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Why All Authors Need a Platform

Categories: Books, Build a Platform & Start Blogging, Completed Multiple Manuscripts, How to Publish a Book, Get Published, Published Author Tags: blogging, marketing, platform.

Excerpted from Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz

If you have been to a writing conference lately, I’m sure that you have heard the word “platform.” All writers need to have their own platform eventually, although joining up with an established author, publisher, or other credible media organization is a savvy way to heighten your visibility more quickly.

When I’ve spoken at writing conferences, I’ve noticed that about 50 percent of my audiences say they don’t know what platform means. And, often, even if they have heard the concept a few times, they are still unsure what it means to them. So let’s cover platform basics before going any further, including what platform is, what platform isn’t (chapter two), and what it means to you (chapter three).

Become Visible
The word platform simply describes all the ways you are visible and appealing to your future, potential, or actual readership. Platform development is important not only for authors; it’s also crucial for aspiring and soon-to-be authors. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you’ve established, the articles you’ve published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership. If others already recognize your expertise on a given topic or for a specific audience or both, then that is your platform. Long story short: Your platform communicates your expertise to others, so you don’t have to.

A platform literally refers to a raised area of flooring. When I speak at conferences about platform, I stretch my arms back behind me to indicate how all of my efforts up to the present moment have landed me up on that riser. What I hope to illustrate is that I’m not special. I have simply pitched my skills and have been selected to share them with an audience. There is a lot of pitching that goes with platform development, just like in getting published. That’s how building your platform will be for you as well—pitch what you have to offer, and receive an invitation if you are a good fit. It’s that simple. And, naturally, sometimes you won’t receive an invitation. Just like your writing is not always accepted for publication.

Platform is not a popularity contest. It’s not about what a great writer you are. It’s not a reward for doing everything perfectly so far. It’s not even who you know, although knowing people always helps. The way platform works is like this: Your visibility will increase as your expertise becomes more widely recognized, and as your credibility and reputation rise, you become not only more visible, but more recognizable for your expertise. And that’s when decision-makers will start accepting your offers. As with everything to do with being a business professional in any field, the more legitimate, confident, and respected you are, the more often you will hear yes.

Political platforms are based on promises; writer platforms are based on active expertise. The effect of your accumulated knowledge on other people builds your name, establishes your reputation, and can eventually get you to the point where everyone knows your name. That’s the objective, and that’s when you are poised for what they call in Publishers Lunch a “very nice” book deal. Or at least a “nice deal”—everyone’s got to start somewhere.

How did we arrive at this juncture in publishing history, where platform is all? For about ten years the publishing industry has been using the spaghetti-test method to find bestsellers, or even sellers, for that matter: Throw a bunch of books against the marketplace and see how many stick. Over the years, publishers have produced increasing amounts of books until just recently, when a dip in acquisitions seems to be happening. (I said seems, mind you. We’ll see what happens ultimately.)

Why Most Books Fail
In the past decade, publishing houses have been increasingly unable to promote the hundreds of thousands of books they publish. Why? A lack of funds, decreasing staff, and increased pressure to devote time elsewhere. Like in most businesses, there is plenty of pressure in publishing to focus on return on investment, and for employees to invest the lion’s share of their time and energy into the pursuits most likely to bring the biggest return on investment. Publishing is a business, after all, despite the fact that the ranks are mostly occupied by people who—just like authors—love books. Therefore authors have had to pick up the publicity slack or else watch their books fail in the marketplace. And this is where your platform makes all
the difference in the success or failure of your book.

Let’s get this part over with: The reality is, most books fail. What I mean by fail is not that they don’t sell thousands of copies, but that they don’t sell even one thousand copies. Agents and editors want authors to have a strong platform because authors with platforms sell books. The bigger the reach of an author’s platform, the more books they are likely to sell. It’s that simple.

Agent Rita Rosenkranz says that editors were the ones who first started using the word platform, and then agents picked it up “when it became clear that platform-challenged authors would have a harder time placing their projects.” And yet, the news has reached the ears of aspiring authors quite slowly.

But that’s okay. If you didn’t get the memo on platform development until now, never fear. The importance of having a writer’s platform is becoming more widely discussed every day online and even in print. One reason why the topic has not been widely discussed at conferences and in writing workshops up until now might be this one: Publishing-industry insiders figure they shouldn’t have to teach you about platform. If you’ve got one, great, they want to hear about it. If you don’t … well, keep in mind that a professional is expected to know this stuff. You are supposed to do your due diligence. You are expected to show up prepared. I mean, let’s face it, from the agents’ and editors’ perspective, not discussing platform at conferences may have made it easier to separate the genuine platform-builders from the wannabes.

Eventually, the platform message has trickled down from editors to agents to aspiring authors, and the communication gap is now officially closed. Today, there is more information on platform than ever, and “platform experts” are everywhere. Be careful before you open your checkbook to pay someone you’ve never heard of to take your platform from zero to hero. The keys to platform success can be learned inexpensively from books (like this one), at legitimate writing conferences, and from your regional writers association and personal network. 

