Friday, December 04, 2009

Hard Truths About Soft Platforms

My pal James Scott Bell has just seen a new book release: The Art of War for Writers. In the introduction Jim says:

The publishing business is a messy affair ... What I want to do with this collection is offer you some helpful observations based on more than twenty years in the fiction writing game. This is not a comprehensive "how to" on fiction. I've written two other books in that form. Rather, I seek to fill in some "cracks" in what is normally taught in writing books and classes.

The book is broken into three sections:

1. Reconnaissance: the mental game of writing

2. Tactics: The craft of writing

3. Strategy: Advice on the publishing biz

In celebration of the release of The Art of War for Writers I asked Jim to stop by Forensics and Faith today to talk to us about what's on his mind.

It's a pleasure to be guest blogging for my buddy Brandilyn on this, the launch tour of my new book: The Art of War for Writers. It's available in all the usual places. You can even download a free sample just by going here. I'll just say that it's a "field manual" for those fighting the battle to get – and stay – published.

So since I'm here blogging about it, it seems an apt time to bring up a certain buzzword, one you're all probably familiar with: platform.

What is a platform? It comes from the world of public speaking. It's something you stand on so you can yak at people. A lot of people.

Metaphorically, if you have a lot of people listening to you, you have a platform. And publishers like that because it means many of those people may buy your book.

Sounds simple. But platforms for fiction writers may have a trap door. We'd best talk about it so you don't fall through.

We have to distinguish between non-fiction and fiction. Non-fiction writers who specialize in a subject, or are known for something they’ve done, have a natural platform, namely all the people who are into the subject matter or celebrity thing.

So Suzie Orman, a recognized financial expert, can sell books because of her expertise. She can speak, and people who want financial advice will come and listen. At the back of the room her staff can sell books and DVDs. It's a money making operation.

Not so the fiction writer. We write stories intended to reach a diverse readership, which translates into: people who are hard to find.

The Internet seemed to be the way to handle that challenge. After all, a billion people use the Internet. All we have to do is set up a blog about our books, and we have a billion potential hits! Wow! Get just one percent to buy your novel (and they will, because of that snazzy book trailer!) and you've sold ten million books!

Of course, that was fifteen years ago in a dream. The reality is that in the flurry of Internet fog it's hard to get any attention at all. And even if you do (here it comes, the takeaway): That does not guarantee a fiction writing career for you.

As writer Simon Wood recently put it:

"There's a massive pinball effect with a writer’s work. Someone reads a story and likes it, so they check out something else I’ve written. That only works if what is out there is good. If it’s bad, it has the converse effect and they're unlikely to seek out other works."

Writers have simply got to understand it's not pervasive marketing that sells, but the stories themselves. You can market yourself to an introduction, but the readers will base future purchases on how much they like what they read, not on how many titles you have available on the Internet in digital form, or how many Twitter followers you have.

Unpublished fiction writers need to quit obsessing over platform, quit re-designing fancy websites, quit posting first chapters on Facebook, quit trying to jump start careers via Twitter. What they need to be concentrating on is writing a book readers can't put down--can't put down because the writer has spent years bleeding desire and passion and is unashamedly putting that on the page, using all the tools of the craft learned bit by painful bit by writing every day.

When you write books readers love, platform takes care of itself, because word-of-mouth and repeat readership are the only two planks that count.

Am I saying don't do any of this Internet or social networking stuff? Of course not. I do some of it. It's out there and you have choices. What I am saying is this:

Do what you can in the marketing/promotion matrix without:

1. Harming the quality of your writing;

2. Harming the quality of your family and personal relationships; and

3. Going into debt.

Follow those guidelines and write your best stuff. Doing so will drain all the anxiety out of the word platform.

Visit Jim's web site
Check out The Art of War for Writers on Amazon

What do you think? Do Jim's ideas of building a platform decrease your stress over the issue?


Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Definitely! It's easy to stress out about platform and forget to focus on the most important part--writing. Thank you, Jim and Brandilyn! I actually just purchased this book and am really excited to dive into it. I feel like it's coming at a great time for me.

