Saturday, 26 September 2009

NETWORKS AND PLATFORMS - MUST I?

The more you talk to people, and listen, the more you know and the more you think. And that  -  knowing and thinking more  -  is the real reason why "social networking" is much, much more about the rather self-centred notion of "building a platform to improve your career." It is about making contacts, and making contacts is about being human. We are social creatures and we rely on networks, whether it's the family, tribe or whole population of like-thinking individuals.

Social networking grows your outlook, widens your knowledge base and thereby opens your mind. And we certainly social-networked at yesterday's blogoffee day, didn't we?!


So, when we wonder and worry about the need to "build a platform as an author", we should think of it in this positive light, rather than running from it in a flurry of negative emotions and then being disparaging when other people do it well.

In the next few days I'm going to focus on the potential of blogs and Twitter  -  in other words the "how" of this question. But now, let's talk about whether authors need a "platform" before they approach publisher or agent.

I was reminded of this topic the other day when, as so often, I was reading a sensible blog post by that whirlwind of good advice, Jane Smith. I joined in the comments and said something about a platform not being essential in order to sell a book to a publisher or agent. [Jane agreed.] This was in response to someone implying that without the author having some kind of status or existing readership a pub/agent wouldn't look twice. In reply to my comment pointing out that many authors, including myself, had no contacts and no platform on first publication, wonderful US editor Lynn Price from the Behlerblog countered with this, [and I'm assuming she won't mind my quoting it  -  lovely Lynn? I'll buy you a margharita]:

"Here in the US, platform is very important in the course of selling books to the bookstores. They always ask our sales folks, "what is the author doing to promote?" When considering offering an author a contract, I always look at their platform. If they have a direct tie to their subject matter, this makes it easier to get booksellers excited about how the author will show their pretty face.

If they don't, then I still must feel comfortable that they have good ideas on how best to promote their book. This means understanding their readership and knowing how to find them. [my bold]

When I fall in love with a book, my brain is already kicked into high gear as to how I plan on promoting their book. I need to be sure the author is on board with me and is ready, willing, and able, AND has a tie-in with their book.

We have to cover a wide amount of real estate in the US, and the bigger splash an author can make with author events, the easier it is to excite a bookseller. They want to know if the book will sit on the shelf gathering dust or will fly out the door."

And this got me thinking further. [Remember I started this post by saying that social networking, all the time we put into blogging and reading other's blogs and making contacts, is useful and thought-provoking and beneficial, and far from being a waste of time?] And I came up with these conclusions. They are remarkably simple and succinct for me, and I offer them to you to think about yourselves. As I said, I will go into some actual ways to put the ideas into effect very soon.

But first, what do I mean by "platform". I mean anything which gives you a) either an existing readership or network of relevant contacts from which potential book-buyers could come b) and/or some visibility or recognised expertise in your subject area. In other words, the opposite of being someone who is only known to friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues. In the old days, either you were only known to those groups or you were famous. Nowadays, creating a platform gives you a position in the middle of that.

So, my thoughts on whether you need a platform before being accepted by a publisher or agent:
  1. There are some differences between the US and UK approach, but it is likely that in the UK and elsewhere we will tend towards the US approach sooner or later. Be prepared.
  2. Certainly, an author will have to engage in a range of promotional activities when the book comes out. This is unavoidable and needs to be thought about well in advance. 
  3. There are countless ways in which one might promote a book and an author  -  but it would be a) impossible and b) undesirable to engage in all these possibilities. Therefore, we should not panic but should think carefully about what works best for this author [us] and this book. After all, if you throw everything into promoting yourself, you are not writing, you are merely reacting and panicking.
  4. Although it will certainly be essential to start to create a platform at some sensible point, that point does not necessarily have to be before you approach an agent or publisher. Not having a platform now does not mean the publisher or agent won't take on your work.
  5. However, having a platform now is going to help. How could it not? So, do note the bit that I bolded in Lynn's comment.
  6. At the same time, I do think that in your first approach to agent/publisher, your description of whatever platform you have must be clear, realistic and calm. I saw a covering letter once in which the author's only claim to a platform was his one-off appearance as an audience member who happened to ask a question on the TV programme, Kilroy. By the same token, spewing ornate self-aggrandising lists of blogger-networks and half-baked promotional videos and the times when you ran down the street naked in order to promote your self-published book is really not going to help. Be professional. Don't claim to be able to do the marketing department's job  -  be there to work with them rationally.
  7. Also, if you are writing non-fiction, I'd venture to say that a platform is essential before your book is likely to be taken on. With a few exceptions, it is hard to see how an author could be sufficiently expert or passionate about a subject without having gone out there and talked and written about it and garnered followers and future readers.
  8. If you do not have any platform at all just now, I wonder what is stopping you? Is it fear, paralysis or just not knowing where to start. Don't panic, don't rush into things that are not "you", don't worry. Take your time to think what would be your best way to show a professional approach to how you would expect to help market your book. 

