“Platform” is among the most bantered-about terms in publishing today, and it’s particularly important for writers of nonfiction. Once upon a time, you’d send a proposal to an editor, and if the editor liked the project and strongly believed in it, he (or she) would buy it on the spot. Alas, that’s less and less the case today. With few exceptions, marketing departments often have the final say on whether a deal is made. An editor may still want the book, but may end up passing on it because the folks in marketing feel that either the market for the book isn’t big enough, or that the author’s marketability isn’t broad enough. That’s why platform is so important. Publishers today want to know how many readers your book might have, how these readers can be reached, what the author can do to help reach those readers, and how visible the author is. Oftentimes, the answers to those questions come down to numbers, numbers, numbers. If you’re a first-time author with an established speaking platform, how many talks do you give a year? How many cities do you travel to? How many people come to hear you speak, who might also buy your book at the end of your talk? That’s your audience, that’s your platform. If you’re an established author, how many books have you written and how many copies have you sold? What publications do you write for, and what’s their circulation? If you have a website, about how many hits do you get per day, and how many unique visitors? If you happen to do a lot of radio or TV appearances (or better yet, host a show or podcast of your own), what sort of audience do you have? How many markets are you heard in, and about how many listeners tune in?
Publishers like it if they can market a book around an author or expert with an established audience. An established audience is a built-in platform. Now … what if you’re starting off and don’t have a built-in platform? Not a problem. You can create an audience for yourself with a little research and ingenuity. I’ve done a lot of speaking and radio appearances in my career. But 15 years ago, when I shopped my first book around, I had no platform at all. I compensated for that by coming up with a detailed marketing plan that outlined all the different markets for the book and how I proposed to reach them. The publisher who ended up buying the book said that my book proposal was “one of the best he’d ever read.” If it worked for me, it can work for you. Let’s say you’re a yet-to-be published genre writer with a presence on MySpace. You have x-number of MySpace “friends,” plus you belong to several different MySpace groups related to writing and publishing in general, as well as your particular genre. By the time you add up all your friends, plus all the members in the groups to which you belong, you could be looking at anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people. That’s several hundred to several thousand people you have ready access to, that may be interested in buying your book. That’s not a bad platform for starters.Now that you have x-number of people potentially interested in your book, it’s time to think like the folks in marketing. This is where ingenuity comes in. Come up with a plan to reach those readers in creative ways … through the web, through a blog, through chat groups, through the library, through groups and organizations, through special markets (i.e., conventions, talks, and other non-bookstore ways of reaching people), or through a virtual book tour.Virtual book tours can be especially helpful for first-time authors or authors of genre books, because they target blogs, chat groups, and podcasts and other specialty forums on the web whose audience belongs to the same demographic as that of your target readership. So be sure to mention a virtual book tour in your proposal as part of your marketing plan.
Platform may not be everything in publishing today, but it’s certainly a very important thing. If you can think in terms of who your readers are and what you can to do reach them, you’re more than on your way. Ed Robertson