IVP - Addenda & Errata - How Do You Get to Barnes & Noble? Platform, Platform, Platform

October 14, 2009

How Do You Get to Barnes & Noble? Platform, Platform, Platform

If you are an academic and you feel that general, or “popular,” authors haven’t done sufficient homework to write on their topic, and you can do it better, or if you just have a great idea for a general book, you need to step up to the plate—well before you write that book.

Before working on the book you need to apply yourself to building your platform for reaching that general audience. If the publishing gatekeepers don’t know who you are, you aren’t going to get your show into Carnegie Hall, no matter how much you’ve practiced. You need to work the local spots, the equivalent of your local clubs and county fairs, and earn your creds with the “popular” audience. (An important benefit of this is that you can learn how people outside academia think and what questions they ask—which can dramatically refocus your writing.)

That notion of the learned doctor, taking a break from monographs and journal articles to dash off a tract for the times or a meditation on life—while the publisher does the rest (you know, promotion, advertising and that kind of stuff)—is gone. If it ever was here. The watchword today is platform.

Sure, I’m being a bit facetious in my depiction of an academic’s expectations. But not by far. All I have to do is reach back into my own perceptions when I made the transition into publishing, or even into the not-so-distant past of publishing.

For some time now publishers have been talking about an author’s “platform,” the virtual structure that gives them visibility above the crowd and enables them to project their voice above the swelling din. It’s a platform built of the social and media mechanisms that allow authors to gain a hearing and sell books. By and large, whenever I’ve heard of this need for a platform (“But does he have a platform?” “What’s her platform?”) it’s been in reference to “general book” authors, or what many of you might call “popular” authors. In other words, it hasn’t had much to do with academic authors. There has been a general notion that an academic’s position in an institution of higher learning was their platform. (But even this is changing, and is material for another blog.)

Yes, if you are an academic who wants to reach a broader readership, this is a new day. How so?

  • If an author lives in or frequently visits the publisher’s home country, they’re more available for speaking and publicity events inside that country.
  • If they are open to and actively pursue speaking engagements, they are more visible.
  • If they do well in radio or on video interviews, they’re potential is enhanced.
  • If they make sure their books are available for sale after each speaking engagement, they will have taken advantage of essential opportunities.
  • If they are well networked, and are connected to one or more organizations willing to heavily promote (and preferably buy in bulk) the book, the publisher will have more ready avenues to pursue in promoting the book.
  • If they know very well-known people (that is, folks known to the non-religious or non-Christian people making the decisions at Barnes & Noble), they have a better chance of gaining strong endorsements for the back cover.

This is what publishers are looking for from authors before they contract books. It used to be that “popular” authors wanted to see marketing plans from publishers. Now publishers also want to see marketing plans from authors. On the surface this situation seems to favor the extrovert rather than the introvert, the well placed over the marginally placed, the suave Fabian over the honest Howie.

And yet . . . and yet there are excellent platform-building opportunities that do not depend on a charismatic public persona. And frankly, some of the effective and newer means of building a platform (barring You-Tube clips) might not be attractive to a real extrovert. Putting together an attractive website, for example, or maintaining a blog requires some of the same temperament and skills required to succeed as a scholar and teacher and writer. This does not boil down to an issue of form vs substance, glamour vs. grit. But if you don’t have a blog, or some kind of web presence, your circle of influence is potentially smaller than someone who does. If you have an aversion to employing the social media of facebook or twitter or whatever’s next, you will be viewed by marketers as behind the curve. Authors who are actively cultivating their platform outsell those authors who don’t but whose books are equally good or even better.

Maybe you are not greatly concerned whether your book sells well or not. That’s not why you write. You’re not in it for the money, and you trust God’s providence to place your book where it should go. Besides, self-promotion is just not you. It carries an unsavory odor. Well, you might be surprised to learn this, but temperamentally, I have a great deal of sympathy for that position.

But on this side of the publishing venture we have to sell books to stay in business. And selling books is becoming increasingly competitive and challenging. It’s challenging to snag the attention of the diminishing pool of serious readers in the midst of a variety of claims on their attention. Platform gives your book—your contribution—an edge and helps it stand out and reach readers. And an author’s active involvement in promoting their book energizes marketers. Authors who are willing to take initiative in promoting their books create synergy. But academics who want to reach a broader audience need to come to the publisher not only with an idea for a book but with a platform at least under construction and with bright hopes for its tomorrow. Without a platform, your manuscript may only sell at all if you self-publish. And then you really will do all the marketing by yourself.

Are there some unfortunate effects of this situation? Sure. If you are carrying on a ministry in a remote chalet in the Swiss Alps, sporting knickers and speaking in a high-pitched voice (and don’t really understand Kierkegaard or Barth), plus you need a ghost writer to turn your transcripts into books, you’re going to have a tough time making the grade today. Except, come to think of it, Francis Schaeffer did create quite a buzz, had been written about by Time magazine in 1960 and had tapes of his lectures circulating internationally long before his first book appeared. So maybe platform had something to do with his success after all. And providence too. But for a publisher, an academic author with a wider platform is providential.

(Thanks and a hat tip to Andy Le Peau for his contribution!)

Posted by Dan Reid at October 14, 2009 9:35 AM Bookmark and Share

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