The Blog

All Posts in Category: Ask the Book Doctor

The Book Doctor Is In: Platform and Your Query Letter

Q. I’m sending queries to agents regarding my memoir. I’ve noticed a lot of writers talking about the importance of platform, basically saying you can’t get a book deal without one. I don’t have a huge platform, but should I mention what I do have in my query?

A. Platform is certainly an important piece of the publishing puzzle, but it’s not a simple A = B calculation. Plenty of people with huge platforms see little success with their books while others with smaller platforms or no platforms at all go on to sell tons of books. No one knows why some books sell and others don’t. Why is one well-written book passed over by readers in favor of one that’s not nearly as well done? No one knows. If anyone knew, publishing would be a very different world. (Everyone who writes erotica was astonished by the whole 50 Shades thing. Not that there were readers for BDSM, but that so many people would read such bad BDSM when there is a ton of much much better erotica available.)

Platform is more important in regular nonfiction publishing (by which I mean things like self-help and how-to) than in creative nonfiction (memoir) and fiction because there is a clearer A = B connection there. That is to say, people with a platform writing in the subject for which they have the platform (Oprah and living your best life stuff) tend to do better than people without.

Remember also that publishing is a business. An acquisitions editor (AE) can point to X number of Twitter followers and Y number of people who watch your television show as evidence that there will be an audience for your book; it makes her decision to publish your book defensible. If you have no platform and the book fails, the publisher fires the AE for placing a bet on someone without a platform (and that’s assuming the AE could get such a project past the editorial committee in the first place, which is a great big if). If you have a big platform and the book fails, the publisher and the AE drown their sorrows at the bar together. “What could we have done differently?” they’ll cry. “She has a great platform!”

I call this my CYA theory of acquisitions.

The platform is important to some degree but it isn’t the most important thing in memoir, nor is it the thing that will make or break your chances for publication. Does having a huge platform improve your chances of publication? Yes. Does lack of one mean you’re doomed? No.

As far as the query is concerned, you’re just trying to get the agent/editor to request the proposal or sample chapters. You’re not (yet) trying to make an argument for publication. So, the bulk of the query is necessarily designed to pique the agent/editor’s interest so she requests that additional material.

All of that said, a brief sentence at the close of the query (when you’re saying a few words about yourself) that shows your new online project has a pretty large readership is not a bad idea. Can’t hurt, might help. But I would not spend a lot of time on that aspect of the query.

Ask the Book Doctor: Using characters to inspire you

Q. Meredith says, “I often find B characters in novels more interesting than the leads, yet they’re never fully developed (hence the B aspect). I wonder if using another novelist’s B characters as a jumping off point for a new character or story would ever produce any ideas worth exploring.”

A. As writers, we can find inspiration all around us, and other people’s fictional worlds and characters are a good example. The key point here is how (as Meredith specifies) you need to create a new character. Of course, you can’t use another writer’s characters or worlds, as that is copyright infringement, unless the novel is out of copyright protection (which is why we have all those Jane Austen mashups). Authors keep the right to produce derivative works (that is, other stories based on their characters and worlds) and although fan fiction is a popular sport, for someone seriously pursuing a writing career, you have to create your own characters and worlds unless you want to end up on the wrong end of a subpoena.

But you can certainly be inspired by other people’s stories and characters! In fact, for Jenny Jacobs’ The Winter Promise, the whole book was sparked by seeing Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is a minor character–a B character–but there was something about his situation that struck me as having a lot of potential for a story. The character I ended up writing, Lord Robert, has almost nothing in common with Faramir, but the novel wouldn’t even exist if I hadn’t seen Faramir and thought, “Hmm.”

The key is to make the character/story your own, even if the spark comes from another character. What about the character intrigues you? How can you make the story your own? Dig deep and you might be surprised what you can come up with!