How to Build a Writer’s Platform (An Old-Fashioned Recipe)

Twice a year, I receive a royalties check. (Royalties = the author’s portion of profits from sales of a book.) But don’t start scanning the sidebar for books I have written and published. I haven’t. These royalties are my ongoing inheritance. Twice a year, each year, I get money from sales of a book my mother started writing before I was born.

My mother died in 2005. But her publisher, Sasquatch, recently released a 40th anniversary edition of her book, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. In the banner on the corner it says, “over 750,000 copies sold.”

What would you give, to leave a legacy like that?

Today I am going to take a page — not exactly out of my mother’s book, but out of her life — and share a recipe for building a writer’s platform. One that could sell 750,000 copies of a book over 40 years. 

But wait, is this relevant today? I mean, an author from the 1970′s? Things were totally different in those days. Weren’t they?

Actually, I don’t think so. I think it is a definitive attribute of our era that we tend to think we are the only ones. We tell each other how things are so different for writers now. “Social networking has changed the game! We have to self-promote and self-market! Today’s writers are different creatures!”

I don’t think so.

I grew up with a professional writer having to promote herself. And in this year+ that I’ve been blogging, I’ve watched a bunch of professional writers promote themselves.

I’m sorry to burst anybody’s bubbles, but the similarities by far outweigh the differences.

My mother never used Twitter, but she had to craft her message into a form that was easily digestible and repeatable to others. My mother never used Facebook, but she had to connect with individual people in an authentic way. My mother never courted blog followers, but she had to stay in touch with the people who supported her. She had to give, and receive, and give back, just like we do.

I believe this old-fashioned recipe is still pretty much the thing. In 2014 as in 1974.

Here are the ingredients.

1. CONTACT

Some people call this “quality.” It’s the part where your work reaches through the page or through the screen and touches people. Maybe it’s because you have something in your words that other people are looking for. Like God, maybe. Or a recipe for vegan banana muffins. Maybe it’s because your writing is so transparent (and you guys, this is really only achieved by skill) that your human soul shows through no matter what you’re writing about. Maybe it’s because you have the skills to create full escape from reality: fixing up the details and edges of a story so the reader hardly falls out of it at all. Maybe all of the above.

My mom offered the world something that the world wasn’t getting enough of. It was a set of tangible skills for another way of life, for those who felt our societal “normal” had become destructive to the earth and to our own spiritual health. It was snapshots of her messy, interior process, revealing herself dealing with issues that everybody deals with. And it was a story people could believe in.

This is the first ingredient, in this old-fashioned recipe (and remember, I said, some people call this “quality”). It is the attraction, the lure, the reason people attach themselves to you.

Something of value is transmitted by the author and received. There is contact.

2. PERSEVERANCE

My mother published her own work. She sold her work one buyer at a time. And then she got discovered and was paid a six-figure advance by a publisher. Then the decade turned, and everybody forgot about her, and she started all over again. It was excruciating for me, when I was a teenager. She drove across the country, over and over and over again, going to meager gatherings, offering friendship to odd and scattered fans. She still put on her “author” face, even for a single person. She performed, even for an empty house. I didn’t realize she was planting seeds for a genuine comeback.

It may be that this is an ingredient you can’t manufacture. It may be that either you want it badly enough, or you don’t. I don’t know. I don’t know exactly where it comes from. But I do know the recipe doesn’t work without it. 

The motivation, the inspiration, the cause to keep going in the times of lean as well as the time of plenty. Perseverance.

3. AUDACITY

This is also called “courage” or “brave” or “fearlessness” or “unashamed.” Look at all our #oneword365 New Year’s Resolution words, across a hundred bloggers, and you’ll find a hundred versions of it. (Mine, this year, is “ambition.”) To build a writer’s platform, you have to beat the enemy. You have to beat whatever that thing is that wants to shut you up.

My mother had an idea for a book. She wrote it herself, sold it herself, printed it herself, carried it around and sold it person to person. Sure, that was a lot of work. And it was a lot of keeping on, keeping on. But most of all it was a lot of guts.

To promote herself? To tell people that they needed to listen to her? She had to break all the modesty rules. And in the process she made friends. But also she had to struggle, to make space for her voice, and for herself and for her message.

This is what a lot of literary agents call “marketing skills.” These are the “showing up” skills. They’re all about audacity.

I know there may be a million billion recipes out there for getting a bunch of Twitter followers, and these recipes of the moment have their place. But I don’t think social networking has really changed the game as much as we sometimes think it has.

(Or as much as we want to think it has.)

In my experience and observation, there is nothing particularly easy about building a writer’s platform. Not in the 1970′s and not in 2014.

This is the recipe that built my mother’s legacy. And I’ll stand by it. I think it is still the one that works.

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Comments

  1. Susan Schiller says:

    More than a book with royalties legacy, she’s given you and us a legacy of “the right stuff” – the stuff that sets part the successful from the procrastinators, and this kind of stuff inspires me! I love seeing a picture of her with you, at about the same age you are now, and with your daughter about the same age as you… a generational blessing. I know there’s more to this story, and I look forward to hearing more! :)

    • Esther Emery says:

      Oh, it isn’t me in the picture. It’s one of my older sisters. (I wasn’t quite born yet.) But yes! It is so important to see images of matrilineal legacy. The woman with a voice, and her daughter with a voice, and my daughter with a voice. That’s a story I’d like to shout from the mountaintops.

  2. Melinda Cadwallader says:

    Yes, to true grit. Yes, to grassroots writing. So very rich.

  3. Your post has made me want to really start busting my butt with the writing, and it makes me want to read your mom’s book, and any book you ever write. :-)

  4. Thank you for this post. Gives me a bit more courage to forge ahead even if things look tough. It will be worth it.

  5. Margaret says:

    This is fantastic, wise advice. Thank you for this!

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  1. [...] How to Build a Writer’s Platform. Maybe things aren’t as different as we think they [...]

  2. [...] most popular post was…How to Build a Writer’s Platform: An Old Fashioned Recipe. (promoted by Sarah Bessey, xo, Sarah [...]

  3. […] Because I feel incredibly exposed already just for having written it. So starting a social media campaign to try to get a famous author to notice me seems a little LESS like running around naked in public than the original writing did. And I keep telling everybody that being a writer just takes this kind of brave. It just does. Actually I think I used the word “audacious.” […]

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