So today, I am super-duper excited because I have a guest here whom I think will be very, very helpful for many of you out there. We've discussed platform on the blog before - namely, how critical developing a platform is BEFORE you try to land your book deal, and while I've tried to offer examples and ways that you can build this platform, I'm certainly not the world's top authority. But I might just have the world's top authority here today to answer a few questions! Yay!
Christina Katz is an author pal of mine (one of those incredibly supportive, collaborative types whom I adore!), and her new book is called, Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. I thought that she sounded like the *perfect* expert for Ask Allison readers, so below, here are some questions that I posed and that she took the time to answer.
1) How crucial is platform these days? If you don't have a platform, are you much less likely to land a book deal?
I’d say a platform is more crucial than ever before. A platform is a promise, which says you will not only create something to sell (a book), but also promote it to the specific readers who will want to purchase it. Not very long ago, publishers were overproducing books without sufficient publicity for the majority of them, so landing a book deal hinged more on a strong book concept at the “right” time by the “right” writer. To a certain extent, acquiring editors were pressured to acquire enough books to be a player in the over-production game and “A list” authors got the lion’s share of the publicity dollars. Today, things are different. Yes, editors are still acquiring books. But we are all more aware that precious resources —trees, gas, money, etc. — are used to produce them. The books currently making the cut are going to get acquired by houses operating with smaller staffs and reduced budgets, thanks to the economy. Publishers are going to necessarily produce fewer books, which means more competition for author status among writers. What it all boils down to is that a writer can have a great book idea at the perfect time and be the absolute best person to write that book…and still not land the deal if he or she does not have the platform that is going to fulfill the promise to sell the book. A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. Agents and editors have known this for years and have been looking for platform-strong writers and getting them book deals. If you want to land the book deal, today, then you need to be a platform-strong writer.
2) Are there any types of writers who don’t need a platform?
Yes. There are dozens of reasons to write but only writers who want to establish themselves as professional writers, who aspire to publish a book or a self-published book need to concern themselves with platform development. If you are writing for other reasons, such as to heal, to connect with friends and family, or just for pleasure, then probably you don’t need a platform. There’s no reason why those writers should feel pressured to have a platform. Doing so might hinder rather than help.
3) Basic (and general, but important) question: can you give three specific tips to help writers launch their platform?
A. Clarify the expertise you have to offer. If you don’t know what your expertise is, then mulling it over could take some time. And that’s okay. Consult experts you respect. Do some self-refection. Get out and connect with others like you through associations or conferences. Write some articles on things you know how to do. This is how Cindy Hudson discovered how much she knew about mother-daughter book clubs [more on: http://getknownbeforethebookdeal.com/]. Today, she has a book deal with Seal Press. Don’t be afraid to take time for platform development before you start spending a lot of time online…especially if you already are online but are not getting any closer to accomplishing your professional writing goals. When it comes to clarifying your expertise, taking a step back and looking within is a very good strategy.
B. Carve out a distinct niche among others who are offering similar expertise. How are you different? Inquiring minds want to know. You’ll have to communicate who you are and what you do quickly. Attention spans are getting shorter, so writing down what you do concisely is critical. Platform isn’t the credentials or your resume; it’s what you currently do. It’s current, constantly evolving, and updated on an ongoing basis. Allison, your blog is a perfect example. (AWS: Thank you!) As a part of your platform, your blog is a place where you authentically share what you are learning and have learned about publishing to assist other writers. Your service garners loyalty and that loyalty is priceless, both to those you serve and to you. Any niche should always be a win-win proposition like this.
C. Identify and respond to your audience. If you are vague about your audience, the whole writing process takes longer and typically requires more rewriting. This applies to books, blogs and everything else. But when you identify your specific audience and begin speaking to them directly, the conversation can spark all kinds of wonderful ideas, connections and opportunities. In less than one year, look what Jenny Kales has been able to accomplish in her blog, Nut-free Mom [http://nut-freemom.blogspot.com/]. Small concrete steps build over time and create career momentum.
