At the University of Wisconsin’s annual Writers’ Institute last weekend I attended a presentation by nonfiction agent Ted Weinstein called “Book Proposal Boot Camp.” Chock full of information about marketing many types of nonfiction, Weinstein’s talk helped me to understand what is commonly known in the publishing industry as “platform.” I’ve been to several lectures that tried to define it, I’ve read many articles that attempted to do the same thing, but Mr. Weinstein’s presentation was the best of them all.
His take: An author’s “platform” is her authority in her subject matter. How respected is she in the area about which she’s writing? How high above everybody else does she stand? For instance, if you decide to write an Italian cookbook, what is it that makes YOU enough of an authority that people will buy your book above the other Italian cookbooks on the shelf? Have you lived in Italy? Are you of Italian descent and your book is full of fabulous family recipes? No? If you, like me, are a Norwegian from Rapid City, South Dakota, you’re in trouble. What to do?
Get famous, Weinstein said. (The collective sigh that ran through the room was audible.) Yeah, right, we all thought. How do you do that? Well, Weinstein had ideas. Put yourself out there, he said. Blog, solicit interviews with newspapers and magazines, wheedle your way onto the local television talk show. Give talks to service clubs, library groups, whatever. Talk about your subject endlessly and to anybody who will listen. As your “fame” grows locally, use your experiences to build a resume that will help to market your expertise regionally. If you’re particularly ballsy, try for network TV or radio. If your subject is unique or if you bring a unique twist to it, they might very well bite.
But here’s the kicker: you have to get famous FIRST. Before you write the book proposal. Before you write the book. (Another collective sigh.)
But what if you have the expertise NOW and the book is burning a hole in your imagination? Unless you have built the platform, publishers will likely reject the book, even if the writing is superb. For them, the likely success of your book is as much about you as it is about the book. Remember this, Weinstein said: The less you need a publisher, the more they’ll want you. Sort of like banks, right?
I know, I know. You, like me, prefer to hole up in your study or office or bedroom, wherever it is that you write, and make things up. Alone. Going out in public to honk your own horn is less than a tasteful prospect. But Weinstein insists, with a gentle smile, that it has to be done.
More later this week on the fiction writer’s platform, on the nonfiction book proposal itself, and where memoir and travel memoir fit in the general nonfiction scheme of things. I’m off to watch the Decorah eagles for a bit. Check them out at: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles.