’s sold a couple hundred copies, and the message sent is simply, “My book won’t sell.” It’s why I encourage writers to have a strategy to their indie publishing BEFORE they start slapping books up on Amazon.

      Authors tend to be happy with dozens of sales. But most publishers are thinking in terms of thousands — as in, “What could we do to sell a thousand books?” Every agent and editor is looking for an author who can demonstrate they can move books by the thousands. That’s a tall order, of course, but it’s what they’d all like to see.

    • Traci Hilton says:

      Of course, the danger of any kind of publishing is that the book won’t sell, I sort of thought that was understood!

      Happily, I’ll be shilling the only indie publishing strategy that actually works at conference, so we should be able to sort everyone out once and for all…right? 😉

      So…authors who are happy with dozens of sales are nincompoops. (Is that a CBA friendly word?!) But I am happy to hear that the # that creates hybrid interest is just in the thousands. I think that is not only a very doable # for any author willing to work hard, I think it is the least they should expect of themselves before they even think about looking to go hybrid.

      I mean, goodness. We wouldn’t go into some other job interview saying “While in business for myself in this industry I was unable to drum up any clients, therefore I think I am the perfect person to do it for you!”


    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! Yes to your first point, Traci — I guess the Mr Obvious in me felt a need to say that the danger of publishing is that the book won’t sell. That’s true no matter WHAT the venue. But I’ll look forward to hearing the sure-fire system you’ve got to share at conferences later this year. :o)

    • Traci Hilton says:

      I’ll give you a hint…early to bed, early to rise, write the next book, and advertise. 😉 It’s my sure fire get rich slow and steady formula.

  • Sooo.. Question- how do we document platform? I work for/ with an org with almost 100,000 members. They are part of my platform. In addition to speaking, blog, social media other types of reach… how do I quantify that for an agent and publishers? (It’s an issue with my current proposal.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think you do the best you can to try and reflect accurate numbers, Tracey. (Every editor has grown tired of authors who have made an appearance on some satellite TV show claiming they’ve got a platform of billions, since the broadcasts all over the globe.) If you had an article in Slate, it’s more accurate to research the readership of your article, not the overall readership of that magazine. If you belong to an org with 100,000 members, and they’re going to share the news with everyone, it’s perfectly fine to state that. But it would be pushing the envelope to state that you belong to AARP, who has 30 million members, and therefore claim them as your readers. Does that make sense?

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