Think about it: by reading this blog and connecting with its readers and the blogs I link to, you're already starting. Hooray for your existing platform! Your train is ready to depart.

I'll be back early this coming week** with a post or two about using blogs and Twitter as simple and free ways to start and extend your platform. Before you know it, you'll be a veritable Grand Central Station.

** Edited to add: blogging one coming Monday 28th Sept; Twitter one Mon 5th Oct. Other musings in between. I'm actually going to be a away but I have scheduled posts for you. I couldn't let you down. There's also an emotional outpouring on 7th oct, unless I think better of it. If I'm hit by a bus in the meantime, it will have to go out as my epitaph.

40 comments:

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, this is a fabulous piece, which should be required reading for all writers, whether they're published or not.

Damn. I wish I'd written it.

Anne Lyle said...

Great post, Nicola, esp. for a UK writer like myself - we see so much advice online that's from the US, it's hard to get a perspective that's both up-to-the-minute and relevant.

Baby steps, that's the key IMHO. I started my writing blog over four years ago, when I was just starting to think really seriously about building a career as a writer (as opposed to scribbling away in private!). I probably don't have many readers, but my website is now the No 1 Google hit on my name. So, it's not yet a platform in the US sense, but it's the foundation of one. I reckon any serious writer should start with a basic strategy for establishing an online presence: registering an appropriate domain name, starting a blog, investigating social media, etc. It's not rocket science!

My plans for the coming year including starting a podcast with my writers' group to record short stories that we have audio rights to (we have some online and print sales already), attending more conventions and generally building a network in my genre. As you say, we will start following the US model sooner or later and I want to be ready when that happens :)

catdownunder said...

The ability to communicate is the single most important thing humans learn. We cannot make any connections at all without it - and it is connections which make us human. (Even if I purr occasionally Nicola!)

HelenMHunt said...

I don't think I'd have got nearly as far as I have with my writing if I hadn't set up my blog about three years ago. For me, so far, it's been about connecting with other writers and being able to learn from them.

Whether my online presence will ever be of any use to me in terms of promoting my work, I don't yet know; but without the links and relationships I've formed I probably would have given up writing by now in a fit of despondency.

Michael Malone said...

Some excellent points, Nicola. Oh you are a clever crabbit old bat. I was particularly drawn to the issue of us making human contact. My feeling is that if you build this "platform" while purely thinking of what you can get out of it, ultimately it will fail. whereas if you do it from a genuine wish to make contact with other people and build some form of relationship that it can't help but succeed. i like to feel that I have made some friends through my attempts at a platform and I hope that continues.

Nicola Morgan said...

Michael - I so agree about the importance of not doing it purely for what you get out of it. In fact, my post on blogging, which is scheduled for Monday, makes this point very specifically.

Jane - when you're as old as me, your brain may work better. Meanwhile, do try to keep up.

Anne - hello and welcome. Definitely sounds as though you're doing everything right. And enjoying it - which is really important! Helen, too.

Cat - for a cat, you have very good understanding of humans

j purdie said...

Quite an interesting piece. It's only natural that social networking plays a part in an author selling their work or as advertising; it's there and it's free.

