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August 6, 2013

When Should We Start Building Our Platform?

Red flag with text: Don't Have a Platform? Red Flag!

In my post about book pirates and plagiarism, I mentioned that book bloggers and reviewers are now more wary of debut authors, especially those who are self-published. I don’t blame them.

Some people out there are willing to do an insane amount of work to fake legitimacy. A book blogger exposed one author who created fake “sock-puppet” accounts pretending to be a fellow book blogger so he/she could talk up a new release he/she just “discovered.” Yes, really.

In the Jordin Williams case I discussed last week, James Bishop created a Goodreads group and populated it with his many personas to make it look like a hopping place to discuss hot new releases. Er, or a place to pimp the plagiarized books he’d stolen and assigned to each of his many names.

We can shake our heads and protest that they’d find the success they’re trying to manufacture by spending time actually, you know, writing instead of carrying on conversations with their sock-disguised selves. But how can we—normal, non-faker, non-insane, non-plagiarist, nobody authors—get attention when we’re competing with all that effort?

Think Long Term for Platform Building Too

Those who create fake legitimacy aren’t in this for the long haul. They’ll be caught (or burn out) long before they reach a ten-years-in-publishing or a twenty-release (per persona) milestone.

Those of us who plod along, watching the big picture, making incremental progress, are more likely to reach those goals. Yeah, turtle-like slow-and-steady progress isn’t as sexy as a big breakout, but we’ll build readers one release to the next.

Similarly, we’ll be better off if we keep that same long-term attitude for our approach to social media and building our platform. Platform? Don’t freak out at the word. A “platform” is nothing more than a method for getting our message out.

While we don’t want our writing time to suffer for platform building, we also shouldn’t put off getting involved with social media or blogging or whatever-our-platform-strategy-is-going-to-be until the last minute. That’s like expecting a debut breakout from fake involvement.

Building a real platform with real people takes time. We need to find a balance for both our writing and platform-building needs.

Perspective from the Other Side

Let’s put ourselves into the shoes of a book blogger for a minute. We receive tons of review requests and get to pick and choose the books that sound interesting to us.

Let’s say we’d like to pick a debut author for next month’s review opening. If we don’t have a policy against reviewing self-published books (many reviewers—if not most—have such a policy, simply to avoid having to deal with unprofessional authors), we might have a choice between two self-published books that sound good.

“Hmm, this author is new to Twitter and Faceback and doesn’t have a blog. We don’t have any way of knowing if they’re a reasonable person, or if they’ll freak out if we give them a bad review. They could be oozing crazy for all we know.

This other author has been on Twitter and Facebook and blogging for a year and a half. Oh look, from Twitter and their blog comments, it looks like they’re friends with so-and-so and we know they’re a reasonable person. Also, there’s no sign of them engaging in any bad author behaviors.”

Which book would you choose to review? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d certainly go for the second choice.

And that would be my choice before we even take into account the plagiarism issue. Once we add in the risk that a debut author with nothing real and long term to their name or their platform might also be a plagiarizing scammer, I’d be even less likely to take option #1.

I don’t blame book reviewers for this attitude in the slightest. It’s the same decision I’d make. Especially when we hear about book bloggers facing accusations of being an accomplice to a plagiarist when they choose wrong.

Let me repeat that: A book blogger faced biting accusations simply because she chose to read the wrong book. Yikes.

What Makes Us Real to Others?

If I were a book blogger, I wouldn’t want to take the risk with anyone who didn’t have some kind of paper trail.

  • How long have they been active on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads? At least six months to a year?
  • Do they interact and engage with others as people, or just in sales mode?
  • Are they friends—real friends—with anyone we know or trust?
  • Have others met them in person?
  • Are there candid shots of them on Facebook?
  • Are they members of a writing group like RWA?
  • Do they have a blog and sound reasonable?

In short, just as I wouldn’t turn my blog over to a stranger for a guest post, I wouldn’t feel safe reviewing a book that might come back to hurt my reputation.

Notice that in those questions, I didn’t list anything about numbers of followers or friends. Why? Numbers can be faked. Between sock puppets and buying followers, anyone can look popular with numbers.

This isn’t about popularity; this is about being real.

For myself, I can say yes to all of the above. (Well, except the “sound reasonable” part. That’s subjective and I confess to my own brand of insanity. *smile*)

This is one reason why the “Create a Persona” workshop sponsored by the FF&P chapter of RWA I mentioned in last week’s post aggravated me so much. There’s a huge difference between using a pen name and faking a whole persona—and not just because a fake persona would fail the above test.

I Don’t Trust Fake Personas, Only Real People

Pen names have been used in the publishing industry for centuries, and many authors have good reasons for using them, the most modern reason being Google-ability. Pen names don’t require us to become a different person. We can still be “us” and be real, just with a “nickname.”

