Dear Hurry Up and Wait,
I keep sending out my memoir and getting told I need a platform. What do they mean by “a platform”? Everyone gives me different ideas about how to build a platform, but no answer to the question seems to fit my personal style. Why do I need a platform, and how can I create one that works for me? I want to be a published writer with a book, not a marketer. Help!
Dear Too Anonymous,
First, I completely and totally understand your frustration, especially if you’ve struggled in front of a blank page for years only to discover that the latest trending social media star has just “written” a forthcoming memoir. Meanwhile, you just received yet another form rejection.
But before we start lamenting the death of literature and the rise of the undeserving literati, let’s look at why we’re here in the first place. Publishers have historically fancied themselves arbiters of good taste and masters of market trends, and their choices, although often brilliant, have also been as subjective as deciding the price of “good art,” not to mention that they’ve ignored giant swaths of the reading population.
Enter blogs, social media, Amazon, and digital marketing—a widespread new kind of instant storytelling was born, coupled with increased competition for readers’ leisure time. Suddenly, it felt like there was a means by which to test drive a book concept. The warm, comforting embrace of cold, hard data would help assure publishers driven by the bottom-line. Compound this shift with overwhelmed publicity and marketing departments, the inability to create bestsellers simply through favorable placement on the right Barnes & Noble shelf, and funny cat picture books outselling Pulitzer Prize winners and voila!—personal author platforms became the answer.
Is this a good thing? Does a book by every single cast member of a moderately successful reality show take away from book deal money they could have spent on your quirky speculative fiction? Perhaps. But commercially successful authors also keep publishers in the black, allowing them to take more risks. Platforms have also opened the door for authors who would have never otherwise been published, and for stories that likely would never have had the chance to live between the pages of a book bound by one of the “big five.”
Back to your question, though: What exactly is a platform? How do you create one? How many social media followers are enough? How long a list of esteemed literary journal publications, each italicized publishing credit more impressive than the last, does a platform require? It’s easy to get confused, not only because there is an ever-shifting definition of “platform” but also because there is a constantly moving goal post, begging for bigger numbers and more publications. And while it might seem that a “platform” is mostly about social media for nonfiction writers and a few top-notch literary journal publications for fiction writers, there’s so much more to it.
I’ve long rejected the pervasive lie that writing is a solitary endeavor. Yes, the process involves time spent alone staring at a screen or a blank page, researching or dreaming up ways to kill your darlings, but that is not the only facet to a writer’s life. Mark Twain famously complained about how easily he became distracted from his writing to pen letters to his friends. Literary friendships are essential: Lord Byron and Percy Shelly; James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; Truman Capote and Harper Lee; The Algonquin Roundtable; The Inklings; The Southside Writer’s Group. These were all platforms.
Yes, to write a cookbook, fashion guide, or life-coaching book, you need to be a cook, a fashion guide, or a well-known life coach, but that’s because the book is the end game, the culmination. If you’re a cook, you’re probably making delicious, beautiful dishes nightly and can snap a picture when you’ve mastered your latest dish. If you’ve put together a killer outfit, you’ll want to share how you curated this ensemble with others. Writing for literary journals should be an outlet for your ideas, not a necessary evil on your way novelistic glory. Comedians want to get up on stage. Actors find joy in bit parts. Writers, too, need to start somewhere.
For instance, consider how I became an agent. I was working at a big, glossy magazine in the era when magazines were glamorous, bosses were tyrants, and we all had bloated expense accounts. I was craving something more creative and liberating, so I signed up for a continuing education course with Mediabistro. This was before online classes, which meant attending in-person on the second floor of a random building in SoHo. I didn’t know it then, but taking this class would be the first step towards building my platform.
Had it been an online course, I would have avoided the two subways, the torrential downpours, and sneaking out of work early. I certainly would have dodged the ever-awkward “going around the room” while everyone introduced themselves, fumbling through what they each hoped to get out of the class. But I also would have missed out on befriending the teacher. She later taught me how to publish my first personal essay, contributed to the first book I represented as an agent, and appeared on a panel to help me promote that book. I wouldn’t have met the six people with whom I would workshop my writing for the following decade after the class ended. I also wouldn’t have had those same writers in my corner as we cheered each other on, shared information, and ruthlessly pushed each other to write better. I wouldn’t have seen them go on to attend MFA programs (myself included), and I wouldn’t have met the people in each of their developing networks, some of whom would become my clients. I would have never made these integral lifelong friendships or started a literary community called H.I.P. Lit.
Ultimately, I would have missed out on the slow, painful, clawing build to become a fully realized literary agent. This “platform” of mine wasn’t built in a day, or even in a year, but everything worth doing requires time and attention. While I wouldn’t call it easy, I would call it authentic and lasting. I’d also call it proof that platforms, like humans and careers, come in all shapes and sizes. One-on-one human connection works best for me, and I consider my personal network the type of platform I need. But maybe you’re a writer who thrives on the creative challenge that comes with needing to be sharp and witty in only the limited number of characters Twitter provides. To each her own.
If creating a platform feels frustrating and ugly, you’re doing it wrong. If Instagram doesn’t speak to you or your art, don’t use it. If you’re passionate about writing, become friends with writers. Laugh with them, drink with them, sit around campfires with them. Have long, passionate late-night talks at French restaurants. Go skinny dipping together. Get coffee together. This should be fun! These new friends will inevitably ask you to perform at their reading series or become part of their critique group. They’ll push you and compete with you. Their drive will be contagious, and their tips and experiences will be invaluable.
A platform doesn’t live outside you. It is you. It’s what comes authentically and naturally when you are being so much you that it’s gross. A book is a logical next step once you’ve amassed a body of work that warrants a longform medium. A book deal in and of itself is not the goal. The writer’s life is not only about publication—on the contrary, publication is when the writer stops writing and allows her work to sail out into the world. Yes, a platform is something you build, but it is also what you do and who you are.
In summary, “platform” is simply a collection of like-minded people who are supportive and driven by the same things that drive you. The beauty is that while you do need to put in the time, you don’t need a lot of money or access to build a platform. You don’t have to attend expensive retreats or workshops. You just need to reach out, in whatever way feels most comfortable for you. Platforms are, in truth, communities, and that’s something we’re all innately driven to build and seek out. So, Too Anonymous, I urge you to get out there. Attend a reading, take a class, and start living the writer’s life. Trust me. You don’t need a book deal to do it.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.
Hurry Up and Wait is an advice column by Kim Perel, a veteran literary agent who has worked with authors, editors and publishing houses for over a decade. Its aim is to create an outlet where aspiring authors can ask questions which might otherwise be too awkward, delicate, intimate, or intimidating to ask a publishing professional in person. Hurry Up and Wait is dedicated to protecting anonymity and providing a safe space where writers of all stripes can be themselves and get honest answers to pressing questions about navigating the writing life.