Monday, February 23, 2015


No, not that kind of platform

Just a few weeks ago, I spoke for a writers’ event in Los Angeles. This much wasn’t new or newsworthy, as I do this often. However, this was my first solo event, and about fifty people came out to hear me pontificate about the publishing business. Apparently I’m getting good at this thing.

During the Q & A that followed, someone asked if a novelist needs to have “platform.” That is, does it matter whether you’re already well-known in the marketplace, in order to attract interest from editors and agents? Or, for that matter, retail buyers? .
Before I could answer, a familiar voice rose from the back of the room. It was a fellow agent, a lady I knew, and has been in the business much longer than myself. She answered, very confidently, that platform makes no difference whatsoever in the world of fiction. All that you need to do, is to write a good book and set it before the eyes of the right people (whether editors or agents).

I didn’t have the courage to contradict her at the time, but…I could not disagree more.

Yes, indeed, platform is more important for the writer of nonfiction; if you’re writing a book about heart surgery, then you’d better be a heart surgeon, well-known in your field, with some experience and credentials behind you. But for fiction?

Hopefully, before you send your work to a publisher, you’ll ask about their submission guidelines. Many will tell you, right up front, “no debut authors.” In plain English, that means they won’t even talk to you unless you have already proven yourself as a hot property. (Translation: platform.)

My novelist clients’ works get rejected by publishers big and small, every week. Sometimes the editor gives a reason for that decision, sometimes not. But when they do, it’s rarely because the writing didn’t measure up. More often than not it’s because the author is unknown, invisible in the marketplace. Books from invisible writers cost more to promote, and are therefore less likely to make a profit. Such works could end up being sold in bulk, below cost, and end up in the discount bin at your local supermarket.

Not an impressive start for your career.

By my estimate, from adding up sales reports from various sources, about 750,000 books were published in the USA in 2014. How will you stand out in that crowd, either in the business or among your target readers?

Well, let’s suppose that you were the fiction editor at Doubleday. You have two equally good mystery novels in front of you, both from first-time novelists. You can only accept one. How do you break the tie?
  • Author A has a website; author B doesn’t.
  • Author A has a blog with legions of readers; author B doesn’t.
  • Author A is active in social media, with thousands of friends and followers; author B isn’t.
  • Author A used to work for a PR firm, and knows how to promote his works; not so, for B.
  • Author A hosts a radio talk show; author B doesn’t.
Honestly, who would you choose? (Remember, your goal is to make more money from sales than the book costs to produce.)
  • You would choose the author who makes your job easier.
  • You would choose the one that makes you look good to your superiors.
  • You would choose the one that has a natural pre-existing audience.
  • You would choose the one that doesn’t require you to start from square one with their marketing.
If you’re serious about getting published – and if your book was worth the effort of writing it – why wouldn’t you want to give yourself every advantage?

One thing most authors don't think about: Technically, platform isn't about selling books. It's about what you already do in the ordinary course of your life and business, which now can be leveraged for a different purpose. Yet when I speak at conferences, someone always asks, "My book is coming out next week. What can I do for marketing?" Well, I might have a few ideas. But frankly, you've already missed out on your best opportunities. 

Your acquisitions editor probably doesn’t have the authority to green-light your project; his job is to advocate for you within his company. As much has he might love your work, his job is not done until he gets someone else to love it. If your book is rejected, you will probably never know how close you came to a “yes.”

Don’t give them an easy excuse to say no.

Or even better, give them a reason to say yes.


  1. Steve
    Good perspective. How would you recommend that pre-published novelists spend their "writer" time? What percentage to writing? What percentage to platform building? Seems like it's easy to get sucked into the platform building/social media part and neglect the craft.

  2. Dennis, I say that's a very personal decision. Almost every author has a family and a day job and a lawn to mow. It won't help for me to tell you a "should," when you only have three hours a week to pursue all things publishing.

    That said, it might be useful to set aside the writing altogether, once you're done with the first (or whatever next) draft, to study marketing and platform. Better to delay your release, than to rush and not be ready.

  3. This is a very well taken blog post. The intricacies of what gets accepted and what doesn't within the publishing business are astounding.