There is a lot of nonsense about “platform” floating around. You hear about it from motivational speakers at writers conferences, and you read about it in “tip” pieces in magazines and blogs directed at writers. A lot of people charge hefty consulting fees to tell you how to “create your own platform”.
There is really nothing wrong with this advice. Most of these tips are true and useful. Yes. You might find it helpful to set up a blog and, if you have a book published, you will need to have a website. You should mine the social media. Facebook is de rigeur. Some people swear by Twitter; although when I set up my Twitter account, I only seemed to get invitations from prostitutes.
The problem is that most of this advice is motivational, inspired by the gospel of “positive thinking”, and, not to make too fine a point, deceptive. The subtext of a lot of this is that if you follow a few simple tips, you can develop a platform that will be the key to getting your book published. This is not true. Book publishers have set a very high bar for platform. A robust platform is not just a blog, a website, and a twitter account, even if your friends and followers are legion.
A syndicated New York Times columnist has an impressive platform. A holder of a chaired professorship at Harvard has an impressive platform, but only if she is writing in her specialized field and only if the subject is going to interest a wide non-academic audience. Unlike the Harvard professor, a Nobel laureate has an impressive platform and can pretty much pontificate about any old nonsense that suits his fancy. A Pulitzer Prize winner has an impressive platform, but he also needs a book idea that a publisher thinks will make money. I’ve gotten rejections from publishers for books by Pulitzer Prize winners.
A popular blog or website with a lot of hits may or may not be an impressive platform. I had a client whose website got 75,000 views per day. But I couldn’t get a book contract for him. And no matter how popular your blog is, book publishers do not want to recycle your blog posts. How can they justify charging money for material that is being given away for free?
A television or media personality has an impressive platform. But if the personality is regional, that reduces the value of their platform. Publishers are wary of regional titles. However national media celebrities, especially those with a certain kind of reputation, especially those whose tawdry personal lives you read about while checking out your groceries, especially those who have no reason for being famous other than the fact that they are famous — now that is the platinum standard for platform. If I were the agent for the Sisters Kardashian, I’d be on easy street. I could afford a Rolex watch. I might even be able to buy a diamond pinky ring.
As readers of this blog know, I do not believe in the power of positive thinking. I believe in the power of realism and transparency. And in that spirit, I want to say that positive thinking and bullet points in Writers Digest are not going to help you build a platform by itself. Real platform arises from your work in the real world. And if that work is likely to be of interest to a wide audience, then it will also be of interest to a book publisher or literary agent.
Now before you decide to give up writing and direct your future toward sacking groceries at Safeway, you need to know that a weak platform is not an absolute impediment to getting your book published. But not having one is a significant hurdle that must be overcome.
Platform is not especially important if you are writing debut literary fiction. Most agents will make the decision to represent you based on the quaint notion that your book is great writing. Still, platform plays a part. As an agent, when I’m going through the queries for fiction manuscripts, I will pay more attention to authors who have previously been published in prestigious literary magazines or have won literary awards. Being a Stegner fellow doesn’t hurt either. Having an agent is a kind of platform. At least the literary editor will consider your manuscript. Maybe read the first 5 or 10 pages. But truthfully most agented manuscripts for debut novels never get a book contract.
Having a previously published novel is a great platform, but only if that novel sold well. If your last novel bombed, it is worse than having no track record at all. I have heard that some agents have submitted second novels under a nom de plume in order to overcome this challenge.
I speak to a lot of writers who are composing memoirs, often about overcoming a personal or family crisis. These stories are inherently dramatic but hard to get published. You do see memoirs by unknown writers occasionally showing up in a publisher’s catalogue. Usually the memoir is tied to a big news story. A memoir by one of the Chilean miners, for instance. Otherwise the memoir is going to have to be a literary tour de force. I mean the caliber of J. D. Salinger or Joan Didion. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells comes to mind. Then, of course, there is Eat, Pray, Love. It is neither a celebrity book, a news story, nor is it a literary masterpiece. Oh well. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
All this being said, I want to tell you that I have gotten book contracts by authors without platform. Yes. Memoirs even. Todd Farley, the author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry published by Berrett-Kohler, had no platform. I pulled his query out of the slush pile. He had written the book while living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine. He told an amazing story with sidesplitting humor about his hapless career grading standardized tests. The week of publication, Todd wrote the guest op-ed piece for The New York Times, a spot usually reserved for people with platform.
I agented Peter Rudiak-Gould’s memoir, Surviving Paradise: One Year in a Disappearing Island published by Union Square Press. It was another unsolicited query. Peter was a 24 year old graduate student at Oxford. His book tells the story of the year he spent teaching on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands. His writing, his style was stunning. The book was acquired simply because of its inherent quality. Certainly not because of his platform.
I participate in a lot of agent panels. Aspiring authors usually ask us what are our tips for effective pitches or query letters. I usually say that the best way to develop a pitch is to have a good project to pitch. Similarly, and not to be too Zen about this, the best way to develop a platform is to have a good platform to develop.