How Important Is an Author’s Platform?

Publishers Weekly just published its list of the bestselling books of 2008. John Grisham’s Appeal earned the #1 slot for hardcover fiction. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture [affiliate link] took the top slot in hardcover non-fiction.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/craftvision, Image #5620177

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/craftvision

Referring to the nonfiction bestsellers, the magazine noted:

Of course, the power of television and celebrity was obvious: of the top 15 authors, seven have prominent regular media exposure: [Rick] Warren, Bill O’Reilly, Barbara Walters, Ina Garten, Jon and Kate Grosselin, Chelsea Handler and Maria Shriver. Together the media sold a remarkable 4,800,000 books.”

This demonstrates the power and importance of a platform, something publishers supposedly insist on in signing new authors. However, I personally think “platform” is overrated. It is worth noting that eight of the top 15 authors don’t have media platforms.

Sure, as a publisher, I would like to have a great book from an author with a giant platform. But you rarely get both.

I’ve seen plenty of big-name authors fall flat on their face. And I have eaten my share of unrecouped royalty advances from these under-performing titles. Media exposure does not always result in a bestselling book. Too often I have seen publishers rely on the platform and not pay enough attention to the quality of the product. This is a recipe for disaster.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe in the power of a great concept and great writing. This is why books like Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, and Wild at Heart by John Eldredge [affiliate links] all did so amazingly well—and are still selling in big numbers. None of these authors came to us with media platforms. Yet their books were enormously successful.

This is why I believe would-be authors would do well to focus on those aspects of the publishing process they can control. That begins with writing the best manuscript possible. If the author doesn’t do that, then the size of the media platform is irrelevant.

Question: What other books succeeded without the benefit of the author having a built-in media platform?
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  • Lana Vaughan

    No platform but working on the content that will make a difference.

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  • Nicole

    This is the same book I thought of.

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  • http://willfjohnston.com Will Johnston

    If I’m not mistaken, Rick Warren didn’t have a significant media platform before writing Purpose Driven Life. He had a large congregation, which I’m sure bought books, but I doubt he was all that popular until his book became popular.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Actually, he had a HUGE platform through Pastors.com. He had also written the Purpose Driven Church, which sold in excess of 500,000 copies.

      • http://willfjohnston.com Will Johnston

        Ha, shows what I know :)

  • http://twitter.com/joesheehan Joe Sheehan

    I believe that true success for an author can come from both the content and platform – success with one does not make the other irrelevant. Paul Graham is a great tech writer whose essays are very well read (http://www.paulgraham.com/) no matter how simple his platform is. Some writers will use ever aspect that their particular platform allows. But no matter what, an author is only as good as their writing is.

  • http://www.BrandieLagarde.com Brandie Lagarde

    Love this post! I think building a platform is also being in the right place at the right time for someone to notice you. My self-published book came out right before Christmas and I have been lucky to been recently asked to write a novilization for a script that Universal is very interested in making into two movies, so two books. I live near Anne Rice and when the scriptwriters were turned down by her, because she said she now only writes what God directs her to write, they asked me. I have been slowly trying to build a platform and I found myself on the finalists list for UP Authors first chapter contest, so good writing is a must. It is just nice to know that someone of your standing in the business is saying these great words of encouragement!

  • http://www.allgroanup.com Paul Angone

    Ah yes, which comes first the chicken or the book.

    Not sure too be honest.

    I think Mr. Hyatt you’re right if you have a publisher still willing to risk and have the courage to not only go with their gut but also put some money behind it. And as the economy tanked, publishers guts seemed to be replaced with Top Ramen and Strawberry Jello.

    Now there’s still the Thomas Nelson’s out there taking those risks…but…how many Blue Like Jazz’s have been passed up in the meantime…

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    Malcolm Gladwell seems to have the word of mouth concept down. I’ve heard more about his books from others than any other publications on the market. I always look forward to his amazing way of looking at things. Great writing (and thinking) sell very well.