Interesting article via Techdirt at the Washington Post on a similar subject:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/23/AR2009092304603.html?wprss=rss_technology
http://www.washingtonpost.com/
wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/23/
AR2009092304603.html?wprss=
rss_technology

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very good stuff. It's also why writers need to have a few novels under their belts, because they'll be busy promoting book one while also having to write more books.

If you have a platform/blog/network already going by the time the first book comes out, you'll be right in the swing of things.

I had a great time yesterday. The blogging and coffee and cake were wonderful.

Sulci Collective said...

The concept of writers needing to communicate to others, shouldn't be so laden with dread. After all, do we not communicate with unknown strangers through our books, ie the reader?

The advantage of online writers through blogs et al, is that we are all largely in the same boat, we follow similar creative processes, so it is less intimidating to network among your peers than it may be with others.

As for marketing, we may wish to look down our noses at it since we regard ourselves as 'artistes daaarling', but the current market conditions simply will not allow us to maintain this delusion any longer. If we don't want to push our books, how can we expect any one else to do it for us?

Everything I'm tackling from a marketing perspective I have picked up from fellow writers swapping ideas online. We are creative beings are we not? Therefore a creative approach to our work - work that we know better than any one else in the world - shouldn't be beyond our capacities now should it? Yeah, it probably wouldn't get you an entree into a marketing firm, but thank god for that eh?

writer of yore = wordsmith + networker
today's writer = wordsmith + networker + self-publicist

DanielB said...

Thing is, no amount of "platform" is going to help someone if their writing sucks big ones. And the fact that they have built up a "following" through self-publishing and podcasting can lead some poor souls into having a deluded sense of entitlement about being published. "These 1500 people all love me and love my writing - I MUST be due the interest of a major publishing house!"

But I totally agree that an author's willingness to maintain a website, a blog, and take advantage of every media opportunity *once* they have a book to promote is very important, even essential. I know I don't necessarily do as much as I could online, but at the moment I always say yes to every media feature, signing etc. offered. Even after 16 years and 10 books, I still can't afford to say no!

Nicola Morgan said...

DanielB - excellent point. Yes, i am rather foolishly assuming that I've got all my blog-readers trained to understand that it's all about the writing. You are quite right and we must never forget this. Thank you!

DanielB said...

I thought "platform" was all about the boots, anyway...

Sulci Collective said...

Yes, it's not just the odds that are stacked against us writers.

Robin said...

My blog is very new. I set it up more as a personal outlet than the first bricks of a platform, but I see that I must now work much harder to spread it wide. I look forward to your Monday blog. I was too late for the coffee and brain cake, but thanks for all the interesting blogs I've captured there.

Marion Gropen said...

I agree with everything you've written.

As for UK vs. US, the biggest difference is numbers. Here, we had more than 400,000 new books published last year alone. So, if you took a quite large bookstore (you know the kind that cover most of a block, and have two or three floors), you'd have enough to fill that store 8 times with those new books. And then you'd have to fill it a 9th and a 10th time with the older titles still selling (we call it backlist) and the imports.

There are 2,000,000 manuscripts floating around looking for a home each year here.

With those numbers, the market for any writing gets quite competitive.

Given the financial pressures on our publishers that drive down margins, the author must now be an even stronger partner in the publishing process than ever before.

An AE must convince his/her publishing committee that the writer will be able to carry that load, and help the marketing and sales department move books out of the store. If you already have begun to build a community that is interested in your work, there's a lot less risk.

Nicola Morgan said...

Marion, I've just read your really inreresting comment after writing a blog post to go out on Oct 1st. I'm now going to go and insert a suggestion that everyone goes to read your stats in this comment. Or, I might just quote you - that ok?

Robin - a warm welcome. Hope you find lots to inform and entertain. I'm in the process of writing several posts to go up in the next two weeks, when i'm away doing book talks.

Daniel - get with it: platform boots are so not this year. I am a pointy boot girl, remember?

Col Bury said...

Hi Nicola,
Great blog!
I was attracted by the title and I'm absolutely delighted to have found you (all!).
I've arrived via Jane's HPRW blog so it does show how the blogosphere works.
Platform-wise, simply put - I feel having one can only help show agents and publishers you're already 'out there,' and can only be a positive thing.
Really enjoyed this post and reading all the pertinent comments. Hence why I'm now following!
Regards,
Col

JackCooper said...