On the other hand, fake personas, when people pretend to be a completely different person—different personalities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, day jobs, family life, etc.—are a red flag to me and probably others. At that point, there’s nothing real.

Personally, someone who treats their career as an “act” doesn’t inspire me to trust them. Let me put it this way, in the case of a fake persona, who would I be trusting?:

The fake persona that doesn’t exist?
Or the person behind the persona who I know nothing about?

Um, no thanks. I’ll say neither.

A Case Study in Fake Personas: JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith

Even JK Rowling recently got in trouble for not being real—not for using a pen name, but for using a fake bio. Many are calling her out for coming up with such a specifically dishonest “About the Author” section for The Cuckoo’s Calling:

“After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMO. … The idea for the protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences…”

If she really wanted this book to stand on its own merits, why use a marketing-dream bio rather than claiming to be something like a teacher or a paper-pusher? Some are even calling her bio “consumer fraud,” as such details of falsified military service can influence purchase decisions by lending unwarranted credibility for a story about an ex-military private investigator.

Likely in an attempt to make up for the blunder, which many who did serve in the military saw as disrespectful, JK Rowling has announced she’s donating all royalties from the book for the next three years to The Soldiers’ Charity. I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t like the precedent she’s set.

We wouldn’t give a pass to a non-fiction author’s claims of false expertise (“Twenty years of experience as a child psychologist…”). And think of the outcry when James Frey falsely claimed his novel was a memoir. Readers deserve to know when details presented as facts (with the intent to mislead rather than amuse) are actually fiction.

Being Real: A Real Platform and a Real Persona

When we send out review requests, we’re essentially asking a favor. In return, reviewers have every right to want some sort of proof to trust us. Their reputation is on the line if we turn out to be a plagiarist.

What will provide that proof? When we have real connections who can vouch for us or make introductions, and when we’re consistent in how we deal with our connections. For that, we need a platform built with real people (not purchased) and our real persona that can interact with others on a long-term basis.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s already a heck of a lot of work to create a platform long before we’re going to need it. Just think how much more work it would be to spend a year or more on setting up a platform for a fake persona. It’s easier to be real.

Pen names, switched genders, silliness, and not giving details about our private lives are all acceptable and understandable. (I’m always vague about my family and day job in the interest of privacy, and my bio usually includes one obviously-not-to-be-believed line like “After building a Fortress of Solitude from books in her to-be-read pile, Jami…”)

However, fake personas are straight-up lies. That’s the problem with using a fake persona–authenticity and genuineness are lost. And in this world of scammers and plagiarists, we need to have a long-term track record of being real, or we can’t expect strangers to trust us. *smile*

Do you think our platforms can help us establish our authenticity? At what point do you think we should build our platform? Is this plagiarism concern a good argument for why we need a social media platform? How else could book bloggers verify our real-ness? Do you agree with my dislike of fake personas? What do you think of JK Rowling’s choice to use a fake bio?

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What do you think?

29 Comments on "When Should We Start Building Our Platform?"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Jami, this is invaluable information. I agree with you, I’d choose the second author (the one you mentioned that is on FB and Twitter, has a blog and is followed by a friend) too.
I definitely think that the scourge of plagiarism is a good reason to have a platform…not the only reason, as you’ve shown in this post, but a really good reason. I’m glad I have a platform and a following. I’m not one of those people with thousands of friends or tweeps, but I have lots of people I think would be on my side when it comes to kn owing I’m a real person with real views and my OWN work 🙂
Great post, Jami!
Have a wonderful afternoon,
Tamara

Stina Lindenblatt

Great post, Jami. I spent a long time working on my blog platform, but recently lost it due to issues with Google and renewing my domain. I had to start a new blog. Fortunately I’ve been blogging with querytracker for the past few years and have been busy tweeting for just as long, most recently with big names in NA. Your post gave me hope, considering what happened to my blog. Thanks!!!!

Leslie Miller

Well Jami, this certainly is an eye opener. I wasn’t bothered by JK Rowling’s use of a pen name. I understand she wanted the book judged on it’s own merits, not on her reputation. I actually thought more highly of her for it. This is the first I hear of the fake bio. Do we know that she actually wrote it, or perhaps was it her assistant or publisher? In any case, if one uses a pen name, one must make up some sort of bio to go with it. I’m not sure I find it all that terrible. If her book was non-fiction and she claimed expertise she didn’t have, that would be a whole other kettle of fish.

However, as for all that other stuff, fake personas for fake authors who have stolen other people’s work–Meh! Nasty and pathetic.

Thanks for bringing this up. Lots to think about.

