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Gone are the days when people in publishing can risk “discovering” unknown writers.

The poet Vachel Lindsay was dining at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington when a busboy summoned his courage and slipped several sheets of paper beside the poet’s plate. Lindsay was obviously annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read a poem titled “The Weary Blues.”

As Lindsay read, his interest grew. He called for the busboy and asked, “Who wrote this?”

“I did,” replied Langston Hughes.

Lindsay introduced the youth to publishers who brought out works by the rising poet, the “Shakespeare of Harlem.” Could this happen today? Probably not. Nowadays, if the busboy didn’t already have 100,000 Facebook followers and popular spoken word vlog, that conversation would have ended with a polite, “Good stuff. Now build an audience, kid. And get me another Tom Collins.”

OK, so maybe a few venerable old ladies at the The New Yorker and its ilk are continuing to “discover” new talent as they did with Thurber, Cheever, and Jackson. But when it comes to nonfiction, authors are nonstarters – DOA – if they don’t have a substantial, even national platform, before publication.

“A year from now you’ll wish you started today.”
– Kimberly Grabas

So what is this thing called platform? How do you get it?

Top Five Platform Facts for Would-Be Authors

  1. Platform begins with visibility. How many people see you, hear you, read you? If you have a very popular blog for amateur pilots, you’ve got a good platform for thinking about a book on the subject.
  2. Platform requires expertise and influence in your chosen field. How many people, how often, and to what extent, look to you for answers? Are you already a go-to guy in your subject area? If the newspapers and TV news shows call you for commentary when a plane crashes, you’ve got the basis for a book.
  3. Platform necessitates vision. Do you have a strong, novel, even revolutionary perspective on your topic? What’s your public persona? Can you boast readers and fans who “follow” you because of the unique angle you take in your industry? When it comes to flying airplanes, if you’re a modern Amelia Earhart or Howard Hughes, publishers will see you’re in the platform business.
  4. Platform comes down to your range of readers, listeners, audience. How far does your influence reach? If pilots and flying enthusiasts come to hear you speak, read your Twitter posts, subscribe to your newsletter, etc., your platform might have achieved the height required for a book deal.
  5. Platform is at once proactive and organic. As the platform-building expert, author Jane Friedman, cautions, platform is not about “who yells the loudest or markets the best.” It’s not about haranguing strangers and everyone you know that you’re an expert, worthy of attention and praise. You have to work hard at it, every day, without ceasing, by providing consistently useful information and content for your audience in various venues.

In today’s punishing world of nonfiction, it’s exceedingly challenging to fall off the turnip truck and sell a book to an agent or editor. It’s a good bet you’ll have to spend many years or decades considering, cultivating, and building your platform, often over the course of a career. Is your bakery so wildly successful that you can take only one-in-ten wedding cake orders? Can you afford to have become so discerning in your hip hop career that you turn down half the gigs offered to you? These are the telltale signs of those who’ve already made it—so what about the rest of us?

The good news is, authors can accelerate their platform development. With the right advice and support in best practices, aspiring authors can build an author brand and build readership through their articles, website, social media presence, SEO success, speaking engagements, podcasts, blogs, Amazon, etc.

The world-famous author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series did not by any means begin as a household name. But Jack Canfield and his team dedicated every day to building platform:

“There’s a lot more you can do today that you couldn’t do back then, and using social media and … other channels is a big part of it for you … you will get to experience the unparalleled fulfillment of having entertained, uplifted, inspired, informed, and transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.”

What’s the ideal? The ideal is that you’ve erected a platform so high that agents see it above the forest of wannabes. They seek you out to write a book. What’s the second-best scenario? You convince an agent through an outstanding book proposal that you’ve got thousands of potential readers all-but-guaranteed—or absolutely guaranteed through pre-orders.

Platform is the most effective way to go from local specialist to national—or even international—expert in your field. Agents and publishers take platform as the proof that an author has what it takes to bring their skills and concepts to the largest possible audience. To secure a book contract in today’s world and launch your brand to its well-deserved success, building your platform is absolutely vital.

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