Every industry has its buzzwords. “Platform” is a big one in the book publishing business. It’s easy to loathe but I think it’s also misunderstood. Viewed in a different light, it’s helpful to all sorts of authors, famous or not.
Platform is defined as the built-in audience an author brings to a book. If you are a much-loved TV star who can yak about your book on your talk show, you clearly have a great platform. A lot of people will hear about your book, and since they’re already interested in you, they’re more likely than the average person to buy it. Most people don’t buy books. Fame is helpful for cutting through the noise.
Of course, what annoys writers is that just because someone is famous doesn’t mean that person has a good book concept, or can execute it particularly well. The latter is not a huge deal as the famous person (if she is wise) can hire a writer, but there are a lot of concepts that don’t pan out: blog posts that went viral, but what is the second chapter? That doesn’t stop the publishing industry from bidding up the advances on these books. It can seem to an aspiring author that unless you engineer some sort of reality show about your life, you will never get a book contract.
I know, personally, that this isn’t true. I also subscribe to the Publisher’s Lunch newsletter, and see daily all sorts of deals that don’t involve household names. Modern Mrs. Darcy has a post up about an author who got a deal based on a well-researched, fascinating story. His publisher also seems to be putting some money and effort into publicity, which is great.
That last point is a subject of contention in some writing circles. In theory, if a publisher puts money and effort into marketing a book, then that creates its own platform. It shouldn’t matter what built-in audience the writer brings to the table… except it still does.
I have been the recipient of some amazing media: national television, reviews and excerpts in well-read publications. My publisher has paid for ad campaigns. Publicity does sell books, but not all publicity sells as many books as you might think. Remember: most people don’t buy books. People can see you on a national television show, and find it very interesting, and be curious about your ideas, but still not buy the book. It’s not wasted effort, to be sure. People might decide to read your blog, and the more you’re out there, the more you get offers to write for other places, or speak places, and be considered a thought leader or what have you. This is all great for you, but a publisher wants to sell books.
Why do people buy books? They buy books if they are interested in you and want to read more of your story or worldview (fiction or non-fiction). This brings us back to platform. Even if your publisher is willing to invest in publicity, even if your publicist does amazing work getting you attention, your built-in audience is what will move books. Being able to email many thousands of people who have voluntarily given you their addresses on launch day, and know that many will then buy your book, if they haven’t already pre-ordered it because they’re excited to read you, is huge.
Fortunately, platform isn’t something you have or don’t have. You can build one. You can create a digital presence and give talks, and cultivate an email list from that. You can land social media followers, and podcast listeners, and the like. All of this is work, but I believe it is fundamentally part of a writer’s work. That’s one reason to invest 5 hours each week in visibility (as part of the perfect 40). It’s the visibility hours, not just the core production hours, that will create a book that reaches its audience. It’s also all cumulative, so best to start now.