Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, September 20, 2010

What Platform Means for Writers

Thanks so much to the organizers, faculty, and attendees of the Central Coast Writers Conference for a fantastic weekend! It was such a great opportunity to meet with eager and enthusiastic writers (including a group of wildly intelligent and talented teen writers). I spoke about why I'm optimistic about the future of books despite the challenging climate, and it was a pleasure to hear Jay Asher's inspirational talk about how his writing journey originally started at the CCWC. Now, of course, he's the author of Thirteen Reasons Why, which first landed on the bestseller list six months after publication, showing how it was propelled to success by a groundswell of word of mouth.

In National Book Award finalist Kathleen Duey's most excellent workshop on writing for children, a question came up about "platform," and what exactly that means. You hear so much talk of platform these days and about how it's important, but what in the heck is it?

Well, platform is one of those nebulous concepts that will result in a thousand different definitions if you ask a thousand different individuals. But here's how I think of it: platform is the number of eyeballs you can summon as you promote your book.

A "platform" may be comprised of an Internet or media presence, a very strong reputation in a particular field, a TV show, affiliation with a popular brand, a connection to a popular writing collective, celebrity status, or ownership of the world's largest soapbox.

When it comes to platform: publishers want authors to have it, especially for nonfiction, and it doesn't hurt for fiction either.

That's because especially for nonfiction, we trust and consider brands when making our purchasing decisions. We want to buy our books from the world's foremost authority on the subject. But just as importantly, a big platform allows an author to effectively promote their work.

Hence, publishers want you to have it. It's not everything, and don't get carried away trying to build platform at the expense of writing your book. But in your spare time as you're writing, it can be helpful to get to work building that giant soapbox.

Photo by  Zipacna1






60 comments:

Christine Macdonald said...

Fantastic post and conference.

This was my first writer's conference and must say - the bar is set high.

Great to meet you, too! Thanks for all you do, Nathan. You are a true gem who has a heart for us starving artists.

Cheers,
Christine Macdonald
www.poletosoul.com

ed miracle said...

Tell me again, what is the publisher bringing to the table in this new paradigm? We writers create the product (out of our sweat and tears, if not blood), we edit our own copy (because publishers don't have time), and we now bring the eyeballs (so publishers don't have to). And they wonder why we are running (not walking) toward POD or on-line publishing.

Obviously, you intend to help us, Nathan, but it's not clear the New York crowd is with you on this.

swampfox said...

Thanks, Nathan,
I had learned about "Platform" from you on your blog a while back, and it's why I began my own blog. Other than just talking up my work to my students, I can now reach a whole new universe out there.

M.A.Leslie said...

So should I be writing a letter to Oprah before her show stops running on the air and before I have agent representation?

Daryl Sedore said...

I completely agree. All the sales of my novel have been because of social marketing.

Many purchases I've made and will make have been a result of someone's platform.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Thanks, Nathan. This is a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately.

StrategiCopy said...

I can't help but agree with @edmiracle: what does the publisher offer, if not marketing/publicity? -- merely print, distribution and the credibility of their brand stamped on our books? (The former 2 seem easily covered off by e-book publishing.)

I understood that the greatest value a publisher offered was its ability to market new books/writers. Sounds like that's not the case??? So writers are supposed to want to publish with a traditional publisher because... why?

Nathan Bransford said...

ed and strategicopy-

Mike Shatzkin addresses that more eloquently than I can here.

Stu Pitt said...

Utter nonsense. You would think no books were published or sold before the Internet with this sort of thinking in the industry.

PLATFORM is a very good book by Michel Houellebecq, and that's it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Not sure I follow, Stu.

clp3333 said...

Good post. You might put your definition for platform in your essentials glossary.

Anonymous said...

In the tradition of a small but fun number of your readers, I would like to completely blow everything out of proportion and publicly malign you for attributing success to platform and not writing, essentially treating the last sentence of your post as though it were invisible and as though this bit of advice on building platform - which I'm guessing in your opinion amounts to a few percent of the overall process of writing and selling books - is the only thing we as writers should be attending to. I would also like to word-mime throwing stuffed animal puppies at you.

Robert said...

Stu,

I think you misunderstand the concept of "Platform." Although a writer can build a platform on the Internet (e.g., a successful blog), one can have a "big" platform that has nothing to do with the Internet. Example: book about Obama. Who would have the bigger platform for writing a book about Obama: me or Obama?

Not only would Obama have far more credibility than me when it comes to writing a book about, well, him, but he also has the ability to command lots of eyes and ears. Thus, based on his inherent credibility re: the subject matter, along with his ability to attract eyes and ears to his book, Obama has a huge platform. I, however, have neither. Damn.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Very simple yet good definition for platform. I like the correlation you made to non-fiction brands.

