Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adina Kahn talks about nonfiction platforms

When discussing nonfiction proposals with editors, the question that I am asked most commonly is: What is the author’s platform? Editors want to know if the authors have written for any publications, whether they have an established website or blog, and if they have recently done any media appearances or speaking engagements.

It isn’t always enough to simply be an expert on the subject you are writing about. In order to catch an agent’s or editor’s attention, you want to already have a built-in readership. The best proposal not only proves that you are the perfect person to tackle the topic at hand, but also shows that people already look to you for the answers.

Obviously, being a recognized name helps matters when selling a book. Stephen Colbert, Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton did not need to do much to persuade their publisher that they could sell books. Sometimes a celebrity can help build buzz around your name without you having to do a thing. Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s SKINNY BITCH was selling nicely, but Victoria Beckham ensured that they hit the bestseller lists when she was spotted carrying a copy of their book.

Of course, not every author is this lucky. Very often it is the authors’ responsibility to get their own name out in the public eye. There are some simple and inexpensive ways to do this. Pitch articles to publications. Get endorsements from recognized names in your field. Start a website or a blog (of course, you also have to make sure people are actually reading them.) In AUTHOR 101: BESTSELLING BOOK PUBLICITY Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman emphasize the importance of platforms and discuss in detail how to create your own promotional campaign for a book.

Of course, there are still many cases where an author’s stellar credentials or inspiring memoir will ensure that a book gets sold, regardless of whether or not anyone has ever heard of the writer. The strength of the material will always be the number one reason a book ends up getting sold.

It may seem logical that a platform can only be established after a book is published, but when trying to get an agent or editor’s attention it is not a bad idea to come to them with a built-in audience. Perhaps Victoria Beckham will eventually pick up another book, and perhaps that book will be yours, but until then it never hurts to work on building your platform.


  1. A Fiction Platform Wouldn't Hurt, Either

    From what I am seeing online, "name recognition" is the new mantra for novelists too - or at least, one of the ways that first-time "Wanda B. Ontheshelves" writers beat themselves up - not being Laurel K. Hamilton or Stephen King.

    I love marketing. Constructing a "built-in audience" is half the fun of writing a novel! Right now I picture in my mind those "scratch and sniff" magazine inserts for perfumes...I'd love to receive one of those in relation to a mystery novel, that used a perfume as a plot element somehow - off the top of my head I imagine Hercule Poirot's aftershave.

    It'd be great to have a perfume company create a "signature fragrance" for one of your characters - if Beanie Botts All-Flavor Beans for kids, why not a perfume for adults? Even approaching perfume companies with such a request (and publicizing that you are doing so), might generate some buzz for a "no-name" novelist (with a solid book, of course).


    Seems like marketing for novels (even "literary") is in dire need of...updating? Expansion? Exploration of all five senses?

    But what do I know...I'm just another -

    Wanda B. Ontheshelves

  2. To provide a different perspective, I personally never want to consider my platform. Other people can talk about it, if they want, and my lack of one can keep me someday from reaching more people. But I just don't enjoy thinking about it, or doing anything to "build" it.

    I understand why, especially in this day and age, every question revolves around platform. I understand why agents think about it, why publishers think about it, and why some authors think about it. For me, it's completely boring and time-consuming (I have to assume), and too much of an insider game. I don't write non-fiction because I want to be an expert, and I don't write magazine articles because of platform considerations. I write when I feel like it because I enjoy it.

    I can see why people that love marketing would love the idea of building a platform. I hate marketing, and I especially hate marketing myself. But I do end up getting non-fiction published sometimes, enough to eek out a even for platform-phobic writers, it can work.

  3. Re: "I Hate Marketing"

    Marketing as in, having to stand by a toaster oven in a white apron at a grocery store, offering low-fat pizza samples? Or, the marketing-my-candidate-instead-of-Avon lady I once saw hurrying ahead of a presidential candidate, desperately making the preacher's "let us all rise now" gesture toward the too-quiet crowds? Or, worst of all (in my opinion), the salespeople across America who cold call on small companies, handing over business cards to receptionists who will not under any circumstance buzz them in (I know, I was one of those receptionists).

    Maybe your concept of marketing doesn't involve the above (painful, humiliating) scenarios. Maybe marketing really does just seem "boring" "time-consuming" and "too much of an insider game" to you. But another way of viewing marketing is, simply sharing your enthusiasm for your subject matter with others. That's not painful or boring, is it?

    I don't consider myself a nonfiction writer. But yesterday I tried to come up with a nonfiction title that I would enjoy marketing. I came up with "Poor Woman's Bonsai," which is about the wonders of Coleus, an inexpensive plant that can easily be turned into little trees (bonsai), by progressively pinching off the lower branches. Growing real bonsai is daunting: Cost, temperature control, etc. But Coleus is a snap, I mean, pinch! Just pinch off the branches/buds/flowers you don't want, and you've got yourself a tree!

    Right now I have a Halloween vignette going on underneath a pair of Coleus trees (Colsai?) I planted in one pot – a mummy piano player, witch and skeleton dancers, a ceramic haunted house. I wouldn't mind approaching local greenhouses about a 400-piece postcard mailing, featuring a photo of the Halloween vignette, and offering 10% off 1 Coleus plant and 1 copy of "Poor Woman's Bonsai," purchased together. Sounds like loads of fun (to me at least), even if a little time-consuming!

    Rachel Ray's story of "accidental" platform-building is really inspirational too. I think it ran on the Food Channel recently, I would suggest keeping an eye out for it (or maybe it is online somewhere). All the best to the platform-phobic out there,

    Wanda B. Ontheshelves

  4. Agent Book Club on TV

    Speaking of platform-building - why isn't there an "Agent Book Club" ala Oprah's Book Club on TV - where an agent will come on and talk about 3 or 4 books on their list, why they think they're great books, etc. That is, FICTION, and yes, gulp, even poetry - Ecco Press publishes poetry (I'm pretty sure), - I could even see a show like "What Not to Query" along the lines of "What Not to Wear" - I'm sure most agents would be too busy for the latter, but it would be potentially loads of fun to see a 1-hour show where someone's ineffective approach to querying, or even writing, was given some "tough love" on air. Could be a sleeper hit!

    Oh well,

    Wanda B. Ontheshelves

  5. Very informative, Adina. I work to build my platform, but I feel very torn between writing time and marketing. I think balance is key and it seems clear that self-marketing is here to stay. Still, I don't think it's smart for publishers to throw the marketing ball totally into the author's court. Seems like there should be some balance there, too. Maybe there is more than I can see.