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When I signed my first book deal in 2020, my publisher called me to discuss my personal brand. It was one of those conversations that writers tend to dislike, less about the creative process and more about the landscape of media and the business of publishing. He didn’t say it so bluntly at first, but he eventually landed on one of his main points: Authors are products. Publishing a memoir meant selling a public narrative of who I am, and my “author platform”—an industry term for a writer’s public-facing persona—is my storefront.
I could tell that he’d had this conversation with other writers before, and that he was hoping to get ahead of my objections. To someone like me, being a “brand” feels gross. Self-promotion does not come naturally to me, and praising my own work feels immodest. But my publisher’s business is based on selling products, and whether I like it or not, so is my career. My “author platform” was critical.
I still have the spreadsheet I made after that call, analyzing the health of my author platform. I listed my personal website. I added my unambitious social-media accounts: Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and LinkedIn. I listed the publications I write for: Lifehacker, Black Nerd Problems, The Atlantic. I listed miscellaneous platforms and communities: Discord, Twitch, a sizable podcast. And then I got to work on updating them and making a plan for participating in them more actively.
I’m a brand, I told myself. I have to build an audience. For better or worse, a lot depends on it.
One of the platforms I targeted was Twitter. I started tweeting more and reading analytics, and I began caring about getting the blue verification checkmark. I grew my number of followers. I promoted my book and advanced my career.
Lately, Twitter has descended into chaos, and if you spend any time on the platform, you’ve likely seen the debate about whether to keep using it or leave for Mastodon, Hive, or any number of other alternatives. These conversations come with the sensationalism you might expect, including predictions about how soon the site will crash and whether the company will go bankrupt, and conspiracies about its owner’s goals. For the sake of my sanity, I personally choose to look at Twitter’s predicament as a win-win. If the site survives, I can continue to benefit from my efforts and the small audience I worked to build; if the site implodes, I’m free from caring about having a Twitter following at all. But in all of these conversations, one kind of navel gazing has crawled under my skin: My least favorite thing about Twitter right now is the people with large followings explaining why they’re staying without fully admitting that they have a personal interest in keeping Twitter popular.
They’re a brand. They have to build an audience. For better or worse, a lot depends on it.