There’s an interesting piece by Sheelah Kolhatkar in today’s New York Observer about “platforms” (“If You Build It, They Will Come — Hot in Publishing: Platforms!”). The article is all about how it’s not just the writing anymore that endears authors to publishers — it’s the author’s “platform,” i.e., the place from which the author can sell a great many copies of his or her book.
What, exactly, is a platform? The article offers an example most of us can understand: Oprah. She is not only a platform for herself and for anything she wishes to promote, but she provides a platform for any writer fortunate enough to get her attention.
But what about those writers who don’t get Oprah’s attention — and especially those “old school” writers who are more interested in their writing than in their own publicity? As the article makes (painfully) clear, this is no longer a luxury writers have. In today’s competitive market, publishers are looking for even more.
The article offers a couple of ideas — blogs, MySpace — as ways for authors to develop their platforms. It also notes that having a well-written book is a platform in and of itself. But even the best books out there don’t sell magically by themselves, and while I don’t think authors need to worry about platforms until their books are finished and are the best they can be, it can’t hurt to give a little thought to marketing, whether at the agent, publisher, or publicity stage of the process.
Word of mouth remains among the best ways to sell anything — so much so that a company called BzzAgent uses this as its business model: it hires “bzz agents” to spread the word about new products from chicken sausage to jeans (and, of course, books). The good news is that you don’t need to hire anyone to do this for you; we all know enough people to start enlisting our own groups of “agents” — and the “buzz” our friends and family create is bound to be more authentic. So think of who you know, where they live, what resources they have, and how they might be able to help.
Of course, you can’t depend solely on your connections; you’ll also need to put yourself out there. Even if your publisher doesn’t offer you a ten-city book tour, create your own. These days, most writers do just that: pack up the car, map out cheap hotels, and offer readings and signings wherever they can. And many of them have had wonderful success because they go beyond bookstores to libraries, schools, businesses, and any other place they might find an audience. You never know where your readers may be.
A great many writers today have their own web sites (you might want to register your name, and/or the title of your book, sooner than later), and this too can be a good platform. And whether you’ve written a novel or a memoir, a cookbook or a computer book, there are people and organizations out there that will be thrilled to hear from you. You just need to find them.
This may sound like a lot of work, but, as the Observer article also points out, poor sales of one book can harm your chances of ever publishing another one. So isn’t it worthwhile to go the extra mile from the very beginning? Then you’ll no longer have to worry about finding a platform — you’ll already have one.