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Karen Swallow Prior has a terrific post on the ways that author “platforms” can mislead prospective writers about what real influence entails.

Many [authors], understandably, are inspired to emulate the reach and influence of women like Ann Voskamp and Beth Moore. But they don’t account for the fact that these women labored largely unknown for years and, more importantly, didn’t set out in hopes of gaining the wide platforms they have.

My platform isn’t the number of Twitter followers I have or the number of books I’ve sold. (Sadly, we know there are ways of achieving numbers in those areas that are not honorable or right.) My platform is the work I’ve done. I write because it’s part of my job. As an English professor, I am expected to teach students to think, read, and write critically and to do those same things myself. This is my work. In fact, my first big writing “break” occurred unsought in a context that had nothing to do with writing or publishing. I was attending a conference related to an advocacy issue I’m involved with and met an editor of a national publication there. We spoke briefly—about the issue at hand, not writing. A few days later, I received an invitation to pitch a story to the publication. The next break came when an editor at an even bigger national publication read the work I was now publishing at the first outfit and asked me to write for her publication.

I recount this story not to give you a roadmap to follow, but to point out that I was doing the work I was called to, doing it well, and the invitations followed. The invitations are not a given. Good work will assist in the numbers game better than anything else, of course, but, ultimately, excellence is its own reward.

As I have written before, the “platform” issue is ethically dicey but probably an unavoidable part of the publishing world, especially publishing that reaches more than a couple hundred readers. As I wrote a few years ago,

Some authors may find the whole notion of platform distasteful. Some may say “let my work stand on its own merit!” But remember, just about anyone who is a pastor or professor has already spent years developing a ministerial or academic platform. Why did you do an M.Div. or Ph.D., if not to help establish a credible platform from which you speak to congregations, students, or other audiences?

Yet it is true, there are dubious authors out there who do little more than build audience, using sensationalism, politics, and publicity to establish themselves as “experts” in this or that field. Their platforms become the real point for such writers, and their books can, in the worst cases, become tools used mostly to monetize the audience. Evangelical Christians seem especially vulnerable to those kinds of authors, I’m afraid.

But charlatanism by some does not change the fact that the “platform” issue is here to stay, and is one of the realities of the business of publishing. Although authors are occasionally “discovered” purely on the merit of their work, aspiring authors normally need some kind of obvious audience on which to draw. Those authors will do well to embrace the fact that they have to not only produce a quality book, but construct a platform so that (hopefully) their book’s message will be heard.

See also these posts on this topic:

Trevin Wax, “On Writing, Branding, and Platform Building

John Piper, “Is It Sinful to Seek Fame Online?

Daniel Darling, “Some Thoughts on Writers and Platform

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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