Working with several publishers' PR departments, I do see what they do to facilitate platforms for their authors. Talking to many authors I watch them trying to implement this too. It certainly helps when their publicist is giving guidance and help. As a member of RWA, we are given much info on creating one as well. But the truth is, no one works as hard as an author vested in their own success.

I'm glad you enjoyed the conference. You've probably been to several as an agent but the view changes a bit when you go with writer/author hat on, doesn't it?

Good post Nathan. :-)

Daryl Sedore said...

Wow! Amazing!

Even a post about platform is attracting angst from the writing community.

Publishers: listen up.

The Big Six may be the Big Two in 5-10 years.

Big Two= Amazon and Apple

Deb Amlen said...

A very compelling discussion. I am increasingly hearing the word platform used as my first book is promoted. The learning curve as the industry changes is incredibly steep.

In my case, I lucked into a deal with a publisher that is owned by a large bookseller, so distribution was not an issue this time around. Promotion, on the other hand, was almost non-existent for budgetary reasons. Hiring a publicist on my own dime taught me more about this concept than I thought there was to know.

Clicking through to Mike Shatzkin's post in the hope that it will shed some light on how to build platform so I have a decent chance of selling my second book.

Thanks for the insight, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Do we have many good examples of novels that were helped by the writer's platform? Certainly a writer who's already huge has a platform, but he didn't have a platform before he became huge.

It seems to me good books create their own platforms, and whether or not you have 3000 Facebook friends, 3000 twitter followers, or 3000 blog hits, the amount of excitement the writer can generate on his own might be insignificant compared to a good marketing campaign or the magic of word-of-mouth.

Stu Pitt said...

"Who would have the bigger platform for writing a book about Obama: me or Obama?"

Obama by Obama is propaganda.

Obama by Bob Woodward or any historian or political scientist is a valuable book.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Check out bestselling author Lisa McMann's interview on how building her platform helped her in a big big way.

Nathan Bransford said...

Not his point, Stu.

Random Chick said...

Thank you so much for this post! I have been wracking my brain on attempting to come up with my platform, but had no clue as to what it actually meant. You put it in plain English and stated honestly what it means to writers and publishers.

Again, THANK YOU! Now I can go find my platform...then go to a writer's conference for the first time.

Anonymous said...

When trying to decide what book to by when browsing the shelves (virtual or otherwise), the only thing that matters are reviews. Either a friend recommends it or you look to see how many positives it has on Amazon. Nobody goes to a writer's website unless they're already a fan. A platform for a non-fiction writer is a no-brainer, but fiction? Novelists often write under different names. They might use three or four in different genres. Should each name have a platform, and if so, what sort of platform is best for a novelist?

Stu Pitt said...

Robert said Obama has more credibility to write about Obama. I disagree. Platform as described in this post seems like some sort of bizarre popularity contest. The best nonfiction books are written by terrifically smart people.

Nathan Bransford said...

Stu-

Robert said Obama has more credibility to write about Obama than Robert does.

But really, your disagreements are still beside the point, so I guess three strikes and you're out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nathan. I checked out the Lisa McMann interview, but I'm not sure that's conclusive evidence of a platform working for a novelist. Most of what she did was just good old fashioned knocking on doors and telling librarians and others about her books. Then she says that five -- count them five -- of her myspace pals showed up for her, and she knows she's sold hundreds of books to her facebook and myspace friends. Hardly what got her to bestseller status.

The key phrase to me, and what really helped her, was "praise from the national sales team" about the book. I'm not saying her efforts didn't propel her onto the bestseller lists, but it's very difficult to say it did. Lots of other writers who debuted big didn't do what she did, but they ended up in the same place. Correlation does not equal causation.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

But those efforts were what helped get things going. It both gave her a base from which word of mouth can spread and it also showed her publisher that she could effectively partner with her to market, which made them more likely to invest in marketing on her behalf, because she could multiply those efforts.

I wouldn't think of platform strictly in terms of celebrity (though you need only look at the Lauren Conrad books to see the effect that has on a novel), but rather being out there enough to give a project a boost.

In the post last week about social networking, quite a few people mentioned Kiersten White as an example of someone who effectively used social media and built a following prior to publication and became a bestseller. Not everyone who bought her book was a blog follower, but it's more about a boost than a strict formula, if that makes sense. It's all about getting that word of mouth going.

