Why Authors Need a Platform More than Ever

 Books
Mar 082010
 

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I’ve spoken to three hopeful memoirists recently who were convinced that the strength of their writing alone will be enough to sell their book. They don’t need to work on their platforms, they said.

Now, this would be interesting if these people were famous or rich. But they’re not. They have either a small blog or have never been published. And in the world of memoir, being famous helps. In fact, it’s the first question my agent asks when I mention I’m working with someone who’s hoping to publish a memoir.

Since most of us are not ever going to be famous, the best we can do is build a platform. A platform is a writer’s ability to create an audience of readers who will buy a forthcoming book. In this down economy, it’s never been more important. If you don’t believe me, see the International Association of Culinary Professionals finalists for book awards and notice how many chefs and known cookbook authors are on the lists. Publishers find them a much safer bet than the unknowns.

(Memoirs are listed under Literary Food Writing. Note the finalists: William Grimes; A New York Times reporter; David Lebovitz, a successful cookbook author and mega blogger; and Tristan Stuart, a freelance writer and published author.)

These authors are among the unknowns’ competition. If these three memoirists ever send their book proposal to an agent, he or she will evaluate it not only on its own merits, but whether the writers are good and/or different enough to join the agent’s team of successful writers.

On the other hand, what is a big enough platform? I coached a writer on a cookbook proposal recently who’s a super hard worker. She’s been on television several times to demo recipes, she blogs, she’s regularly written up in the press, she has big followings on social media, and she has written for national magazines. She sent out her proposal to a bunch of agents and got this first response from the biggest one:

“It’s very well-written…but unfortunately, it comes back to the market right now and the difficulty in interesting a mainstream publisher without the platform of celebrity or a Food Network TV Show.  And now, with another cooking channel in the works, competition will be even greater.”

Translation: her platform, without a national television show, wasn’t big enough.

Granted, it’s just one agent’s opinion. This writer will keep going, because that’s how she is, and eventually, she’ll find an agent. Notice she’s not trying to publish a memoir, which is infinitely harder to sell.

So here’s the thing: It’s difficult to sell a cookbook now, with a platform, so why would these three unknowns think they can sell a memoir without one? Creating and building a readership takes time, sometimes years. I can think of three possible explanations:

1. They’re unrealistic

2. They’re not serious

3. They don’t believe in themselves enough to invest.

Because if the opposite were true: they’re realistic, serious, and believe in themselves, they’d get to work.

Photo credit: Foodnetaddict

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  27 Responses to “Why Authors Need a Platform More than Ever”

  1. Maybe it’s too soon to tell from just one agent’s response? This new author seems to have a terrific “platform” and yet..?

  2. Once upon a time talent was enough to get a book published, a record deal, a tv show, etc. Now, nobody wants to invest in anyone regardless of how amazing their work might be. This idea that one needs to achieve major celebrity before being allowed by “the powers that be” to sell their art is absurd. I understand this is the reality we are dealing with today, but it is still absurd.

    Dianne, do you have suggestions for working on our platforms? I understand that one has to be savvy with regards to social media, but what else are we supposed to be doing to become famous?

    • That’s a whole subject in itself.

      I did write about this conundrum about being an expert for Writer’s Digest. I’m sure I’ll write more posts about it.

      • Isn’t it easier today to forge your path without the publishers and other gate-keepers? Think about how hard Julia Child had to work: first honing her writing talent with several years in advertising, then over a decade learning to cook and working on her book and pitching it to publishers. Publishers always want safe bets, so if you want their investment, you make yourself look as safe as possible.

        But if you work hard and can gamble on yourself, there’s way more opportunity to get known through the internet than there ever used to be. Not saying it’s easy, just saying I’m not sure it has ever been easier.

        • There has never been so much noise, I’ll give you that. I find it both exhausting and exhilarating. Julia Child developed her platform first. Even so one publisher thought her book was too much of a risk. Luckily, she found Judith Jones.

      • Thanks for the link Dianne. I read that article you wrote months ago, but forgot. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Rich and famous people always have an easier path to get what they want, but talented and dedicated people will make it eventually. Their road might be longer and harder, but I believe it’s possible to achieve one’ goals. It’s not only in the food world but in every industry that it works this way. That’s just life. If you’re well connected, you have an easier time. It’s who you know that helps. I’ve seen it many times before; people who know key people are more successful than those who might be more talented to do the job, but anonymous people do make it!

    • Yes, but since it’s hard to make it anyway, why not work on the connections, etc.? They are not mutually exclusive ideas: writing a book and working on your platform.

