Do you need to build a platform?
More writers are developing a strategy early on to distinguish themselves in the marketplace
Published: July 21, 2011
What comes to mind when you think of “platform”? If you’re a book author, or aspire to be, you probably already know that platform refers to your ability to sell a book—in other words, what your name and connections bring to a book project.
Platform is as essential to an author’s success as writing ability and a stellar idea. “First, an author needs a platform to convince the publisher that he or she can muster up advance interest in the topic that will result in eager buyers for the book when it is released,” says Christina Katz, author of Get Known Before the Book Deal. “In today’s tight book-publishing market, if you don’t have that, it’s going to be very difficult to convince a publisher to invest in you and your book concept. After the publisher has invested in you, or after you have invested in yourself and self-published your own book, you need a platform so you will have the visibility to garner attention, interest, buzz and sales.”
For book authors and freelancers
Platform isn’t just for book authors any longer. Freelancers of all stripes are finding that developing platforms helps set them apart from other writers, making it easier to market themselves.
“In the ‘gig economy,’ every independent contractor needs a shorthand way to communicate the value he or she offers,” Katz says. “A freelancer’s platform would emphasize value to the kind of client the writer is aiming to serve.”
Freelancer Meagan Francis, creator of the blog The Happiest Mom and author of the book of the same title, says platform is important because she covers a specific topic that she has personal knowledge of and strong opinions about. “I’m a mom—I write about motherhood,” she says. “I know a lot of writers feel boxed in and limited by the idea of narrowing down to a specific focus. But for me—at least right now—it gives me much-needed structure and focus to my work.”
Francis has been writing about parenthood for eight years and says developing a platform has made her more focused. “I was always interested in mind/body, wellness, psychology, relationships and self-help, from a mother’s perspective, but could never figure out quite how to make that work for me when I was trying to make a living selling one magazine article at a time,” she says. “At some point, I realized that I actually wanted to be like the Martha Beck [a well-known life coach] for moms (speaking of platform!) and that helped it gel for me. For now, it works. ... In my case, I am lucky enough that my platform actually encompasses almost all the other things I wanted to write about, anyway.”
John Borchardt, a Houston freelancer who writes for magazines and corporate clients, has also found that having a platform has helped him as a freelancer. “Platforms are important to me in both writing for magazines and working as a technical writer for corporate clients. My original platform was writing magazine job-hunting articles customized to the needs of industrial scientists and engineers. I continue to write in this area. This builds on my work experience as an industrial scientist and engineer,” he says. “I developed a second platform based on this same industrial background: writing articles on various aspects of science and engineering—energy, recycling, the environment, global warming, etc. More recently, I have drawn on my industrial background as a technology manager to write articles on business management.”
Is platform just for nonfiction writers?
According to Christina Katz, author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, fiction writers can also benefit from building a platform and finding a readership. So should you start a blog about fiction writing? Well, you can, but she suggests that you might be better off playing up another area of expertise to help distinguish yourself. For example, you can write about:
• the time period of your novel
• a research topic related to your work
• universal themes that crop up in your writing
• the creative process
Preferring to stay platform-free
Not every freelancer embraces the idea of developing a platform—or that you need one to succeed. “Platform has never been important to me, though I have a couple of areas of specialization. I would like to have a couple more—i.e., I’d rather not get so tied to my primary subject matter that people don’t think of me for other things,” says Elizabeth Gardner, a Chicago-area business and technology writer. “I would like to become more venturesome in the kinds of stories I write and the subjects I write about, not less. I don’t see how building a platform is going to do anything but trap me on it.”
Gardner explains that her real value to clients is how she works, not what she knows. “I keep reminding myself, especially for my areas of specialization, that I don’t actually know anything. I know a lot of people I can ask, and I think they know what they’re talking about. And if I talk to enough of them, I start to see a pattern and can put it together into a story,” she says. “My ability to analyze and synthesize what people tell me, what I observe, what I read in studies, etc., may produce something useful for people who want to know about that subject and don’t have the time, the aptitude or the resources to do that work themselves.”
She points out that while she may know more about a topic than someone else, she doesn’t have hands-on experience with it, and distinguishes between having a platform and specializing.
“Having a specialty is like being a beat reporter—you have a certain base level of knowledge about what you cover and you can build on it. But a city hall beat re-porter has probably never been mayor,” she says. “Having a platform means you have not just knowledge but personal experience, like being a nurse or a law-enforcement person or a chemist or a mom, and then [you] use your experience as the basis for your writing. A lot of writers try to turn their specialty into a platform, but unless they’ve had personal experience in their specialty, I think doing so is bogus. ... I want to be like Tracy Kidder, whose platform is that he can write book after book, and the only thing they have in common is being well-written.”
Building your platform
Like Gardner, you may prefer to remain platform-free. But if you decide you want to develop more of a platform—an identifiable expertise as a writer—where do you start? By thinking about what your clients (both current and future) need, and what you can offer them.
“The clients for freelancers are typically publishers, editors, businesses, and individuals who hire and pay writers,” Katz says. “The question then becomes: Which part of the freelancer’s experience has the most value to these particular audiences? The question being asked is: ‘Why should I hire you now?’ Answer that question in advance, and that’s the basis for your freelance platform.”
Once you’ve identified your unique value to clients, you can start building your platform—or continue to grow the one you already have. Take some time to think about what you want, though, before you commit to a platform. “ ‘Cultivate’ is really the operative word,” Katz says. “Too many writers launch their platforms too soon without giving their focus and mission enough forethought. Although learning by doing can be educational, it’s often a slow and frustrating way for writers to learn that they need to start over again with a clearer identity.”
That’s why Katz suggests that writers keep their platform planning “under development” for at least six weeks before they launch their efforts. “Understand what you are ultimately trying to accomplish first, and then act on your intentions,” she says. “The most prosperous way to launch a platform is to keep your vision in development until you are sure that you are on your way towards visibility, credibility and, ultimately, sales—whatever ‘sales’ means to you.”
Next, come up with a brief description of who you are and what you do.
For example, Francis’ platform is simple: She’s the happiest mom—and writes about how other mothers can enjoy parenthood more. My current platform is that I’m an experienced collaborator who helps health, fitness and nutrition experts write books. Both platforms are succinct and specific and describe our value to potential clients.
Second, make sure that you’re spreading the word about what you do. Your social-media presence on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter should remind people of your platform, as should your email signature. The same goes for when you meet someone online or in person. Ideally, everything you do should support and continue to build your platform, whatever it is.
If you’re resisting the idea of limiting yourself to a specific identity, remember that your platform can always grow and adapt as your writing career does. “I bristle sometimes at the idea that I can only write about one thing or another,” Francis says, “but every time I’ve tried to branch out over the last couple of years, it’s just proven to be a distraction to the platform-building and makes me feel crazy and overwhelmed. But I console myself by remembering I don’t have to be Meagan, ‘the happiest mom,’ forever. At some point I can reinvent myself, rebrand, or even go in a totally different direction.”
Francis makes an excellent point. A platform isn’t static; it can grow and change as your career does. The key is that it reflects your unique identity as a writer, and helps you reach clients who will want to hire you.
• niche or specialty: an area of focus in which you have a general understanding and expert contacts you can turn to for more information
• platform: your knowledge, experience and connections, which form a foundation for your books' or services' viability in the marketplace
Kelly James-Enger, a contributing editor for The Writer, lives in Downers Grove, Ill. Her latest book is Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer’s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). She blogs about making more money in less time as a freelancer at dollarsanddeadlines.blogspot.com. Web: becomebodywise.com.||