An author platform. To pitch a nonfiction book to a major publisher, you need one. Literary agents want you to have one. Publishers want you to have one.
But what are author platforms and what do they do?
Let’s tackle the second part of that: what do they do? Think of passing by a room in a hotel convention center with an open door. You peek in and see a speaker up on a platform, ready to speak to a big crowd of people, seated and ready to listen. What’s your impression of that person and their influence? A person on a platform, speaking to an assembled crowd, has many advantages in getting heard compared to a similar person, perhaps with just as much knowledge, sitting in a chair in the hotel lobby.
The person sitting in the lobby can get their message out to a single person who happens to sit down beside them. The person on the platform will quickly get the message out to many more people. And if it’s a good idea, that message might then spread exponentially, much more quickly.
So a platform for a speaker is a tangible, existing, powerful tool. Well, a literary platform for writers does just what a physical platform does. Here’s what it gives you:
1. Visibility. A platform lets you be seen and heard by the people farthest in the back. With a P.A. system, you can be heard in a large auditorium; if outside, across a large public space. With a platform’s amplification, you say what you have to say once . . . and many hear it.
2. Community Experience. A platform lifts you up so many can hear your message all at the same time. This creates a community experience. Think of the buzz in the room after a great speech. People can discuss what they heard with others, verbalizing the core themes, comparing what others valued in the talk. This makes everyone more able and motivated to share the ideas with others not at the speech. This is the heart of buzz . . . knowing that what’s exciting to you is exciting to others. You believe that others want to share what they think about the matter, and you begin to look for more opportunities to talk about it.
3. Aura. Let’s face it, just being seen on a platform probably means some influential people have wanted to promote what you have to say. You’ll instinctively be more impressed by a person welcomed onto a platform, introduced as an official speaker, than a person met at a party or standing on their own little soapbox in a corner of a park or sitting alone in a hotel lobby.
4. Experience. A person who has been on a platform again and again, speaking to crowds, has gotten a big benefit from that experience. They’ve learned how to better craft and deliver a compelling message, how much preparation is needed to engage and sway a crowd . . . and how simple and clear the best-heard messages are. Speaking from a platform to many requires different skills than a good storyteller sitting at a dinner table, telling tales to a small circle of friends or family to pass the time. A large crowd gathers for a talk expecting to hear someone with the skills to deliver a valuable message in a way that it is understood, is convincing, and includes take-aways, the memorable bits that an audience carries away and holds in their minds.
For a writer, “platform” is often more than major speaking venues. It can be a popular blog (Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki have huge virtual platforms) or a large mailing list of your own or a column in a major magazine or a high post in an influential professional organization.
The need for a platform for a nonfiction book, of course, reflects that publishers buy these works based on a pre-book proposal, long before a full manuscript exists. And on any given topic, any 20-page proposal may look not so much different from the next. The difference is often the author: how much they bring to the table in the way of a proven sphere of influence, with previous succcess in marketing themselves and their ideas — to real networks that will want to hear the newest ideas that person has on his or her topic of expertise.
Sit in the publisher’s or agent’s chair, and think how you would choose between fairly similar book proposals. If one person has been successful in developing their own big platform, they would seem a better bet as an author to help sell books than an untested speaker. And at its core, publishing (from the point of view of publishers and literary agents) is all about making good bets.
So, the easier you make it for them to bet on you (the better you can help your agent convince an editor to help convince an acquisitions committee), the more likely you are to get that nonfiction book contract.