Monday, March 22, 2010

Author Platforms

What is a “platform” when it pertains to a book? This can be confusing – with good reason. The confusion is because what used to be meant by platform has morphed into something more.

In the past, when someone said you needed a platform for your book, they, first off, meant your nonfiction book. Only nonfiction books were required to have platforms. What it basically meant was that you, the author, were an expert on some subject others want to learn about.

Expert + important topic = platform.

Over the last few years, platform has come to mean more than that. It no longer is enough to be an expert on some subject people want to read about. You now have to have a built-in audience or a way to get publicity.

Expert + important topic + ready audience = platform.

The sad thing is this last part of the equation (the ready audience) has taken on great significance, so much so that it can be more important than the other two parts. That’s why you see so many celebrities writing books (or having them ghost written). It sometimes doesn’t matter they know no more on the subject than you; it doesn’t matter the subject is superficial. They have easy access to TV shows, radio, magazine and newspaper exposure, and hundreds of thousands of people who will buy the book based solely on their name, regardless of subject or even need.

You can have a platform without being a Hollywood celebrity, though you still need the platform part of the equation. Not the promise that if published you’re willing to make speeches, conduct workshops, appear on TV and radio, and do book tours. A platform needs to be in place prior to getting published, even prior to querying. Not what you would do in the future, but what access to publicity and book sales you already have in place. You are already a recognized expert; you’re already doing speeches and workshops; you have a blog visited by thousands every day; you have a following based on prior sales, your work, your newsletter, your mailing list; you have name recognition – the wider the better.

Another way the meaning of the term platform has morphed is that it now applies to fiction, as well as nonfiction. Agents and editors now look to see if fiction writers have a platform. They want good writing, a genre that will sell, and a new and interesting twist to the book – all the things they’ve always wanted. But now they also expect the author to have that third part of the equation – a ready-made audience. If you’re not a national celebrity then a local celebrity will do. If you’re not a celebrity, then you need to have already set up ways you can get yourself out there to sell your book. You’re already doing speeches and workshops, or you have an active, highly visited blog, or you are involved in so many organizations, groups, and activities that you can count on big sales. OR – you are so cute, young, and personable that the camera will love you and you can be made into a celebrity. OR – your book has a unique twist (that is anchored in you) that will make it easy to get publicity. For example, a heart-wrenching story with a fictionalized protagonist based on some new, highly reported event that involved you. What you can contribute to publicizing the book has taken on almost equal status with the subject of the book and your ability to write.

Good writing + unique, interesting topic or plot + ready audience = platform.

Agents will tell you they only care about the writing. They say they look at the pages and whether it hooks them. The hard truth is publishers – and agents – look at the bottom line – will this book sell.

So when you think of platform, imagine an actual platform in a room. You, the author/expert, are standing on that platform. You’re holding your book, ready to talk on this intriguing subject/ idea/plot. That used to be the platform.

Nowadays, you also have to imagine the audience you bring along with you. They’re up there on that platform with you. The bigger your audience, the bigger your platform. The bigger your platform, the more happy an agent or editor is going to be to see you, read you, sign you, buy you.

What are you doing to build your platform?
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Helen Ginger is a freelance editor, book consultant, blogger, and writer. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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31 comments :

  1. I think this is one of the toughest things for novels--not all books, no matter how well-written, will lend themselves to a platform. It's just like trying to figure out how to make a novel something that will sell. You can do that with a non-fiction book--look at the topic you want to do, look at what's selling, and then come up with a book that fits a need. Can't do that with a novel. You could do everything "right" and still not be able to sell the book.

    Same thing with a platform. Even "unique, interesting plot" is deceptive because there are plots that fit into that category and aren't platforms and other ones that are. Even here, you don't really define it other than to say that the writer needs to already have the audience. Frankly, that's difficult unless you're already in a business where you can sell the book--but that goes back to non-fiction. At one point, I worked with a marketer for a cowriter, and he latched on to the platform issue. We were doing a Civil War novel, and ah hah! We could go to Civil War reenactments to promote the book. What book? We were writing it, and if anyone did ask ... well, we it wasn't finished so we couldn't even submit it to agents. He thought we could do Civil War articles on our Website, but, from the emails we got, none of the people who were finding them would be buyers for a potential Civil War thriller. We went through a number of different ideas and ended up wasting time rather than writing.

