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Writing Non-Fiction: Building a Platform

I’m contacted by a lot of you aspiring to write non-fiction, so I’ve resolved to start blogging more about my experiences. I have two non-fiction books coming out next year, and I’ve had two very different experiences with my books. My book on collective bargaining in baseball is with a smaller publisher who focuses much of its work on academic texts, while my book on the business of college football is with a large publishing house with many divisions.

Although the experiences have differed to a degree, one thing they have in common is that I had to write a proposal for each. The one aspect of a proposal I think many aspiring non-fiction authors don’t understand is the author platform. In my proposals, this came into play in both the Author Bio and Marketing Plan sections.

These sections are where you prove to the publisher that YOU are the person who should write this book. Not because you’re excited about the subject and really, really want to…but because you are the person most qualified to write this book.

Jessica Faust over at BookEnds, LLC (a literary agency) does a great job of describing the basis of the author bio:

We don’t really care if you went to Harvard or not. We care whether or not you can sell this book to thousands of people. Therefore, who are you and what makes you an expert on this subject, and, most important, what gives you a national platform? Do you give workshops? Presentations? Do you teach at Harvard (much different than having attended)? Have you been featured in national magazines, on TV or radio? Do you have a number of major media contacts interested in your subject?

I can’t tell you how many people email me saying they want to write a non-fiction book on [insert any sports subject here], but who have nothing more than an interest in the subject. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t build a platform. It just means you’re not there yet. Lest you think this was easy for me because I have a built-in national platform working for ESPN, you should know I sold both of my books before I got my current job. One of them I sold before I had anything more than my own blog on WordPress and a published legal journal article.

My Story

My first book sold when I was one year into practicing law and blogging online about collective bargaining issues in baseball. I wasn’t on a national platform, but I had been published in a legal journal on the subject. I built upon that publication by consistently blogging about the topic. It happened to be a topic not many people focus on specifically. I’d found a niche, and already been published by a professional publication, which I believe helped overcome my lack of a national platform.

By the time I wrote the proposal for my second book on the business of college football, I had a much bigger platform. I had the published legal journal article and a deal with a publisher for my book on collective bargaining in baseball. On top of that, I had expanded my blogging platform. I used the first book deal to get myself a position writing for SportsMoney on Forbes.com and both writing and appearing on air for Comcast Sports Southeast. I founded a website dedicated to the business of college sports (BusinessofCollegeSports.com).

I also identified classes at nearby law schools and graduate schools that were related to my topic and emailed the professors volunteering myself for guest lectures. I basically pimped myself out to sports radio stations across the country, most of whom were happy to give me air time, because I focused on unique topics. Again, I found a niche not many other people occupied.

My bigger platform landed me with a much bigger publisher for my second book. That’s not to say a bigger publisher is always better, but I don’t believe the platform I had with my first book would have gotten me there.

Bottom line: it’s not enough that you’re interested in a subject and want to write a book. A publisher wants to know that you are the right person to write the book – that you have the knowledge to actually write it and then the ability to get out there and sell it.

What You Can Do

I’d start by finding your niche. For example, don’t write about the complete history of baseball. Maybe you’re fascinated by international signings in baseball. Learn all there is to know about international signings. Then, find an aspect of the subject no one else has written about (that’ll help when you have to write the Competing Works section of the proposal). Start writing about that area, even if it’s just on a free WordPress blog you start.

Next, you have to find ways to get noticed. When you see a journalist with a bigger platform write about the subject and you have something to add, shoot them an email with your info or a link to a post you’ve written on the topic. This is exactly how I got my position at Forbes. I saw the editor talking about collective bargaining in baseball on television and  emailed him something I knew about the subject he didn’t mention. A couple of days later I had an invitation to write for SportsMoney on Forbes.com.

As a side note, do not bombard any one person with every single post you write. I’ve been the recipient of those, and it’s not effective. I’m likely only going to read it when it’s on point with something I’ve written or tweeted about recently.

Which brings me to my second tip: use Twitter! It gets you incredible access to people on national platforms. For example, when I wrote about a specific college athletic program, I would tweet it to the radio hosts and newspaper writers in that area. It wasn’t long before they were having me on their shows and linking to my work in their articles. As long as you’ve done what I suggested above and found a niche, these people will be interested in your work.

Building a platform takes work…and time. I know you’re super excited about your idea and want to write a book right now, but channel that excitement into doing things that build your platform first. Describing this platform is perhaps the single most important part of your proposal.

One Response to "Writing Non-Fiction: Building a Platform"

  • Writing Non-Fiction: Author Bio |
    Monday, July 9, 2012 - 9:05 am Reply

    […] I wrote about the type of platform you need if you want to write non-fiction and how to go about building it if […]

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