I am suspicious of buzz words. Of jargon, sales talk, spokesmodels, infomercials, and even ventriloquists. Maybe especially ventriloquists.
Remember that crazy Howdy Doody-looking dummy from The Twilight Zone? To recap, in case this is not the stuff of your childhood nightmares: Cliff Robertson plays an alcoholic ventriloquist who tries to convince his agent that his dummy, Willie, is diabolically alive. He fails, his agent thinks he's crazy, and Willie begins to take over their stage act. In the final scene, Willie has become the straight man and the wooden dummy on his lap has the face of Cliff Robertson. Very disturbing.
What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with author platform?
Well, when something is being concealed, I always wonder what it is. And I always assume it's bad. Because if it's not bad, why conceal it?
(Yes, I do live out in the country and sometimes things are indeed this simple for me.)
So when a friend and fellow writer's book went out on submission recently and was rejected by several editors because she didn't have an "author platform," I felt my innate distrust of buzz words grow.
I did some looking around to understand what exactly an author platform is. I learned that there are celebrity author platforms and online author platforms, fiction author platforms and non-fiction author platforms.
An author platform is simply your soapbox. A combination of your speaking engagements, blog subscribers, book sales, publicity, reputation, contacts, marketing skill, and ability to deliver. Author platform then is your (caution, another suspicious word ahead) "brand." Ok, so now I understand the concept, but I still don't feel much better about it.
Because my friend with the rejected book is a very good writer and a super hard worker. And she was writing with authority and had something new and useful to say about a topic that not only had a huge audience, but one she knows a whole lot about. Parenting preschoolers. This book could change the way we parent our children. In amazing, true, confident and loving ways. But, it was her first book, and to the publishing world, she didn't have enough "platform" to sell it.
And that's my problem with the concept. She had the skill to write it, just not the public presence to sell it. She was a sober, reasoned, and skilled Cliff Robertson with no Willie maniacally grinning on her lap. She researched self-publishing but decided that it wasn't for her. She wanted to be conventionally published, preferably by one of the Big 6.
There are certainly books that tanked despite the author having a very big author platform. And so I started to wonder if the reverse was also true. If a writer can get published and sell well without much of an author platform at all.
In fiction you certainly can. Look at novels like, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, Tinkers by Paul Harding, and Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. But there are non-fiction surprises out there, too. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, Heaven is Real by Colton Burpo, and a new one, Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach.
I understand the push by agents and publishers for their authors to have an author platform. I just think its overated. Maybe that's because my friend's story has a happy ending (And you know how I feel about those!)
An editor at one of the Bix 6 bought my friend's book. This editor has preschool children of her own and tried out some of my friend's ideas when her four-year-old had a meltdown. And they worked. Instantly.
When the screaming hit the eardrum, I'd be willing to bet all thoughts of branding and sales figures evaporated. Skill will always trump platform at such moments. As it should.
What other books suceeded without benefit of a big author platform?