“Start with the actual and build a bridge to the potential.”

That’s lit agent Sharon Pelletier during her session, “The 10 Best Secrets for a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal,” at DFWCon 2017.

But before we get to what she’s talking about, let’s discuss the elephant in the publishing house: PLATFORM.

Michael Hyatt didn’t coin the term, but his book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, certainly elevated its importance in the minds of authors. And as publishers consolidated, self-publishing skyrocketed, and agents and editors learned how to tread water in the deluge of queries and proposals they receive, a majority of the job of selling a book fell onto the shoulders of the author.

For better or worse, every author needs a platform.

But it’s almost a chicken-and-egg conundrum: How is a new author supposed to build a platform before releasing their first book?

Well, here’s the good news: At DFWCon and elsewhere, I’ve heard from industry pros that platform doesn’t matter as much for fiction as it does for nonfiction. For fiction, you need a good pitch/query and proposal, a compelling story, and writing that sings. The words, more than the person, sell the book. (Of course, having a platform certainly won’t hurt your chances of being published or selling books.)

But it’s almost the opposite for nonfiction authors: platform rules. To be taken seriously by agents and traditional publishers, you need to be the go-to person in your field and with the numbers to prove it. You need to have an established platform that reveals how invaluable your words are to your specific tribe.

So what if you don’t have a platform?

First, start working on it today. If you’re serious about seeing your nonfiction book published, or you’ll be self-publishing and want to accrue healthy sales, you need to establish yourself as an expert whom people listen to. (Read Hyatt’s “Why You Need a Platform to Succeed” and consider buying his book.)

Secondly, and this gets back to Sharon’s excellent point about the platform section of a nonfiction book proposal, “build a bridge to the potential.”

In a book proposal, don’t lie about your current platform. If you have 127 Twitter followers, own it. But if you believe that a healthy Twitter following is beneficial, tell the agent/publisher how you plan to grow your following. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that agents like to see upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 followers on any given social media platform.)

And don’t forget that “platform” isn’t synonymous with social media. Platform encompasses everyone you could conceivably reach. Do you have an email newsletter? Do you take part in speaking engagements? Do you teach? Do you belong to an alumni association, nonprofit, community organization, etc.? If you don’t, what places could you start knocking on doors?

I hate to say this, but gone are the days of the Walden writer. You can’t just sit in a cabin by a lake, write a book, and hope it sells. You have to be a salesperson, and the truth is, you’re not selling your book—you’re selling yourself.

So if your platform isn’t what you think it should be, sell yourself on what it will be.

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