July 4, 2019
One of the most alarming things to tell a new writer is that he or she needs platform.
Most of us don't know what that is when we’re early in our career (in fact, many experienced and published writers are a bit rocky on what that is as well) and whimper at the thought of one more hurdle to successful publication. Platform can be seen in a number of ways. At its most basic, it's about name recognition.
- Is there an area in which you have name recognition?
- Do you have a way to reach into that area and gain attention if you have a new book coming out?
If those are both answerable with "yes," then you have a platform (maybe not the biggest or most well directed, but if you have name recognition and the ability to reach into a specific group that "knows" you and tell them about a book you've written with a reasonable expectation of positive response, then you have a platform.)
Now, as simple as the basic notion of platform is, the reality of platform is considerably more complicated. (Isn't all of life like that?) Not all name recognition is valuable for selling books.
For instance, there are very few people who don't know the name Bobby Flay. He has massive name recognition. And he's on the television a lot, so he has the ability to reach out and tell people about a book if he had one coming out. So on the surface, he would appear to have huge platform. But suppose he wrote a book for children called The History of Space Exploration. His platform might not be terribly helpful for selling that book because readers would tend to doubt he actually knows anything about the history of space exploration. They might also doubt that he could possibly have had the time to do the research to write a valid title about space exploration. Now, he would make some sales because people will buy odd things. And Bobby Flay would certainly be able to make people aware of his book. But ultimately his lack of appropriate platform would likely result in his books eventually end up in discount stores with please-take-this-off-our-hands pricing.
Look At Me!
So platform works best when your name recognition and your reach is relevant to your books. Let's take my platform as an example. In the area of "writing," I have considerable platform. I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who recognize the name “Jan Fields,” and consider me an expert in some area or another of writing. My platform is built from the fact that I've done a lot of instructive writing. For years I ran an ezine called Kid Magazine Writers where I shared tons of market stuff about magazine writing. I've written about writing for the Institute throughout most of my daughter's lifetime (and she's a junior in college now). For years I ran an e-newsletter for writers. Every year, I co-lead a writing workshop for the Highlights Foundation. I've done workshops on writing for SCBWI. All of these things have built a strong platform in the area of writing instruction.
BUT, the bulk of my published books (over a hundred now) are not about writing. I write primarily series fiction for educational publishers and cozy mysteries. So, a useful platform would be a deep reach to teachers and librarians (for the educational publisher books) and a deep reach to mystery readers. I don't have either. I have platform, but my platform and my books don't run in the same groove.
Still, there is something to be learned about how I built a robust platform in the area of writing instruction. See, I put time into it. I did that because I loved putting time into writing instruction. I love talking about writing. I love writing about writing. I love learning new approaches and new ideas and new trends in the field. I ask writing professional lots of questions. I moderated an email list, I ran a discussion board, I created a website, I crafted workshop content, and I took a job that helped me extend my reach in the area of writing instruction because I enjoyed all of those things. In other words, I put a lot of hours into the platform I have, and I did it because I was passionate about this subject.
Platform and Passion
Because platform takes time and energy, it certainly helps if you can find enjoyable ways to build your platform. Because otherwise you're going to limit your efforts to trying to sell a specific book and that’s likely to be annoying people and runs the risk of making you look more like a huckster than a writer. You want people to associate your name with happy, positive things.
So let's imagine I decided to build platform as a cozy mystery writer. I would probably do many of the same things I did to build writer instruction platform:
- I would join organizations that specialize in mysteries.
- I would look for ways to talk about mysteries to mystery readers (for example, there are many mystery-related websites online that I might write blog posts for).
- I would probably create my own mystery site that includes mystery short stories by me and other content related to mysteries (the history of the cozy mystery or perhaps reviews of cozy mystery television shows and movies).
- I would post about cozy mysteries on Twitter (not about MY cozy mysteries, you understand, but witty remarks about how life is like a cozy mystery and remarks about whatever cozy mystery I'm watching on television and maybe remarks about how cozy mysteries work).
- I would attend mystery conventions. It would take time for me to build the kind of widespread platform in the mystery reading community that I have in the writing community, but if I’m passionate about it, and it will support my cozy mysteries, it would be worth it.
Now the truth is that I do like talking about cozy mysteries, and I've done workshops on them now and again. I've done presentations about the history of the cozy mystery. But the bulk of my personal passion is still in writing instruction so I'll probably stick with the platform I have, even if it's not the platform I need to become a "name" in cozy mystery writing.
The Best Platform for Readers is Writing
Ultimately, one of the best ways to build platform is simply to be the best writer you can possibly be. Good writing grabs people and makes them remember you. Sure, beyond that you're going to want to look for ways to reach out and share your passion for books and stories in your area. You're going to want to share about your journey. Sharing is another way to build platform. But nothing works better than writing good books. The better you write something people want to read, the more quickly word-of-mouth will spread your name recognition. So build platform through direct sharing to the extent that you can do it with enjoyment, but don't let it get in the way of becoming a better writer.
Writing is our number one focus. Make it your best.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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