Why Nonfiction Writers Still Must Build Platform to Succeed as Authors

platform is the foundation of author promotionRecently the discussion about when and if writers should focus on building author platform heated up again. I say “again,” because it’s not a new discussion. This time it was fueled by a post published on Jane Friedman’s blog by L.L. Barkat in which she said writers should stop blogging and focus on writing. This was closely followed by a post by Jane Friedman published on Writer Unboxed in which she said new, unpublished writers who write fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work should “forget you ever heard the word platform” and focus on writing.

Not surprisingly, a lot of writers were ecstatic to hear two well-respected industry professionals tell them to just write rather than build platform. That’s all writers really want to do anyway—write.

However, they also want to get published and produce successful books—ones that sell to lots of readers. They want to create careers as successful authors.

With the exception of posting a few comments on these other blogs, I’ve been silent on the topic of build platform vs. write. (Others, like Dan Blank and Christina Katz, jumped right in with excellent blog posts you should read.)  I knew I wanted to write something on this topic, but I also wanted to be certain what I wrote made sense of all this chatter and was clearly written for you—the nonfiction writer.

Nonfiction Writers Need to Build Platform

As a nonfiction writer, you have no choice but to build platform before or as you craft your book. If you read Jane Friedman’s post carefully you will find this statement:

Exception to the rule: Nonfiction/non-narrative authors and entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing. Sorry, but you should probably focus on platform as much as the writing.

I’d say that memoirists, who are also narrative nonfiction writers, benefit from an author platform as well (and agents and publishers most-often required them to produce a nonfiction book proposal that includes a platform section).

If you aren’t sure what an author platform is, I define it simply this way:

Author platform is how many people in your target market you can potentially sell your book to right now.

Everything you do to create proven visibility, reach, authority, and influence in your book’s target market equates to a platform-building activity, including speaking, blogging, writing for publications, social networking, and writing many books. Through your platform building activities, you become visible to and able to reach your book’s target market. If the people in your target market, your potential readers, see you as having authority and engage with you at a high level, thus giving you influence in that market, you will have a greater ability to sell books to them.

Publishers are in the business of selling books. Nonfiction book publishers, in particular, want publishing partners—writers with saleable ideas, who can produce a superb written manuscript based upon that idea and who can help sell the end product: a published book created from that initial idea. If you self-publish, you are the publisher and should demand the same of yourself.

If you want to publish a nonfiction book traditionally, large houses will require that you have a large platform. Mid-sized houses are a bit more lenient and will accept a smaller platform. Small, independently owned publishers may be willing to look at aspiring authors with small platforms or platforms with a few boards put in place but not nailed down securely yet.

If you want to self-publish a nonfiction book, you still need platform. No matter how you publish, your platform becomes the foundation of your promotion plan. It helps you sell book.

Nonfiction Writers Must Build Platform Early

The question remains, when should you begin platform building, before or after you’ve honed your craft? As Seth Godin says, “The best time to start marketing your book is three years before it comes out.” That’s pre-promotion, which equates to platform building.

I believe you must begin focusing on platform as soon as you decide you want to become an author, which could be much earlier than three years before your book is released. Just as you make a commitment to your writing and to improving your writing craft, you make a commitment to help yourself and your writing succeed. Just as you commit to write regularly so you complete your book, you also commit to building platform regularly so you become a successful author. Writing creates the manuscript that becomes a book. Platform creates your ability to promote your book once it is released. Promotion helps the book sell. Strong writing and promotion together create successful books and authors.

If you start platform building early, you don’t have to spend as many hours per day on it. If you wait, it will take up most of your writing time. Platform is not built over night, which is why you must begin building platform from the moment of inspiration or the moment you decide you want to become an author.

Many aspiring nonfiction authors who come to me for proposal consulting or editing have little to show in the platform section of their book proposals. Thus, their promotion section also falls short. They may be phenomenal writers with great ideas who have honed their craft but now need to spend 50 percent or more of their time on platform-building activities. They have to leave their writing behind as they rush to build a platform. They also have to wait to approach an agent or publisher until they have something to put in the platform and promotion sections of their proposals.

The same holds true for writers wanting to release self-published books who realize they have done no pre-promotion. They can’t get people to know, like and trust them in a few weeks or months. Thus, they must push their release date off into the future as the build platform—or release and hope the book gets found and talked about enough to get sales rolling.

This late-date platform-building may not even impact the success of these author’s books. As Dan Blank points out:

Oftentimes, writers put off developing a platform until it is too late to matter for their book. They mistakenly assume that a publisher can magically create a platform for them, or that the author themselves can craft a meaningful platform with readers in the narrow window of thee-months before their book is published.

But developing an author platform takes time.

Indeed, it does.

My Platform-Building Experience

I learned the world “platform” in 2005 after I wrote my first book proposal and submitted it to a well-known agency in New York. Despite many nice and encouraging things the agent who called me had to say in response to my proposal, I was rejected because I had no author platform. No one knew me even though I had been writing articles here and there, online and off, on my topic. Most of the articles were for small publications since I was not an expert or scholar.  From the publisher’s perspective, I had no ability to help sell my book and was not an attractive publishing partner.

With my new knowledge about the need for platform, I began blogging in 2006; speaking followed shortly thereafter. After about three years of piddling around with these activities—and starting four more blogs and getting involved in social networking—I began building an author platform in earnest. I knew what it took to build the platform publishers wanted, and I committed to building it so my books and I could succeed.

