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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.

Outline Your Promotion Plan

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’ve got to know how to get your message out there, and in the marketing/promotion plan section of your book proposal, you’ll show the editor how you will sell tons of books. Just as important, you’ll give yourself an action plan for promoting your book.

  • Offer ideas and strategies for ways to promote your book (and yourself) effectively and efficiently, without wasting time and money.
  • Build on your current business and career. If you’re a consultant, explain how that will help you market the book to your clients. If you’re a writer, you can write articles about your book.
  • Be creative and use what’s available. Are you already teaching classes? Can you tie in the message of your book to your teaching?
  • Brainstorm with marketing pros, business people and readers – not just other writers – to come up with good ideas for promoting your book.
  • Only include what you will do. Even better if you’re already doing it! Editors have seen too many empty promises. They want to see that you’re already out there doing what you can to develop a following.

Making Your Book More Marketable

Some ideas to consider for making your book more appealing to agents and editors:

  • Expand your niche. Sometimes agents and editors like a book but don’t think the primary audience for it is big enough. You can expand your niche by adding secondary audiences. A book for straight parents of gay teens can also be marketed to include school professionals and other family members and friends.
  • Focus on one genre or another, not ten. You may think that your erotic paranormal futuristic romantic suspense will appeal to readers in all the genres represented but that’s not always true. It can seem muddled instead of inclusive. Editors and agents need to know what shelf the book should go on in the bookstore. Pick one to emphasize and don’t worry about the rest.
  • Emphasize the timeliness of your idea by tying it to current events (but don’t make it too timely – book publishing is a slow business).
  • Restructure your book. When I originally conceived the idea for Dojo Wisdom, it was for  the book to be narrative non-fiction.  At the time, narrative non-fiction wasn’t one-tenth as popular as it is now, so I capitalized on a trend and broke the book into lessons. You can use a similar approach to break your magnum opus into two companion books or a trilogy, turn your general nonfiction book into a prescriptive self-help, and so on.
  • Work on your platform. A writer with a lot of fans is irresistible to agents and editors. Consider ways to connect online and offline with readers who’ll line up to buy your book.
  • Make your book bigger. This isn’t a word count issue but a vision issue.

The Market for Your Book

There are two kinds of markets you need to be familiar with.  The first is book publishing in general (and this website is designed to help you understand that). The other market is the audience for your specific subject matter.  In my case, that tends to be martial arts enthusiasts, whether they are instructors, students, or just people interested in various aspects of the martial arts.  For me to write books they will want to buy, not only do I have to understand the book publishing market as a whole, but my niche in particular.

For example, when Dojo Wisdom came out, the market for long narrative nonfiction was on life support.  Book publishers were actively looking for small advice books.  I simply tweaked an idea I’d had for a long time (how the principles of martial arts can be applied to all areas of life) and was able to sell a series of books on the topic. Now, the opposite is true: publishers are actively looking for long narrative nonfiction.

This is not to say that you should chase trends, especially when a long lead time is involved (as in book publishing).  A few years ago, Feng Shui books were all the rage.  Now book editors are acquiring other things.  But you do need to understand certain basics about the market.  Many nonfiction writers have come to me with proposals for 20,000 or 30,000 word books.  That’s not a book.  That’s a really long article. It could work as a self-published ebook, but not as a title for most traditional publishers. Agents and editors talk about novelists whose tomes weigh in at 200,000 words, which is about 100,000 too many.  Those are basic problems in understanding the market that are very hard for you to overcome, no matter how brilliant your writing is.

