on promoting and building platform
This week in Literary History, the New Yorker blinked first, printing the words “online literary journal” and “Taco Bell Quarterly” in their pages before The Paris Review, signaling to the other gatekeepers that they’re at least acknowledging the situation. The New Yorker doesn’t do anything by accident, like just stumble onto scrappy little lit mags to request comment for their crunchwrap thinkpieces. It speaks to the very real platform TBQ is building in the lit world in just under four years, six issues, two hundred published pieces, and 10.5k hysterical tweets.
What is platform, what size do you need for anything to take you seriously, and how do you get it? You’ll never get a straight answer in this cliquey industry where everyone is cagey as hell. Even what the platform is supposed to be gets you a vague answer. Is it like, 50k to 85k followers on social media? A newsletter with thousands of paying subscribers? Does your old blog still count for anything? What exactly are we supposed to be doing with TikTok?
The truth is, the numbers are unfairly different for everyone, shapeshifting based on genres, schools attended, and number of immediate relatives at Penguin Random House. The writers who don’t have to promote themselves weren’t absolved for artistic reasons, they just have rich dads. Don’t worry, their daddy issues are no more literary than anyone else’s.
Your platform comes from some level of influence, and that influence comes from some combination of bylines, online presence, expertise, audience, friends with influence, friends of the friends, and friends of friends of the friends—which is why the literary world often looks like everyone crowding around each other, trying to figure out where they can link arms in the human chain that’s trying to pull bodies through.
Every writer needs a platform. You need to post. You need to promote. It will only get worse and harder as everything continues to close and consolidate. It’s overwhelming. So let’s just try to break it down into actionable, manageable steps!
1) Just Start. I didn’t have a lot of social media prescence in 2019. I had a few hundred followers from an old blog, although it felt like everyone had moved on. I wanted to get back into the writing scene and had no idea where to start. I had earned my writing degree a decade earlier and I was in the final stage of grief over it and ready to write for myself, who I don’t even like most days.
2) Actually follow through. It’s an important distinction. I regularly declare I’m doing a lot of things with grand ambitions and announce life changing decisions—and then promptly abandon them a day later. Go back to step one.
1) You’re Really Back at Step One. This is creative writing. There are hundreds of set backs and obstacles and bear traps ahead of you.
2) Actually follow through. I started submitting work again. I felt dumb, embarrassed, too old, not good enough, and not qualified enough. A nobody with no ideas, no books, no bylines, and no chance. The first gatekeeper is you. This is the only one you’re ever going to have to best in battle. This is the one you’re going to have to fight over and over. By the time you get on the phone with the Dandy, he’s a miniboss.
3) Post. Start posting somewhere. Pick the poison that you looks like you could get it down the easiest. Put your energy into posting on one or two platforms rather than trying to cobble together something across multiple channels. You don’t have to be a television offering primetime material and skits and variety acts. Just be a writer. You’re looking for readers.
A piece of advice I like is from one of my lit friends, Adam Voith, editor of Little Engines, who says to look for one reader among every hundred social media followers, which I think is a sharp update of the advice to write for one reader. You should aim for a few thousand followers on social media, a fraction of whom show something beyond the bare miniumum of complete disinterest. You’re looking for a pulse. You’re monitoring vital signs. You’re bringing your creative projects chipped ice and trying to make them comfortable. It’s going to be prolonged.
4) Join the community. Wander the halls of the hospital. We’re all dying here. I submitted to a lit mag called Mythic Picnic. They publish very short stories in tweet format. They published something I wrote and I began following their other followers. One of the writers, Alan Good, () was someone I thought was good at promoting his small press, Malarkey Books. I bought one of his lit mags for a few bucks. He started following me. I was starting to feel connected with writers again. It was fun. I started having fun. One day, I posted a joke about making a "serious" Taco Bell literary magazine. Go back to step two.
2) Actually follow through. I actually made the Taco Bell Quarterly. The first call recieved around 70 submissions. I met even more writers. The day it came out, there were hundreds of likes and shares and replies. We all followed each other and became friends. One of the contributors, Amy Barnes, mailed me a Taco Bell t-shirt. Another contributor, Carman Curton, invited me to speak to her writing class sometime. Another, B. Kolcow wanted to volunteer as soon as I did the next one. Everyone wanted to do it again.
3) Keep going. A lot of days, no one cares again. It feels like you’re dying and you’re starting the inspirational hashtag to keep hope alive. Other days, some people actually care enough to make fun of this thing, like it’s producing bile. Like the other organs are functioning. Keep monitoring the vital signs.
