what’s your platform?

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.

17 thoughts on “what’s your platform?

  1. karen from mentor

    Good Morning Tess,
    I agree that the policeman you know should write a cop book. I’ve always liked the "write what you know" school of thought. I think you get a better, deeper, richer book when you have tasted the subject first hand emotionally.

    Karen :0)

    btw: Brett Battles has an interview up at my website today to kick off his blog tour for Shadow of Betrayal. I’d love to have some of the murderati glitterati stop in to see it. He was great to work with. (thanks again Brett)

  2. JD Rhoades

    Well, after four books, I finally wrote the "lawyer book" I’ve been threatening to write for so many years. I’ll probably have to move out of town if it gets published, but what the heck.

  3. Dana King

    I don’t see how anyone can write a good book if it’s one they don’t want to write. Maybe the cop could write a book about a cop, or where a cop plays a major role, but the agent is clearly implying he should write a crime story.

  4. Jan Morrison

    Hi Louise – what an interesting posting. All this time I thought what you were talking about was ‘the hook’ – your bit of stuff that gives journalists something to hook the story on. When I and three others wrote a couple of musicals our hook was that four people had to work so closely and the two who wrote the libretto supposedly spent our time arguing – not true but the press loved to believe it! I thought a platform was where you stood to deliver your particular story and hook – could be your blog or the one you share with others, a web page, and all the other techno stuff or it could be something like Robert Munsch used to get his books out there – daycares and libraries. I guess I think of it a political platform and therefore we’d both be right! For my first novel, as yet unpublished, I shared that I am a psychotherapist. So far no real bites but I can hope. The series I’m working on now will include areas of Nova Scotia that I really know about and think others should too. I like to write about people doing things that I don’t do though – so I can live a thousand lifetimes in one.

  5. Alli

    I think the policeman should stick to his guns (no pun intended!). As Dana said, "how anyone can write a good book if it’s one they don’t want to write". I couldn’t imagine spending a chunk of time writing about something I’m not interested in, I think it would cull any creativity. BUT, I like Dana’s idea of the cop writing a book that a cop features in, but not necessarily a mystery/crime book. I think that could be really, really interesting. Maybe that’s where other people who feel like the cop could put a twist on their profession and NOT write the expected book, but come up with some just as interesting but maybe more surprising.

    After two completed MS’s, I finally cottoned on to the whole platform business, too.When I started plotting MS number three, I felt as if I was writing the "story of my heart" – and funnily enough, it was about the Incas and based in Peru, the country where I lived for many years working as a tour guide at archaeological sites. Woila! I had a platform and didn’t even set out to do it. I haven’t finished the final draft yet so haven’t started querying, but when I do, I’ll be sure to include my experience in Peru as my platform. Every litttle bit helps, I say!

    Great post, Tess!

  6. Karen in Ohio

    Good points, Tess. However. Paranormal and sci-fi writers have zero experience with their author-created fantasy worlds in "real" life, so I fail to see why this should be an absolute requirement. It sounds as though agents/publishers are a bit lacking in imagination here.

    By the way, I just finished Vanish. Very good! I pictured Maura as you, by the way. 😉

  7. Louise Ure

    Hi, Jan. It’s my Tuesday partner Tess writing today, and what a topic!

    I had to search long and hard for a "platform," as I wasn’t writing a book about advertising agencies where I’d spent the last quarter of a century. But I could write about jury consultants, since they used the same marketing techniques I did in trying to identify a target audience (a jury) and get their message across to them.

    And I added a four-generation history in Arizona as another "insider" reason for setting the book there.

  8. Karen Olson

    I had a platform. I was a journalist for over 20 years. I wrote about newspapers. A police reporter. In Connecticut, where I’ve lived my whole life.

    Now I’m writing about a tattooist in Vegas. No more platform. It was very liberating, actually, to write about something I have no experience with and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

  9. pari noskin taichert

    Well, I tried the platform approach with a protag who does PR and everyone associated me more with the PR than a mystery writer. I even made her Jewish, and that didn’t do squat either.

