Platform is a word that publishers throw around as something they look for in an author. But what exactly does it entail? A slogan? A mission statement? Tall shoes? Just kidding. It really depends on the type of book you’re writing. Let’s start with non-fiction.
I worked for a short stint in consumer health books, where we looked for authors who were recognized experts in their fields, the key word being “recognized.” For most consumer non-fiction, publishers are looking for authors who have a national fanbase — authors who have been on the Today Show, have had a feature in TIME magazine, write a syndicated column or host radio show. A breakthrough article in an esteemed medical journal usually doesn’t cut it — not until the media picks up on the significance of the research. A 10-minute feature on the local ABC news station is nice, but only a start.
The reasoning behind platform importance is this — with all of the information out there already, a consumer can find what they need on WebMD and online health forums. So why buy a book? Familiarity and trust; a consumer will be more likely to trust someone they’ve seen and connected with on TV, or someone who writes that really great gluten-free blog. Based on the number of these followers, authors with a platform give publishers a better estimate on how many books they might sell.
Let’s take a look at some non-fiction authors who made book deals in the past week, according to PublishersMarketplace. Most of them have a background for the type of book they’re writing, and if you search for them on the web, you’ll find that they also have a strong online presence:
Texas Monthly deputy editor Brian Sweany
Former deputy editor of The Week Thomas Vinciguerra
CEO of PeopleLENS Global Associates and senior fellow of the Human Capital at the Conference Board Gyan Nagpal
Chicago Equity Partner’s Brian Portnoy
CNBC producer known for her “trillion-dollar Rolodex” Lori Ann LaRocco
Food writer Ana Sofia Pelaez and photographer Ellen Silverman
Nutritionist Natalia Rose and Chef Doris Choi
Food writer, cooking instructor and blogger Hillary Davis
Nutritionist and master of public health Rania Batayneh
Nutritionist Meghan Telpner
Wall Street Journal contributor and author Lee Sandlin
NYC cultural reporter & blogger Joseph Alexiou
Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson
Navy SEAL and NYT bestselling author Brandon Webb
Former White House staffer Jane Hampton Cook
Cultural historian and author Marilyn Yalom
High school English teacher and son of historian David McCullough, David McCullough Jr.
Professional writer Chis West (http://www.chriswest.info/)
British historian Wendy Moore
Former Susan G. Komen svp of public policy Karen Handel
Washington, DC-based image stylist and columnist for The Huffington Post Lauren Rothman
Healthy-living advocate, mother, and actor Alicia Silverstone
Deadspin and Gawker columnist Drew Magary
Two-time Super Bowl winning head coach of the New York Giants Tom Coughlin
Worldwide adventurer and NYT bestselling author Chris Guillebeau
Mother Jones writer and editor Kiera Butler
President & CEO of Tourism Vancouver Rick Antonson
Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek
NYT bestselling author Elizabeth Bard
Only Asian-American woman in the U.S. Army Miyoko Hikiji
Magazine contributor and blogger for Psychology Today Slash Coleman
Poet-farmer Forrest Pritchard
Professional writer and author Louise Steinman
Former Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton and New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle
CNN senior producer and staff writer Wayne Drash
There are a few in this list that stand out to me. For instance, high school English teachers do not often get book deals with Big Six publishers…unless of course your father happens to be the most well-known historian in America and you gave a harsh commencement speech that got picked up by national media: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/09/david-mccullough-at-wellesley-commencement-you-are-not-special-video.html.
You also may have noticed that journalists seem to have an unfair advantage in this list. Consider however, they’ve been researching and writing about particular topics for the duration of their careers, they usually have a regular readership or audience, and they have a lot of established sources who might not speak with someone else. They write non-fiction for a living already, so it’s easier for publishers to take a chance on them.
It’s also clear that memoirs and narratives have a little more leeway on platform. That is, if the writing is compelling or the experience is unique, the platform can be more about book promotion than personal fame. This is similar to platforms for fiction authors, which I’ll get into next week.
I find that many writers are surprised that they need to be “qualified” to publish a book of political views or “extraordinary” to publish a memoir. But how often do you go to the bookstore to buy a memoir of an average citizen’s struggle through high school? If you want to write non-fiction, think about your particular background and strengths, and increase your visibility among the other players in that field.