Your Book’s Home

In order to successfully pitch your project to agents and editors, you need to know what shelf it will go on in the bookstore.  A few years ago, I worked with a writer, a former police officer, who wanted to write a book about missing persons, her specialty.  She wanted to tell stories about the various cases she’d worked on.  She wanted to inform people about how to protect themselves and their families from  abduction.  She wanted to give readers advice on what to do if it happened in their lives.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in one book, and it crosses genres – there’s true crime, self defense, self help, and how to.  Her book proposal went through many incarnations as she wrestled with her subject matter.  But it was when she got market feedback from an editor that it finally came together for her.  She would write a true crime book about a major missing persons case she’d investigated, and as she described the case and its resolution, along the way she would inform readers about myths and misconceptions many people share about missing persons cases.  That would fulfill her intention of educating readers on how to prevent or deal with such crimes, without making it the focus of the book or detracting from the overall story she wanted to tell.

It’s a subtle difference but a very big one.  A true crime book has a specific place on a shelf in a bookstore.  A how-to book has a different place.  Martial Arts for Dummies is a sports how-to.  Dojo Wisdom is a self-help book.  Dojo Wisdom for Writers is a writing referenceDojo Wisdom for Mothers is a parenting book.  They’re all “about” martial arts, but they have different places in the bookstore.

So, you have to figure out where your book goes.  If you’re not sure, do a bit of research and find out.  Booksellers are your friend.  Go into a bookstore, look around at the categories, leaf through some of the books, ask questions (buy a book).

So Much to Promote, So Little Time

Creating a platform and promoting yourself and your work is a time-consuming endeavor.  Many writers feel it takes up too much of their time – they’d rather be writing.  But the truth is, most successful writers spend at least half their time promoting themselves in one way or another – through websites, providing content for online sites and print magazines, creating e-newsletters, getting interviewed in print and broadcast media, giving workshops and seminars and the like.

But you don’t have to do it all at once.  You don’t even have to do it all.  Look at what makes sense for you.  If you have a bunch of preschool kids and a day job, traveling all over the country giving workshops is not going to work for you.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t promote your work and build a platform through carefully placed online articles and the occasionally print interview.

Start with what you can do, right now, without a lot of sweat and effort.  Then gradually add another task or challenge – something that makes you stretch.  Pretty soon you’ll be doing all sorts of things you never believed possible – and better yet, enjoying it!

Getting Started Giving Talks and Workshops

Giving talks and presenting workshops can become your most effective promotion strategy.  For example, you can give a talk at your local library.  You can give workshops for Chamber of Commerce members. If you write children’s books, you can visit schools and talk about your stories and about what a writer does. Depending on your subject, you can give talks, workshops, and seminars to corporations and individuals across the country (even around the world).  You can take advantage of technology and offer teleseminars and webseminars (webinars).

The advantage of giving talks and workshops is that you can promote your books at them.  In many cases, you can charge a fee that covers your time and the cost of your book, so that every attendee gets one.  Some writers actually make more money giving talks and workshops than they do writing and selling their books.

While you may not feel that giving a talk at a library meeting with seven people attending will rocket you to fame and glory, remember that the process of promotion is a process of creating relationships with people.  So if you do a good job, an audience member will notice and may think of you for a conference she’s organizing.  This has happened to me.  I’ve been asked to keynote national conferences as a result of speaking at a local event.

However, remember that your efforts should not go unrewarded.  If the venue isn’t going to pay you and won’t let you sell your books, you’d be better off spending your time finding a venue that will pay you and will let you sell your books.  If you take too many itty-bitty speaking engagements, it may interfere with your ability to get larger speaking engagements.  Always be sure to know what you’re getting out of any promotional activity before you agree to do it.

Once you have some experience under your belt, you can put on your own workshops and seminars – that is, instead of waiting for people to invite you to present at their meetings, you can create your own events, from booking the venue to advertising the event to collecting money at the door.  Some speakers never get to this stage, being perfectly happy to pull down several thousand dollar speaking fees and letting others worry about the headaches.  But some speakers find this an effective way to promote themselves and their work and put some money in their pockets.

To get started, create a brief paragraph describing the talk or workshop (or both) you could give about your subject matter.  Then brainstorm places where you’ve heard people talk about your subject matter (annual conferences, in-services, etc).  Then analyze ways you can get in touch with the meeting organizers.  You can use the web, ask colleagues for referrals, network at National Speakers Association meetings.

