Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)

PERSPECTIVES

CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM

8 fundamental rules for author visibility.

by Chuck Sambuchino

The chatter about the importance of a writer platform builds each year. Having an effective platform has never been more important than right now. With so many books available and few publicists left to help promote, the burden now lies upon the author to make sure copies of their book fly off bookshelves. In other words, the pressure is on for writers to act as their own publicist and chief marketer, and very few can do this successfully.

Know that if you’re writing nonfiction, a damn good idea won’t cut it. You need to prove that people will buy your book by showing a comprehensive ability to market yourself through different channels such as social networking sites and traditional media. If you can’t do that, a publisher won’t even consider your idea.

WHAT IS PLATFORM?

Platform, simply put, is your visibility as an author. In other words, platform is your personal ability to sell books right this instant. Better yet, I’ve always thought of platform like this: When you speak, who listens? In other words, when you have a something to say, what legitimate channels exist for you to release your message to audiences who will consider buying your books/services?

Platform will be your key to finding success as an author, especially if you’re writing nonfiction. Breaking the definition down, realize that platform is your personal ability to sell books through:

1.    Who you are

2.    Personal and professional connections you have

3.    Any media outlets (including personal blogs and social networks) that you can utilize to sell books

In my opinion, the following are the most frequent building blocks of a platform:

1.    A blog of impressive size

2.    A newsletter of impressive size

3.    Article/column writing (or correspondent involvement) for the media—preferably for larger publications, radio, and TV shows

4.    Contributions to successful websites, blogs and periodicals helmed by others

5.    A track record of strong past book sales that ensures past readers will buy your future titles

6.    Networking, and your ability to meet power players in your community and subject area

7.    Public speaking appearances—especially national ones; the bigger the better

8.    An impressive social media presence (such as on Twitter or Facebook)

9.    Membership in organizations that support the successes of their own

10.Recurring media appearances and interviews—in print, on the radio, on TV, or online

11.Personal contacts (organizational, media, celebrity, relatives) who can help you market at no cost to yourself, whether through blurbs, promotion or other means.

Not all of these methods will be of interest/relevance to you. As you learn more about to how to find success in each one, some will jump out at you as practical and feasible, while others will not. And to learn what constitutes “impressive size” in a platform plank, check out this article: tinyurl.com/8d2hnrj.

“PLATFORM” VS. “PUBLICITY”

Platform and publicity are interconnected yet very different. Platform is what you do before a book comes out to make sure that when it hits shelves, it doesn’t stay there long. Publicity is an active effort to acquire media attention for a book that already exists. In other words, platform falls upon the author, whereas (hopefully) publicity will be handled by a publicist, either in-house or contracted for money.

Do something right now: Go to Amazon.com and find a book for sale that promises to teach you how to sell more books. Look at the comparable titles below it and start scrolling left to right using the arrows. (Do it now. I’ll wait.) Tons of them, aren’t there? It’s because so many authors are looking for any way possible to promote their work, especially the many self-published writers out there. They’ve got a book out—and now they realize copies aren’t selling. Apparently having your work online to buy at places like Amazon isn’t enough to have success as a writer. That’s why we must take the reins on our own platform and marketing.

As a last thought, perhaps consider it like this: Publicity is about asking and wanting: gimme gimme gimme. Platform is about giving first, then receiving because of what you’ve given and the goodwill it’s earned you.

THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF PLATFORM

1. It is in giving that we receive.

In my experience, this concept—it is in giving that we receive—is the fundamental rule of platform. Building a platform means that people follow your updates, listen to your words, respect and trust you, and, yes, will consider buying whatever it is you’re selling. But they will only do that if they like you—and the way you get readers to like you is by legitimately helping them. Answer their questions. Give them stuff for free. Share sources of good, helpful information. Make them laugh and smile. Inform them and make their lives easier and/or better. Do what they cannot: cull together information or entertainment of value. Access people and places they want to learn more about. Help them achieve their goals. Enrich their lives. After they have seen the value you provide, they will want to stay in contact with you for more information. They begin to like you, and become a follower. And the more followers you have, the bigger your platform becomes.

2. You don’t have to go it alone.

Creating a large and effective platform from scratch is, to say the least, a daunting task. But you don’t have to swim out in the ocean alone; you can—and are encouraged to—work with others. There are many opportunities to latch on to bigger publications and groups in getting your words out. And when your own platform outlets—such as a blog—get large enough, they will be a popular source for others seeking to contribute guest content. You will find yourself constantly teaming with others on your way up, and even after you’ve found some success.

3. Platform is what you are able to do, not what you are willing to do.

I review nonfiction book proposals for writers, and in each of these proposals there is a marketing section. Whenever I start to read a marketing section and see bullet points such as “I am happy to go on a book tour” or “I believe that Fox News and MSNBC will be interested in this book because it is controversial,” then I stop reading—because the proposal has a big problem. Understand this immediately: Your platform is not pie-in-the-sky thinking. It is not what you hope will happen or maybe could possibly hopefully happen sometime if you’re lucky and all the stars align when your publicist works really hard. It’s also not what you are willing to do, such as “be interviewed by the media” or “sign books at trade events.” (Everyone is willing to do these things, so by mentioning them, you are making no case for your book because you’re demonstrating no value.) The true distinction for writer platform is that it must be absolutely what you can make happen right now.

4. You can only learn so much about writer platform by instruction, which is why you should study what others do well and learn by example.

