Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Platform

I talked about nonfiction yesterday and the very valid question came up--what can I do about platform, though? My agent/writing advisor has been telling me I'm not qualified to write nonfiction. Was s/he lying?

No, those weren't lies. You do need a platform to get published, but the platform you need to make a book work varies from book to book. And fiction authors need platforms, too. So sticking to fiction doesn't get you off the hook.

But the most important thing about your nonfiction book--more important than your platform by far (although we editors tend to hush this up) is the hook. Do you have an outrageously wonderful hook? Because that's enough to make a go of it.

But if a book has a hook, someone's going to pick it up. Check out THE YEAR OF YES by Maria Dahvana Headly--she had no platform to speak of when she got her book deal, but she did have a great hook. (Also check it out because it's just tons of fun to read.) How about ANGELA'S ASHES? Frank McCourt had no platform at all when he won the Pulitzer. It's bad of me here to be encouraging memoirs, which are actually probably just as tough to sell (or tougher) than novels. So BOOKSELLER OF KABUL--the author had a story to tell and she told it well, although she had no platform outside of her own experience (although I've since read on Afghanistan-related blogs that she wasn't fair, but the point is she sold well). In all these cases, what these authors do and who they are became their platforms.

But back to the point, a good platform is desirable and achievable. So we'll talk about that.

So what platforms are best for what books? The ideal author platform consists of all the below points, but in the real world we rarely work with ideals, and in most cases we can make do with a combination of some platform elements.

Passion and knowledge about a subject. Since it's nonfiction we're taliking, you have to be willing to do good research and to write evocatively/provocatively about your topic. If you're a really great writer, you have the good book author trifecta (knowledge, passion, talent!). All the best books have the trifecta but some of the best books don't actually have other platform (although that's harder, I'll admit).

Academic qualifications. This is crucial for any prescriptive books--that is, if you're giving health, self-help, or relationship advice, you really should have a doctorate in the applicable subject--an MD is absolutely essential for most health books; a psychology degree is better for self-help. A social work degree or spiritual counselor training (for example, a priesthood or rabbinical degree) helps a lot for self-help and relationship books. Josephine made a good point about this--a couple extra classes in a topic go miles toward establishing you as an expert. Not everyone has the time and money, but if you have academic qualifications already, consider capitalizing. (What did you major in in college? And who cares that you haven't dabbled in that topic since? Could you pick it up again now, with maybe a little work?)

Writing creds. If you've published before, you're more likely to get published again (in fiction and nonfiction). So dabble in things like articles. Everyone needs informative copy in their publications; master a small topic, write an article about it, become an expert that people start consulting, and next thing you know you've been published in NEWSWEEK and that looks great in your author bio. From this standpoint especially nonfiction is the route to fiction. Publishing an article on homeopathy in LADIES HOME JOURNAL actually looks better to people on my end than publishing a short story in a literary magazine--even though you're submitting a novel. Think of Mark Kurlansky and his topical history projects. He was an article writer for 30 years before making a killing with COD and SALT.

Connections. Do you know Oprah? Are you best friends with the NYT Book Review editor? Did Natalie Portman or Jerome Groopman or J.M. Coetzee promise to endorse your book because you used to date each other's sister/brother? TELL US. Because those kinds of things become platform. Hence Seinfeld's wife. Whose real name no one (myself included) seems to know.

18 comments:

angelle said...

how is it that you wrote this entry so early in the morning and no one has commented on it yet?

or did you START at 10 and not finish it til now?

anyway. can my platform be, the famous moonrat is my coffeehouse date?

i am tired. so tired.

hey maybe i should write an article abt being the only girl in fantasy football leagues and how all the boys try to take advantage of you by offering you crappy trades.

moonrat said...

there's a book right there!!

yeah, i started it at 10 and wrote a skeleton with bullet points. then i had to "work" all day and slapped the rest of the post together at 3:15. sigh. work gets in the way of my life, etc. or more accurately, the two have become one almost completely at this point.

David L. McAfee said...

Your last point brings to mind a question. I know you are talking about nonfiction books, but does this also hold true for fiction? What I mean is, if you have a published author who is willing to give your novel a review or a blurb, is that something that helps when contacting editors?

moonrat said...

yes!!! don't keep that kind of thing to yourself!!!

David L. McAfee said...

Ah, crud.

I seem to have goofed.

Colorado Writer said...

Thank you for discussing. Platform is one of the scariest things I've ever heard of.

Maprilynne said...

What did I major in in college? Creative Writing.

Well, shoot, now we're back where we started.

:)

David L. McAfee said...

Aprilynne -

maybe you could write a nonfiction book about creative writing. :)

angelle said...

i majored in psychology. does that count for anything? can i write anything about that? hmm...

dude, moonie, i forgot that you told me you OUTLINED your posts sometimes. REALLY! ur such an outline nazi. but maybe thats why your posts have so much more coherence than mine.

Merry Jelinek said...

I majored in fiction writing... not very helpful in the way of credentials, is it?

Platform seems even more difficult for fiction writers because we tend to blog and network with other writers and people within the publishing industry, when the reality is, the bulk of our future readership will never frequent those venues...

Tess said...

A friend sent me to your blog in an attempt to convince me to actually write the nonfiction book I've outlined. I was encouraged to see what you've said about platforms--I was under the impression that unless you had a national TV show or a big track record with articles no one would take you seriously with a nonfiction book.

One question--if you're pitching a nonfiction book, does anyone care if you've published fiction and poetry?

Ello said...

Great post as usual. now I have to figure out what to write about that i can actually talk knowledgeably about and that people would care to read.

moonrat said...

Tess--publishing fiction and poetry is a pro for nonfiction, definitely.

No, national tv is not necessary, although it's a plus, particularly when you're dealing with bigger houses and with certain topics (for example, health books sell better in paperback unless the author has a tv track record, in which case they sell in hardcover--this means that paperback houses would be more likely to consider your proposal for a nutrition guide than hardcover original only houses). but you know. so many nuances.

I'm speaking here at least for my press--we like a hook (that's a must-have). A platform is a should-have, but a platform can be developed.

Josephine Damian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josephine Damian said...

Moonrat, thanks for the mention!

Like a lot of writers I have a BA in English Lit., which may be required to be an editorial
ass(istant), but I doubt any bachelor's in any field will get you very far - platform-wise, IMO (unlike being Moonrat's coffee-house buddy! - platform building or not, it sounds like fun!).

I also recognize that taking a few forensics classes makes me a "cool" blogger/writer buddy, but until I've got that master's degree hanging on my wall, I don't have jack as a platform. Lots of people go to grad school, but I think it'll only impress an agent if I graduate.

Which is why I won't even think of querying until I finish school in Dec. '08. In the meanwhile, I hope to get some short pieces (fiction and NF) published while I'm waiting.

If you build your platform, they will come! Or so I hope.

moonrat said...

Josephine-- My editorial heart thrills to hear you say you're working on publishing smaller pieces. Another aweseme platform-builder.

angelle said...

i could make a plug for public relations and the synchrony of how a lot of what i do requires spokespeople who have books so i can place them on national television.. which then circles back, im sure, and makes them even more credible for future consideration of publication...

but i won't. =D

Anonymous said...

so what you're saying is you better know someone or even if your memoir is innovative, interesting and nicely written it won't be taken. I have noticed that practically all the memoirs I've read lately have been written by Columbia MFA grads - novels too. I guess you have to spend more on an MFA than you'll earn for the book.