Hello Authors! Happy New Year!
In this issue, I answer the question: what is an author platform? And, more to our point: what can it accomplish for academic authors today?
There is a surprising amount of information already out there on author platforms, what they are, and why they’re useful. If you’re interested in knowing more about its development over time, I would recommend Jane Friedman’s blog post—it’s a fascinating and thorough intro to this idea/tool.
But what if you have no idea what an author platform is or why you should care? You’re skeptical and I understand.
It’s not a stretch to say that, as a concept, the “author platform” is a bit foreign to the academic world. Even those scholars whose professional websites essentially act as author platforms probably still don’t refer to them as such.
That’s because the term was originally used to describe an author’s visibility and connection to their audience (before social media). Friedman boils the concept down to its core: “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” It was and still is mainly used in the trade-publishing world as an indicator of a fiction or non-fiction writer’s potential reach. So while this idea has been around for a while, it has not gotten much traction among academic authors.
Writing in the Chronicle not too long ago, Dr. Devoney Looser suggests that this hesitancy (or flat-out resistance) by scholars might have to do with a reluctance to view our work as products to sell. And when we think that the main goal of an author platform is to amplify one’s “ability to sell books,” it makes it difficult to square that with some reasons that we may have had for going into higher ed as opposed to, say, business.
Pre-COVID, I might have agreed with those who held onto the belief that academics do not sell goods. But as a doctoral candidate who just watched an entire field succumb to the pressures of a deteriorating academic job market—the pandemic being the last straw—I don’t believe that belief will serve humanist scholars (or the humanities in general) anymore.
That is not to say that this is necessarily negative. I take it as a reminder to be realistic about what is expected of academic authors today and to remain focused on what you can do to reach your goals.
So how do you start building an author platform?
The good news is, you already have!
Just by being a professional in your field—going to conferences, giving talks or invited lectures, teaching courses, publishing articles or books—you have started cultivating a professional reputation. The next step is to synthesize all of those actions and present them in a digestible way to a potential reader (or hiring committee). The easiest way to do that is through a professional website, academic profile, or teaching portfolio.
While technically speaking all three of these are just websites, the kind of website you ultimately want will depend on your goals or a combination of goals. If you just finished your PhD, you likely don’t have a book to showcase so a simple academic profile page might be the best option for you at the moment. If you have a book out already or are about to publish one, then a more substantial website would help you capitalize on that achievement by promoting your new book and using its momentum to showcase your other work, something that a single-page profile can’t do as effectively. If you are looking for a position at an institution that prioritizes teaching, then a website that highlights your teaching record over your research will be more appropriate.
These are the kinds of discussions I have with my clients when we talk about building a professional website and how it will fit into their career goals.
How can it help the scholar?
It would be a waste of fake ink to argue the positives of having a professional online presence. If it’s done well, it’s free advertising of your accomplishments and personality, a way to network, and a track record for future employers to scope out. The reasons a scholar might want digital visibility are not all that different from why people in other industries have LinkedIn profiles: they want to establish credibility and show off their experience.
So do you!
As I alluded to, not so subtly, the academic job market is brutal, especially in the humanities, regardless of what field you’re in. By maintaining an author platform, you demonstrate your professionalism and your experience, something that any future employer or publisher will want to see.
An already-established author platform comes in handy especially for first-time book authors. Looser makes the point that, “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.” Academic publishers are already under immense pressure to keep their costs down, oftentimes requiring the author to contribute to cover production costs. By building up a platform prior to the publication of your first book (or building off of your first book’s success), you help your work reach wider audiences by promoting yourself as an authority on the subject matter—which your publisher will love!
This can be done in a number of ways and you don’t have to already be published to start building your platform. The main point is that it grows as you do, so don’t worry if you think it’s a bit bare at the moment—it won’t be for long.
An author platform adds value to your preexisting digital spaces (like your LinkedIn profile or page on your department’s website) by giving you more space to create and inform. As its author, you control the content, tone, aesthetics, everything about the reader’s experience. This kind of flexibility allows you to add context to something that would otherwise be limited on other outlets.
For example, you might have a list of courses taught on your department page but don’t have any room to showcase those brilliant syllabi you curated for them or the archival photos that you had students analyze. Or perhaps you had a very brief experience that doesn’t quite fit into a category on your CV/profile, but it had a tremendous impact on the way you conduct research. On your author platform/website, you can include anything that you think would add to someone’s understanding of you as an author.
I’ll speak more in-depth about how to make the most out of your platform at different stages of your career in a later issue. But for now, you can start by building a website that highlights any major accomplishments so far, your areas of interest, university affiliations, and your contact information.
By now, I hope you see that I’m not trying to turn you into a traveling book salesman (or worse, an entrepreneur!). If there’s anything you take away from this issue, please let it be this: thinking about your website as an author platform is a small step to thinking about yourself as an author. You might already be one, or just beginning your way to authorship. In either case, I find it refreshing and uplifting to think about how I present myself as an author and not limit my thought to how I’m going to present my work.
These are different things that sometimes get stuck together when they really shouldn’t. The outlet of publication or presentation will dictate to a large degree what that text, paper, podcast, etc., will look like. But the question of presenting yourself is quite another task and it is not limited to any single document, digital or otherwise. The image of you as an author will include everything that anyone can get their hands on about you in a professional setting (we can talk about Twitter another time, promise). This can be daunting, especially for those of us who prefer taking notes on paper and reading actual books. But it is also incredibly liberating once you know how to make it work for you.
I hope this newsletter helps you do that 🙂
If you want to get to work right away on something, check out my editing and author platform design services here. Feel free to leave comments or questions below or email me directly at email@example.com.
Until next time, take care!