I also don't want to overstate the extent to which this is necessary for fiction, (which may be your point). It can definitely help, but it's by no means everything. The book is still the most important thing.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Thanks Nathan. It makes sense to have an audience and it's not as difficult as some believe. The blogging community of writers is supportive to authentic respectful people. There's good examples of platform building everywhere online, and maybe if we stop focussing on what publishers are or aren't doing our writing and platform would improve and evolve. We can choose to become disheartened and frustrated or learn to take control of our careers. Sports stars have fan bases and can be good role models or not and writers have to learn to do the same. It's no good being a creative literary genius if you're too introverted to pitch your idea. Suck it up! Be observant. Nathan has a platform, stop whining and pay attention. He created his platform by being himself. He's authentic, generous, and passionate about writing and publishing. If you're confident that all you need to be published is good writing, write well and get yourself published.

Anonymous said...

This seems so much more simple than some people want it to be. If you are trying to be published traditionally, you're offering a product for sale that someone else is going to sell to others (readers). It's a business, not a charity. It's fabulously competitive. If you can say here's my brilliant novel AND I have x numnber of likely buyers, it's going to be a factor. How could it not?

If you already have a strong enough platform that you don't "need" a traditional publisher, and being validated by that paradigm doesn't matter, then self-publish. But for everyone who says they don't want to be part of that business model there are plenty who do. And many of them have a platform.

Mira said...

Ha, ha. First, I nominate anon 1:56 for comment of the week - if an anon can get comment of the week. Nailed it. Funny.

I'm glad you enjoyed the conference, Nathan. And this is an interesting post. I think this is a touchy subject because it's a scary one. I think many of us are trying to figure out how to do this, and we have no clue and/or are scared we'll do it wrong. Not all of us with decent writing ability are skilled at networking.

I really liked what Deb Amlen said about hiring a publicist. Hiring an expert to help us makes alot of sense.

In fact, publishers might consider having publicists on staff that can help authors. Just a thought.

Joanne Bischof said...

Helpful post, Nathan, Thanks!

Regardless of what was or what is to be, platforms are important right now. Its just the way our culture works these days and its a great way for writer's to stay in touch with readers.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post. I think the distinction you make between building a platform while writing, and building your platform at the expense of writing, is an important one.

I find scheduling in a certain amount of time for platform-building (blogging, networking, etc.) helps me make sure I spend time writing, too.

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

The big publishers do have publicists on staff.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Personally, I am affraid of soapboxes and am not very good with a hammer, but maybe I can indoctrinate my neighbors into spreading the word. I so Love tight-knit communities!

Also, I understand the frustrated writers who created a brand of whip-lash known as 'Publisher Hate' when they complained about how publishers don't do their part. I really do understand their pitty-party, everyone wishes that more time would be spent on their own precious babies, but I have read and heard enough from the other side of things to know that there is only so much that publishers can do.

I will do my best to make sure my work is the best it can be, but I also won't let it fall by the way side when it finally gets published by not opening my mouth to promote it. (How could I not open my mouth? All mommies want to brag about their little-ones!)

GhostFolk.com said...

Platform, yes. The online cult of faux personality, not so much. :-)

Nathan, you're a textbook in online platform building. How did you do it, you must wonder. Okay, I'll tell you how:

By being helpful.

Mira said...

Nathan - I didn't know that. That's good! :)

And I agree with folks who are saying you're a textbook example of how to build a platform!

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, other people's opinions regarding this matter actually coincide with mine.

Great, a person might have a platform.

But people who have platforms almost invariably have been so busy doing other things that they haven't spent years, decades even, undergoing the rigorous apprenticeship that non-platform people go through.

Consequently, they suck.

Literary agents and publishers need to promote great writers. A great writer, in all likelihood, won't have a platform for what should be the obvious reason: namely that he or she will have spent twenty years in isolation learning how to write... yes, in private study.

Cathi said...

(bangs head on desk)

But...who wants to follow the blog of a nobody writer? If I can get published then you can bet your best pair of briefs I'll go 1000 percent (there's no percent sign on an iTouch? WTH?) to make my boy a household name. But how the blazes do you do it beforehand? I'm not complaining here, just trying to figure everything out... I know i'm not interested in following an unpublished writer's site, are you? Or maybe I'm missing the point...

J. T. Shea said...

Anonymous 1:56 pm, you took the words right out of my mouth. Let’s have a TAKE EVERYTHING NATHAN SAYS OUT OF CONTEXT AND BLOW IT OUT OF PROPORTION day.

Mira, I second your nomination.

Joanna said...

