The Blog

All Posts in Category: Platform Building

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.

You, the Expert

I remember the first time someone called me a “martial arts expert” in print. I hadn’t even realized I was one! But that endorsement made a lot of difference in my career. I wasn’t just someone who had an interesting hobby. I was an expert in a specific subject matter.

For nonfiction writers, your credentials are extremely important. Make an expert name for yourself by claiming what you know and developing your experience.

  • Certify your credentials. If you teach yoga, make sure you’re recognized by a well-known yoga organization. Get a personal trainer certificate if you write about fitness. I earned a black belt before I started writing about martial arts.
  • Start your own certification program — especially if one doesn’t already exist in your subject matter. If you teach the teachers, you definitely have achieved expert status.
  • Claim your credentials. Don’t make the classic amateur mistake of calling yourself a “visionary” or the like (that’s for other people to decide) but do make your credentials clear in your book proposal and in marketing materials about your book.
  • Track your media hits and all the work you do to develop your platform. List seminars and talks you give (even the five minute speech at the local Chamber of Commerce).
  • Slant work and training experience to emphasize its connection to your 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!

Author Platform Basics

Building Your Platform

As a nonfiction book author, you have to market yourself to several audiences.  First, you have to sell your work and yourself as the right person for the book to an agent, who will then help you sell your work and yourself as the right person for the book to an editor.  But beyond that, you need to appeal to readers.  It’s not enough to get an editor to buy your book – you have to get readers to pick it up, too.  Otherwise your career will end before it even gets off the ground.

Successful book authors often position themselves as experts; others as journalists who can go to the experts, get information and present it in an appealing way.  (Think Malcolm Gladwell).  Some writers co-author or ghost-write books for experts; for these writers, writing credentials matter but platform building and promotion doesn’t.  The expert will be expected to promote the book.

If you’re positioning yourself as the subject matter expert or as the journalist ferreting out the information, you need to be sure to establish your credentials and maintain them by continuing your education, keeping your day job (if it’s related to your area of expertise) and acting as a consultant or coach.

You don’t have to have the same credentials everyone else has, though.  For example, many reporters talk to psychologists about work-life balance issues.  Does that mean you have to have a Ph.D to be quoted on the subject?  No.  I’ve been quoted on this topic because I pitch myself as someone who can show how to follow the principles of martial arts to lead a balanced life.  So, use your imagination and creativity.  Take a step back and look at how you can most favorably present yourself and your life experience.

Having the appropriate credentials to write a book is related to but distinct from the platform you need to establish to promote your book.

For example, my having a black belt is a credential that allows me to claim subject matter expertise.  But it doesn’t help me promote my books.  However, if I teach martial arts classes, that is a platform I can use to promote my books to my students (who will, one hopes, tell all their friends about both the book and the class).

Once you have a publishing contract, you can work with your publisher’s publicist to develop a plan, but even before you reach that stage, you need to be able to show agents and editors that you have a certain amount of visibility in your field and a way to reach potential readers.

When people in publishing talk about platform building and promotion, they’re talking about strategies that result in getting your name in front of people who will buy your books.

Examples of building your platform before you get your publishing contract:

  • Being interviewed in print, online and broadcast media as the expert in your subject matter.
  • Giving talks, workshops and seminars on your subject.
  • Practicing your subject – be a coach or consultant, or own your own organization related to your subject.  For example, if you’re writing a book about mutual funds, it helps if you’re a working financial advisor.  Some writers earn these credentials as they establish themselves in a niche.
  • Joining organizations related to your subject matter and related to writing/book publishing itself.  You can stay on top of developments this way.
  • Starting and maintaining relationships with a lot of people, especially those in your subject area and in publishing.  Get out there and network!  You don’t have to be a smarmy salesperson to do this.  You just have to be genuine.  It gets easier with experience.