In an earlier post I mentioned that I recently received a copy of a book called Get Known Before the Book Deal, by Christina Katz. This is one of those rare books about a very important aspect of the publishing world that really caught my eye. I plan to post excerpts as I read the book but I thought it would be nice to start with a short Q&A session with Christina. Here's what she had to say:
JW: What does the phrase "author platform" mean to you?
CK: A platform communicates your expertise to others. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you've established, the articles you've published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership.
A platform isn't what you once did. It's what you currently do. If others already recognize your expertise on a given topic or for a specific audience or both, then that is your platform. A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. Once you establish a platform, it can work for you 24/7, reaching readers even as you sleep. But, of course, this kind of reach takes time.
I work mostly with writers looking to develop a platform from scratch, as opposed to established experts looking to expand or modify a platform, so I find it helpful to define a platform as a promise writers make to not only create something to sell (a book), but also promote it to the specific readers who will want to purchase it. This takes both time and effort, not to mention considerable focus.
JW: What do you feel are the most important aspects of author platform?
CK: Platform development goes a lot more smoothly and quickly when these three aspects are taken into thoughtful consideration from the get-go:
A clearly defined body of expertise
When you think about the fact that about 500 books are published each day in this country, you realize that writing a book isn't going to set you apart. So, the first thing you need to know is what makes you and your expertise unique and communicate that. If you don’t know who you are and what you uniquely offer, how is anyone else going to know? I call this cultivating your identity, not branding, because that word is so grossly overused these days. Identity also nods to the importance of keeping things real and staying true to yourself, while also making self-promotion a priority.
A distinct niche so you can stand out from others in the same field
How are you different? You’ll have to communicate who you are and what you do quickly. Attention spans are getting shorter, so writing down what you do concisely is critical. Platform isn't the credentials or your resume; it's what you currently do. It’s current, constantly evolving, and updated on an ongoing basis, like what you do in this blog, Joe. A blog is a good example of a way a writer can authentically share what he is noticing to assist others. And then realize that a hundred people might already be blogging on the same topic and give yours even more thought.
An ongoing relationship with a clearly defined audience
If you are vague about your audience, the whole writing process takes longer and typically requires more rewriting. Typically, clarifying an audience will bring the whole platform into clearer perspective. This applies to books, blogs and everything else. Once you identify your specific audience and start speaking to them directly, the conversation will spark all kinds of ideas, connections, and opportunities. Small concrete platform-building efforts catalyze relationships over time and create community.
JW: Quite a few authors I've spoken to over the years feel it's hopeless to create a platform from scratch these days. They often believe it's next to impossible to rise above the noise. What advice do you have to offer these authors?
CK: I can certainly understand this frustration because platform development is a whole additional job. But this doesn’t mean it can't be integrated into your daily work rhythms with practice. Writers have to wear more hats today than in the past, so focusing on the noise would only take a writer further away from what's truly important—choosing the platform that comes naturally and building the most authentic platform possible.
Platform is not an act or a show you put on for the benefit of others. It's a natural extension of your own curiosity, exploration and discoveries that you share with the world. It's taking things writers traditionally love—stories, process and creativity—and making them public. Platform is aligning your niche topic and unique expertise with the appropriate audience to create a unique context and forge relationships and community.
Nor is platform an overnight occurrence. Trying to rush platform development is a surefire path to frustration, not to mention publishing failure. When you allow yourself the time you need to build momentum, things tend to go faster than you expected. And then your platform momentum is positive and contagious.
JW: How important is content development for writers who want to build a platform?
CK: Everyone keeps saying that the future of publishing is all about content. But without context, content is just a bunch of words. And an excess of words just creates static. After clarifying a platform, creating a context becomes the next step.
Creating context is key to platform development because writers need to attract a base of readers…and naturally this takes time and patience…and eventually content. But without a context for your content that resonates with readers, a writer is really missing a wonderful opportunity to create community. Content and context really go hand in hand and feed each other.
And speaking of content, what forms will your content take to address readers' wants and needs? Once you are creating appropriate content for your specific audience, you’ve created a context where something exciting can happen.
JW: Another common concern I've heard from authors is the time commitment required to build a strong platform. They see bloggers and others investing hours upon hours each week engaging with the community. How much time is "enough" and how can authors gauge this for their own unique situations?
CK: The sheer daily-ness of consistent platform development is the key to success. The other key is focus. Just because someone is blogging or social networking, doesn't mean that they are focused or creating community. They might just be killing time. I think anyone who has ever participated in athletics understands the concept of getting into "game shape." Do the guys playing in the Superbowl start working out a week before the playoffs? And yet, writers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that they are going to get discovered eventually rather than simply working slowly and steadily over time. I think a writer's expectations, attitude, and willingness have everything to do with his or her success.
Fantasies are nice, but they are not business strategies. Unfortunately the media (and now the Internet) perpetuate myths about overnight success that cloud the truth, which is basically the old adage: no pain, no gain. Once writers recover from hoping to be discovered, there is really only one thing to do: get to work on a viable platform that you can commit to for a period of years. That's the kind of platform that's going to support a book. That's why I wrote Get Known as a progression of steps that any writer at any level can use as a guidebook. Show me a writer who is willing to do a little bit of work steadily over time and I'll show you a writer who is going to eventually get a book deal.
JW: Should publishers play a role in helping authors create platforms? If so, how?
CK: Absolutely. There are many ways publishers can work with their authors for mutual success. I always encourage first-time authors to partner with their publishers as much as possible. But really the advice works both ways. I see the role of publishers shifting from publicist for a select few high-profile authors to platform educators for first time authors, context builders among the authors on their current and back lists, and content facilitators for readers. Publishers can do more to help empower their authors using methods that have become quite inexpensive thanks to improved technology and the ease of networking online. If authors and publishers aren’t viewing each other as partners, it's just not good for the business of selling books in an increasingly transparent marketplace.
JW: What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned as you've built up your own platform?
This was helpful to reflect on, thanks for asking. Here's a short list:
Choose your publishing and promotion allies the way you choose your friends…very consciously.
Produce yourself, even while partnering with others.
Pay it forward. Everybody who is successful started somewhere. Ultimately, you determine your future based on the choices you make today.
Trust your gut in all matters of business. You don't have to say, "Yes" to every opportunity.
Maintain boundaries between personal life and work life to suit your needs. Guard yourself against burnout.
Even a shy person can succeed in the literary marketplace today thanks to technological advancements.
Work on your platform daily. If you don’t have one, start today.
Slow and steady builds the platform.