Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighters: A case study in the futility of "Platform Building" advice

This is the topic I don't want to talk about. But it's a writing blog and we had to get to it sooner or later... Platform.

There are a lot of writing books in the world and I've read most of them. One of the reasons I particularly love the older ones is because they spend more time talking about how to write and less time talking about why you need to have a wildly popular blog or other online presence.

For the record: none of the books pictured do this.
That's part of what I like about them.
This advice is all-too-often dispensed with an air of "any idiot could do it".

Aspiring writers are repeatedly told (not advised, told) to create and maintain an online fanbase. Get online. What are you waiting for? Generate some buzz! And hordes of writers run screaming into the cybernetic night, searching for fans.

This is referred to as creating an online "platform".

Platform is one of those things that agents and editors talk about with dreamy voices. Most of the reasons given boil down to this: if you already have an audience, you don't have to waste time creating one after your book comes out.  At its best, it's a ready-made fan base that guarantees your devoted followers will mob bookstores on the day your novel comes out, or even drive it to the top of the bestseller lists before it's even finished.

Let me say that again: Before it's even finished.

Click that link. Go ahead. We'll be here when you get back.

Did you read it? Were you just a little sick with envy? I certainly was.

For people who don't click links: YA author John Green's newest book A Fault In Our Stars wasn't even finished yet when it became a bestseller.

John is a talented, award-winning writer. He received the Printz honors and an Edgar Award for his writing, quite apart from his online fame. (I doubt there are many Nerdfighters, as his online community calls itself, on the awards committee at the MWA.) His plaudits are many and that little bust of Edgar Allen Poe was well-earned.

You might recall that back in September of 2009, I named him "One To Watch" because he has a knack for using the internet to tell stories and create community.  (We'll ignore the fact that he was only one of the three on that list you still hear about.  As prophecies go, one out of three ain't bad.) The YouTube channel he created with his brother Hank (collectively known as the "Vlogbrothers") developed the kind of following that bloggers dream of. Millions of fans (myself included) who call themselves "Nerdfighters" watch the weekly uploads, follow him on Twitter, and buy his books.

Here's the tricky part that those advising that everyone go out and do likewise... in almost every case I can find of this happening, it happened mostly on accident.

Sure, at some point, the Vlogbrothers discovered that their videos had acquired an audience. Since then, they have consistently made an effort to include those fans in what they were doing, to inspire them to raise money for charity, and have otherwise capitalized on their following in a way that managed not to alienate them. They even use their nerdiness to exploit YouTube's own ranking algorithm to push videos that advertise charities into the top rankings by motivating their fanbase to watch and rate these videos over and over again.

It's impressive. And I'd wager that it cannot be reproduced.

"Build a platform!" Is the new battlecry heard at a thousand writing conferences. Every book about writing that's appeared in recent years will tell you that you must create some level of buzz online in order to get noticed by publishers. And after every writer's conference, aspiring writers flood the internet, trying to become the next Vlogbrothers, or Bloggess, Scalzi, or Julie Powell, or whoever the presenter used as an example.

That's a huge wall to plop down in front of an aspiring writer and I think it leads to a lot of discouragement. And I think it's largely needless.

Yes, there are things we can all learn from watching those bloggers I just named find success. But in many of the presentations I've attended and books I've read, there lacked a key piece of advice: They did this by being themselves.

 Back to the Vlogbrothers... John and Hank Green built their fan base the old fashioned way: by being funny and topical, yes, but mostly by being genuine and sincere. Two brothers sending 4-minute videos to each other became a force that helped send John up the bestseller lists and helped his brother Hank hit the Billboard charts. Along the way, they've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity and made the world suck less.  Their stated mission is literally "to decrease worldsuck" and they mean it.

More importantly, there isn't a disingenuous bone in either of their bodies. John didn't sit down with his brother and say "How are we going to use YouTube to make my books bestsellers?"

The siren call of the platform builders is a seductive one. I find myself listening to it from time to time myself when I'm trying to decide what to write or not write about on this blog. When in fact, this blog is not an effort to create an online platform. Not because I don't want to sell out a print run before it's even printed, but because that's not why I'm here. I'm writing here because if I didn't write this stuff here, I'd be writing it someplace else. And because I feel like someone should be able to find out the things I had to learn the hard way.

These really are the pages I need to type before I can sleep. And often, they're the things I need to write before I can write. When my brain coughs up an idea, I have to write it down or it will keep nagging at me like a song stuck in my head until I can't think of anything else.

I am honestly gratified that anyone chooses to read these brainfarts of mine, but it's not part of a master plan to build an army and conquer the publishing industry.

This is a place where I stand to tell the truth where the people I think need to hear it can hear me.

Remember when I said that the real successes, the things that really catch fire, mostly happen on accident? Well, that's not entirely true. You have to put yourself out there, and that means a certain amount of premeditation.

The decision to be yourself in public is a decision, not an accident. Being yourself is scary. I get that. But as someone else once noted, everyone else is taken.

And that's the only genuine "platform" advice anyone needs to hear. Because "Go be like them" is never good advice. You will never get anywhere you want to go by being someone else. I can try to write like Jenny from Bloggess, and I can go recipe-by-recipe through a cookbook like Julie Powell, and I can go on Youtube and talk to my sister... But that's me trying to be them, not me being me. And if there's one thing John & Hank's success really should teach you, is that if you have to be someone else to get there, it's someplace you don't want to go.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).