What Agents Look for in Nonfiction - article

An author’s platform is very, very important for nonfiction. As an author, your platform is simply the sum of all the resources at your disposal for getting the word out to large numbers of people. If you happen to be lucky enough to have your own televised talk show, or if you have a well-known radio program, you have a fantastic platform. Of course, very few authors have that kind of visibility. Sometimes, a local platform can be enough. For example, maybe you teach seminars; your students are likely to be interested in hearing about your book. That’s a platform. Having contacts in the media can be part of a platform too.

Naturally, your book also has to stand on its own merits. But having a great book isn’t always enough to catch the attention of publishers (or readers), and that’s where having a platform becomes important. I call the various elements that make up an author’s platform ammunition. I always ask authors I’m working with to try to gather as much ammunition as they can. Right now, I have an author who has written a memoir, and I asked her what kind of ammunition she could bring to the table. As it happens, she and her husband are filmmakers, so they made a short trailer for the book, which is a great marketing tool. She’s also been able to get two really terrific endorsements from authors, and she’s working on getting more endorsements from organizations related to her book. Once all of those components come together, she’ll have a platform.

Even if you don’t feel you have a platform at the moment, once you start gathering ammunition, you may be surprised what you can come up with. I had a client once with the first novel, and I said, “Do you happen to know any well-known authors or anyone else we might be able to get an endorsement from in advance of the publication?” It turned out that she was good friends with a best-selling novelist who was getting a lot of attention at the time. “Oh, really,” I said. “Can you please maybe ask him to if he’d like to give you an endorsement?” If the book hadn’t been able to stand on its own merits, an endorsement wouldn’t have been enough to get it published, but having that endorsement did make all of the editors sit up and take notice, and I sold it to a traditional publisher in just one day.

I handle a lot of memoirs, and memoir writers, like novelists, often struggle to put together a platform. If you’re writing a practical book, you obviously have to have credentials—if you’re writing a medical book, for example, you’re almost certainly going to be a medical professional, and you’re going to have a network of contacts in your field. If you’re writing a memoir, on the other hand, things are a little less black and white. The subject matter has to be interesting, and there has to be a market for it, and the author has to know what he or she is writing about, but the author probably won’t need to have formal credentials of any kind. What that author will need to have is passion. I’ve sold memoirs by authors who didn’t have particularly big platforms, but they wrote fantastic proposals, and that was enough. So these things can happen, especially if you write creative nonfiction—but a platform never hurts.

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