May 10, 2008
This month I'd like to talk about what an author platform is, why it's important, and who needs it anyways. There's a hell of a lot of talk in the publishing industry these days about the importance of the Almighty Author Profile---the AAP.
The AAP is important, it's true, but I know how confusing it is for writers who have aspirations of getting their books published.
First of all, what is an author platform?
The answer is not clear-cut. If you're a memoirist writing a book about your childhood, your author platform might include your blog, your MySpace page, and evidence of some readership. If you're a first-time novelist, an author platform is actually surprisingly less important than you might think. If you're a life coach, your platform might include your network of other coaches or your affiliation with a larger coaching program you're involved with. If you're writing a book about Alzheimer's, part of your platform is going to involve reaching out to specialists and networks of people who work with people suffering from Alzheimer's.
The shorter more universal answer is that a platform is anything that shows your future publisher that you have the potential to reach a wide readership. That said, if you're writing a cookbook, there's no sense in detailing your connections to the martial arts community you've been involved with since you were a child. The AAP must be focused and concise, and if you're smart, it will detail things the publisher won't have thought of. For instance, I've worked with an Asian American memoirist who listed all of her contacts to Asian American magazines and community groups. I've signed writers who have successful blogs and a proven readership. Even if your contacts and networks are minimal, start putting together a list now. See what you have to get a gauge on what you might start doing to bolster your AAP.
So what should you be doing if you want to be known as a writer with a great platform?
1. Start a website: If you don't already have one, get one. There's really no way to understate the importance of a website. If it makes sense, you should be blogging, too. But at the bare minimum, get yourself a simple site that gives information about who you are and what you're writing, and that includes some sample writing, particularly if you're writing a novel or a memoir.
2. Start doing outreach: If you're writing nonfiction, particularly prescriptive self-help, start identifying your target readership and making contacts with those people and their organizations. If you're writing about addiction, for instance, start researching the groups online that are recommending addiction/self-help books. Figure out which organizations might support your book. I had an author who wrote a marathoning book and she contacted all the national marathon training groups to tell them about what she was writing. Certainly if you can get on people's radar, you're on your way to building your author platform.
3. Get published: It doesn't matter whether it's an op-ed or a feature piece---consider getting your work published. If your a poet or a fiction writer this is actually more important than if you're a nonfiction writer, but it's important for any aspiring writer. The more bylines you have, the greater your profile. End of story. If you can say you've been published, you have a leg up on the competition. Start small. Publish for free in the beginning if you have to. Start researching where stories or articles that are relevant to your book might get picked up. This is hard work, particularly if you're more focused on writing you're book than you are on building you're platform. But if you can manage to hold both things at the same time, this is a sure-fire way to get publishers' attention.
4. Contact your friends (or friends of friends) in high places: Yes, if you can guarantee a foreword or a blurb by a high-profile person that can actually tip the scale. So work your contacts, and be shameless if you have to. It's hard for writers, particularly those who prefer to be at their computers writing rather than engaging with the public, to understand that publishers love the authors who have the charisma to TV and radio and to be out there engaging with their readers. And it's not for everyone. And it doesn't mean you can't get published if you're not a social butterfly. It's just to say that it's no longer possible to be a successful author who refuses to give interviews or who lives in relative obscurity or who's too shy to ask their friends who they know, and hey, for that matter, if they'll buy your book once it's published.
5. Consider public speaking: Nothing builds the AAP quite like public speaking. Again, it's not for everyone, and if you're a novelist this doesn't necessarily make sense. But once you're published, you might start getting calls to talk to groups of aspiring authors, and then that does absolutely make sense. But if you're a specialist, and you're writing a book about being bipolar or about Latino solidarity or about the generation gap or about the struggle to balance motherhood and career, then you need to find out groups you can speak to. Oftentimes it's the book deal that generates the speaking gigs, but if you can figure out ways into speaking engagements, this is something that publishers love. Why? Because it shows a demonstrated and preexisting audience. So consider what you're writing and what you have to say and whether you might be able to break into the speaking scene and add another notch on the AAP.
That's it for this month. Super practical advice stemming from my clients' questions and confusion. The author platform is basically a creation of modern-day publishing, but it's one you can't ignore. If you want to be published, you have to be dazzling. Some of you will be able to do that with your writing alone, but unfortunately those writers are few and far between. So start thinking about the big picture, and consider getting started with at least one of the ideas I've laid out here. And don't stress. Even one of these things counts as a solid start. The good thing about book publishing is it will always be there, so those of you who have the foresight to build your platform slowly and steadily are going to benefit in the longrun.
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