I don’t know about you, but, personally, I learn from watching and doing better than I learn from reading. On that note, don’t be afraid to study and mimic what others are doing. If you are looking for totally original ideas on how to blog and build your platform, I’ll just tell you right now there likely are few or none left. So if you want to see what’s working, go to the blogs and websites and Twitter feeds and newspaper columns of those you admire—then take a page from what they’re doing. If you start to notice your favorite large blogs include all their social networking links at the top (“Find me on Twitter,” “Find me on Facebook”), then guess what? Do the same. If people are getting large followings doing book reviews of young adult fantasy novels, why not do the same?

5. You must make yourself easy to contact.

I have no idea why people make themselves difficult to contact without a website and/or e-mail listed online. Besides “visibility,” another way to think about platform is to examine your reach. And if your goal is reach, you do not want to limit people’s abilities to find and contact you much if at all. You want people to contact you. You want other writers to e-mail from out of the blue. I love it when a member of the media finds my info online and writes me. I don’t even mind it when a writer sends me an e-mail with a random question. I’ve made long-term friends that way—friends who have bought my book and sung my praises to others. It’s called networking—and networking starts by simply making yourself available, and taking the next step to encourage people with similar interests or questions to contact you.

6. Start small and start early.

A true writer platform is something that’s built before your book comes out, so that when the book hits your hands, you will be above the masses for all to see. I won’t lie—the beginning is hard. It’s full of a lot of effort and not a whole lot of return. Fear not; this will pass. Building a platform is like building a structure—every brick helps. Every brick counts. Small steps are not bad. You must always be considering what an action has to offer and if it can lead to bigger and better things. “What frustrates most people is that they want to have platform now,” says literary agent Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency. “It takes time and a lot of effort, and it builds on itself. You can always have more platform, but trying to sell a book before you have it will not help you.”

7. Have a plan, but feel free to make tweaks.

At first, uncertainty will overwhelm you. What are you going to blog about? How should you present yourself when networking? Should your Twitter handle be your name or the title of your book/brand? All these important questions deserve careful thought early on. The earlier you have a plan, the better off you will be in the long run—so don’t just jump in blind. The more you can diagram and strategize at the beginning, the clearer your road will be.

As you step out and begin creating a writer platform, make sure to analyze how you’re doing, then slowly transition so you’re playing to your strengths and eliminating your weakest elements. No matter what you want to write about, no matter what platform elements you hone in on, don’t ignore the importance of analysis and evolution in your journey. Take a look at what you’re doing right and wrong to make sure you’re not throwing good money after bad. And feel free to make all kinds of necessary tweaks and changes along the way to better your route.

8. Numbers matter—so quantify your platform

If you don’t include specific numbers or details, editors and agents will be forced to assume the element of platform is unimpressive, which is why you left out the crucial detail of its size/reach. Details are sexy; don’t tease us. Try these right and wrong approaches below:

WRONG: “I am on Twitter and just love it.”

CORRECT: “I have more than 10,000 followers on Twitter.”

WRONG: “I do public speaking on this subject.”

CORRECT: “I present to at least 10 events a year—sometimes as a keynote. The largest events have up to 1,200 attendees.”

WRONG: “I run a blog that has won awards from other friendly bloggers.”

CORRECT: “My blog averages 75,000 page views each month and has grown at a rate of 8 percent each month over the past year.”

Also, analyzing numbers will help you see what’s working and not working in your platform plan—allowing you to make healthy changes and let the strategy evolve. Numbers reflect the success you’re having, and it’s up to you to figure out why you’re having that success.

CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino on Twitter) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His pop humor books include How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (film rights optioned by Sony) and Red Dog / Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political (reddog-bluedog.com). Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., and Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, guitarist, sleep-deprived new father, dog owner, and cookie addict.

“PLATFORM” VS. “CREDENTIALS”

The most important question you will be asked as you try to get your nonfiction book published is: “Why are you the best person to write this book?” This question is two-fold, as it speaks to both your credentials and your platform. To be a successful author, you will need both, not just the former.

Your credentials encompass your education and experience to be considered as an expert in your category. For example, if you want to write a book called How to Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Weeks, then my first thought would be to wonder if you are a doctor or a dietician. If not, what position do you hold that would give you solid authority to speak on your subject and have others not question the advice you’re presenting? Or maybe you want to write a book on how to sell real estate in a challenging market. To have the necessary gravitas to compose such a book, you would likely have to have worked as an agent for decades and excelled in your field—hopefully winning awards over the years and acting in leadership roles within the real estate agent community.

Would you buy a book on how to train a puppy from someone whose only credential was that they owned a dog? I wouldn’t. I want to see accolades, leadership positions, endorsements, educational notes and more. I need to make sure I’m learning from an expert before I stop questioning the text and take it as helpful fact.

All this—all your authority—comes from your credentials. That’s why they’re so necessary. But believe it or not, credentials are often easier to come by than platform.

Platform, as we now know, is your ability to sell books and market yourself to target audience(s). There are likely many dieticians out there who can teach people interesting ways to lower their weight. But a publishing company is not interested in the 90 percent of them who lack any platform. They want the 10 percent of experts who have the ability to reach readers. Publishing houses seek experts who possess websites, mailing lists, media contacts, a healthy number of Twitter followers and a plan for how to grow their visibility.

It’s where credentials meet platform—that’s where book authors are born.