How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Platforms and Where to Insert Them

Do you need a platform before you write a book?

Yes, says nearly everyone.

(Sound of list muttering: “Uh….what’s a platform?”)

OK, let’s back up. A platform is the sum of your marketing resources and audiences — the full metal jacket that you and your organization/institution can muster to support raising awareness of, conversation about and sales for your book.

That sum might include:

  • Social media followers;
  • Subscribers to your email list;
  • Demand for you as a speaker; and
  • Demand for you as a resource and contributor to elite media.

The consensus these days: no publisher will touch your book project unless you have demonstrated that you can attract what will seem daunting levels of engagement across many of these channels. (And are committed to constant gaming of your book’s position on relevant Amazon niche bestseller lists…)

Wait! you’re now saying. I thought writing a book was the way to get me all that stuff. Now you’re saying I have to have it before I’ll even get published?

We need hard numbers on this. But I think researchers are different. For researchers who want broad impact, the first book for non-experts often still comes first.

Example: Chris D. Thomas, one of conservation’s most influential scientists, has 621 followers on Twitter and hasn’t tweeted since last September. His last tweet was about Brexit.

Not a platform.

However, Thomas’ big book, “Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction,” drove the contrarian stake in the ground in the debate about whether species extinctions are a disaster for humanity. It took a debate that was underground and made it public.

But it’s crazy to argue Thomas should have built a platform first before publishing the book. Thomas didn’t need to painstakingly create one for a decade for the book to be a success. The conversation coalesced around the book. (Whether the lack of a platform has hurt sustaining that conversation is quite arguable.)

So, shall we forget about platforms altogether?

Anne Trubek, a former academic and founder of Belt Publishing, a house that specializes in Rust Belt and U.S. Midwest non-fiction, seems to think so. She wrote this recently in her Tiny Letter (subscribe here):

The rise of the pressure to have a “platform” parallels the rise in major publishers seeking to publish books by celebrities. I’m not in that game. I have a different calculus when I think about whether or not an author might help sell copies of a book I am considering signing:

Word of mouth. Do I think this book will find 1.) find its audience, and then 2.) be so damned good that the audience will then do the work for us? To decide this, I ascertain 2, quality, first (duh), and then think about whether or not Belt can help this gem find its readers.

Horizontal Loyalty. Fuck platforms. I mean really. Fuck them. The term connotes a vertical, top-down relationship between author and reader. The readers below will look up to the author on high and buy their book. I am a proponent of working very very hard on horizontal loyalty, and establishing a same-level relationship between author and reader. I like to work with authors who feel similarly. Let’s all be on the same ground together (okay fine shorter people can have a stool). Then we will all rise together.

Hokey, maybe. But I ain’t doing this out of a “labor of love” — people often say Belt is a “passion project” or a “labor of love” and I bristle at that. I love and am passionate about what we do, but we are also committed to making money (aka selling lots of copies), too . We are not doing favors here; I’m a small business owner. AND I believe horizontal loyalty is a good way not just to do business but also make money.

Rousing stuff.

What I don’t like about platform thinking: it’s all tactical, and it’s all about the book.

If I understand you, dear researcher, your ultimate goal isn’t to sell the book.

Yes, of course you’d like to sell lots of copies of the book. But you really want to lead a conversation. Selling the book helps you achieve the real goal: leading the conversation to new places, and gaining trust to do so.

That’s why researchers should build platforms. They’re investments in your capacity to have and lead conversations.

But you shouldn’t wait to write a book until you’ve built your platform to a publisher’s specs — that’s not how researchers’ careers work.

Takeaway: Have conversations in social, email, talks, panels, podcasts and other channels now. Keep having them as much as you can as you write the book. Pick up their pace after it’s out. Focus on listening and leading.