How to Build Your Platform and Land a Book Deal
I had always wanted to write a book – and in 2009, I got serious about it. It took me two years to sign a contract and another two for my first book to come out (Reinventing You in 2013), but here’s what I learned in the process about how to build a strong platform and land a (nonfiction) book deal. I’m now on my second book, Stand Out, which was just released in April.
My first discovery – upon having my first three book proposals rejected – was that you have to come pre-equipped with enough recognition and a sufficient fan base to virtually assure you can sell 10,000 or more copies of your book, mitigating almost all the publisher’s risk. As a former journalist, I embarked on a “platform building” campaign focused around blogging (though videoblogging, podcasts, or various other social media channels could work well, depending on your audience and interests).
First, I started with my “warm leads”—friends who already blogged for prominent publications. I had to persevere for months, asking different people if they’d be willing to introduce me, and patiently but persistently following up. Eventually one friend successfully connected me with his editor at the Huffington Post. That was a good start, but HuffPo is better known for its political coverage than its business writing, so I wanted to try to find another outlet to complete my “portfolio.”
I had numerous friends let me use their names with their editors at various business magazines, or who even introduced me directly—to no avail. Occasionally, I’d get a half-hearted response from the publication’s Web editor, asking for a list of pitches, which I’d spend hours crafting overnight . . . only to receive no response for months, if ever.
Fast forward more than a year. I wanted to buy a new bike, but decided I should sell my old one first. I advertised it on Craigslist and sold it to a woman who – it turned out – worked for the Harvard Business Review. I had to follow up several times, but she eventually introduced me to one of the editors. Thanks to the stream of pitches I’d been developing (which had been ignored by the other publications), I had plenty of ideas and a few sample posts. The second one they ran became popular enough that they asked me to turn it into a full-fledged 2500-word magazine piece. That article prompted three literary agents to reach out to me and ask if I was represented; I knew I was onto something. The post eventually became my first book, Reinventing You, and changed my life.
Today, I’ve just wrapped up the launch of my second book, Stand Out, and have developed a robust platform, writing regularly for the Harvard Business Review, TIME, Entrepreneur, and more. As I’ve described in past Muse and the Marketplace sessions and for the GrubStreet Launch Lab, here are my top three strategies to accelerate your platform building.
1. Prioritize building your email list above all else. Having a social media following is nice, but Twitter or Facebook can change their terms of service at any time, and you might lose ready access to your followers unless you pony up for paid advertising. Instead, protect the relationship by creating an email list, and nurture it by sending at least monthly updates to keep the relationship with your readers alive. If people opt in to hearing from you, they’re likely to be your most loyal fans (and buyers).
2. Collect brand names. Writing for your own blog is good, and is often a necessary first step in order to start building a readership and creating “clips” that showcase your writing style. But as soon as you can, reach out – via friends’ connections or even sending cold emails if you need to – and try to start writing for brand-name publications. These are an early form of ‘social proof’ that demonstrates your excellence to outsiders; their endorsement makes it easier for others to say yes to you.
3. Follow the 7x Rule. I used to work in politics, and there’s a famous saying: “A voter needs to see your name seven times before she’ll even consider voting for you.” In campaigns, that takes the form of blanketing neighborhoods with yard signs, bumperstickers, phone calls, and volunteer door-knockers. When it comes to platform building, it means you need to strive for ubiquity. One blog post isn’t going to get you recognized or make your career, but small efforts – repeated over time – absolutely will.
Publishers, more than ever, are risk-averse. But if you build your email list (so you have a direct pipeline to your most devoted readers), cultivate relationships with brand-name publications, and write (or create other forms of content) regularly, you’ll build a platform strong enough for them to want to take a chance on you. It worked for me, and it can for you.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free 42-page Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook and follow her on Twitter.