Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Taming the Evil Monster! (Platform)

Guest Blogger: Dean Sault

Countless hours spent revising, editing and polishing your manuscript led to query letters and nerve-racking long waits for responses from those literary gargoyles that regulate admission to traditional publishing houses. In a twisted logic, quick rejections become desirable, providing relief from the mounting anxiety of waiting. Then, it happens! One of the literary agents requests a full manuscript reading and actually likes the story. You’re on cloud nine.

Evil lurks just around the corner, though. You and the agent begin talks about representation, and a contract seems imminent. Suddenly, your surging literary locomotive derails! The agent asks about your “platform.” She warns that publishers want to know your credentials. Without a platform, she claims, they’re not going to accept you as an author. Soaring expectations crash under the evil assault of the platform-monster. Why? Because you have no special platform. You’re commonplace. Perhaps, you’re a stay-at-home mom and wife, or maybe, a lifetime insurance broker who spent twenty years kissing customer asses in order to support the family’s needs.

What are you going to do? Hopes fade.

My commoner examples of a homemaker and insurance agent are not random choices. JK Rowling was a stay-at-home mom, on welfare no less, before she and Harry Potter became household names around the world. Tom Clancy was a boring insurance broker before The Hunt for Red October exploded into the book world. Neither author offered much “platform” for publishing companies to consider.

Let’s strip the frightening fangs from this platform-monster. When a publishing company, or literary agent, asks about your platform, what is the real question lurking behind those ominous, red-glowing eyes staring at you from the literary abyss? It really comes down to, “Can you sell books?” Pretty simple, huh? All platforms boil down to the business of selling books. Publishing companies balance potential for profit against money at risk. They are not philanthropic or not-for-profit agencies. Every aspect of an author’s platform must suggest, or prove by historic results, that the author is a good business gamble.

So, what happens if mythical author, Karen Stoddard, wrote the world’s best romance novel, but this is her first foray into the publishing industry? She has no sales history. She dropped out of college, got married and started a family. Her life experience revolves around PTA meetings, soccer cheering, shopping and wiping noses until her spoiled kids get over their colds. She feels she has no platform to offer an agent.

Is she right?

Depends. Let’s start with her “business” experience. She runs a family. That involves all kinds of valuable skills. When she dropped out of college, she had been a police science major and performed volunteer work as an intern in juvenile hall for extra class credit. PTA meetings forced her to stand up and be heard on school issues. What about leadership skills? Yes--leadership! Turns out, organizing that annual PTA Pancake Breakfast makes her an experienced community leader. Now, let’s re-visit her “platform.”

“Karen Stoddard, author of romance novel, Delinquent Love, offers a background in criminal justice with experience in community leadership. Her management skills include organization, scheduling and public speaking. She looks forward to using her life experience and public persona to actively market her books, both in person, and through active internet promotion.”

Sound better? I will admit I was tempted to add “skilled in hostage negotiations,” but I worried that she might have to explain that it meant negotiating with her 12-year-old son for the return of her 8-year-old daughter’s hidden Barbie doll. That might not quite fly if asked.

Here’s the good news. Everybody HAS a platform. It might take a bit of creativity to identify it, but all the publishing industry wants to know is, “Can you sell books?” It is that simple. And, if you don’t have a rich history of marketing-compatible experiences, then go make some. That’s right. You can build a platform over night. Join Toastmasters or volunteer as a teacher’s helper at school. Set up a volunteer-student daycare program at your local community college. Anything you do to show publishers that you ARE a public figure with community involvement will improve expectations of your book-selling potential.

You can also borrow prestige. I know a woman who writes serial-killer thrillers. She set up an internet-based, discussion group for writers in her genre. She attracted the attention of one of the most well known serial killer profilers who agreed to speak with the group on a regular basis. It’s a big deal! Her platform borrows prestige from this guy’s awesome reputation and obvious endorsement.

Have I defanged the platform monster? While your bio can make or break your marketability to publishing companies, if you understand their motivation, it is much easier to build an acceptable platform. Let’s see, how can I redefine cleaning toilets? I’ve got it! “Extensive knowledge of the Coriolis Effect in the northern hemisphere.” (For those who don’t know, flushed water in the northern hemisphere always circles clockwise. It’s called the Coriolis Effect.)