Posts Tagged ‘surviving paradise’

Platform is More Than Just a Website and a Blog

July 29, 2011

Now That's Platform!

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.

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Peter Rudiak-Gould on Surviving Paradise

December 10, 2009

Sometimes I love this job and feel like I’m really doing something great for the world. Today I’m going to interview Peter Rudiak-Gould, author  of of Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island published in November  by Union Square Press.  When I was just getting started as an agent, I got a call from a writer who had a friend who had a son who had a manuscript. My friend was sort of wondering if I might take a little of my valuable time to, maybe take a little peek, just to see if it was, you know, any good. So being a newbie, I figured there was always a chance. And I liked the travel narrative genre. The author, Peter Rudiak-Gould was a 25 year old graduate student in anthropology at Oxford.

Peter sent me his manuscript. By the time I was 30 pages into it, I realized that it was a masterpiece. It took awhile to get a publishing contract.. But when people started looking at it, there was a lot of excitement. The biggest and most prestigious imprints all seemed interested. Viking, Random House, Harper. They started asking me if I was going to hold an auction. (“Jesus, how the hell do you conduct and auction?”. –”We may. But we would certainly entertain a preemptive offer.”) Well they all bowed out at the last minute. Another victim of the cult of “platform” in commercial publishing. Fortunately Union Square Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, recognized what this book was. And the rest is history.

 Andy: Peter, in my humble opinion, your book is a masterpiece of the travel narrative genre. I don’t think Paul Theroux could have done better. Correction. He couldn’t have done as well. Do you have any advice for others who write in this genre?

 Peter: You are too kind. All I can do is describe a few of my preferences in travel writing (and the pet peeves that go along with them).

1) Guard against sensory overload. I find long lists of exotic sights, sounds, and smells to be exotically boring. I’m not particularly interested that the morning air in Sao Paulo smelled like armadillo fruit and chestnuts, or that there were distant sounds of yak bells as you spoke to the Tibetan lama. I want to know how it felt to be there. I want to know how the experience tested you. I want to learn about what the local people are proud of, and what they worry about. I want to know about how your expectations were fulfilled or destroyed. That is the meat of travel writing. The sights, sounds, and smells are just a garnish.

2) It is no longer very subversive or original to describe the soullessness of Western society as compared to the spiritual harmony of whoever you’re visiting. Maybe our society is corrupt and degenerate, but it’s been said so many times now that it’s not very interesting to read it any more. If you admire the people, I want to read about it – but it will be more touching, and more convincing, if you admire them as real people and not as the convenient opposites of everything that is awful about us.

Andy: How did the Marshall Islands become your writing muse?

Peter: I think good stories often come from an experience which is, in some way, unresolved, unfulfilled, or mysterious. If there is nothing still nagging you about the experience, why go to all the trouble of writing a book about it? My time on Ujae shattered all my expectations. The question is why. The answer is the book. Paul Theroux wrote: It was my good fortune to be wrong: being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.”

I find the country intriguing because of its paradoxes. It’s a tiny inconsequential country on which Cold War politics hinged. It’s a cheerful country on which an H-bomb was once dropped. It’s a country of people who constantly surprise you with what they know about your world. (Our hearts were beating fast during Obama’s election”), and what they don’t know (“So, in America, people steal children?”). It’s a place that confounds any easy distinction between old and new – it’s not a mix of the two (as travel brochures love to say about, well, everywhoere), it’s that it destroys the distinction between the two.

 Andy: Can you explain the title? Who is surviving paradise?

Peter: My brother came up with it. I liked it because it brings together the two main themes of the book: my experience, and that of the Marshallese people. We were both surviving paradise. For me it was a year of getting by in a place that was more interesting than idyllic. For them it was millennia of scraping by in a place which is more beautiful than hospitable. And now there is a third meaning, since global warming means that this paradise may no longer be survivable. I once thought of calling the book “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day”, which is honest-to-God written on the wall of the office for Marshallese nuclear refugees.

Andy: What was the hardest part of writing Surviving Paradise?

Peter:Organization. I think of writing as a giant exercise in organization which is best suited for those with a neurotic distaste for chaos and clutter.  I have to tell a story while simultaneously inserting various short essays about life in the Marshall Islands.  Certain scenes can’t happen until certain essays have appeared, but the essay can’t be inserted unless it fits into the narrative at that point. All of these cross-cutting considerations make the task unspeakably tedious, but getting it right is hugely satisfying. If I’ve done my job right, then the reader won’t notice any of this.

Also, the beginning of the book was incredibly difficult ot write. I think I went through six rewrites of the prologue (not just six revisions, but six entirely different concepts for what the prologue would be) before I found one that I was vaguely satisfied with. The first two or three were so bad tht I won’t even tell you what they were.

Andy: How have you found your first foray into publishing?

Peter: You remember when we met another writer for coffee, just a few weeks before my pub date. We were talking about publication, and he said, “Get ready for the biggest disappointment of your life. This–sitting around, yacking it up about the book–this might be as good as it gets.” And I told him, “If this is as good as it gets, I’m not disappointed.” I never thought I’d be published, so even the worst publication experience will exceed my expectations. Even a poorly selling book reaches thousands of people, which is amazing when you think about it. Also, pretty soon (any day now), I’m sure I’ll be able to buy fast, shiny cars.