I have a great non-fiction book idea. I ran it by an agent I'm acquainted with, and she agreed that it could work, however, she told me that it would be a very hard sell because I don't have a platform. Doesn't the quality of the idea or the quality of the book matter? Can you explain what exactly a platform is, and how I go about getting one?
When aspiring writers hear the word "platform," their first impulse might be to jump off of one, because having a platform can indeed make or break you. That said, there's good and bad news to come in answering this question, so let's break it down point by point.
1) What is a platform? A platform is really a synonym for your visibility, your marketability, you contacts, connections and how many people (other than your extended family and high school alumni committee) know who you are. Dr. Phil, for example, has an enormous platform. Your local shrink, however, does not. Even though they technically do the same job.
2) Why do platforms matter? Because your platform helps your publisher sell books. Period. The good news (remember, I said that there was some) is that platforms matter less for fiction than for non-fiction. Publishing houses are willing to take on a first-time novelist with no name for himself, but are less willing to take on your aforementioned local shrink. Why? I'd imagine because when it comes to debut authors, most readers don't expect to have heard of him, but if they're looking for advice on how to save their marriage, they'd like to know that these words of wisdom are actually coming from someone whom they trust. Blame Oprah.
That said, there's no doubt that having a wide-spread platform can help you when it comes to fiction. My advance was much larger than most debut novelists, in part because the editors who bid on my book knew come publication time, I'd be putting in calls (code for: begging, crying and offering up my second born) to all of my magazine editors and various contacts, asking them for a plug or a review. And you can be damn sure that I will indeed be doing so. But did my platform help sell my book? I don't think so. I think it just helped pad the advance. But without a platform in non-fiction, you're much less likely to sell the book at all.
3) What can I do to build a platform?
Ah, the million dollar question. First off, it goes without saying that you need a website. I write off potential interviewees all the time when I can't find them on the web. And regardless of the field you're in, I'd take steps to set you apart from your peers. If you're a child psychologist, look into becoming an APA spokesperson (or whatever organization you're affiliated with); if you're a nutritionist, try to nab a media position with the ADA, etc. Magazine writers frequently tap into organizations such as these when they're looking for expert interviews. And the more widely quoted you are, the bigger your platform. Another excellent tactic is to register at Profnet, which is sort-of the go-to place for magazine writers to find experts for stories. If I'm working on an article on, say, breast-feeding and don't have an M.D. in mind, I might do a search on Profnet to land the perfect source.
Of course, if you can afford it, hiring a PR company might be a good route. If you can't, you're not dead in the water. A writer friend of mine (and a mother of two), Jen Singer, had a wonderful ms called, 14 Hours 'Til Bedtime, that she relentlessly shopped around. She finally landed an agent, and when they sent out the ms, editors loved it, but guess what...she didn't have a platform, so the offers didn't exactly explode in their laps. But she was determined to not only sell the book, but to position herself as a parenting expert. So she launched a website, mommasaid.net, told everyone she knew about it, signed up for Profnet, sent press notices to editors and writers, etc, etc, etc. In other words, it wasn't easy, but she's now a well-known parenting expert who is often quoted in top mags and has even appeared on the morning shows. In fact, she just signed on to be a spokesperson for Similac and has been a spokesperson for Huggies for the past two years.
Here are a few words of advice, straight from the horse's (or Jen's) mouth:
"Building a platform is like building a house: You want to use the best materials possible. I’m careful about which Profnet leads I answer, and where I provide content, because I don’t want to become overexposed. Don’t jump on every “publicity opportunity” that comes your way, and don’t tie up your content or yourself with exclusive contracts unless it’s truly worth your while. Ignore people who wonder why you’re spending so much time on something (like a web site) that might have no immediate and direct income. It takes time to build a platform, but it pays off in the long run if you do it right – and if you stick with it, no matter what other people say."
Quite clearly, Jen built her platform from the ground up...so it can be done. And her tenacity will definitely pay off for her next book: NO ONE will blink when her agent pitches it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she sells it at auction. But building a platform requires dedication and a lot of energy. If you're willing to do it and you truly believe in your book's topic (and don't just want to write it to say that you've published a book), then definitely go for it.
Anyone out there working on their platform right now? How are you going about it?