Before we get to his article, I wanted to make a quick announcement. Chapter 9 of the award winning action/adventure novel that NY Times best selling author, Clive Cussler, calls a "first rate thriller brimming with intrigue and adventure" has just been released. Each week, I release a new chapter in the serial release. You can start at Chapter 1 if you have not started the book yet or you can visit the online Table of Contents to pick up where you left off. This week, I added the serial release of The Samson Effect to the BookBuzzr widget. Just scroll to the bottom a any chapter post to read the book online in this unique book-like format.
Now, on to Robert's post for today.
Developing a Platform For Nonfiction Writers
By Robert Rummel-Hudson
I can't tell you how many times I've heard it said. In the world of nonfiction writing, platform is everything.
And yet, I'm not entirely sure that we as writers have a very clear understanding of what it means to actually have a platform. When an editor is being pitched a nonfiction proposal, no matter how intriguing the ideas or how promising the writer's voice, the first question they ask is the same: does the author have a good platform? That question is often a deal breaker, too. If your proposal doesn't have a compelling platform, they're on to the next manuscript or proposal on the stack. And most editors have a very tall stack to go through, too. The decision to consider or discard a property is made very quickly, and with a finality that can send new writers straight to their favorite local pub.
So it's crucial to understand it, this all-important idea of platform. And yet, its meaning can be hard to nail down. Put simply, however, platform can be understood best by looking at it almost literally. If your book is the thing that must make itself heard in the world, what is the platform on which it stands to be noticed, and then to be taken seriously?
I don't know if anyone else thinks of it this way, but I see platform as existing on two planes: the internal and the external.
The internal is you, quite simply put. What is it in your head or in your past that makes you the ideal person to write this book? If a publisher reads your proposal and decides that sure, they're interested in producing a book about the secret lives of squirrel monkeys, then your foot is in the door. But their next question is going to be "Why you? What makes you the go-to guy on squirrel monkeys?" Are you a scientist who has studied them for years, hidden in a blind high up in the treetops? Do you raise squirrel monkeys in your garage? Were you abandoned in the jungle and raised by a kindly family of squirrel monkeys? (If you were, and you can prove it, I'd predict a book deal coming your way.) If you're just a person who digs squirrel monkeys, then your platform needs some work.
Beyond that aspect of platform, however, there's more than just identifying your right to be the right author for the job. When other aficionados of squirrel monkeys sit around and talk their simian shop talk, are you someone they quote to back up their lofty arguments? When someone Googles "squirrel monkey", does your name pop up on the first page, after Wikipedia and the zoo exhibits but before the weird yet probably inevitable monkey porn?
Here's where the external comes in. It's possible that you may have a story so compelling that the twentysomething publicist assigned by the publishing house to your book (they always seem to be twentysomethings) can put out a press release and the media will be drawn to you like moths to a light. There are certainly plenty of nonfiction books that have that kind of instant platform based on their subject matter. For the rest of us, however, our books have a much better chance of being picked up by a publisher if we have a foothold in the public arena already in place. You might have had a website called RaisedBySquirrelMonkeys.com (incredibly, the domain seems to be available) that receives regular traffic that can be measured and cited to a potential editor. Even better, that website might have a discussion forum attached to it so that squirrel monkeys nerds from all over can trade tips and argue about monkey food and even start little squirrel monkey flame wars. Perhaps you have a show on cable access or college radio in a significant metropolitan area. Maybe you write a regular column in Squirrel Monkey Monthly. Any of these are good examples of what I think of as external elements of platform.
(It's worth noting, however, that while at one time, and not that long ago, a web presence was considered a happy bonus to a publisher, these days it's pretty much a requirement for a nonfiction author. In my opinion, before you commit a word to paper, you should establish a solid presence online.)
There's another element to platform that is harder to define, and it will be your job to do the research to figure it out. Even with all the pieces of internal and external platform in place, your proposal won't be complete until you figure out exactly where your book fits in the big picture. In most cases, you will be writing a book that has, in some way, been written before. Squirrel monkeys aren't new to the world. Someone's written about them before. Publishers want to know how those other books have been received by the reading public, and they're not going to stop their busy work to do that research themselves. That's your job in your proposal.
At the same time, you have to bring something new to the topic, something that is going to convince old school squirrel monkey fans and uninitiated but curious potential readers alike to buy your book. It's a tricky line to walk, demonstrating that there is enough interest in your subject to justify publication, and at the same time showing that you bring a fresh approach or new information to the field.
In my case, my internal platform wasn't one of the "expert", exactly. My memoir told the story of raising a little girl with a rare brain malformation that robbed her of speech. I'm not a doctor or a speech pathologist, but as her parent, my perspective on my daughter's story was entirely unique. It was even more original because among the stories written by parents of children with disabilities, only a small (but growing) number of them are by fathers. My external platform was boosted by the fact that I had been writing online since before my daughter was born, and her story had gained a large and quantifiable following online. When it came time to purchase an electronic speech device for her, I put together a fundraising page on my website to help defray some of the costs. The response was overwhelming -- we raised just over ten thousand dollars in five weeks -- and illustrated not just that people are kind and generous, but also that they are emotionally invested enough in her story to vote with their wallets. It was enough of a platform to convince St. Martin's Press that if this core audience was already in place, there was tangible growth potential for a book.
Once your platform is developed and you've achieved your goal of publication, you can develop that platform further. In the year and a half since my book came out, I've spoken at a number of universities and disability conferences. I'm invited to speak to speech pathologists and teachers and parents because I have a story to tell, but there are a great many parents with similar stories. The difference for me is that I've told that story. It exists now, as a published work. The book itself has now become platform.
For a nonfiction writer, developing your platform is the single most important step you can make in reaching publication, and towards successfully marketing your work once it's out in the marketplace, competing with all those other books with their own platforms. Getting there is a tremendous amount of work, but just imagine how proud your foster monkey parents will be when you get there.