Monday, March 9, 2009

The Author's Platform

One of the biggest concerns for non-fiction authors is platform. Publishers demand that authors have a platform, but most authors not only don’t have a platform, they don’t know what one is and they don’t know how to get one. In simplest terms, an author’s platform is the author’s foundation. Figuratively, the author stands on his platform, much like a speaker would a soap box or a podium, and proclaims his message to the world. As with speakers, authors prefer to have a true podium over a soap box, but we must earn that right.

Many things in life are complete in three parts. The author’s platform is no different. The three things that go into a platform are expertise, recognition and subject interest. The strength of the platform depends on an author having adequate portions of all three.

Expertise comes from many different things. A Bible scholar, for example, may have gained his expertise by attending a seminary or by years of Bible study on his own, but one thing is certain, he didn’t gain his expertise by deciding to read the book of Psalms and discovering things that he didn’t know were there. Also, expertise in one area does not equate to expertise in all areas. We may find an expert Bible scholar who has no expertise in raising children. He may have a strong platform when it comes to theology, but a very weak platform from which to talk about raising children.

Recognition comes into play because being a great expert on a subject is meaningless if people do not recognize that you are a great expert. Suppose there is a historian who has studied everything there is to know about the assassination of Lincoln. No one knows more about this subject than this historian, but aside from a few papers he has written, few people have heard of him. On the other hand, there is a historian who has a broader knowledge of history and is a consultant for a news organization. Even though the first historian has greater expertise, it is likely that people will consult with the consultant because she has greater recognition for her expertise in history. Thus, she has a stronger platform.

Subject Interest may be the saving grace for the Lincoln assassination expert. There is enough interest in the subject that people may want more information than the news consultant would be able to give. This would strengthen the platform of the Lincoln assassination expert. Each of us is the foremost expert in something—in ourselves if nothing else. But our expertise and the recognition of it is only useful if there is sufficient subject interest. I am an expert in all there is to know about Timothy Fish. People recognize that I am the expert, but only a few people are truly interested in learning about Timothy Fish, so my platform on the subject remains small.

Building a platform requires strengthening all three aspects. We can strengthen expertise through study or by experience. We strengthen recognition by making people aware of our expertise. This may be through public speaking, advertising, publishing papers or through the Internet. We don’t always have control over subject interest. No one had interest in Chelsey Sullenberger until he landed a plane in the Hudson River. That’s a little random, but now, anyone who is a recognized authority on Chelsey Sullenberger has a strong platform. We don’t want to go around creating disasters to strengthen our platform, but we can promote our subject. People may not realize how interesting a subject is until someone tells them why they should be interested.

Some people confuse fans with platform. There is a link, but if you will notice, celebrities have a platform because fans are interested in the celebrity and the celebrity is a recognized authority on the celebrity. While that may translate into the celebrity being about to promote other things, their platform quickly falls apart if they have not done their research and become an expert in whatever it is they are promoting. When they show their ignorance of a subject, people are just as likely to laugh at them and ignore whatever they have to say.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m not a recognized subject matter expert on anything that people find interesting. But I still want to be a writer. I still have stuff I want to say.” That’s fine, but don’t expect anyone to want to publish it or read it. Some people will tell you that writing is primarily about keeping your butt in your chair. I disagree. You want to write non-fiction? Go out and learn something that most people don’t know, but would like to learn. Then come back and write it down in a interesting way, so the rest of us can learn it with less effort than it took you.