    And your average novelist is not going to be a veteran networker who will have all those things in place before querying. A non-fiction guy will because he's likely to already be in that business and promoting himself anyway. That's something that nearly always gets missed in these discussions.

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  2. I think I'll have to take up bank robbing - get real good at it, never get caught, so I'm still free to write, then I'll write a book titled "Bank Robbing for Dummies" and confess everything, taking all the royalties and repaying the banks I robbed. I won't need the royalties, cuz I'll already be rich, hmm?

    LOL, good subject,and I enjoyed your input on it. I read a while ago about some nobody who had become a Twitter phenomenon - like a bazillion followers who hang on his every tweet, who landed a book deal for something (I think I remember) like $10 million. He went into the pub house, had them watch him send out a tweet and were floored when within a minute thousands and thousands of retweets came back. They signed him up even though he had absolutlely no background in writing. But he had a platform, hmm?

    The Old Silly

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  3. Interesting post, as always :)

    For most authors (ie: those of us who aren't celebrities and don't have that unique twist or connection), I think our best chance of developing a platform is through the use of online networking, with blogging being the most effective tool.

    That said, I believe it takes several years to build up the kind of readership which could have a big impact on the success of a novel.

    The best the blogger can hope for is that when his/her novel comes out, a small percentage of the blog's readership is interested enough to at least read the blurb on the back of the book.

    After that, it's down to those folks' personal taste.

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  4. Excellent definitions of platforms, Helen!

    So many publishers want to see a marketing plan with the query because they want to know who the author can reach now - what audience is already in place.

    I'd been doing motivation speaking several years before my non-fiction book even came out. So for that book, I had a platform ready.

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  5. Wow, it can be intimidating. The ready-made audience we're expected to have reminds me of the television commercial for one of the cell phone plans, when the whole network of people walks around with the spokesperson. I guess that's what we need too ;)

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  6. There are ways to start building your platform, even for that Civil War buff. Don't wait until you're ready to query, though. Start now getting yourself out onto the Internet. There are so many ways.

    I heard about that guy, too, Marvin. Not every tweeter who follows him will buy his book, but odds are a bunch of them will. And that's what the publishers saw.

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  7. Helen, this was a fantastic explanation of platform. Thank you.

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  8. That was a good analogy, Joanne.

    Hi Liza! Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. I’m still trying to figure out my platform so I’m reading blogs like this. My problem is that I don’t think the fact I wrote a novel and someone published it makes me an expert on anything.

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  10. I remember meeting with an editor who asked why I was qualified to write the book I'd written. She indicated that if I wasn't a cop, or a covert ops specialist, then I couldn't possible 1) write a credible book or 2) expect anyone to buy it.

    What happened to research? To contacts? To telling a good story.

    I try to keep my name out there, but most of the folks I'd bring along to my "platform" expect me to give them free copies of my books.

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  11. But don't forget to write a good book. Sometimes a really compelling story is 90% of the prize. I read enough books that leave me wondering why I've never heard of this writer - often it's because they have no platform at all, just a good book that's been discovered by readers, sometimes quite by accident. It can happen, but don't rely on it. I come full-circle to the first piece of advice - write the best book you can.

    Dani

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  12. Oh, Helen, sigh sigh sigh. I am not doing anything to build platform. I've lost my energy for my memoir. It's all I can do to make myself write these days, let alone all the other stuff a writer has to do. This is such a helpful post, though, explaining exactly what a platform is and what one needs to do to create one. Thanks.
    karen

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  13. I've been building my platform for a couple of months now and I have a blog and twitter feed, as well as a Facebook fan page. I'm having a lot of fun building it, but the task is still daunting. I'm currently working on a novel which I expect to start sending out queries for in the late summer, so I wanted to start building my platform now and have it established for when publishers are reviewing my work towards the end of the year. I guess it's never too early to start building this stuff up.

