What a platform is vs. what a platform isn’t

cmkwritermama.gifPlatform Development 101

By Christina Katz

Pitching at a conference this year? Be sure to take this multiple-choice quiz as a refresher on what a platform is vs. what a platform isn’t.

Through the eyes of an agent or editor, your platform boils down to:
a) Your credentials
b) Your potential as an author
c) The story of how and why you came up with your book concept
d) Your already published work (a.k.a. your clips)
e) The readership / following / network / fan base you have already cultivated
f) All of the above

Before I reveal the answer, let me explain why it’s not obvious. For years now, publishing industry insiders have been buzzing among themselves about platform-platform-platform, whereas half the folks attending writer’s conferences are just getting wind of the concept for the first time. This explains why publishing insiders are so weary of hearing about platform that the mere mention of the word makes them cringe, whereas so many writers are scratching our heads and saying, “Platform? What the heck is that?”

But just because industry insiders don’t want to talk to you about what a platform is doesn’t mean they don’t want to hear about the platform you already have.

Okay, now for the answer to the quiz. We need to get crystal clear about what a platform is vs. what a platform isn’t. The answer is e. Did you get it? I’ll break down each choice in detail.

a) Your credentials
No doubt you will have a section about your credentials in your book proposal, but this is not your platform. Your credentials are all of the indicators of your expertise on a particular topic. Your credentials qualify you, but they do not get you known. For example, if your book topic were how to save sea lions from extinction, then your credentials would include everything on your resume that authenticates your knowledge and experience on this subject.

Possibly you have a master’s degree in marine biology. Perhaps, you have had jobs in the past where you worked with sea lions. Maybe you have lived in the Pacific Northwest all your life and have been a sea lion activist. Generally speaking, credentials come straight from your résumé. But remember, writers don’t rely on their résumés. More often we pick and choose what is relevant from our experience and include it in a short bio paragraph to match an assignment. You will need to do the same in your book proposal. But that’s not your platform; it’s typically called your bio.

b) Your potential as an author
Though strong identification with published authors may have led many of us to await our literary discovery with baited breath, our potential as authors is not part of our platform. Neither is the comparison of our unpublished writing to successful authors. Saying your book echoes the style or voice of a bestselling author is a strategy likely to lead agents and editors to wonder why you write like someone else and not yourself. Planting the seed in the first place creates an automatic comparison—possibly one that will not measure out in your favor.

Instead of describing your own writing in glowing terms, simply write and pitch your idea clearly and concisely. Like your credentials, your readiness (and eagerness) to become an author is not part of your platform and no amount of well-turned phrases, disclosed praise or author identification will change this. In fact, I recommend that you avoid referring to your potential altogether, both in your pitch and in your proposal. A better approach is just the facts, ma’m.

c) The story of how and why you came up with your book concept
I encourage anyone who is pitching or writing a book proposal to reflect on how they got from where they once were to being exactly the right person to write their proposed book today. However, being the right person to get the job done and having a platform are not the same things. So, while this story may be included in your proposal or briefly summarized in your verbal pitch, this tale is not your platform. Even if the timing is absolutely perfect for your book, and I hope this is true, this fact is not your platform.

d) Your already published work (a.k.a. your clips)
If you have been writing a column for your local paper for five years, this is a genuine accomplishment, and hopefully you feel proud. However, what your local column lacks, through the eyes of agents and editors, is reach. If the publication you write for is not a household name, agents and editors are not likely to be impressed. But if you’ve written for or currently write for O Magazine, The New York Times, or iParenting.com, your clout as a future author goes up along with the size of the audience you serve, especially if your work reaches readers on a regular basis.

Strictly speaking, your clips fall under your credentials. A lot of people have them; it’s what you do with your credentials that makes up your platform. And remember, the bigger the readership and the better the reputation of the publication, the more oomph your clips carry. So mention your best clips, but only emphasize those likely to impress.

e) The readership / following / network / fan base you have already cultivated
The number of people you currently reach and influence is the sum total of your current platform. This explains why agents and editors usually offer book deals to writers who also already teach, speak, and self-promote themselves or who have created a following through traditional media or the Internet. If your following associates you with the book topic you are pitching, even better. Agents and editors prefer a self-producing writer to a totally unknown writer any day of the week.

Why? Because a self-producing writer has a proven track record of getting known that insures he or she will not balk when the time comes to get out there and promote the published book. And previously developed networks, readers, and fans are all potential future readers of the book in which publishers, editors and agents are going to invest their time, money and energy. So when you pitch, try to volunteer the facts about your platform in a concise, targeted manner rather than as a laundry list of incidental experience that doesn’t position you as an authority any publisher would want as a partner.

You may feel that an emphasis on platform is unfair and that your book idea should only be assessed based on a-d above. But remember, the onus to develop a platform does not just affect writers; it also affects every single person involved in the publishing business today (including fellow writers, and yes, even agents, editors and publishers). So don’t waste one more minute feeling sorry for yourself, when you could be channeling that same energy into building a solid platform that will serve you and your growing readership––today and the day your future book hits the shelves.

Christina Katz is the author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer’s Digest Books, March 2007). She is a featured presenter at the Writer’s Digest/BEA Writer’s Conference, The Whidbey Island Writers Association MFA Residency, and the Willamette Writers Conference. She’s been teaching writing-for-publication classes for six years and has appeared on Good Morning America. She is also publisher and editor of this e-zine and another called The Writer Mama. Christina blogs daily at http://www.thewritermama.wordpress.com/. For more about Writer Mama, visit Christina’s website at http://www.thewritermama.com/.

1 Response to “What a platform is vs. what a platform isn’t”

  1. 1 Cynthia Paulino October 21, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    This is such a great and informative post. I’ve always wondered what a platform consists of. This is definitely an eye-opener as I analyze where I am in my writing career.
    Thanks 🙂

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