4) What about blogging? Everyone seems to do it these days, but is it essential? What can you do to make your blog stand out?
Blogging can be tricky and not just for folks who are unfamiliar with the conventions. For example, blogging can be a challenge for veterans who need to keep things fresh and keep themselves engaged while moving forward into new territory. On one hand, blogging is great and there are many good reasons to blog: to build and maintain your identity online, to be a part of an extended community of bloggers, to explore what it’s like to write and have your writing responded to online, to share about your writing process, to give and receive support, and to become better known. On the other hand, blogging can be a huge time suck from other types of writing you might have to neglect in order to blog. So if you are wondering, “How can I keep up a blog and take care of my four kids and my aging parents and my three pets and meet my deadlines…and…and…?" Then maybe don’t blog right now. Maybe reading blogs for twenty minutes a day and simply learning about blogging until you have a plan, makes sense. For folks who consider blogging a part of their professional writer’s platform, a blog can work wonders. I’ve noticed by studying blog-to-book-deal successes that the phenomenon really has more to do with the person (or people) behind the blog, the quality of writing being posted in the blog, and the degree of professionalism of the writer, than it does with the technology alone or even the amount of time the writer devotes to blogging. So, if you want to make your blog stand out, consider the role it can play as a handy, instant publishing tool to serve your audience. And don’t be afraid to take a creative approach and stand out in the crowd, even as you become a member of a huge online movement.
5) Times are tight, and people don't necessarily want to shell out money right now. Do you have any tips that are also cost-friendly? (Besides buying your book!)
Well, certainly buying my book is the best economic choice for the value that I can think of (wink). But, seriously, platform development doesn’t have to break the bank. Yes, if you don’t take a long-term, incremental approach to platform development, and then suddenly, you have to have a platform and you needed it yesterday…then sure, there are going to be expenses involved. But that’s because in your haste, you are squeezing the most important player out of the game—and that’s you, the writer. So my advice is don’t shell out money at the get-go, educate yourself first and take small steps, so you won’t feel the need to slap together a platform quickly to impress others. I suggest a more long-term approach and working slowly and steadily in order to spend less and save more in the long run. This means, while you are working on your novel, you should be at least planning your platform. And if you want to write nonfiction, I suggest platform development first and book proposal development second. Platform development will help you write a stronger and more impressive proposal. The numbers of people you influence will help close the deal.
6) Let's say you do land that book deal. How involved should an author be (very!) in the promotion process? Do you recommend hiring an outside PR person or should the author be prepared to do a lot of the work him/herself? And if so, what sort of work?
Don’t try to go it alone. Having a team is helpful and important. So not only should the author be involved in the promotion process, the author should be involved way before the promotion process. There are many key people inside a publishing company to introduce yourself to and stay in touch with on an ongoing basis including, but not limited to, your acquisitions editor, your book editor, your publisher’s event planner, your book’s publicity person (if you are lucky enough to get one), sales folks (ask for an introduction) and anyone else within the company your editor thinks you should meet. If you are easily overwhelmed by meeting lots of new people, ask your editor who you should talk to early in the process and then schedule introductions over time. If you can afford a PR person, that’s great. They can assist you with publicizing the book before and after its release, which can be a huge help during an extremely busy time (at least you should be busy—very busy, right Allison?). Be prepared to do research and talk to lots of authors about who they recommend before you approach a several to discuss your needs. On the other hand, there are ample books available that cover how to handle your book’s release in detail (some with more suggestions than are humanly possible). Some favorites I flagged in Get Known include Plug Your Book! By Steve Weber, Self-promotion for the Creative Person by Lee Silber, Publicize Your Book! by Jacqueline Deval, and two by Penny Sansevieri: From Book to Bestseller and Red Hot Internet Publicity. If you can’t afford to hire someone, put together a brainstorming group with your fellow first-time authors and share resources. This can exponentially increase your success.