Amanda

As a book blogger, I am willing to review self-published books (though my review policy makes it very clear I hold those authors books to the same standards I have of a Big 6 published book, and I think that’s scared off a lot of authors *grins*) and here’s one other thing I’d add to the list of questions: Do they provide you with buy links? Do they even know what they ARE? I’ve been fortunate to review a few books for self-pub or smaller press authors where I’m not sure what their reach is, and when I ask for buy links, they’re able to provide me with at least the names of the retail outlets where the books can be pre-ordered or purchased. I had a request recently where the author didn’t know what a buy link was. Frankly, if I have to explain it to you, and you’re self-published, you haven’t done your research and you’re not ready to publish. If I like the book enough to recommend it, I want my readers to have an easy time finding it.

chemistken

Rowling’s bio doesn’t bother me. I think she was probably just having a little fun with it (just like when she wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them under the name Newt Scamander). I mean, who really reads the bio anyway? I can’t imagine having a dream bio would sway anyone to buy the book.

Kathryn Goldman

What an interesting question. Where is the line between pen name and outright fraud? Does the line shift if you are a famous author?

George Eliot may never have been taken seriously without a pseudonym.

How did Nora Roberts do it with J.D. Robb? She wasn’t discovered until quite a few J.D. Robb novels had been published. There had to have been a fake bio involved.

Our tolerance for fake personas is changing with the advent of intense on-line social networking and commenting because those of us who expose ourselves truthfully may end up engaging with frauds. And, in the words of Mrs. Dashwood, “It’s not to be borne.” Responds Elinor, “We must bear it.”

Taurean Watkins
Wow! I almost don’t know what to say, and you know “Speechless” is not my default mode… Still, I have my cents to cash in- First, I admit the fake bio on JKR’s pen name mystery was a letdown, this is first I’d heard of that, I HOPE it was done without her knowledge (That happens sometimes, Jami), but I can understand the pen name. I still think she’s a REAL WRITER, this is just sadly a mark against her, as far as public rep, anyway. At least she’s not denying it altogether, I’m willing to look past this (Which doesn’t mean I think it was okay for whoever had the final say on this to do it), but if this happens again, I will have to do some authorial soul searching. I did write my bio for my debut novel, and for what it’s worth, Jami, I promise it’s 100% true. My editor would not re-word it without consulting me first. If that’s one of the trade-offs in going with a small publisher, than bully for me, my credibility’s one of the FEW “Adult” things I’ve got fully in my control, letting that go would first hurt ME, along with those who know me, online or off. I will NOT go there. Second, now that I review books on my blog, I do need to be careful considering books from authors or publisher’s I’ve never heard of, but my debut’s also coming from a publisher few have heard of,… Read more »
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[…] When Should We Start Building Our Platform? […]

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[…] With authors shouldering so much of the marketing burden, sharing tips and tricks is helpful. Sean Beaudoin shares his personal story of why self-promotion is hell; Jody Hedlund counters with 3 ways writers can compete well in today’s crowded market; and Jami Gold says the time to start building your platform is before you have anything to sell. […]

Amal

You make several interesting points. I’m a book blogger, and for a short time, I welcomed requests from authors for reviews. I decided to stop reviewing requests for a number of reasons, including my inability to find out a sufficient amount of information about who these authors are. A blog, website, or Facebook page was essential because I needed to do my “due diligence” to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time or, at worst, perpetuating a fraud.

Thanks for the link, by the way. I’m amazed that the publisher permitted Rowling to assume a fake identity. It’s troubling that more people aren’t concerned about it. I think they would feel differently had “Robert Galbraith” turned out to be James Frey or some relatively unknown writer with a less intriguing personal background.

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[…] Gold: When Should We Start Building Our Platform? Excerpt: “Those who create fake legitimacy aren’t in this for the long haul. They’ll be […]

Taurean Watkins

I know you personally weren’t carrying anger from the JKR situation. I just was saying my personal truth to what Amal said, and your reply in response to Amal. Sorry I gave that impression to you.

I also was just curious of your opinions on the issue of pen names and alternate branding, in general, outside of the particulars of JRK’s situation.

Yes, I agree you can have strategic branding without lying. I just feel the line between ethics and personal choice aren’t as clear cut when you’re on the author side versus the lay reader side.

It just seem depending on the author and books involved, some choose to just say straight out they’re both (Like Nora Roberts) and some who like a certain level of separation (Like my Lemony Snickey example) which when you’re writing for different readers, and I just wondered your thoughts on that.

Again, sorry for giving the impression you were “carrying anger” you weren’t carrying. I was merely speaking for myself, and because I know writers new to all this can feel confused, if not downright paranoid on what makes sense on an ethical level, but also a PERSONAL level.

They don’t always mesh perfectly. I certainly don’t advocate lying, as you know, but I can see how torn it is to do what’s right for you. WITHOUT LYING!

Anyway, take care
Taurean

Roxanne Snopek

Hi Jami! I just heard your RWA National talk on tape (well, not “tape” – MP3) – very helpful!

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[…] on building our platform (website, blog, social media, […]

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[…] people (not purchased) and our real persona that can interact with others on a long-term basis. So we should start building our platform far enough in advance to have time to form real connections with people who can vouch for us or make […]

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