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

I've read THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS and it's excellent. I'm encouraged by the advice Jim gives here--and in the book--about platform.
The addition of this complementary text to his other two great books on writing provides both ammunition and encouragement for those of us trying to get or stay published.
Jim, thanks for your advice. Brandilyn, thanks for making it available to us.

Nicole said...

Jim's absolutely right of course. But . . . it's a Catch-22. If you have no platform, who wants to look at your story? If you have no story, who cares about your platform? Except: publishers do care about your platform, and I've read a few novels from authors with decent platforms and not-so-good novels.

It's also a temptation to say: "Easy for you to say". When Jim started writing he had skills and platform. Of course he worked hard to hone those skills (education, etc.), but nevertheless he's now writing from a standpoint of acquired success and no doubt a calling.

The "calling" to write is the designator for me. Do it the best you can without second-guessing what the Lord has planned. Work hard at it and do it for Him.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Just saw this posted on my twitter so decided to read it (in case anyone was wondering how I found you!) I agree that writing what you love is the best way to go, but it's important to remember that a lot of people are writing quality stories. If you think of good writing as the entrance exam, then platform will come into play at the next level. Sounds like Jim will always have both (lucky him). And I can't agree more that building one at the expense of the other is a risky game. Interesting blog!

Mark Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Young said...

Great advice, Jim. Looking forward to reading your book. There is a writing war waging out there, but I'd like to think many of us writers are in the trenches together. Let the bullets fly.

James Scott Bell said...

Good comments so far. Let me add a couple of notes.

Yes, it seems like a "Catch-22" but I think it's more like a "Catch-1 1/2." A "fiction writing platform" before publication seems rather like a cart before the horse item, and it will take one HUGE platform (on the order of mini-celebrity) to overcome the hurdle of a story that's not ready for prime time.

OTOH, I don't know any publisher who will not jump on a new novel they think will catch on with readers, just because the writer doesn't have 5,000 Twitter followers. If such exists, the term "short sighted" comes to mind.

When I started writing, the word platform was unheard of (just like I was). I built up my readership over the course of years, concentrating always on getting better as a writer, book after book. Any platform I have now is more the result, not the cause, of whatever success I've had as a writer.

My main thing is for the new writer not to stress over platform. Do what you can, like I said, but don't ever let it take away from the writing itself.

Rosemary Regier Hossenlopp said...

The guiding principals listed above are as important as the craft of writing.

"Do what you can in the marketing/promotion matrix without:
1. Harming the quality of your writing;
2. Harming the quality of your family and personal relationships; and
3. Going into debt."

Why be successful as a writer and lose the battle in other parts in your life. Thank you for sharing this advice.

Rosemary Regier Hossenlopp

Tammy Doherty said...

I'm so glad I read this! Thank you, Brandilyn, for this post. And mega-thank you to James Scott Bell for your advice. I've been beating myself up trying to figure out this platform thing. What you say makes so much sense it almost seems like a "duh" kind of thing! So now I can concentrate on writing.

Blessings to you both

Laurie London said...

Jim, can I tell you how refreshing it is to hear you say this?

I kept hearing how important it was to get a website up, but that never made sense to me. Who would want to read a blog by someone just starting out, just learning the craft? (I wouldn't.) Also, I didn't want to make a blunder and write something foolish that would hurt me later on. Nothing you write on the internet is ever gone. (It's better to be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and prove it.)

So I decided to focus on just the writing. No website, no blog. And guess what? My agent just negotiated a 2-book deal for me with a major print publisher!

However, I did play on FB and Twitter with my real name in order to understand how they worked, and I reserved these accts under the name with which I'd be writing. I also put together a simple website that sat on my computer only. W/in a week of selling, I had my website published, and both my FB and Twitter identities up.

I kept hoping I did the right thing. Given that it didn't hinder my ability to sell to a major publisher and considering what you've said, I think I'm on the right track.

Thanks again for the great advice as always. Can't wait to read your newest.

Julie from TX said...

Phew! This is a relief to know. Thanks.

James Scott Bell said...

Laurie, thanks so much for sharing that story. What great confirmation. Well done!

Carla Gade said...

Yes! I'm so glad I stopped by. Thanks for bringing this info our way. I'll be able to sleep tonight!