Be prepared to pitch yourself as a presenter or speaker.  For bigger events, you’ll need to have a video of yourself in action.  Ask a friend to do this for you at a smaller event, then get copies made (or upload them to your website) to give out to organizers.

Getting Professional Publicity Help

Many writers, not terribly confident about their promotion skills, feel that hiring a publicist (a freelance publicist as distinct from the publicist your publisher will assign to your book) may be an answer to their problem.  While it can help, much of the best work you can do to promote yourself and your book has to be done by you (such as posting regularly to a blog, writing articles on your subject matter, etc.)

Since the publisher’s staff publicist may not be able to do a lot for you – she’s probably juggling twenty other books right now – it’s not unreasonable to explore hiring a freelancer.  Just be sure you understand that a freelance publicist is mainly selling pitching skills and access to media.  A book publicist isn’t going to be that useful in promoting “you” as opposed to your book, which is a limit.

If you choose to work with a freelancer, you need to engage one well ahead of your book’s scheduled publication date.  They’re most effective in getting coverage of your book when it first comes out, and that coverage has to be worked out well ahead of time.

Set goals when you first meet with your publicist.  What exactly do you want the publicist to do?  What does she think she can do?  What does she recommend?  The more clearly defined your goals are, the more likely you’ll achieve success.  In other words, telling her you want her to promote your book isn’t as useful as “I want you to get me on Oprah.”  She may not be able to manage that but at least you’ll both be on the same page in terms of what you mean by “help me promote my book.”

Most publicists will expect you to do a lot of legwork – for example, getting mailing lists for associations you’re a member of, filling out forms identifying all the people you know and what they can do to help you promote your book, creating lists of trade magazines and other periodicals and online publications in your subject area, providing all the information needed to craft a bio and a Q&A and so on.  Since you’ll be doing all this work anyway, you may be better served by using a publicist simply as a consultant – for example, hire one for a couple of hours to help you craft your pitch to the media, or hire one to review your website.

One final thought:  the publicist can’t build a platform for you or get coverage without you.  You have to be committed to it – you’re the key to success.  The publicist can help you with her professional knowledge, but in the end it comes down to whether you’re willing to do the work or not.

Social Media Promotion Basics

Know what’s out there.  Check out Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for ways to interact with potential readers and others interested in your subject matter.  Provide content for related websites and online magazines related to your subject matter.  Guest blog on related blogs.  Join forums, bulletin boards and groups that talk about your subject matter.

Online promotion is more casual, more about story-telling and being present than anything else.  The key to making it work is to establish relationships.

  • Decide what you want.  Is your goal to get people to ask you for more information about your work? Do you want them to be able to buy your book?  Do you want to establish your expertise and attract readers by contributing articles to online magazines that cover your subject area?  Or all of the above?
  • Start small.  Years ago, when I decided it was time to have a website of my own, I      started with a basic three- or four-page site.  I had a bio, a list of books, some      information about my workshops and a link to www.booksense.com so people could buy my books if they wanted. As my promotional efforts increased, my website grew.  The same approach can work for you. If you decide to offer an article to blogs in exchange for advertising, approach five or ten sites first, not 100.
  • Don’t pursue ineffective strategies.  What works for one person may not work for another.  So give your promotional strategies a chance, but be willing to drop what doesn’t work and try another avenue.
  • Your mama should be proud of you.  Most of us have no intention of  turning into carnival hucksters.  We have the opposite problem – we’re too shy and introverted to promote ourselves effectively.  If this is you, keep in mind that many subtle ways of promoting yourself exist,  including creating free e-newsletters (with content), maintaining a website, providing content to other websites for a byline and more.  But don’t forget that you want to be professional and courteous about your promotions – don’t dominate groups with your latest self-promotion, don’t become the king of spam.  You don’t have to yell the loudest to be the most effective.