How Do You Build an Author Platform? A Close-Up of One Splintery Plank

If you have ever been in one of my classes or heard me speak, you have probably heard me compare books to toothpaste. No one ever likes to hear that their book -- their precious creation, the product of their heart and soul, the result of years of blood, sweat and tears – becomes in the end something akin to Crest, but the truth is that it does. The second you put a price on it and offer it for sale, it’s not much different than Whiter Teeth! Fresher Breath! And Fights Plaque, Too!  I mean, the makers of Crest probably don’t get heartfelt letters of gratitude or have deep meaningful discussions about the contents of their product the way writers do, but still: the basic idea is the same. Writers, like toothpaste makers, are creating something for the marketplace.
 
There are times when this can really stink. I talked a few months ago about the long and painful hours I spent at a bookstore as an Author in Residence for Small Business Saturday. Long story short: I sold one book all day, and it was a seriously un-fun day.  But here’s even worse news: it doesn’t end there. You don’t just have a day like that and leap forward to having five hundred screaming fans at every event you do. Those kinds of sucky days happen time and time again in the life of a creative person. Another one happened to me on Tuesday and I want to share it with you here not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but so that you’ll know when it’s your turn that this is just what you do – that this is the work.
 
I have a new venture – not a book this time, but an accountability program called The Author Accelerator,which is designed to help writers get their rough drafts done in 6 month flat under the whip-cracking tutelage of a book coach who knows how to motivate writers to Just Do It. It’s just one of the many things I have cooking in my life as a writer/teacher/coach/creative cheerleader/restless strategist.  I’ve designed a curriculum to prompt and inspire, developed a checklist system to help evaluate exactly what each writer needs to work on each week, trained some top notch editor friends on how to employ my system, worked with my business partner to get all the tech systems in place (email systems so you can easily submit your work every week, webinar system for office hours, video screen capture so I can walk participants through an edit), and slowly come to the place where we are ready to launch on May 1. We started a MeetUp here in Los Angeles to start having a series of free live events to promote the program. The idea was that I would do some free events – two-hour long lecture and Q&A programs – to show people in person how awesome all this is going to be, and to start building some buzz – Stop procrastinating! Stop talking about writing a book and actually write one! Get the benefits of a top book coach without the high cost!
 
Well. On Tuesday, we had our first live event at a cool co-working venue in Santa Monica. 56 people signed up for the MeetUp. 25 responded for the event itself. And on the big night, 5 people came.
 
It took me 45 minutes to get out of my sweats, shower, dry my hair and get dressed. It took me 10 minutes to decide which shoes to wear. It took me 60 minutes to get from my house to Santa Monica. It took me 10 minutes to find a parking spot. I paid $12 for a small salad for dinner so I wouldn’t be hungry when the event started. My intern, who I adore and who is awesome, locked her keys in her car as soon as she arrived, and we had to deal with that crisis. The printer at Coloft was having technical difficulties and we couldn’t print out our print-outs. But we forged ahead and waited to greet the hoards of enthusiastic writers – and 5 of them came.
 
I had a killer program prepared and even had a giant whiteboard at my disposal, which, for me, is like catnip. Even though I can only draw stick figures, I love to draw when I teach. I love to draw as I think. Was I going to just FOLD in the face of 5 people and not do any of it? Was I going to sit down and cry? I wanted to for about a minute, and then I did what any of you would have done: I gave those 5 people my killer program. I tried as best as I could to delight them and wow them and make them feel like the evening was worth their time – because surely they had to do all those things I had to do to get there that night, as well. In the Q&A period, I spent 15 minutes brainstorming blog tour and tie-in ideas for one writers e-book launch. I gave another writer my best advise on how to research competitive titles. I gave them the best of what I have to teach and by all measures, they seemed really please about the evening. They thanked me profusely, exchanged cards, chatted animatedly. It was all good.
 
Precisely no one signed up for the Author Accelerator class.
 
So there I was again, putting out all this time and energy and effort and goodwill for seemingly no payoff. It sounds like a pretty bad deal, doesn’t it? It sounds like I should learn from all these lessons and never do anything like that again, right?
 
Except that I will keep doing these things. Because it’s what works. Maybe not every time, but over the long run, it works. I have built up a thriving business, a wonderful small nation of followers, and I have done it by showing up and giving whatever I have to give to whoever has shown up to accept it.
 
This is, by the way, exactly what I’m doing here each week in this newsletter, too. I’m spending time and effort and energy and goodwill in hopes that I will please some of you and teach you something and make you feel better about your writing life and make you feel less alone.
 
Why am I doing this? I know that someday, you may need what I have to offer. And someday, you’re going to run into someone who has a book they want to write and who has found that they can’t get it done on their own and who says to you, “I need someone to hold my hand and help me DO this,” and you will think of me and say, “I know someone who can help….”
 
So what about you? Maybe you have 5 fans for your writing right now. Does that stink? Does that mean you sit down and cry? No. It’s awesome. It’s a start. It’s the first splintery plank of your platform. You do what you can do to give those 5 people something of value. You do what you can do to delight them. You invite them into your little nation of awesomeness (which is Sarah Bray’s term – at a small nation, which she just announced she is – gasp! – shutting down.) And someday, someone will say to one of your 5 fans, “I just want to curl up and read a book about X.” And X will be your book. And you will then have 6 fans.
 
That’s how it works. There is no magic wand. There is no big giant leap forward (for most of us.) There is just showing up and pleasing whoever else showed up, too.
 
So here's another (!) link for the Author Accelerator course that starts on May 1. I can’t promise you whiter teeth, but I can promise you some good, affordable, book coaching so you can get your rough draft done. Check it out and see if it’s right for you right now, or maybe right for you later, or maybe it’s just inspiration for you to keep making whatever great thing you are in the midst of making.

If you want to learn about platform building from a real pro, I just saw that Dan Blank has a new 8-week online class starting in the next couple week. Dan is smart and awesome and will teach you what you need to know. 
 
I Think in Books
 
Did you hear? Donna Tarts’ The Goldfinch, which I wrote about here, won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m still reading it, bit by bit, each night before I go to sleep. I’m still enthralled…