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  14. The good news is that building your platform isn’t difficult—nor does it cost thousands of dollars. You don’t even need to have any prior experience. It’s a fairly simple process that involves identifying your niche, then laying some groundwork to steadily increase your visibility: Create your own website and blog, give talks about your specialty, teach classes or offer workshops, participate in online communities and forums—anything that helps you reach potential readers.

    Thanks for the great posting!

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  15. Well done article, Helen. As always you bring such timely information. Platforms--you are right on target! Once again, selling instead of writing--but that's the name of the game. Sometimes it is difficult to find that platform for fiction--it makes us work our ole brain harder than ever. Usually, however, there is something that connects us to a wider audience.

    I think your idea about a monthly column on this topic at Blood Red would be a big help to us all. Gets our thinking caps energized. I vote yes! (not that you asked).

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  16. You definitely need to start building your platform before you query an agent or editor or self-publish your book. If you start early, you can get it well under way without stressing (too much) or going into a panic.

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  17. I've quickly learned that the process of building a platform is a slow, step-by-step, never-ending story. Oh, for the good old days when just a website (updated from time to time) was enough.

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  18. This whole business of a platform is so true, yet I find it a bit sad, too. It asks an author to be more than a good writer. He or she has to be a marketer and promoter, too, and those are not roles that every writer is comfortable with, let alone effective.

    On some levels I am really disappointed that the publishing industry has come to this.

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  19. Platform is the tricky part all right. It's sad that the book of our heart is not always the one a majority of people would find interest in.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  20. It is another burden on the writer. One that a lot of writers, who often are not outgoing, would rather not do. But whether we like it or not, it has indeed come to this.

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  21. Great post Helen...last year I began a blog (www.ballylara.wordpress.com) and although I don't post every week, it has brought me a loyal band of followers. I post stories, musings etc and have links to my work on Amazon + Apple.

    Here's a few other ideas for author platform: I'm on Facebook + set up a 'fan page' for my most recent publication. Also I set up a twitter account + send out info on blog updates + anything interesting that I come across.

    I think a key to establishing a successful author platform is to post only relevent/interesting info + avoid the 'hard sell'. Fans/followers/readers are getting more fickle — they're difficult to find and easy to lose.

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  22. I agree with you, Eddie, on avoiding the hard sell. And don't sign people up to your newsletter, for example, without their permission.

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  23. A topic worthy of much discussion, but for now I'm leaving this short thought. Commercialism-dumbing down-poor quality, and these are the first that quickly come to mind. These areas and their growing predominance are having a real effect on social norms, and so my question is, are people today addressing what we want readers to get from reading a book or has that been replaced with other motives?

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  24. As far as marketing is concerned it makes sense to invest time into building a platform. We're doing it here. Everyone is communicating, and the consistent commenter's are noticed. Be polite, genuine, and contribute. We used to have these conversations face to face, but now we can reach the world. Writers have to sell themselves and their books, and if we don't we won't get noticed. Every person we connect with is a potential buyer. Social media is how the world communicates.

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  25. Good post, Helen. I first heard the word Platform when I talked to an independent publisher about my first book. When I told him I had a loyal following after writing a column for 10 years he smiled and said, "bingo." I've since developed the network beyond that and it has been not only beneficial but fun. I'm about to publish my second novel and sometimes when I think of all the promotion it takes it makes me tired, but then I remember all the great people I've met and the joy returns.
    Thanks for sharing your expertise.:)Marcia
    www.vinemarc.com

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  26. Extended family does count, but you'll need more than that. It's a place to start.

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  27. Helen,I have linked to this post today as it ties in very nicely with my exciting news. (Well exciting for me).http://www.glynissmy.com/2010/03/oh-it-just-gets-better-and-better.html
    I have worked hard on building a platform this year, I keep reading how important it is for a writer.

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  28. Wow - this was such an insightful post. I didn't truly understand about fiction platforms. I'm now even more paranoid about my blog.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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