You'll see the odd writer every so often come out saying that an agent rejected them because they didn't have a big enough following on social media. It’s a scary thought, right? You spend months, even years, doing the hard part – writing a whole darn book! – only to be told that you won’t be signed until you’ve got a bigger platform.
This is a bit of a complicated issue, so let’s break it down as best we can.
What exactly is a ‘platform’?
In the simplest terms, a platform is the extent of your social reach. It comprises your social media following and your, for lack of a better word, ‘connections’. The people who, when you speak, are likely to listen. There’s no solid number that defines what a ‘big platform’ is, but we can realistically say that we’re looking more at 10s of thousands of followers than several hundred.
The reason this metric is taken into account in publishing is because it’s such a finicky market. There’s no way for publishers to know for sure which books will sell well, and so they have to be careful about who they invest in and, ultimately, ‘bet on’ to be successful. One of the easiest things to look at in this regard is the size of the author’s platform.
Why is a big platform good?
This is kind of a given but if you’ve got a lot of people listening to what you’re saying, it stands to reason you’ve got a lot of people willing to buy what you’re selling – ie. your book. Unsurprisingly, this is why publishers are more likely to sign the next children’s book from, say, David Walliams as opposed to an unknown author. Walliams has the numbers, the name recognition.
Of course, it’s not just celebrities who have big platforms. There are plenty of ‘everyday’ writers who have thousands of followers across different social media channels. Fortunately, you don’t need to have been on the telly to have some clout.
The cold reality of a ‘big platform’
Let’s say you have 30,000 followers on Twitter. Well done, you! That means you’ve got 30,000 customers, right? You’ll earn out your advance in no time! Ehhh, no, I’m afraid not. You see, the harsh truth behind those 30,000 followers is that many of them – probably the majority if we’re being realistic – are not going to be your customers, and there are a number of reasons for that:
They don’t read in your genre. You’ll notice this a lot in the Writing Community on Twitter: you’ll get a lot of followers who are also writers, perhaps because you’ve talked about process or craft books, but not all of them enjoy your genre.
They’re bots. Plain and simple. Twitter (and I’m sure other channels) does clear out bots quite regularly, but they’ll never be wiped out completely and bots sure aren’t going to buy your book.
Sorry but… they’re just not interested. Maybe they followed you for your funny tweets or because you share pictures of your dog, but they have no interest in reading what you’ve written and they don’t owe you a sale. Harsh, but true.
When big platforms undersell
I mentioned above that celebrities are a safer bet for publishers because their social following is usually up in the millions – way above us mere mortals. Even if you eliminate the bots and uninterested accounts, the number of dedicated fans is still going to be high. But a recent New York Times article shows how even celebrities with massive platforms can have sales figures well below expectations.
To summarise the article, Billie Eilish has 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter, but the book she released in May 2021 has sold only 64,000 hardcover copies to date. Assuming there’s some overlap in her Twitter and Insta followers, let’s just take the bigger number – those sales make up 0.066% of her social numbers. And no, that decimal isn’t in the wrong place.
This is not what the publishers would have expected when they paid out the kind of advance smaller authors could only dream of, and that’s putting it lightly. Does this mean that publishers are going to put less weight on an author’s social following? Well, maybe, maybe not. It’s still one of the few metrics they have to gamble on, but we can hope that it’ll see them take a chance on smaller authors. Yes, we can hope…
So, build a following or not?
Well, see, that’s the tricky part. First, let’s talk about the one caveat to this, and that’s non-fiction. For non-fiction authors, platform really is important because your book is on a niche subject and you have to prove to publishers that there are people out there looking to learn about that subject from you.
When it comes to fiction, of course a big platform looks brilliant to agents and publishers – that’s a very tasty slice of free marketing right there! But unless you are actually engaging with all those followers on a regular basis, as I’ve mentioned the numbers can ultimately mean very little.
People buy from people they like, and they’ll like you more if you engage with them on topics of shared interest, or if you show that you also care about what they’re working on. Don’t talk to your followers as if they are leads ready to be sent a link to your latest pre-order. Make real connections, founded on mutual respect. As you can imagine, it’s hard – nigh impossible – to do this with several thousand people let alone a few hundred.
And if you get a rejection from an agent because you don’t have a big enough platform… honestly, that says more about the agent than it does about you. At the end of the day, do you really want to trust your words with an agent who is clearly more caught up in your numbers?