Some thoughts on how and when to build your platform
This is an honest and complex question. So many publishers, editors, and agents say a writer needs to "have a platform," which is a lot like the need to have credit to get credit.
How do you build a platform before you have a product to put on that platform?
When I first met my publisher face-to-face, having a contract and a release date in the far distant future, I asked her the number one thing I could do to set myself up for the release. She told me to get active on Twitter. My response (not wise, considering... publisher) was "I hate Twitter."
She had the marketing department scour my website and social media pages to give me suggestions. Not all publishers do this, but it was invaluable. They sent me a 6 page report on what I was doing right and what I should improve. The good news is that traditional publishing takes so long you have time to build before the release. The bad news is that every editor/agent who is serious about your work is going to ask about your platform. Do you have a website, a FB page, a Twitter handle, etc?
I have since reevaluated my opinion on Twitter, as I'm fully an addict, and I now despise Facebook, but I also think the publisher is both right and wrong about "get active on Twitter." Twitter is great for many reasons, but Twitter is not the place to sell books. Mind you, people try, but it's really just yelling into the wind. Facebook is a good marketing tool for writers, but the targeted advertising is part of what makes Facebook a burr under my saddle.
Where do I begin? How do I put myself out there when I hate "selling myself."
The biggest thing pre-publishing is to get onto your preferred social media platform and start making connections. Follow authors in your genre (as your writer page). Join conversations in Facebook groups or follow Twitter hashtags like #writingcommunity or #amreading. On Insta, it's #authorsofinstagram. You're not selling yourself, not yet, what you're doing is forming bonds and friendship with people who like books and your particular genre. You're building an online network.
Minor digression on the value of online networking
I graduated from Regis University with an MA in creative writing in 2015 (Regis now has an MFA program). A fellow student at the time just released her first book of literary nonfiction. She reached out to me on social media. I shared her release to my readers. I shared articles about her release on everything from social media to LinkedIn. This isn't a quid-pro-quo, as I don't expect anything of her in return. It's just the right thing to do to support fellow writers. You can do the same with published authors before you're published.
How do I "sell myself" as a writer before I'm published?
You're not bringing attention to something you haven't done yet, you're bringing attention to the thing you love: books. My publisher gave me a list of 15-20 top influencers in the form of bloggers and book reviewers that I should "get to know" or connect with online. I found that too artificial. Instead, I engage with other writers and readers. I like/share/retweet other writers whose work I like/love to build good will with others, and even if they don't directly reciprocate, I figure I'm growing my good karma (and that it will come back to me in some way in the future).
When is the best time to build a platform? Pre or post contract?
There's no "right" time to build a platform. Honestly, and I mean this, writing comes first. Let me say that again:
Writing. Comes. First.
It's easy to get sucked into the social media mud pit and get stuck, but if you're already active on a certain platform, getting to know other writers and readers shouldn't be too big of a stretch to start with. Things like a website or a blog can wait until the book is finished, but social media takes time to grow, so starting now would definitely be a move in the right direction.
Where do I start? Social media is overwhelming.
There's so many ways to get active in a way that is authentic, which I think is what you should focus on. Don't think of it as selling yourself. Writers for the most part aren't really good with that. Instead of "selling" or "marketing" which are dirty little words, consider social media as community building. You're finding a community to interact with, and you can do it no matter where you live, no matter your publishing stage... as long as you have Internet.
As for where to start, ask yourself: What social media platform do I prefer?
I know some publishers push you to be active on all platforms. Good luck with that. Although I do have someone help me with Facebook (she posts what I send to her onto my writing page because I don't have a personal account on FB), I don't have the time or money for a personal assistant, so spending an hour a day building my social media isn't in the cards, but I do focus on being active on Twitter, because I'm there anyway, and I enjoy the interactions. I even use it for my undergrads instead of online discussions (see one of my Twitter hashtags to see what they post).
Follow writers. Stephen King is on Twitter, and full of all kinds of fun posts from directly related to writing (like when a new book or movie releases), but he also posts pictures of his dog, retweeting other writers (including his son) and generally posting several times a week. JK Rowling used to be much more active, being quite vocal about things that matter to her, but seems to have slowed off the last year of so. Still, she's a good follow. Start with those writers you love, and even if they don't respond, you can interact with those commenting on their posts. And guess what? Those people are probably readers.
But it makes me feel like a fraud
Posting to someone who is not your family or friend is weird at first, but I promise, you're not a fraud. You are a writer. You are writing. You are connecting with readers and writers.
Remember the line from Field of Dreams. "If you build it, they will come."
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.