Do all published authors have to promoting? I realllllllllly suck at talking about my own things to other people, so doing read-outs in libraries would be painful. I'm just wondering what kind of promotion you are expected to do as a new, unknown published author (if any).

Melinda Szymanik said...

Platform - definitely -why wouldn't I want to help my little darlings anyway I could (although I do think you need to pick the form that you enjoy/works best for you) but what I really want to know is where you get all the time to do these brilliant posts and visit our blogs and read them and write comments and write books and attend festivals. What is your secret Nicola? I need some extra hours - have you been borrowing mine and not giving them back?

Nicola Morgan said...

Col - very good to see you here. Any friend of taht Smith woman's is a friend of mine. Hope you keep coming back!

JackCooper - I'm afriad it's virutally impossible to avoid it. BUT there are lots of different ways to do it and your publisher, when you get one, should ask you what you are happy about. Thing is, you may think you'd be bad at it but you could get used to it and even get to like it. I will do some posts later about this sort of thing, but meanwhile I'm focusing on blogs and twitter. That doesn't involve talking at all!

Melinda - sometimes, i wonder! Frankly, I don't sleep enough. My kids are away from home, which helps in that respect (not that I want them away ...). Meanwhile, at this moment my husband is hurrying me to shut the computer down so ... goodnight!

Melinda Szymanik said...

Hi Nicola

I'm just jealous of how much you achieve. Maybe I need some brain cake...

Nicola Morgan said...

Melinda - brain cake - you know the recipe is on my website on the page for "Know Your Brain"? I have also recently invented Brain Bars, my delicious and utterly healthy version of commercial cereal bars. Full of oats, fruit, seeds and nuts. Mmmmm. Will write the recipe soon!

David J Griffin said...

A timely post for me, Nicola, thank you.

I've recently read of a US agent's understanding of "platform" which is:

"...prior publishing credits and/or preparation for a career in writing through formal education in this field".

You're description is much more attainable for the majority of authors, I think.

I have wondered a few times: if one becomes published, how many copies of the novel would the publishing company set aside to send to book reviewers? Or would that be down to the author to do?

Nicola Morgan said...

David - I'll do a post about this quite soon (remind me in a couple of weeks if I haven't). The short answer is a) absolutely this is the publisher's job and cost and b) there's no short answer as to numbers, but i'll talk about that and surrounding issues

Nicola Slade said...

JackCooper: the way to do the talks is to Act the Part of the Author! I switch into Nicola the writer, the woman who has been invited to talk to a group and who, sometimes, is getting paid for it. That way I can do the talk, the chat, the signings - and it's all fun and you meet some lovely people. When I go out of the door I slink back into the car and bingo! the glass slipper is left behind and I'm Nicky the Wimp.

But as Nicola (that's the very succesful Nicola the Writer!) says: it's essential and you have to do it. It's like telling children they WILL enjoy school/swimming/the party (or was that last one only me?) - eventually you DO enjoy it. And as I said, you get to meet some lovely people. (And sometimes they buy the book; and the next one...)

Nicola Morgan said...

Note: blogging one coming Monday 28th Sept; Twitter one Mon 5th Oct. Other musings in between. I'm actually going to be a away but I have scheduled posts for you. I couldn't let you down. There's also an emotional outpouring on 7th oct, unless I think better of it. If I'm hit by a bus in the meantime, it will have to go out as my epitaph.

Nicola Morgan said...

Nicola (Slade) - I removed your accidentally repeated comment for you! And you should ALWAYS be paid to talk about your books - well, nearly always; well, when you can ... No, you must insist.

Thanks for the "very successful" comment. You should see my income... Hmm. You're not exactly unsuccessful yourself!

Re doing talks and enjoying it - it definitely gets easier. I think that worrying about it at first is important, because you're likely to over-prepare, and over-preparing is so much better than under-preparing. I think even a really experienced speaker should look as though they prepared. I can't stand it when some cocky git starts the talk by saying, "Well, on my way here this evening I was just wondering what I was going to talk about ..." There's being laidback and there's being horizontal.

