“I don’t want to be the poster girl for dysfunctional relationships,” my client told me. And yet her memoir was about a past dysfunctional relationship. She’d just spent a weekend at a writers’ conference where agents and editors she’d met with had helped her to brainstorm platform-building ideas that included writing articles and posts about the experiences in her memoir. She understood that she needed to build her platform for these same agents and editors to sign her on, and yet she was resisting their suggestions, explaining to me that she was not a one-trick pony. She didn’t want to be pigeonholed.
I’ve heard variations of this type of resistance from writers for years. And the complaint doesn’t only come from memoirists; novelists succumb to this way of thinking as well. They want to build their platforms, and understand that they have to if they want to get a book deal, and yet the idea of becoming an expert on the concepts or issues that are central to their book makes them bristle, or makes them feel somehow locked in. Or possible not seen for the whole of who they are.
Current publishing trends are such that writers need to have an author platform before an agent or editor will sign them on. An agent friend of mine told an audience at a panel we sat on together, “Get the TED talk first and then come talk to me.”
The only way to build an author platform when you’re starting out is to focus in on a topic, issue, or theme. This is straightforward when you’re writing nonfiction. Someone like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a perfect example of someone with a strong single-topic platform. Her angle is specific — writing about, to, and for introverts — and yet broad enough that it includes a huge segment of the population.
Memoirists and novelists can replicate this kind of platform with the topics central to their own books, as long as they embrace the idea of being the “poster girl” or “poster boy,” at least for the time being.
An author platform is something that elevates your visibility, that makes you stand out above the crowd. You have to earn your way to becoming an Anne Lamott or a Roxanne Gay, writers who can opine on many topics and have ears of thousands of readers. This doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen with the success of just one book.
To those aspiring authors who want agents and editors to notice them, here are five steps to build and grow your platform:
1. Choose themes central to your book to write about, whether these are issues like homelessness, love addiction, or international travel, or themes, like resilience, grief, or forgiveness.
2. Focus in on your primary topics/themes for the next while. You can’t be pigeonholed if you don’t first have some success in the area you’re trying to break into, so try to avoid putting the cart before the horse. Come up with a list of ten potential blog posts on your single topic or theme and find your voice of authority. Own your issue or topic.
3. Set up Google alerts on your issue/topic/theme. Let Google curate lists for you about grief, for instance, or homelessness. If you have an issue like homelessness, set up Google alerts for “homeless” and “homelessness” and see what comes through. Adjust your keywords as necessary. Use Google alerts for inspiration for social media and blog posts, and to stay current on what’s trending within your topic.
4. Interact with your community. We all have tribes, to use Seth Godin’s term for our communities, and you need to find these people and start following them. If there are people out there doing what you aspire to be doing, follow them! Share their Facebook posts and retweet their tweets. You are not in competition with these people; they’re part of your same fraternity/sorority of brothers and sisters who share a similar goal — to spread a message about something that deeply matters to them.
5. Keep going. One of the most powerful messages I’ve ever heard on this topic came from Mark Nepo in an off-the-cuff comment he made to me when I asked him about his meteoric success after his book, The Book of Awakening, after it shot onto The New York Times best seller list. He said, “I’m glad I kept writing when no one was listening.” There may be a perception of a small audience. You may put your work out there and barely get a response. Maybe no one comments on your post. And yet, equally important is the body of work you are building. Don’t expect your early social media and blog posts to be liked or shared by hundreds. This is what you’re building toward, and it takes time. My agent friend was glib when he said to go out and get the TED talk first, but the deeper message there is to keep spreading your message until people take notice.
I’ve written elsewhere that platform is a marathon, not a sprint. I can’t think of many overnight success stories in the publishing world. Most successful authors can share tales of hard work, persistence, and long hours spent in pursuit of a their goals and dreams. Few debut authors become bestsellers. And even fewer authors are signing book deals without platforms in place. Yes, there are exceptions, but try not to measure your own failures or successes against these exceptions, as it can only lead to frustration.
Love your topic or issue enough to live with it for at least the next five years. And then, once you become a voice that people want to listen to, want to hear more from, then you’ll have the freedom to switch gears. Yes, you run the risk of getting pigeonholed with your first book, but focus on what this can bring you instead of how it will limit you. Because you do have to earn your way, and you do this by cultivating your expertise and becoming a go-to person, which requires focus and specificity — at least until you break out.