Quality Platforms Take Time and Personal Investment
I’ll say it one more time: Don’t fall for infomercial-style promotions that are consciously designed to funnel your money in increasing amounts into the pockets of online (dare I say?) scammers. It’s a fine line sometimes. I’m not saying these folks don’t have legitimate experience; I’m just saying, before you hand over your credit card number, consider this: How much information is practical for you to receive and implement at this moment in time? Most online packages are big on the word fast. If you feel that the offer of fast is uncomfortably close to promising overnight success or immediate results, pause. And think. And maybe hold on to your money until you talk to some other real live people about their
experiences.

While it is certainly true that too much information is better than not enough information, remember that authentic platforms don’t spring up overnight. I see the phony-baloney ones fly up all the time. Many of them are not there a year later. Remember that platform doesn’t merely mean an online presence. Anyone can create an online presence. In this book, we’re raising our awareness about the difference between a sturdy platform that you build slowly over time and a shaky platform that somebody slaps up overnight.

Ultimately, platform is about quality relationships—not technology, fame, or overnight success.

Everybody Wants You
You already know that agents and editors are specifically looking for writers with platforms. (And some writers truly are ripe for such opportunities.) So, by making yourself visible to potential readers, you are making yourself appealing to agents and editors too. The degree to which you are visible and credible correlates directly to how easily you will garner agent and editor interest in your ideas. So if you are in the closet with your expertise, come on out! If you’re not visible, agents and editors are predisposed to be uninterested. The more visible you are, the more interested agents and editors will be. And at the point where agents and editors become more interested in you, they’ll be much more likely to give your book concept a chance. So don’t assume you won’t need a platform. That would be the exception, not the rule. Literary success without platform is becoming more a thing of the past every day.

Being visible sets you apart from the masses. Increasingly, aspiring authors with decent platforms from all fields are showing up at writers conferences to see if they’ve got the chops to land a book deal. And you know what? Sometimes they do. Anyone can walk in off the street, pay to attend, pitch, and garner the interest of agents and editors. There are no elite insider-writers who have cornered the market. So if you think you have a decent platform, but you’re not certain, attend a regional writers conference and test-market yourself and your book concept to agents and editors. You don’t have to be an established writer or even a published writer to land a nonfiction deal anymore, if you already have a platform. Sometimes a solid platform with a related book idea and good writing skills is enough. That’s not to say that you won’t have to work really, really hard on your book. You will. But you won’t get to work hard if you don’t get the deal.

Create Momentum
Your platform, especially your Web presence (chapter 34), should be alive and kicking for your writing career even as you sleep, take a vacation, or taxi the kids to after-school activities. A real platform works for you around the clock, 365 days a year, so you can do other things. And guess what else you can do while your platform spreads the word about what you’ve already published and accomplished. You can write. That’s right. While I am sitting here writing this book, word-of-mouth is still spreading from all of the outreach I did for my first book.

Your platform is like a fountain of nectar for the media bees. The more the media knows about you, your expertise, and your work, the more books they are going to help you sell in the future by spreading the word about you and your books. Increasingly, media folks use search engines to find specific types of experts. You could be one of them.

If you are already on a first-name basis with Oprah, Diane, and Dave, then perhaps you don’t need to worry much about platform development. But for the rest of us, it’s important to get a platform established and start spreading the word about our expertise. Your platform is going to act like a magnet that draws in not only book deals but other types of income streams. We’ll talk all about those in part two. In the meantime, let’s talk about your platform, either the one you’ve already grown, or the one you are going to grow.

What If Someone Steals My Platform Idea?
Many people resist platform development because they are afraid that someone else will take their great idea and run with it. And let’s face it, ideas are not copyrighted, and so, yes, quite frankly another person can take the kernel of your idea and make it his own. However, what I’ve noticed about platforms over the years is that no two are ever the same, ultimately. Let’s say you have two writers who are also moms, like many I know. The similarities typically stop after one or two degrees of identification. For example, Cindy Hudson, one mom writer I know, has started two mother-daughter book clubs at motherdaughterbookclub.wordpress.com. So she’s built a platform from her personal experience starting and leading two mother-daughter book clubs. Today, she’s the person journalists call when writing articles on the topic in newspapers and national magazines. Jean Van’t Hul is another mom writer I know whose platform combines art and parenting at artfulparent.wordpress.com. Her platform started with an article on the topic in Mothering magazine, and continues as a blog that enjoys increasing popularity. Cindy and Jean are both moms and writers, and their platforms are very specific to them and reflect their expanding expertise. And so will yours.

Three Key Questions
Here are three simple questions I always ask workshop participants about platform. The answers will help clarify where you want to be that all-important one year from now.

  • Who are you known as in the world as a writer now?
  • How do others see you now?
  • Who would you like to be known as in one year?

It’s important not to exaggerate these descriptions. If you’re not sure, ask some people who know! Be realistic, and set a reasonable goal for the one-year time frame. Don’t try to go from completely unknown to bestseller. That’s very unlikely, especially if you don’t have a book deal yet. But perhaps from completely unknown to well known in your city, region, or state is reasonable.

Excerpted from Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz

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