      • I didn’t think for a second that there’s no need to work on platform and connecting with people and networking, etc. I thought your post was a bit discouraging and I want to hold on to my belief that talented people and/or those who have someting to contribute/give to the world will get their voice heard.

        • It’s not discouraging. It’s reality. The people who will get their voice heard are the ones who also work on their platform.

  4. You made two excellent points: “A platform is a writer’s ability to create an audience of readers who will buy a forthcoming book.” and “Creating and building a readership takes time, sometimes years.” So, the platform must first be created in order to build it, right? We accomplish this first by establishing our credentials: We begin by doing what we love. This gives us the desire and momentum to do whatever it takes and to learn as much as we can in order to establish ourselves as an expert on the subject we want to write about. It is our passion that keeps us moving toward our goal and enthusiasm that ignites other people’s passion. We want to share what we love doing with the world in hopes that they will share in our passion, as well. It is our joy that keeps us motivated. If this isn’t a recipe for success, I don’t know what is.

  5. I agree with everything you have written here, but please don’t demonize editors and agents – we are merely running our businesses within the current realities of our media culture. With very few exceptions, authors who have no pre-existing platform simply won’t sell many books. The question I always ask a prospective client: “How will someone in Kansas or Florida know about you and your book?”

    • Hello Ted!

      Sorry if it came across that way. Agents are just part of the loop of trying to figure out what sells. If that big agent only takes people with national television shows, well, good for her.

      It’s all a big circle and you agents are part of the loop. Editors want what will sell to consumers, agents want what will sell to editors, writers want to create what will sell to agents and editors and consumers. Or at least they should want that — hence my rant.

  6. Dear Dianne, I can relate to this story and feel it in my own skin. I had quite a few rejections before landing a contract. They all liked my project and my outcome, but the lack of platform was a huge obstacle. I consider a true miracle that I have a cookbook out considering the size of my platform and I will work harder then ever to enlarge it and become the ambassador of Brazilian cuisine.

    I also thank God that my publisher was willing to bet on me and my project, and I wish that publishers would reconsider their decisions when they see the potential of an author even before their have build platforms.

    There are so many talented people out there, but only a handful have a tv show. How fair is that?

    BTW, check out my book, The Brazilian Kitchen!

    • Leticia, there is an exception to every rule — the rare person who’s worth the gamble, and that appears to be you! Plus, Brazilian food is hot. Congratulations. Readers, her publisher was Kyle Books.

  7. I love food memoirs, but feel the market is a little saturated with the ” incandescent memory of the day I tasted my first wild strawberry” stories. It just takes one person to make that innovative and creative leap from cook book to a new, and great story. I think you’re right, that either the author or the subject matter needs to be particularly riveting to sell these days.

    • Or have connections. I’ve seen chef memoirs based on who owns the restaurant, or whom they’re related to.

  8. This is a great article. I’ve been writing a lot about platform myself. In fact, I’m in the middle of a series of articles exploring platform. I’m taking my readers through the process of first finding a platform and then building it during the writing process. Unless you have a platform in place and well populated with readers/buyers, you’ll have to be working on this all the time you’re writing your book. My favorite line is, start your blog the day you start writing your book. But be careful not to steal from your book content to develop blog content.

    Now I have a question. Would you be interested in participating in Women’s Memoirs writing contest. All you need is a recipe and a story. You’ll find details here: http://womensmemoirs.com/contests/

    Thanks again for this excellent piece on platform.

  9. Ah, the dreaded platform. Hi ho. Hi ho. Building a platform requires more than a little heavy lifting. I agree, it’s the REALITY. But I better get back to work on it instead of writing something here.

    On the memoir subject, some readers might be interested in Jane Friedman’s post from writer’s digest. http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2010/03/10/YourNo1ChallengeIfYoureWritingMemoir.aspx

    • Thanks for the link, Sally. I often read Jane Friedman’s blog. Now, yes, as you say, back to work. For me too!

  10. A platform is as important to a writer as his talent. Without one, chances of making a good living is slim. My agent and editor considered my platform before taking me on. Some of the best “platformers” I know spend almost as much time building and strengthening it as they do writing. But I don’t think it has to be a national TV show or radio show. People such as John T. Edge, the amazingly talented and well-respected food writer on all things Southern, teaches at a university and has the Southern Foodways Alliance as a platform. Others have blogs, Web sites, etc. But in the end, it’s not impossible to build one. But my advice is START NOW. Don’t wait. Even if you think you might want to write a book, someday, somewhere. I started my site 10 years before my book was published because I knew back then getting a built-in audience would help sell me and the book to a publisher. And it did.

    • Absolutely. The book does not come first. First, build a platform. Then a publisher will want you when you write the book based on it.

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