Demystifying Author Platform

Don't worry, you probably already have one

This week in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, we’re talking about how to show a publisher that you are the right person to write the book you’re proposing. To begin with, just knowing enough about your topic to even write a decent proposal in the first place establishes that you are qualified to write the book. Sending your proposal to a press that’s a good fit also implicitly communicates that you understand your field and the publishing landscape within it. But you’ll also probably have a component of your proposal that’s devoted to straight-up spelling out why your name should be on the cover of the book in question.

What should go in that “author information” section of your scholarly book proposal? Your credentials, e.g. your advanced degree(s) in the field in which you’re hoping to publish, some extended research experience on the topic of your book, and possibly a teaching or research post at a scholarly institution. The other thing you’ll want to cover is your “platform.” This term sometimes gets thrown around in ways that make it feel synonymous with “the number of followers you have on social media,” but that’s not quite it. In publishing, your author platform is your ability to move copies of your book based on the fact that you wrote it. Social media might be one aspect of your platform, because it allows you to reach people who presumably already take an interest in you and the things you write. But as a scholar, your platform also includes the extent to which you’re establishing yourself as an expert in your field. If you have a record of presenting at conferences, publishing in other venues (like journals or blogs), winning awards, and otherwise being active in a way that gets your name and research expertise out there, that all contributes to your ability to sell books and speaks to the appeal of your work to a defined target audience.

The idea of being recognized as an “expert in your field” can feel impossibly unattainable to a grad student or fresh PhD. I know, I’ve been there, and I’ve felt like that. But the bar is probably lower than you think. All you need to do at first is get a few people to recognize that you’re doing quality work on your topic. Present at a couple conferences—you’re already building a platform. Publish a journal article—more platform. Substantively contribute to discussions on Twitter or a listserv—that’s platform, really! The snowball effect can be quick, and once you’ve said yes to a few things that get your name out there, the invitations will keep coming. And don’t feel like you have to get accepted to the “best” panels at the biggest conferences or amass tens of thousands of followers on social media. A small network of people who will definitely go out and read your stuff and tell their friends about it can be just as powerful as a huge network of people who vaguely remember who you are.

You can talk about all of this stuff in your book proposal. Choose a few key pieces of evidence that demonstrate that some people somewhere care what you have to say about your topic. Write up a paragraph or two and leave it at that. Acquiring editors at scholarly presses are not expecting every author they sign to be a superstar. On the contrary, they may get more excited about discovering someone who is at the start of their writing career and just beginning to develop their reputation as an important thinker in their field.

I want to return for a sec to that little thing I said above about a teaching or research post being part of your author credentials. If you are a precariously employed or unemployed scholar, you might be feeling a bit salty about that (I know, I’ve been there). But I want you to know that I have yet to hear an acquiring editor say that they would be less likely to consider publishing a manuscript from a writer in your position. If the work promises to make an important contribution and you’re demonstrably qualified to write that work, I think you have as good a chance as any other scholar to get your book published. Will you have the time, resources, and incentive to write and promote that book? That’s another question, and not one that anyone else can answer for you.

Author platform was one of the things we talked about with Cameron Ludwick, Publicity & Communications Manager at University of Texas Press, when she dropped in for virtual office hours in the book proposal accelerator this week. Cameron has a whole thread of advice about book marketing for scholars over on Twitter, which I encourage you to check out. Like Andrew Berzanskis, who chatted with us last month, Cameron has generously donated the honorarium I offered her back to the book proposal accelerator “scholarship fund.” I’ll share full details about that in the newsletter very soon. Until then, happy networking and platform-building!