    So . . .

    I think platforms are marvelous if you’ve got one and it’s got a zing to it. If you can write with authority about your subject in fiction, that’s very cool.

    Writing what you know is also powerful.

    But right now I’m tending toward the school of WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW, what you want to think about and explore.

  10. Alli

    But right now I’m tending toward the school of WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW, what you want to think about and explore.

    That is a great school, Pari! Researching and learning about areas that interest us grow us as a person and as a writer. 🙂

  11. JT Ellison

    Murderati was my platform. That and short stories and a lengthy stint of law enforcement research. I WISH I had personal experience with cops in my background, it would help. So for new authors seeking to build a platform, there is hope if you’re writing outside your experience.

    That said, I love to read books about a profession written by those in the profession. It does give that insider glamor.

  12. Dana King

    I realize we’re talking about platforms as they may be helpful to new wriers, but let’s stop to look at how important platforms have been to established writers. Elmore Leonard worked in an advertising agency. Ed McBain was pretty much a writer and nothign else. Raymond Chandler had some business experience, none of which involved private investigators. I believe Robert Crais has some police officers in his family, but hs personal experience is as a TV writer.

    Yes, Dashiell hammett was an investigator. I’m not saying it never works.It just seems like looking for a platform is yet another way of publishers covering their asses, so if the book tanks they can say, "How was I to know? He had a great platform." It also leads to a lot of books that contain excellent and authentic background information that aren’t particularly well written.

  13. Jan Morrison

    Sorry about that Tess! Just looked at Tuesday – Louise etc… duh! won’t help to have a platform if the folks reading it don’t pay attention. I’ll do better I promise! , Jan

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    I think the cop should write the novel he wants. If he writes a cop novel and sells it, then the publisher will expect another cop novel and another and another and if he doesn’t want to write cop novels he’s pretty much up a creek.

    Better he writes the novel he wants, makes it sing, and hopes it flies. If it doesn’t, THEN he can write a cop novel.

    My two cents.

  15. Allison Brennan

    What Rob said.

    I worked in the legislature, I’m a mom, and I’m the least romantic person on the planet. I have no platform to write romantic thrillers or crime fiction, or anything that I have written. I’m writing supernatural thrillers now as well and while I believe that demons exist, I’ve never been an exorcist nor do I have any training in witchcraft or demonology or theology of any kind. Didn’t even go to Catholic school.

    If you don’t write what you love, and you sell, will you be happy writing it for 5, 10, 20 years? Because I do believe that to be a career author, you need to plant your stake in whatever genre you’re writing and give your readers what they expect from you.

  16. Neil Nyren

    I’d just like to clarify: An author’s occupation matching his subject is one kind of platform, but only one. When a publisher asks about a platform, he’s looking for anything at all that will differentiate this book and this author from all the other books and authors coming out — how are we going to get peoples’ attention, how are we going to cut through the noise? We want to know about the author’s connections, his contacts, his media experience, his prominence in whatever profession he has (even if it has nothing to do with the book). The bottom line is, what does he have or do or know that will help us convince the stores, the reviewers, the media, the book clubs and the consumers that this is a book worthy of their attention.

  17. Julie Kramer

    I’m a journalist recently turning novelist. When I sat down to write my first fictionl, I wanted to write a book that only I could write. So I concentrated on the increasing desperate world of TV news.And I’m gathering more material all the time. Having covered a lot of missing person cases, I wanted my latest, MISSING MARK, to share how newsrooms decide which missing people get publicity and which don’t. This morning I produced a live shot for CBS news on the airplane passengers held hostage on a tarmac in Rochester, MN. I could see a scene like that in a future book. I know some authors have a gift of creating worlds, like JK Rowling. I don’t think I have that knack. But I love sharing my occupational secrets with readers. I think writers should follow whatever direction feels comfortable.


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