At the San Miguel Writers' Conference last February, we heard over and over again about not only the platform - but the "golden platform." I took the advice to heart and started writing a blog... 5 days a week. Soon I was getting tons of hits. Unbeknownst to me, a publisher was following and eventually contacted me because he wanted to see my manuscript. The upshot is that my book will be published by late November only 10 months after starting to build the platform. All those people in San Miguel . including you Mr. Bransford, were so right on.

Regan Leigh said...

I get so confused when I see writers complaining about ways they can promote their own book. I've blogged about this before.

Why would I work my butt off on a manuscript for months, after 50 hour work weeks, only to turn it over to a publisher in hopes that their marketing efforts are enough. Maybe a platform makes sense and maybe it doesn't...but unless you're unprofessional with it, what harm can a platform do?

(If blessed with a pub deal) I will — under any and all circumstances — market myself to the best of my ability. Even if I snagged a huge publishing house.

My hours, love, sacrifices and tears have gone into those pages. Who could promote my book the most genuinely? Me. It’s my baby and I want it to succeed more than anyone, even more than the publishing company or my agent. So why would I pass it off and wipe my hands clean? ”Ok, guys! You take it from here. Hope it goes well!” I would want a platform. I think I'd need one.

VICTORIA SAAVEDRA said...

Thanks for posting this!

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Great story Joanna. That's nice to hear!

And Regan, HERE HERE! Perfectly said!

Anne R. Allen said...

Nathan, it was so great to meet you in person this weekend! And people, he really is as positive, smart, and classy as he is on this blog. Snappy dresser, too.

And people seem to be ignoring the first part of his post here. Jay Asher made it to the top of the NYT bestseller list with no platform. Just a great book that hit the right market at the right time.

But there's no question platform helps those of us who don't have the good luck fairy on speed dial. I like the eyeballs definition.

I also heard it put this way a few years ago. "Platform is why Madonna can sell a children's book and you can't."

Polenth said...

An issue about platform that's often missed is retention. It's not just about selling the book, but keeping people interested so they buy the next one. The publisher won't be promoting you in that lull, because they have other authors to promote.

Anonymous said...

To know how helpful a platform is and what type of platform might be most helpful for a fiction writer seems a simple thing. Look at the debut novels over the past five years on the bestseller lists or bestselling novels by writers with previous publications that weren't on the lists, and it should be pretty clear if and to what degree a platform might be helpful.

There is a danger to all of this too. Everything you post or write online will be around forever. Forever. If the write presence can help you, the wrong presence can certainly hurt you.

I used to read a certain fantasy author, and I noticed each book leaned farther and farther to the right, and after a bit of online searching I found out more about the author's political and philosophical leanings. Rather frightening. I don't follow him anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think Platform might be the wrong term for fiction. It's great for non-fiction. It equates with expertise. You need expertise and you have to let people that you're an expert. But with fiction, Presence seems more fitting.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I like Presence as well.

treeoflife said...

Almost as controversial / misunderstood as your recent post on Dreaming, Nathan.

So my plan of being a brilliant introvert, an intellectual snob, who just hammers out best-sellers all day long while ignoring the unwashed masses, is no good?

You mean I have to market to sell stuff? People have to hear that my novel exists before they'll buy it? Publishers won't just write me a six-figure cheque to acknowledge my brilliance and then effortlessly make the best seller into its obvious reality??

Your point is obviously correct (unfortunately... for blogless shmucks like me).

Gehayi said...

"I think this is a touchy subject because it's a scary one. I think many of us are trying to figure out how to do this, and we have no clue and/or are scared we'll do it wrong. Not all of us with decent writing ability are skilled at networking."

I think Mira nailed it in one. Most of us have blogs or journals. But does that mean that we know how to promote ourselves or get the attention or interest of those who could help us? No, it doesn't. And we can't count on every single person who watches our blogs being even remotely interested in our books, either.

Lillian Grant said...

I have a blog and a website and facebook and twitter. I started them all when I got my contract. I don't get many hits but it's building and when the books comes out no doubt I will get a few more. I contribute to a group blog run by writers that are well known in our genre. But one of them said the most amazing thing to me... the best way to increase sales is to pubish another book. The more you write the more people read and then want your back catalog. So, whilst I spend some time on the net I spend most of my free time working on selling book number two.

Louise Fabiani said...

