Publishing a book is like running for political office.

There are a lot of people out there who you want to take a certain action, at a certain time and place in the future. With political campaigning, that action is to vote. With book campaigning, it is to buy your book.

In both cases, you need to do many of the same things: meeting people, connecting with existing communities, attending conferences and events, publishing content online, and generally making yourself known in the network that you’ll eventually need to propel you to success.

Here’s what most aspiring writers don’t realize: most of this campaigning needs to happen before you begin writing your book, before you have a proposal, and even before you decide on an idea. Approaching a publisher is actually the last step, not the first, because the first thing they will want to know is how big your “platform” is. 

How big is your platform?

The answer to this question outweighs every other part of your proposal combined. It proves that there is a market for your book, instead of just claiming it. Look at it from the publisher’s point of view: would you rather invest in an author who has proven demand for their ideas, or one who is pretty sure people will want to buy their book?

Best-selling author and marketing expert Seth Godin puts it this way: “If you don’t have an asset already—a ‘permission base’ of thousands or tens of thousands of people, a popular blog, thousands of employees, a personal relationship with Willard Scott — then it’s too late to start building that asset once you start working on a book. My best advice? Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant.”

Whether it’s called a platform, a permission base, or an asset, the bottom line is that you need a ready and willing audience for your writing. A sizable group of people who know you, trust you, and already like what you have to say. Without an existing group of highly engaged potential buyers, your only option is to rely on the platforms of others. Even if you can somehow gain access to them, the price they extract will be so steep that you’ll question if it’s even worth it.

Other examples of platforms you can use to boost your credibility include a successful speaking career, a track record as an expert in the media, demonstrable expertise or recognition within a particular field, a social media following of thousands, or a major YouTube audience.

But more and more, having a platform means having an online platform. The power of the Internet, and its ability to distribute your writing around the world virtually for free, is simply too great to ignore. 

Whether through social media, an email newsletter, or a YouTube following, having an online platform allows you to:

  • Expose yourself to an infinite world of ideas and stories
  • Instantly connect to sources of information and knowledgeable experts
  • Plug into trends so you know what’s hot and what’s not
  • Test-drive your material
  • Find your community and future audience
  • Become an active citizen in your community
  • Develop and/or expand your platform and brand
  • Demonstrate to a publisher that lots of people will buy your book
  • Raise the profile of your name and work
  • Sell lots and lots of books

Having an influential platform may seem difficult, but the good news is you don’t need to become a mainstream celebrity to publish a successful book. We live in the age of the “long tail” – a term coined by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine to describe the almost infinite number of tiny niches that we see thriving on the Internet.

Anderson says, “When consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed. And it turns out to be less hit-centric and mainstream than we thought. People gravitate toward niches because they satisfy narrow interests better, and in one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest (whether we think of it that way or not).”

Owning your platform

While it can be tempting to build your platform on an existing network, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or one of the new generation of social networks, at the end of the day you need to own your platform.

Facebook only shows your posts to a small percentage of the people even in groups you manage. Twitter accounts get blocked all the time. YouTube videos get demonetized due to the smallest of violations, such as frivolous copyright strikes. 

While you can and should use these platforms to get started, at the end of the day you have to own your own platform. It is the only way to control your own destiny and not be at the mercy of a corporation’s changing policies.

Owning your platform comes down to two things:

  1. Owning your website
  2. Owning your email list

Your website is like the headquarters and command center for everything you do. All the links you post across the web should lead back here, like all the roads leading back to Rome.

And what do visitors find when they arrive there? Everything that you have to build your credibility, make it easy for them to consume your writing, and sign up for more. 

Here are some things you can and should include on your website:
  • Your writing: Chapters you’ve completed or are workshopping, personal essays, rants and raves, how-to articles, opinions on anything and everything — whatever your audience will be interested in reading.
  • Your bio: Put fun and interesting facts about yourself in this section. Nowadays, journalists and bloggers go directly to personal websites to get their facts straight, and if something catches their fancy, they’re more likely to write about it. 
  • Photos: Photos are eye candy that draw visitors in, so feel free to go to town. 
  • Reviews and interviews by or about you: Press begets press and reader interest. 
  • Resource section: Post items of interest to you and your readers. 
  • Calendar of events: Lectures, workshops, or guest appearances you’ll make; these can be physical events or online events.
  • Videos of yourself: Talking about, reading aloud, and/or performing excerpts from your book. Readers like to see and hear you.
  • An easy way to sign up for your mailing list or newsletter: Your mailing list is extremely important, even if you’re a literary fiction writer. When people give you their names and email addresses, they are telling you they want to hear from you. 
  • Contact information: Definitely list at least one way for people to get in touch with you.
  • Links to outside sites: Direct visitors to your Facebook and Twitter accounts (or whatever other social networking sites you happen to be on) and your recommended blogs.
Your email list, on the other hand, is your distribution system. It represents your most committed readers who have specifically asked you to notify them when you have something to share. Imagine that?
 
Emails are among the most personal of messages you can send. They arrive directly in your readers’ inboxes – the same place they receive messages from their colleagues, managers, clients, and closest family and friends. Emails are one-to-many, but are delivered in a way that makes each one feel like a personal message. Emails are very affordable to send, and you don’t pay on a per-email basis.
 

Best of all, you can take an email list with you. Unlike Twitter followers or Facebook friends, that list can be downloaded and taken to any other Email Service Provider (ESP). Which means you are never at the mercy of your provider’s whims.

As long as you own your website – your online HQ – and your email list – your direct channel to your readers – you’ll always be free to navigate the Internet without risk.

The power of the pitch

One of the most common mistakes writers make is underestimating the power of the pitch. 

There are so many people in the publishing process who will need to quickly get the gist of your idea. Your pitch is the calling card for your book at each and every step in its journey.

Your pitch should make a promise: to educate, challenge, amuse, romance, inspire, or entertain. It has to make a promise that your book completely delivers on. Your pitch should make an impression and leave them wanting more. It needs to be catchy, juicy, and attention-grabbing. It should make them respond, “I can’t wait to read that book” or “I know someone who would love this book.”

Start developing your pitch as early as possible. Try out different variations in your writing, in conversations, and on social media. Look out for enthusiastic reactions, eyes lighting up, and the words “Tell me more.” A pitch is the earliest manifestation of your book and its promise – it needs to catch people’s attention in a matter of seconds. 

Here are some examples:

  • The South Beach Diet: The delicious, doctor-designed, foolproof plan for fast and healthy weight loss
  • The Quants: How a new breed of math whizzes conquered Wall Street and nearly destroyed it
  • The Happiness Project: Or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun
  • Trattoria: Healthy, simple robust fare inspired by the small family restaurants of Italy
  • Same Kind of Different As Me: A modern-day slave, an international art dealer, and the unlikely woman who bound them together
  • The Happiest Baby on the Block: The new way to calm your crying baby and help your newborn baby sleep longer
  • The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter-acre!

Delivery is everything in a pitch. Practice in the shower, in the mirror, on video, and in front of friends. Then start pitching everybody, everywhere. The more you practice your pitch, the more it will roll off your tongue with confidence.

In the next post, we’ll examine the process of writing a proposal to sell the idea for your book to a publisher.


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