Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Getting Published Without a Platform

Introduction: The Need

(Since I'll be sharing this information at the Georgia Writers Association on Saturday, I decided to blog it in order to get feedback and give the attendees a place to get whatever information they missed. I'll present it point by point in separate blogs, calling them chapters. So here goes the introduction!)

The first three agents I pitched my current book to turned me down flat, saying, “Publishers of financial books usually want only people with strong platforms, like a radio show.”

Recently, on a professional publisher's discussion group, someone asked,

"Which part of a formal book proposal do you feel is the absolute "clincher" to make the sale to a major book publisher?"

A literary agent responded, "For non-fiction, it's the marketing section. This is assuming that the author is a legitimate expert, the subject is newsworthy and unique, and the writing is well-crafted. The compelling description of a national platform from which an author can promote the book is hands down the (dare I say?) obsession of the major trade publishers."

You’ll also see it on publisher’s sites. Example: Rick Frishman, the book-marketing guru who wrote Book Marketing 101 and publishes a popular newsletter, was just hired by Morgan James to be their publisher. In his blog announcing the event, he states: “We focus primarily on publishing non-fiction books and are looking for authors with a ‘platform’ (isn’t everyone!).”

Now I don’t know about you, but the “duh” part of that statement, “isn’t everyone!”, complete with exclamation point, is pretty discouraging. Here’s a New York City book-marketing expert who seems to understand publishing and publicity as well as anyone, saying that he’s looking for authors with platforms. What if we don’t have one? It appears that he’s not looking for us.

Yet, that statement at least explains my experience with one literary agent. After explaining that I was a published author, owned some busy Web sites and had other great ideas for marketing, she shot back, “Oh, that’s nothing like people who speak to thousands of people every week.” I think she sized me up pretty quickly as a small time loser, summarily brushed me off and wouldn’t even chat on the walk to the conference dinner.

If we fail to address the platform issue, it’s easy to get the picture that publishers and agents have put out neon signs in their windows that state: “Unless you regularly speak to thousands of people on the radio or in seminars, have a column in a major newspaper, run a wildly successful business or are a celebrity, please choose another vocation.”

So what ever happened to people who aren’t big public figures but simply aspire to write great books? What if you’ve got a book in you that’s just dying to get out, but you have no platform? Is it possible to beat the system and get published?

Well, I can tell you that I got my first book published by a respected traditional publisher (Tyndale House Publishers, who have published many best-sellers) with a nice advance. Yet, at the time of publication, my wonderful platform involved serving as, get this, “Minister of Youth at Flat Creek Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Georgia.” Is anyone reading this on a lower platform than that? Every part of that title reeks of bad platform. Actually, worse than no platform; I was standing in a hole. “Baptist.” “Flat Creek.” “Minister of youth.” Now that might be a decent platform if I was writing a book for a Baptist denomination about youth ministry. But I wasn’t. I wrote a book on music that delved into the history of music criticism, cross-cultural studies, psychological studies, etc. Why would anyone care what I thought about the subject?

Yet, the book went through several printings in English, is still in print after fifteen years, and was subsequently published in Dutch, German, Romanian, Russian and Spanish. Not bad for the youth minister at Flat Creek Baptist.

For my present book on personal finances, I acquired an agent last summer. Morgan James Publishing (where the publisher is looking for authors with platforms – “like everyone else!”), offered me a contract last month. I’m currently trying to decide whether or not to accept it.

So what’s my platform for writing on personal finance? I’m not a financial counselor. I’ve never formally studied economics or finances. I’m definitely not a celebrity, unless you’ve confused me with The Steve Miller Band. I primarily write materials for my two Web sites and care for my elderly parents and 102-year-old grandmother, seldom venturing past my mailbox. How was I able to acquire both an agent and an offer from a publisher? Perhaps my experiences in publishing can give you some encouragement and practical ideas for getting your own work published.

The good news is that many books are getting published by people with little or no platform. Just sift through the covers of books at your local bookstore.

I’ll give you some ideas in upcoming blogs. I’m dying to hear your ideas as well. If you have other ideas or questions, please respond to the appropriate post.

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