Frankly, I am tired of hearing about platforms. They have become more important than good writing, and mostly because there are too many people writing (due to both increased population *and* media accessibility), hence too much competition. Something has to make your book rise to the surface. If it's not knock-em-dead style or content, it has to be who you are or what you do or have done (scaled Everest in a chicken suit? host a TV show? are Lady Gaga?).
I see this as another slow-creep invasion of art by commerce's darkest side: everything that matters must address Ye Olde Bottom Line. (Yes, commerce is part of the book biz, but it should not be a priority.)
That said, it IS the present reality. I started a blog around a year ago, and I post about once a week - with photos. I write beautifully, thoughtfully, and often originally. The posts are like mini-essays - a good showcase for my thinking, and writing style. Drawback: it's about an esoteric subject that few people will find by googling key words. The only comments I have received are from people I know already.
Some platform! I'm too obscure.

Magdalena Munro said...

I'm glad you had a great time and I hope you had a chance to slip away to Avila Beach (Sycamore Springs....ahhhhhh)

My view on platform (especially since my WIP is non fiction)is more about credibility and authority than it is about eyeballs. I feel that the eyeballs will be a result of my experience and presence in the area in which I am writing. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe the eyeballs need to be already set in stone and following me but I'm hoping (daydreaming!) not and that my background will stand strong.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I agree with Mira and especially with the anon who wrote about "mime-throwing stuffed puppies at you."

But let me be one of the first to thank you, Nathan, for helping all of us with our "platforms," which really translates into publicizing ourselves and our writing in every and any way possible...including, for instance, linking to our website after making a comment you kindly post...:)

And while it's truer more than ever that publishers seem to now prefer writers to do much of their own "marketing," it also may wind up being true what Daryl suggested and I see likely: the "Big 10" devolve into the "Big Two," which clearly are on their way to not only revolutionizing access and format for reading matter (and thereby literature) but also capturing the "next big" writer with such things as 70% royalty offers...and the very logical, cost-saving technologies of Print on Demand and e-reading.

And let those who scoff recall how the advent of the paperback "revolutionized" wrting and reading and made mass-market distribution not only possible, but profitable, for all concerned.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Back to platform, and the question of "proving" that it makes a difference in sales:

I did some quick research. Do you know what Jonathan Franzen's first book was? Hint: it wasn't "The Corrections."

But he has had a "platform" since the late 1980s, writing essays on, among other things, the "sorry state of literature" in the U.S.

Roughly around the time his first book, "The Twenty-Seventh City," was published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

I'd suggest a writer's platform, as Nathan is describing and discussing, isn't merely using "social media" or even The Internets (showing my age for fun) as much as it is having your presence and your book's likely appeal to readers already evident to would-be publishers or, in reality, sales groups interested in profiting from your skill/talent/gift/hard work etc.

For example: an agent is part of your platform. If you don't have one, the odds of your being "noticed" by a "traditional" publisher (like FSG) are greatly diminished. Until (hopefully?) recently.

Then, publishers do have publicity departments--the larger ones had staffs at one time devoted to this.

In fact, in the 1920s-30s, many of the book publishers had their own magazines, such as "Scribner's," which authors they published often contributed to--to keep readers and therefore hope to boost future sales.

Also, many readers who had neither computers nor necessarily their own book clubs or access to book recommendations subscribed to The Book-of-the-Month Club and other such clubs which recommended books and sold them at a slight discount to subscribers. Getting selected as a Book-of-the-Month-Club author was a big deal in the mid-1980s, for instance.

And now, of course, there has been Oprah. Which Franzen seems to finally to have conceded benefits writers--and one could hope, readers.

What we're talking about is a way to be noticed, promoted, read, and sell--yourself, your idea, your writing, your art, whatever.

It's not "evil." It may not translate into either great literature or art--thought it might, you never know--but it translates into more methods now than ever to make your name pop up, or your book, whenever someone decides to look for something to read.

It even has helped me sell my self-published works, which Franzen's first book--dealing with a St. Louis police chief who was originally from Bombay--didnt', though it had sent my first agent into paroxisms of joy at the prospect of finally, finally finding a publisher interested in multicultural literary themes.

Anonymous said...

The more books you have under your feet, the taller your platform.

J. T. Shea said...

Anonymous 7:22 pm, books leaning to the right? I had that problem with my bookshelves too.

Tart and Soul said...

"Platform" is a nightmarish concept at first, but once you get going, it can be fun. I'm doing social media and blogging like a mad woman, and have done crazy things to build a platform, one of which got me on NPR. Yahoo!! However, my agent still hasn't sold my book. At this point, my platform is doing better than my writing!

And by the way, you are a JEWEL for writing this blog. Thank you.

simon said...

Sadly, Stu, 'good' is irrelevant.

'Likely to sell more' is relevant.

Jeff Emmerson said...

Well said!!

- Jeff Emmerson

McKenzie McCann said...

Oh, platform, how you drive us aspiring authors crazy.

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