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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.