4) Keep wandering the halls. Now I was starting to enjoy my daily walks through the hospital. Alan Good invited me on his podcast to make fun of stuff with a few other cool writers. Kolcow was making me laugh in replies referring to Taco Bell as “Daddy Taco.” A ton more writers wanted to be in the next issue, and I had to turn down around half of the submissions. We put out the second issue of Taco Bell Quarterly in February 2020.
5) No one knows exactly how or why anything makes it to step 5. One day, the body just sits up. It’s a miracle. It’s the zeitgest. It’s the chipped ice you were bringing. There’s no way this bastard is going to make it — it barely has limbs, livers, eyeballs, or whatever else creative projects need to survive — but now it’s chewing the ice loudly and glaring back at you.
Literary Hub posted an article about Taco Bell Quarterly. The Chicago Morning News wanted to talk. A reporter from the New York Post DMed me and wanted the story out that day. I emailed an agent and she actually wanted to schedule a phone call. Vox wanted to interview. Salon wanted to interview. I asked the agent if she knows what’s going on. She tells me everyone tends to gather and crowd around each other in the lit world. I wonder if I’ve finally found my way into the human chain of interlocked arms and can skip ahead a few steps.
3) Nope! Back at step three. Keep making stuff and posting. Congrats, you are now screaming for your life. We call it promoting ourselves!
4) Keep wandering. In the issues between TBQ2 and TBQ3, I threw out (up?) a lot of ideas. I talked my way into getting some free food coupons out of Taco Bell. I gave away Hickory Farms sausages. I considered making trading cards. I wrote a fake press release and sent advance copies of the Fall 2020 Issue of Taco Bell Quarterly around to the media, as if anyone was clamoring to review such a thing. It all worked, and TBQ3 came out to its biggest audience yet with tens of thousands of eyeballs. Even Taco Bell retweeted it. The social media buzz lasted into the new year.
5) Mystery Step! TBQ4 came out in summer 2021 and the stats were back down to earth. The current bit was shouting that the Paris Review must acknowledge the Taco Bell Quarterly by the stroke of midnight with a countdown clock on the site or lose the claim to the literary throne. They didn’t respond. And in personal news, a book that went out on sub didn’t work out. Back at step one.
1) Oh god we’re really back at step one, in hell, where Elisabeth Kubler Ross is holding us through the stages of grief again. Creative writing sucks. And now, yet again, you’re ready to re-emerge, strong and beautiful and facing reality that you’re really just still doing this for yourself. This is supposed to be fun.
I’m supposed to be having fun. This is when I started leaning into the “voice” of TBQ. Voice is an important part of writing and it’s an important part of a platform. TBQ began drawing a lot more engagement.
2) Follow through. The bastard still has a pulse. I decided to bet on it. I cashed out a savings account and asked all my friends to donate. Fuck it, TBQ was a paying publication now.
3) Keep promoting. I decided to go to AWP which was within driving distance that year, introducing myself and Taco Bell Quarterly to everyone I could meet. Real life counts as a part of these platforms!
4) Community. Next we needed a masthead. B. Kolcow had provided thoughts and feedback on every issue and had designed stickers that said “Publish Me Daddy” during the shelf-stable sausage giveaway era. I asked them if they wanted to be the Deputy Editor of Taco Bell Quarterly. Their ideas, like getting a stick and poke tattoo as a fundraiser, and making hoodies that said Publish Me Daddy added to the energy. Now we make could two more issues and pay $100 each.
5) Mystery Step. The combination of becoming a paying publication, infiltrating AWP, adding a masthead, and my stumbling into the voice gave it all an additional and unpredictable push. This is when it started to feel like it was “blowing up.” Padma Lakschmi retweeted the cover reveal and it got more than 1k likes. I scored a few viral tweets that brought in donations. A New Yorker staff writer reached out with interest in chatting. Finally, we’re there now, right? Hell no. Of course not.
1). Start again. Repeat steps 1-5 an for unknowable amount of time in which results may vary. In our case, it’s another 10 months, in which we keep making a lit mag (steps one and two), get interviewed with Eater, Chron, KJZZ, The Take-Out, (step three, keep post/promoting) attended AWP again, expanding the masthead from our pool of volunteers to include Tanya Azari, our poetry editor and back-up vocals (step four, community), release another issue of a magazine with its most talked about writing yet, (step five, the mystery roll), open calls again in the spring to more buzz and excitement, (back at step one), and then finally, claw your way into getting mentioned in the New Yorker in a thinkpiece about why everyone has been talking about Taco Bell this entire time.
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