I've had a bunch of questions on "platforms" recently, so let me try and tackle them…
Richard wrote to ask, "What is an author platform? How would you describe it?"
An author platform is simply who you are and what you're known for. If you have expert credentials, or you speak around the country on a topic, or you're known by the media as a source of information on a specific issue, you have an obvious platform. All of that will help to create buzz for your book, and reaching readers is what good marketing is all about.
I think there are two sides to understand the notion of "platforms." First, who you are in relation to your topic. If you're a recognized expert at your topic, you've got a good platform. Let me offer an example… If Warren Buffett wanted to do a book on How to Invest in Today's Stock Market, publishers would be interested because every investor recognizes Buffett's abilty to make money buying stocks. His expertise with the topic is evident. But that's not the only thing needed — there are plenty of investors who have done well and become fabulously wealthy, even in a bad economy. They know their topic, but that's only half the equation.
The second part of understanding a platform is who you are in relation to your readers. Warren Buffett doesn't just know his material, he is known by his potential readership. Most investors recognize the name from his interviews, his letters to stockholders, his appearances in the media. He is an expert, but he's also known by potential book-buyers as an expert. Both aspects are important for an author to capture the attention of a publisher.
In a related vein, Jim wants to know, "The topic of author platforms concerns me because I don't see myself as having a great platform for launching my book. How much consideration (by agents and editors) goes into an author's ability to promote his or her own book?"
A considerable amount. It used to be I could sell a great nonfiction manuscript based solely on the big idea matched by great writing. That doesn't happen much any more. Even when showing a dynamite idea, or drop-dead-gorgeous writing, the publisher is bound to ask me, "What's the author's platform?" If the author doesn't have a platform, it's going to be very tough to land the deal. The author's platform is the key to getting media attention, getting the book reviewed and talked about, and getting buzz going.
Another thing to consider (and something I believe many newer authors don't grasp) is the notion of economies of scale. As an author, you might think it's great that you can show up at your local Rotary Club and sell a dozen copies. But a publisher, even a smaller publisher, isn't all that impressed with your ability to sell a dozen copies, or even several dozen. They need to leverage your platform to move thousands of copies — so mentioning that you're going to advertise your book on your blog doesn't mean much unless that blog is read by thousands of people.
And Donna asked, "Do my magazine articles count as part of my platform? Does my column in my local newspaper? It seems like publishers are only interested in conference speaking and major media."
To balance out my previous answer, I've got to tell you something, Donna: Yes. Magazine articles count. (In fact, I've long said that articles are the single most overlooked marketing opportunity for most book authors.) Your local newspaper column counts. Speaking to groups counts. Everything you do to market yourself and your book goes to make up your platform. And for that reason, you can see why publishers prefer conference speaking and major media — it offers the biggest platform. So if you're not there yet, focus on what you are doing to present the biggest platform you can.
And Rachelle wrote this: "I am a nonfiction writer with lots of article experience, but my book experience is limited to curriculum. I have several ideas for books (in various stages of progress), but what makes me hesitate is that I have no platform. In the world of publishing, I'm a complete nobody. I feel like no matter how well I learn to write or how great of an idea I have, I'll never be published without a platform. Do you have suggestions for me?"
Sure. Create a great website, keep it up to date, and include your speaking events, reviews, endorsements, video clips, and everything else that will boost interest. (Get a professional to work with you on your site — it will pay off in the long run.) Create your own media kit that includes a one-page press release, a photo, a DVD with your media clips, a couple of articles on your topic, and a sheet that has questions & answers that can be used by interviewers. Get endorsements from experts in the field and recognizable names. Write articles and create audios and videos that can be posted online and help you get your message out. Speak frequently on your topic, and keep a list of places you're speaking, who the audience is, and how many people attended. As much as possible, tie your topic to breaking news, since the media are most interested in how your message relates to something happening right now. Learn to use the tools on Amazon, which is an amazingly helpful website for assisting authors with the promotion of their books. Consider working with a marketing professional who can help polish your presentation and introduce you to media contacts. It can be expensive, but it can also help move you into areas you don't know how to reach on your own. Build your relationship with your publisher by being helpful and friendly and hard-working, and by getting to know the marketing and sales staff. And by all means, don't ignore bookstores. I know authors who refuse to walk by a bookstore without going in, shaking hands, and thanking the owner or manager for helping them succeed in their writing careers. We all tend to recommend people we know and like, so if a bunch of bookstore managers know and like you, they're apt to suggest your book to potential readers.
More questions and answers coming soon!