Friday, October 03, 2008

how does a stay-at-home mom go about creating a platform?

Or how does anyone, for that matter?

I had this question from a reader a couple of weeks ago, and more than once in the past, and it's high time I answered it.

Platform is a tricky thing, since it's largely nebulous and only defined (it seems) by what you don't have. The good news: you can actually build a platform, and in many cases cobble one together out of what you have.

This is going to be a long post, so here's my plan for what I'm going to talk about (so you can skip to what's relevant to your case):

1) What is platform?
2) What kind of platform you should focus on if you're writing a debut novel?

1) What is platform?
To define platform, I'm going to quote heavily from an earlier post:

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.

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.

2) What kind of platform you should focus on if you're writing a debut novel

There's a rumor going around that you don't need any platform at all to publish a debut novel. This isn't exactly true, for the simple reason that (per the definition above) if you're working on a novel you probably don't have zero platform. Furthermore, if you're a writer, you're probably also a spin artist, and you should be able to take what you have and make it work for you.

Just a note, though: the bigger your platform is the better you're going to do, regardless of the quality of your book. So while you're working and waiting, as we all do, make your job easier for yourself, and then your agent, and then your editor, by doing what you can now to continue to grow your platform.

What's going to help you most as a would-be novelist is our writing creds. Start putting together a publication list now--where have you published? Think back to college, even high school. List everything.

What about online? Do you have a blog? If not, think about starting one (I tell all my authors to blog a little--not so much that they can't find time to do their own work, but enough to establish a little net authenticity and make sure google searches redirect to their sites). Because also then your blog might start getting excerpted or cited on bigger sites, and then those become publication credits. One of my authors started a blog at my encouragement and is now frequently quoted by major national (print!) publications as an expert on her subject. Platform begot platform right there (as these things are wont to happen).

Submit. Write some articles for your local newspaper. Seriously. Can you? I bet you can. Because then the next step is your state newspaper. This even you, Stay-at-Home Mom, can do. There are also newsletters that will cater to an audience of people like you--one of my stay-at-home mom friends got a book deal after she became a regular columnist in an online magazine for...stay-at-home moms! Seriously, if you try writing and submitting some nonfiction stuff, you'll find more open doors than you will for fiction.

I hope this helped. Let me know if I can clarify anything.


Monique said...

Interesting and very helpful.

JES said...

Jessica Seinfeld nee Nina Danielle Sklar.

Always ready to help with the important stuff!

moonrat said...

haha. thanks, JES. there's ONE point that slipped through the cracks!

Kiersten said...

Definitely helped. Thanks!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Interesting ... as a first time novelist, agents and editors are talking a lot about the importance of defining and pushing a USP. Writer as brand - and finding a platform is a big part of this I guess.

Charles Gramlich said...

It seems like I've been building a pretty good platform then. Thanks for this info.

ChrisEldin said...

OMG! I was channeling you. I did that today, with my own blog. I figured it was about time to focus its energy on my writing goals.
*rubbing goosebumps*

J.C. Hutchins said...

Hey, Moonrat! Longtime reader, first-time commenter. Love the blog, and this post especially.

There's a growing subculture of first-time novelists who are using the Web and new/social media to market their unpublished works in an effort to build that all-important platform about which you've written. While still uncommon, we're reading more and more about writers who've blogged their books and landed print deals based on their talents and online success.

I'm part of an even smaller subculture in this space; I've recorded audiobook versions of my novels and released them as free serialized podcasts. (One or two chapters per MP3 episode, one episode per week.) Thanks to some savvy zero-budget online promotion -- and a thriving fanbase -- 2009 will see the release of two of my novels by St. Martin's Press.

I say this not to brag, but to further the discussion about "author as brand," and how young writers can leverage low-cost (or no cost) RSS/Web distribution to build demand for their works ... which they can then present to agents and publishers in their quest to become published.

Thanks again for the awesome blog, and post. Keep up the great work!

Linda said...

Great post - not just for stay-at-home moms (actually, most of the recent successes I've noticed have come from moms - go girls!).

Writing is such a solitary endeavor. Building a platform is not. It's a rare writer who can do both.

Two questions: 1/ does winning contests count for building cred? and 2/ if your fiction delves into topical areas in which you have the non-fiction platofrm (the degree, the academic and 'ladies home journal' pubs), do you promote that in your fiction query and marketing?

Peace, Linda

Ian said...

Great post, Moonrat. I've cited it on my own blog. Hey, that's a publishing credit for you! Woo! ;)

angelle said...

i thought this was going to be a snarky post about sarah palin and her political "platform".


Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Oh good, then I'm clearly doing all the write/right things already.
Good post, Moonie.

Anonymous said...

I have a follow up question Moonie, in terms of the debut novelist and stay at home mom (me). I've heard that trying to obtain blurbs from well-known authors at the agent stage, before publication, is a good idea--and if not that a promise of a read and potential blurb post acceptance, in galley form. The theory being your agent can use this to sell your book--along with your amazing writing, of course.

What do you think of that? Do you feel it helps a person's chances? When something comes across your desk with an endorsement from best selling author, does it change how you view things? Nudge you to read it sooner?

Thanks--I love your blog it is so very helpful--and fun!

moonrat said...

jc--that's good news all around, especially for most of the people you'll meet here! that says to me that a) you have been very clever, and b) st martin's is a little more forward-thinking than some publishers! you should send me the details, so i can get a post of for the mischief.

moonrat said...


1) yes--entering contests definitely counts, and is great. Things like prizes go very neatly into the author byline and will help your agent pitch the book. A lot.

2) re: experience writing nonfiction about the topic you're now writing fiction about: Any publication credits--even the nonfiction ones-are absolutely useful, and you should definitely flaunt them. If your nonfiction expertise is related to the same topic as your novel, all the better for your research. As for whether agents/editors will care that you're a professional expert on a topic: this is a toss-up, and is mainly contingent upon whether or not you're a good writer. If you have the professional knowledge *and* you're a skilled writer, it's more likely that people will be interested in your book. But if you're a good writer and your nonfiction publication credits are on something totally different, it probably won't bother your agent/editor too much at all. (I have a couple authors like this on my list.)

moonrat said...

anon 7:50: yes, any blurbs you might have as a submitting author is money in the bank for you. We're still so caught up in blurb-culture, and your agent and editor will both be pulling all kinds of painful favors down the road to get blurbs, so anything you bring to the table at submission stage will probably help your cause. A lot.

That said, it's not very easy to get published authors to review your stuff. Just about the only way is to know the authors personally. Cold-emailing will in all likelihood turn up nothing but non-responses.

If you do know famous authors who are willing to blurb for you, I should also mention that the blurbs that are most helpful are the ones that are in the same genre as you. If you're writing a literary novel but you're good friends with the author of THE SOUTH BEACH DIET, this doesn't really help your editor very much (unfortunately).