Being a great writer is no longer enough if you plan to score a big publishing deal, especially as a nonfiction author.
Particularly if your book idea falls into the “how-to” or “self-help” categories, you not only have to sell your terrific writing, but you also have to sell yourself as the book’s conduit to the world.
Publishers want to minimize their risks, so they don’t haphazardly award big book contracts to unknown writers—unless, that is, the writer is the total package. What constitutes this “package”
Increasingly, publishers look for authors who have “platforms.” A platform is your megaphone to shout your book’s message to a mass audience. Famous people have automatic platforms; if Julia Roberts were to decide to write a book tomorrow, you can bet that she’ll have publishers clamoring. Why? Because they know that the media will go wild to tell the public about it, and she’ll have the ability to get as much air time as she wants all over TV and print.
But let’s assume you’re not quite so famous. That’s okay. You can build a platform in a number of ways—a good start is by writing articles for newspapers and magazines. Work toward becoming a columnist (even at a freebie community paper), then work on syndicating your column.
Although some writers will thumb their noses at this suggestion, if your main objective is platform-building, I advise that you get your column “out there” to as many publications as will have it, whether they pay well or not at all. You may also choose to put your free articles on websites such as www.articlecity.com and www.ideamarketers.com.
Other ways to build platforms:
-Host a radio show
-Get a program on public access TV
-Become a regular guest on a radio/TV show
-Become a public speaker
-Have your own e-zine (must be popular to count!)
-Moderate a popular forum or e-mail list on your book’s topic
-Become involved with well-known charities, nonprofit organizations, or professional organizations, preferably as an officer or spokesperson
-Teach teleclasses or webinars
-Write a free e-book
It’s not unusual for publishers to ask for proof of your media capabilities before buying your book. One publisher asked me for a 5-minute videotape that showed clips from my appearances on Lifetime TV and news programs. I also included a copy of a radio show where I’d recently been a guest, and a headshot—publishers don’t need beauty (unless you’re writing a beauty book!), but they do like to see that your appearance won’t make people scream with abject horror if you do public talks.
To become more media-savvy, you can practice your speaking skills at a local Toastmasters club (www.toastmasters.org), an international association meant to help people overcome public speaking fears and speak more effectively.
You can also practice by having a friend ask you questions on cassette or videotape, then paying attention to any bad habits you have (“y’know,” “umm,” fiddling with your hands, running your hands through your hair, babbling). Work on your sizzling sound byte (the few sentences you want to get across to entice someone to hear more—or, if that’s all the time you’ll have, to entice them to run out and get your book to read more!).
The keys to being a great interviewee? Be passionate. Be enthusiastic. Speak clearly and in short sentences. Let your body language and/or voice reflect a well-collected, happy, engaging attitude. Don’t refer people to your book or website every three seconds—be there to genuinely teach the audience something, and know that if you enthrall them, you won’t have to do a hard-sell to get them to follow you. Dress well for TV interviews (avoid white and beige if you have a light complexion; head for blues, purples, and pink; avoid flashy prints; avoid jangly, reflective jewelry and other distracting clothing and accessories—you want the attention on your words, not your wardrobe). Know how to lead an interviewer to ask the right questions if he or she goes off topic, and to turn negatives into positives.
How will the editor know that you will turn in your work on time, that you will not be a huge pain in the rear to deal with, and that your work will be clean, on target, and on word count? If you have no other book credits to your name, you’ll need other credentials that show you know how to be a professional.
Credentials that prove you’re an expert are one thing– having a special degree, professional association membership, or teaching expertise can help establish that you know your subject matter, but you still need to prove that you know how to handle the writing and publishing process.
Articles in impressive publications certainly help. A regular column helps even more, because it shows an editor that you were able to meet deadlines week after week or month after month and that another editor liked you enough to want to work with you regularly. A “contributing editor” spot on a magazine’s masthead works in your favor, as does any prior experience on staff in the publishing world.
Although rarely requested, nobody’s ever hurt by a letter of recommendation– er, testimonial– from a past editor or boss in a publishing field. I’ve been known to throw in a few sentences from my editors that comment on how easy I am to work with, or how reliable I am, or how their audience always loves my work.
EAGERNESS TO HELP
Even if your platform leaves something to be desired, you can make up for it with a solid publicity plan and an eagerness to take an active role in publicity and marketing. Give concrete plans for who will interview you, review your book, or otherwise give you a spotlight… and why. Telling your publisher that you’re sure this book is perfect for Oprah or that it’ll be right up the New York Times’ alley is useless unless you have a reason for them to believe you—such as a contact at these places.
They are more impressed with solid plans, such as the fact that you’ve already spoken with local librarians who want you to come speak, the YMCA has asked you to come teach a seminar once your book comes out, two local colleges have courses in your subject matter and have agreed to check out your book for possible classroom use, a business organization is interested in buying copies in bulk, and you’re happy to do a book tour of the southwest on your own dime (or will split expenses with the publisher).
If you plan to hire a publicist, that’s usually a plus (rarely, the publisher would rather not have an “outsider” interfere with their publicity department’s efforts). If you’re going for media coaching, willing to attend book fairs, happy to do signings and readings, planning to buy many copies of your own book to sell during your seminars or workshops, etc.– all of these are positives in a publisher’s eye.
Remember that you will wear many hats as a successful writer. To make it big, recognize that you are also a businessperson, a salesperson, and a public relations expert on your own subject matter. Work on becoming the total package, and you’ll cast your book proposal in a much more attractive light.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com) and Absolute Markets (www.absolutemarkets.com). She has written for hundreds of national and online markets, including Physical, Woman’s World, Woman’s Own, Salon.com, and Contemporary Bride. She’s a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest and her latest book is MAKE A REAL LIVING AS A FREELANCE WRITER, which you can find at www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm. Find out how to get a FREE editors’ cheat sheet with this book!