I first heard the term “author’s platform” about 4 years ago, when I was one of the presenters on a publishing panel. An aspiring author in the audience complained to us: “I’ve been told it’s impossible to sell a first novel these days unless the author has a platform.” Being clueless about the term, I didn’t know how to respond. The word “platform” conjured up in my mind a wooden box or some sort of rickety stage, and I couldn’t see how that was going to help anyone sell a book. Luckily, an editor on our panel was able to jump in with the answer that yes, having a platform is a real plus, but it’s not necessary for a first sale.
Since I didn’t want to look stupid, I just nodded as if I knew what the hell they were talking about.
Although I haven’t heard the word officially defined, I’ve since come to my own understanding of what the term means. Your life experience, your area of expertise, and your public persona are all part of your “platform.” It qualifies you as just the person to write that particular book, and it makes you more promotable as an author. If you have a platform, you’re not just another novelist who’s dreamed up a story; you’re someone with a unique perspective who has secrets to share, someone with real information that makes journalists come calling.
And yes, it does sell books.
I had to write nine books before I figured that out for myself. I started off as a romantic suspense author, and even though I’m a physician, my stories had almost nothing to do with medicine. Instead they featured cops and spies, with only an occasional nurse or physician appearing in the cast of characters. As a romance author, I was writing without a platform, and even though I was getting published, I couldn’t make a living on it.
Then I wrote a medical thriller, HARVEST. Suddenly, people got interested in my books. A major publishing deal and much publicity followed. Yes, the book itself had something to do with it. But I’m convinced that none of it would have happened, no matter how good the manuscript was, if I hadn’t been a doctor. My platform was my medical background. An Associated Press interview focused on the fact that I was a doctor writing about what I know. The press releases emphasized that I was showing the secret world behind operating room doors. With enough research, it’s certainly possible that a non-medical author could have written HARVEST. But would the book have gotten as big a push from my publisher and from the press? I doubt it.
So yes, having a platform really does make a difference.
I can already hear the moans of despair out there from aspiring writers. “What if I don’t have a platform?” you ask. “Am I doomed to never sell a book?”
Ah, but the chances are, you do have a platform. You just don’t realize it yet. A platform can be any number of things. It can be your occupation or some off-beat hobby. It can be the fact you’ve spent every summer as a Civil War re-enactor. Think about your life. Think about your passions. Think about what makes your life experience unique, about the secrets you know that other people don’t know. These are all interesting details that will make you promotable.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to have a platform. Are you a geologist? A social worker? A waitress? Any one of those occupations could be woven into a compelling book, and you already have the platform to write and promote it. I, and many others, love reading about restaurants. If you’re a chef, just think of the inside tales you could tell on book tour while promoting your restaurant mystery.
I recently read the galley of a debut mystery novel featuring a Maine park ranger. The book is going to get a big push by the publisher, and it’s not just because it’s a good book. The author, it turns out, has the background to talk with authority about Maine park rangers. Read his book, and you know you’re getting the inside scoop. You’ll also start to believe that the author is the protagonist, that they even look alike. When that cross-identification happens, it’s magic for sales. It’s what makes fans believe that Lee Child is Jack Reacher and Kathy Reichs is Temperance Brennan. If you the author share the same occupation as your protagonist, readers can’t help but wonder if you’re secretly writing about yourself — and they love thinking that they know the real you.
“But what if I don’t want to use my platform?” you ask. “What if I’m a rocket scientist but I want to write a novel about pirates on the high seas?”
If your book is really, really good, then platforms don’t matter. And if it’s really, really lousy, a sky-high platform isn’t going to help you sell a dud. But if you do have a platform, it only makes sense to use it. It took me nine books to finally make use of mine. And once I did, my career took a decidedly upward turn.
Recently, I met a veteran cop who’s sold a number of short stories to a major publication. He’s attractive, personable, and well-spoken. He’s written a novel, but it wasn’t a mystery novel. His literary agent sent it back to him, asking: “Where’s the cop novel? I want a cop novel.”
“I don’t want to write a cop novel,” this cop said.
This is his dilemma. He can obviously write, but the books he wants to write won’t make use of his platform. What should he do? Write what he wants to write, or write the story that he’s immensely qualified to write, the story that his agent is clamoring for? Does he follow his passion or should he bow to the realities of the market?
I think he should write the cop novel. Once he’s a published author, once he’s made a name for himself, perhaps he can expand his horizons.
But it’s something every author has to decide for himself.