Jenny Juniper said...

Hi, Nicola and all your followers! I feel apprehensive about adding even a few lines to these excellent blogs because all this is new to me - but a platform that is for sharing is what I need. I suppose thing platform shoes: they gave the wearer a head and shoulders start... I'm still trying hard to develop my web site and not be daunted by technology, so I found all these comments encouraging. Thank you.

behlerblog said...

David J. Griffin said:
how many copies of the novel would the publishing company set aside to send to book reviewers? Or would that be down to the author to do?

David, any trade publisher - small fry like me, or large like Random House - sends out about 100 - 200 ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) to reviewers, bookstore managers, and media.

Any publisher over here in the US who says the author must do this is more than likely a Print On Demand company. ARCs are an upfront expense that PODs can't risk because trade magazines won't review them.

Juliet Boyd said...

Putting yourself out there on the web is scary, especially when you're just starting out and you don't have the expertise behind you. But, you know what, most people out there are very kind and you will start to make friends/contacts and as long as you remember it's not all about you, you won't go far wrong.

Kate said...

Great post - there are some really good points here. Thanks for sharing

Kate x

Fiona Robyn said...

Hear hear. Enjoyed your article in The Author too, thanks.

I try to only do 'marketing activities' that I enjoy so much I'd do them anyway - writing about my life as a writer at Planting Words, organising a 'Blogsplash' to launch my next novel Thaw, making friends with people on Goodreads and Facebook...

It is difficult to prove that any of this helps my career in a broader sense (past the hundred odd books I KNOW I've sold as a result over this activity the years) but I see it a big like gigging - travelling the country and playing to the best of your ability, even if it's to a man and his dog.

Thanks and looking forward to the emotional outpouring ;)

Sulci Collective said...

Writing in isolation sat at home renders each of us like an only child. We have two responses, to keep our own company or to reach out to a wider circle of people.

The former is very, very lonely. The latter is the first step on the way to marketing.

David J Griffin said...

A belated thank you to Nicola and behlerblog for the answer to my question concerning publishers and book reviewers.

:)

AZCASoul said...

Nicola, as an aspiring writer, I'm so grateful to have found your blog and the wonderful information that you're producing. I agree with Anne Lyle and her belief of baby steps because at times I wonder if I could in any way provide useful content that anyone could possibly dream of reading, but I kid myself. Thank and I'll keep reading.

Nicola Morgan said...

jenny - no need to be apprehensive! We're all really friendly (unless you say something really rude or aggressive...).

Thanks, Sulci, Fiona, Kate, Juliet and others, for your comments. I do think it's important to do the things we feel comfortable with. Pressure is fine and we should pressure ourselves a bit, but only so far. The writing must come first

alexander... said...

Once again, wise words! However, I do have to say that most UK agents remain resolutely analogue, don't accept submissions or queries by email and don't have any significant web presence or, indeed,web presence at all.

I tend to think that no amount of platforms will impress someone who won't even use email!!!

GutsyWriter said...

I live in California and know Lynn Price who mentioned your blog in her post today. I am surprised to learn that aspiring authors in the UK are not expected to demonstrate their "platform" to the same extent as in the US. Fortunately, I enjoy networking and blogging so for me the problem is finding the right balance between blogging and revising my memoir. Social networking can take over if you get caught up in the "popularity contest." I am so glad I found your blog via the also amazing blog of Lynn Price.

GutsyWriter said...

I live in California and know Lynn Price who mentioned your blog in her post today. I am surprised to learn that aspiring authors in the UK are not expected to demonstrate their "platform" to the same extent as in the US. Fortunately, I enjoy networking and blogging so for me the problem is finding the right balance between blogging and revising my memoir. Social networking can take over if you get caught up in the "popularity contest." I am so glad I found your blog via the also amazing blog of Lynn Price.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Gutsywriter - nice to meet you over here! To be honest, even since I wrote that post things have changed quite a bit. However, it's still the case that the writing is regarded as being so much mor important (for fiction) that platform falls into a poor second place - but is catching up! It's regarded as a bonus but not essential. For children's writers it's more important, though