I started blogging 3-5 times a week on several of my blogs and doing so in a focused manner. I began using my social networking for business and tying this activity into my blogs. I began seeking out more speaking gigs online and off, and I looked for opportunities to write about my topic in print and online. I turned more than 50 percent of my energy, time and efforts toward promoting myself and my writing. As a nonfiction writer, I didn’t need to write a complete manuscript; I needed a proposal with several chapters and a strong platform and promotion section. I focused on the latter two points since I knew I could produce the rest of the proposal, including the sample chapters.

In 2011, I landed my first traditional publishing contract. I not only had a publishable idea, I had become publishable. I had author platform—and it had taken me 6+ years to build it. I credit my blogs for most of that platform.

Why Blogging is Still an Effective Platform-Building Tool for Nonfiction Authors

My blogs have served as the cornerstone to my platform and my platform-building activities. When I coach my clients on how to build platform, I begin by telling them to create a blog and start blogging. The blog serves as their primary “station,” and from there they communicate with their “satellites”—the social networks.

Blogging serves as one of the best ways I have discovered to build platform—especially as a nonfiction author. I believe this for many reasons, but here are seven:

  1. A blog provide you with a website. To build platform, you need a home in cyberspace to which you can drive traffic. Once visitors arrive there, you can collect email addresses for a mailing list. A large email list equates to an author platform.
  2. A blog allows you to build a subscriber list. A large subscriber list equates to author platform.
  3. A blog provides content for social network sharing. As you blog, you can tie into all your social networks by sharing the links to your posts. Your readers can do the same.
  4. A blog helps you build you expert status. By providing expert information via your blog, your readers and other experts will begin to consider you an authority on your topic. For a nonfiction book to sell well, you must be considered an authority or expert in your subject area. (Here’s a recent post of mine about how to create expert status with a blog.)
  5. A blog makes you and your work “discoverable.” Your content is keyword rich and gets cataloged by search engines. This helps you move up in the search engine rankings so when people search for your topic, they find your blog.
  6. A blog is a superb place to promote your book. There are many ways to blog about your book (or blog your book) so people find your blog and your book, and possibly purchase the book. John Kremer listed 101.
  7. A blog helps you potential book readers get to know, like and trust you. As you blog, you share your knowledge, voice, personality, expertise, etc.

It’s true that blogging may take you away from writing your book. However, you could choose to write your book as you blog—blog your book, which is what I did. Or you could simply see blogging as a way to hone your craft and promote yourself and your work at the same time. After all, blogging is writing.

For writers, writing is never the hard part. Once you know what to blog about, blogging comes easily. Commitment to blogging, or to any part of building an author platform, is the hard part. So commit to this activity just like you commit to writing your book; see it as committing to becoming a successful author. Blog regularly, and link your posts to your social networks.

Just as readers are looking for fabulous books, they are looking for fabulous content on the internet. Everyday they search for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems. They put words and phrases into search engines that could land them on your blog, where you might have just the information they seek…if only you have written it. This fact will not change, which is why blogs continue to provide such a useful platform and promotion tool.

You may find some other platform-building tool works better for you. I discuss many with my clients, including writing for publications and speaking (for those who don’t want to spend time online).

Whatever you do, commit to it. As Godin says, it’s all about the drip. Commit to building your successful career as a nonfiction author one platform-building activity at a time. Start early. Don’t wait. With each board you lay and nail down, you’ll get closer to building a sturdy platform that will support you and your work. One day, you might even discover that in the process you wrote a book.

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  1. This argument just doesn’t seem to go away, does it?

    It feels as if more is a work here than rational argument. Do the literary minded feel threatened? Do those who market their books feel both deprived of writing time or feel they are being discriminated against by the literary world? Do we in the publising industy really want to behave like politicians?

    Here’s the thing. Marketing as always been part of publishing. It’s just that these days publishing houses budgets are smaller and many authors’ marketing skills (by necessity or preference) have blossomed. A book simply is unlikely to sell unless someone is doing the marketing. So what about a nice balance of writing and marketing for any author.

    Publishing is partnership and authors have always been a partner–even if not a full partner–in the marketing of books. It take the author to do book tours, to sit on panels, to sign books, to be interviewed on the Today show. Always has. Always will. So if authors extend those skills to benefit their books while balancing that time against writing or taking a reasonable amount of time off to get their book on the right track…well, isn’t that what is best for book, author, publisher–and the reader who can’t read a book unless he or she knows about it.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Author of the multi award-winning Frugal Book Promoter (http://budurl.com/FrugalBkPromo) and other books in the HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers, six books of poetry, one novel, one book of nonfiction, has contributed to anthologies, journals, and been a columnist for several newspapers, and also, on occasion, has managed to market them all. Marketing doesn’t and shouldn’t preclude writing.

    • Here, here! I’m with you all the way, Carolyn. I think some novelists are being led astray thinking they can just be “literary” and focus on “craft” and that will be enough. It’s a rare book that makes it with no marketing–although even some non-literary poorly crafted ones have done so.

      So, let’s stop discussing platform until we are blue in the face, accept that it’s a fact of an author’s life, do the damn job–and try to like it (because we’ll do a better job of it if we have a good attitude), and move on.

  2. I agree, no DEBATING about the need for platform, Nina. But let’s not stop discussing it and learning more about how to do it ’cause it’s part of a marketing plan–they are essentially one. And we know what happens to books that aren’t marketed! (-:

    And keep tweeting!
    Works for me. (-:

    • Good correction, Carolyn. Yes, no debating. Discuss HOW. The platform forms the foundation of the promotion plan. Without it, it’s very difficult to promote. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I love your blog. I hardly ever miss one. Yeah, I subscribed. (-:

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