This column excerpted from my book, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM  (Nov. 2012, Writer’s Digest Books), a guide on how to build your visibility, brand, and network to better market yourself and your books. The book includes lots of interviews with literary agents and platform-heavy authors.
When I’m instructing at a writers’ conference, occasionally someone will raise their hand and try to point out flaws in my instruction. Here are some common examples regarding fiction:
- “Wait a minute, Chuck—what do you mean a novel can’t take time to warm up and get going? Did you ever read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? It started slow, and it only sold, oh, 10 million copies! Last I checked, 10 million was quite a lot…”
- “Wait a minute, Chuck—what do you mean my book can’t be 250,000 words? Have you ever heard of this book—it’s called, oh yeah—Gone With the Wind?!”
- “Wait a minute, Chuck—what do you mean it’s a bad tactic to start your story with a dream? I know this small-time writer guy—Dan Brown. Perhaps the name rings a bell. He wrote The Da Vinci Code—pssh, whatever. Anyway, well, he starts The Lost Symbol with a dream, and I think I read somewhere his advance was more than $10 million. So, uh … in your face.”
Or the most prevalent nonfiction one is this:
- “Wait a minute, Chuck—what do you mean you need an author platform and have to take the lead on your own marketing? I just read that the author of Who Moved My Cheese? had absolutely no platform—none!—and he got a literary agent and is a super-mega bestseller now. So, obviously, your logic is flawed. Case closed. The jury rules in favor of me.”
Here are three quick things you should know if you’re trying to be a professional writer:
1. Never compare your work to a best-selling author because non-best-selling authors do not abide by the same rules. Do you know why the last Harry Potter books were extremely long and could probably have been even longer if J.K. Rowling wanted them to be? Because she made the publishing house a ton of money. Do you know why Dan Brown was able to start that novel with a dream? Because he made his publishing house oodles of dough. Once you become a best-selling author, you can pretty much do whatever you want. If you ever approach an editor or agent and try to justify something you’re doing by referencing a Stephen King book, you will immediately lose their attention. Stephen King is an established icon; you are not. He can do whatever he wants and play by his own rules; you can’t.
2. Never compare your work to books first published outside the United States, unless of course you live outside the U.S. You’re trying to embark on a business deal with an American publisher, so don’t try to compare yourself to writers overseas. Don’t explain to an editor that two of your friends in Barcelona who got business books published had an army of publicists at your disposal, because that’s how they roll over in Spain. You don’t live in Spain, so don’t expect a comparison like that to hold any water.
3. Never assume what has happened in the past is still relevant today. This is the big one for authors who are trying to develop a writer platform. Here’s the gist: 10 years ago, an author didn’t truly need a platform, but now they do. That’s it. There is no way to argue around this fact. Just deal with it and start working hard. I understand it would be nice to go back to the 90s when things were easier and literary agents didn’t obsess about platform as much as they do today, but we can’t.
When mapping your writing journey, look to peers who are active today, selling books today, using the technologies of today. They will be the ones you want to emulate and study. They will be the ones who will make great contacts. They will be the ones who are blazing a path that you can follow.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s country_boy_shane