  • http://www.nancyjcommunications.blogspot.com Nanc

    Only two words to comment. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    I am guessing probably the author who has sold the most without much of any platform is William Young — The Shack.  I love this post because it gives us aspiring authors who have a small platform a tinsy bit of hope.  

  • Mike Waggoner

    Wow. With all due respect, one blog you posted recently sang the praises of an author establishing a “platform” and now this one says a “platform” is not all that important. As an aspiring writer, and having just self-published a book within that past 3 months, I am confused. Which is it…important or not important?
    I also have the utmost confidence in my book and think it would do quite well if I had the cash to back me with PR. By word of mouth and Facebook as well as emails, I have sold about 12 copies of the eBook and about 40 copies of the print edition. I could only imagine how many lives could be touched by what I wrote if I had a better platform…or, in light of this blog post, would they really? 

    • Eric von Mizener

      It’s also how hard you work it, Mike. I self-pubbed a pair of poetry books back in the 90′s and sold nearly 300 copies. It was just shear hard work (and finding myself at up to six poetry readings a week). My platform may have been nonexistent, but I got myself in front of the right audience.

  • Glede Kabongo

    Thank you for writing this article. The publishing industry does a pretty good job of scaring new authors, so much so that even if the writing is stellar, we get worried because we’ve been bombarded with the message that we need a platform.  

  • http://LookingForPurpose.com Dylan Dodson

    It’s good to be encouraged to focus on something other than building a platform all of the time. Maybe things have changed a little bit in the last two years since this was post, but still good advice.

  • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

    So if you don’t have a platform you better have incredible content, but if you have good content it’s best to have a platform and be ready to market the book?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      In my opinion, you should have both. Most things in life are not either/or.

      • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

        Having both takes the risk out. Otherwise it’s like walking in and plunking down everything you have on one number and not watching the spin of the wheel-you get paid 36:1, but only if you win and the odds are not in your favor.

  • http://findinggodsfingerprints.wordpress.com/ EricaMcNeal

    Just about to submit my final galley for Good Grief! to WestBow… appreciate this post Mike!

    • http://theordainedbarista.com Barry Hill

      Erica,
      Congratulations! That’s amazing.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Awesome, Erica. Congratulations!

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Congrats Erica!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Congrats, Erica! Quite an accomplishment!

  • Kennisha Hill

    “Heaven is for real.” I don’t remember seeing much media publicity about it and the little boy certainly wasn’t a celebrity. His story was powerful and encouraging and it was written incredibly well!

    Kennisha

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yep, it was definitely an exception—one in a million.

  • http://www.philippknoll.com/ Philipp Knoll

    This is a very interesting thought and my mind was circling around something similar. Do modern authors seek fast / overnight (even when I acknowledge that there normally have been month spent prior to publishing) too much. Do authors turn to entrepreneurs building a product with an exit strategy already in mind?

    I strongly believe that a platform is necessary to take things to an even higher level. Nothing promotes you stronger than a loyal fan base promoting voluntarily. But, of course, you must not underestimate a community. They are not stupid and well aware of their own reputation. Only a quality product will be picked up and be promoted.

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  • http://www.insearchofthecity.com/ Joshua Lawson

    It’s an obvious point when you think about it: What good is a platform thousands of readers strong when the content isn’t remarkeable? All the marketing and networking in the world can’t hide the fact that the product, whatever it is, is less than stellar. Quality is what counts above all else.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yep, I couldn’t agree more. The first 20% of my book platform is about this very fact.
      BUT, it’s not either or. A great product without a platform will just languish in obscurity. It really takes both today.
      Thanks for commenting.

      • http://www.insearchofthecity.com/ Joshua Lawson

        So it seems. I recently finished Platform, by the way. Great job and thanks for making it available!

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Joshua,
      Great point! Michael always says that stellar content is still king but Platform is queen! Love that!