Building Your Author Platform

by | Oct 10, 2016

Although a lot of the work you do as an academic is solitary, the conversations and communities you’re part of are not. Your work, no matter how personal or niche it might be, is part of a broader public world. Indeed, that broader public world is probably one of the reasons you became an academic. You want to create work that can affect some sort of social change. But to do so, you need to be part of public conversations and share your work in the process.

Think of an author platform as a stage that boosts you up, letting people see you and hear what you have to say. Every academic needs an author platform, as do those of us planning careers beyond the academy.

If the idea of a stage sounds a bit scary (as it might to those of us who are introverts), remember that you get to build that stage. You get to tailor it to your unique expertise and the way you like to connect with people. It is merely the necessary tool that lets people find your work, engage with it, and take it seriously.

Author platforms and book marketing

Book marketing begins long before your book is ever published. It begins many years before, when you first start conceiving of the ideas in it and talking about those ideas with others.

Every conference paper you deliver, brainstorming session you have with friends, keynote you deliver, or emails you exchange about which presses you should seek a contract from are all examples of book marketing: you are talking about your book in public, generating interest from others in your book’s ideas, and whetting the appetite of your potential audience.

Planning for this long-term marketing is a crucial part of building your author platform and helping your book down the line.

Your author platform is what gets your book noticed, sold, and used by your ideal audience.

You are building your author platform every time you explain your work to someone, write a job application, introduce yourself to a new colleague, share a writing draft with a colleague or writing group, post an article on Facebook or Twitter, tweak your CV, present a conference paper, attend or organize an event, comment on a news article or blog post, or really do anything in public that relates in some way to your voice in the world and your career.

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Identify your audience

Every book needs an audience. Audiences are specific groups of people, not general demographics. To figure out your book’s audience, ask yourself: Who are you speaking with through your book? I say “speaking with” purposefully: if your book is just talking at people, they are not likely to feel engaged by it.

All books are conversations, and scholarly books are particularly so: our books emerge from our discussions, debates, questions, and investigations of particular topics with specific people. So, who are the specific people that your book engages? This isn’t the same thing as the authors your book cites, although they might overlap. You might cite Frantz Fanon, but your book obviously isn’t aimed at him as a reader. And although you may also cite a particular living scholar, that scholar might not be the audience for your book either. Instead, think about who your book is for.

When you wrote your book proposal, your publisher probably required you to list your book’s intended audience. Chances are you wrote something about how your book would be of interest to undergraduates, graduate students, and/or faculty interested in the giant fields your book touches on (performance studies, media theory, disability rights) as well anyone interested in the specific topic in your book’s subtitle. That was a good early exercise in thinking about audience, but we’re going to get much more specific.

Your ideal readers are the real-life individuals who are already waiting to buy what you publish and who are already on board with what you have to say about your topic (which you know because they’ve said so—either in a personal conversation with you, in their own scholarship when they cite your work on this topic, in a social media post they put up, etc.). Your primary audience does not need convincing; they are already convinced. You don’t need to sell them on your ideas; they’re already sold. But you do need to tell them where they can buy your book.

Get clear on who is not your audience too

Your book is not for everyone, or even everyone who is interested in your topic. It was written for very specific types of people (even if you didn’t know you wrote it that way), and identifying those specific types of people means that your marketing messages will actually resonate. Rather than demographics, we’re going to think about actual, individual humans.

Book Marketing for Academics contains an Identify Your Audience Worksheet to help you identify the ideal audience for your book and how to reach them where they already are hanging out.

After using the worksheet to identify those people, you’re going to describe them. What are they interested in? What kind of careers do they have (get specific here: what institution or organization do they work at, what department and subfield, what level are they in their department), what do they teach, and what kind of scholarship, art, or activism do they themselves produce?

Then find what they have in common based on those descriptions. Maybe your ideal audience is comprised of early-career cultural anthropologists, first-year undergrads in an introduction to gender studies course, or progressive activist-scholars who are committed to a set of shared political goals.

Go to where your audience already is

Next, ask: Where do these individuals hang out, both in-person and online? Maybe your early-career cultural anthropologist readers are always at the American Anthropology Association conference (perhaps at specific kinds of panels or receptions); maybe the contingent and tenure-track faculty or grad students who would assign your book in an introductory gender studies course use the WMST-L listserv, or maybe your progressive activist-scholar readers are hanging out in specific Facebook groups or reading similar blogs.

Those locations are your marketing channels. Go there, hang out, and have conversations. Get to know folks. This isn’t about haranguing everyone there to read your book but about meeting folks, talking with them, and learning what they care about. They will ask what you do, and that’s a great time to mention you have a book coming out on the topic you all have been discussing.

But more than that, this is a chance to become part of the audience you’re cultivating. It’s not about the hard sell (which hardly ever works). It’s about showing up, being yourself (including your smarty-pants scholarly self who is writing a kick-ass book on a topic you all care deeply about), learning from other people, and sharing ideas. You have a great resource they can use in their work—your book.

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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