The Road More Traveled
If you’ve looked into the current self-publishing boom at all you’ve undoubtedly heard the advice that you must work on your platform to have any hope of being successful as a self-published writer. If you’re at all like me you probably seized on this mushy advice while also struggling to make sense of it. And struggling. And struggling…
At some point the thought may have occurred to you that while the advice is undoubtedly solid, it’s your ignorance of key terms* that makes it hard for you to seize this golden opportunity. What, exactly, is a platform, and how is it most effectively worked on?
Taking the bull by the horns, while also somehow following conventional wisdom, you equate your platform with your website or blog or personal appearances, and equate work on with writing and saying things for free so as to induce other human beings to care about you. (Over time, as you dedicate yourself to this apparently-but-not-really more robust definition of a platform, this exchange of labor and skill for attention may also convince you that you can profit by giving other things away, including the books or stories you naively intended to sell before you became so much wiser about self-publishing.)
At some much later point, when you’re lying by the side of the self-publishing road with an I.V. in your neck and blisters on your hands from crawling those last long miles, you may marvel that personal determination seems to have so little to do with success in publishing or self-publishing. While it’s certainly true that you can’t win if you don’t enter, it’s more likely the case that even if you enter constantly and do everything you’re supposed to do — including working on your platform, whatever that means — you still won’t win.
At which point, if you’re a good and decent sort, you will simply blame yourself for having failed. You will man-up or woman-up as appropriate and acknowledge that you never really figured out what your platform was, or how you could work on it. Being a decent sort, however, you won’t hesitate to encourage others to crack the code by working on their own platform, which will endear you to the next crop of earnest, hardworking fools determined to make a name for themselves with their writing.
Having said all that, I think the word platform does mean something real, and that there are many ways for you to work on it that will help you sell books. The fact that it doesn’t mean what you think it means, or that it has, literally, nothing at all to do with good writing, or, in some cases, the ability to write at all, must immediately be dismissed as a curiosity, but that’s a small price to pay for success.
In all its incarnations, platform is an interesting word. Because no definition of the word meets the usage referred to in this post, I am proposing the following addition:
xx. Publishing. celebrity: Gary worked hard on his platform by giving nude readings of his book, “Dreams Deciphered”.
Now, whether a lightbulb just went on for you or not, it should be a little clearer why the word platform seems to make sense in some mushy, ill-defined way. If you think of celebrities as having high visibility, and you think of something on a platform as being more visible, then celebrity = platform and working on your platform means raising your own visibility.
(If you ever spend any time in politics — and I encourage you not to — you will learn that candidates for public office spend a good deal of time on what their advisers, aides and managers literally call visibility. Speech at the Ladies’ Auxilliary? Visibility. Kissing babies during a parade? Visibility. Lunch with the mayor? Visibility. Angry speech about hot-button issue that guarantees press coverage even though data conclusively shows that nobody actually votes the issue? Visibility. What’s also interesting here is that politicians traditionally embrace a platform of political views, which are ostensibly the equivalent of policy positions. In practice, however, political platforms are usually designed to placate or seduce supporters — meaning even here the idea of a platform relates more to marketing and celebrity than it does to the work product of politics.)
The Platform Advantage
To see how the platform = celebrity dynamic plays out in publishing (and self-publishing), let’s look at an exhaustive series of examples. For each of the following, imagine that the person in question has just written a book that they are hoping to bring it to market.
- Barack Obama — huge celebrity; huge platform
- You — no celebrity; teeny-weeny platform
I could go on, of course, but I think you get the idea. When you’re being encouraged to work on your platform you’re actually being encouraged to raise your visibility and celebrity. The more well-known you are, the more books you will sell. (And you thought there was no hard science behind all this platform talk.)
So what can you do to raise your celebrity?
Well, the good news is that there are a lot of options. In fact, you’re really only limited by your imagination and morality. Because pathological liars, narcissists and sociopaths have an unfair advantage here, I’m not going to go into specifics about things you might actually do to raise your celebrity lest anyone get any really bad ideas. I will, however, list a few names of people who currently have an absolutely dynamite platform and let you draw your own conclusions.
- Bernie Madoff
- Osama bin Laden
- Wall St.
- Balloon Boy’s Dad
- The Owner of the Indianapolis Colts
Again, I could go on almost infinitely, but I assume you get the point. Celebrity, like sex, sells. So whatever it takes to raise your celebrity is inherently a good thing for your publishing career. It won’t make you a better writer, of course, and it won’t increase the likelihood that you have something to say, but it will almost certainly sell more books than being you or caring about your craft. [Tip: if you’re short on time, work ethic and content to give away, there are myriad ways you can jump-start your platform by giving away your dignity as a human being.]
The Road Less Traveled
On the other hand, if you are still determined to put craft first I can offer you a faint silver lining. To the extent that celebrity trumps all else in publishing, you can’t compete. Sarah Palin will always get a book deal, even if she has trouble forming coherent thoughts without the literary support of a ghostwriter.
However. If what you care about is writing, and in particular storytelling, you have a shot at competing on the merits today that you wouldn’t have had a few years ago. The reason for this is that the marketing machinery previously used to raise the visibility/celebrity of other writers has broken down. You as a romance writer or literary author are no longer up against a stacked deck guarded by industry gatekeepers protecting franchise writers. Today, all but the most famous (meaning most bankable, not most talented) of your competitors are in the same boat. Even long-time mid-list old hands are having to figure out what their platform is, and how to work on it, and that puts them on an even footing with you.
Assuming that there ever was a paying audience for the kind of stuff you write, you now have access to that audience directly, and can — at least in part — rely on the quality of what you write, rather than the q-score for who you are, to determine your success. You may succeed and you may not, but believing in and improving your craft vastly increases the likelihood that you will attract attention for your skill set as opposed to your celebrity — which could also lead to offers from publishers, or work-for-hire opportunities.
The choice is yours, of course. I’m going to go the craft route, but only because I wouldn’t want to belong to any group of celebrities that would have me as a member.
* In your later years, after life has beaten you down, you will realize that advice which is devoid of recognizable terminology is no advice at all, and you will either chuckle or shake your head at this realization depending on your disposition. If you still have a fair share of your marbles, and if what you foolishly wanted all along was to be a good writer, you may also realize that mushy advice is the hallmark of the guru, the salesperson and the con artist, and that what you really could have used was the utility and reliability of craft. Again, depending on your disposition, you may or may not punish yourself further by noting that bridge builders spend very little time attending motivational seminars, but lots of time on math.
— Mark Barrett