QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Interview with Christina Katz on Platform

We recently had the privilege to interview platform guru extraordinare, Christina Katz, about how to build a platform from scratch.  Even if you don't know where to start, Christina takes you by the hand and walks you through each step in her book, Get Known Before The Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths To Grow An Author Platform (Writer’s Digest Books).

Christina started her platform “for fun” seven years ago and ended up on “Good Morning America.” Christina teaches e-courses on platform development and writing nonfiction for publication. Her students are published in national magazines and land agents and book deals. Christina has been encouraging reluctant platform builders via her e-zines for five years, has written hundreds of articles for national, regional, and online publications, and is a monthly columnist for the Willamette Writer. A popular speaker at writing conferences, writing programs, libraries, and bookstores, she hosts the Northwest Author Series in Wilsonville, Oregon. She is also the author of Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer’s Digest Books).

QT: What is your definition of platform?

CK: A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you’ve established, the articles you’ve published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership. Your platform communicates your expertise to others, and it works all the time so you don’t have to. If others already recognize your expertise on a given topic or for a specific audience or both, then that is your platform.

QT: How did you decide to write a book to help people build their platforms?

CK: I already had a lot of momentum going on the topic when I got the deal. I wrote a column on the topic for the Willamette Writer’s newsletter. I started speaking on platform. I’ve spent ten years on my platform and I’ve been helping my students build platforms for almost that long. Some of their books are now coming out, which is exciting.

When I gave my presentation, “Get Known Before the Book Deal,” at the Writer’s Digest/BEA Writer’s Conference in May 2007, Phil Sexton, one of my publisher’s sales guys, saw it and suggested making the concept into a book. Coincidentally, I was trying to come up with an idea for my second book at that time and had just struck out with what I thought were my three best ideas. My editor, Jane Friedman agreed with Phil. That was two votes from people sitting on the pub board. They converted the others with the help of my proposal, and Get Known got the green light.

QT: What personality characteristics separate people who are good at building platforms from people who struggle?

CK: None. It’s not about personality whatsoever. All of the techniques needed to build a strong platform are learned just like most social skills. A shy person can learn to be “good at” building a platform just like an extrovert can.

All writers need to master four traits for success: craft, pitching, professional development and platform building, so a shy person might be more willing and patient with craft whereas an extrovert can’t sit still or stop talking long enough to care to write really well. In fact, it takes patience to build a solid, strong platform too. So there is no particular type of personality that makes a difference.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Use your strengths and address or delegate your weaknesses. That’s what all successful business people do. That’s what writers need to do because we are also business people.

QT: What mistakes do you most often see writers making when they're trying to develop a platform?

CK: I have a list. Here are a few common mistakes that writers make:

* They don’t spend time clarifying who they are to others.
* They don’t zoom in specifically on what they offer.
* They confuse socializing with platform development.
* They think about themselves too much and their audience not enough.
* They don’t precisely articulate all they offer so others get it immediately.
* They don’t create a plan before they jump online.
* They undervalue the platform they already have.
* They are overconfident and think they have a solid platform when they have only made a beginning.
* They become exhausted from trying to figure out platform as they go.
* They pay for “insider secrets” instead of trusting their own instincts.
* They blog like crazy for six months and then look at their bank accounts and abandon the process as going nowhere.

I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that many writers promise publishers they have the ability to make readers seek out and purchase their book. But when it comes time to demonstrate this ability, they can’t deliver.

QT: What do you think is the most under-utilized approach to building platform?

CK: I have two…

Showing up. Most writers invest too much time dreaming about being discovered and not enough time putting themselves out there to be visible. Truth time: writers don’t get discovered. Successful writers are not “lucky.” Writing success is all about writing long and hard and then caring enough about your work and yourself to get it and you in front of the right people. It’s just part of the job.

Having fun. I hear so much moaning and groaning about platform development. But that’s great way to turn off masses of people from ever wanting to learn more about you, so why not have fun both building and expanding your platform instead? You may as well because you are going to spend plenty of time on self-promotion. It will be so much more pleasant for everyone involved if you are having a good time. Even if your topic is serious (author Arnie Bernstein comes to mind) a little bit of levity can go a long way.

QT: You're one of the few authors who addresses platform for fiction writers. What do you see as the unique challenges facing fiction writers, and how can writers overcome them?

CK: The quality of a fiction manuscript is paramount and most fiction writers tend to underestimate how long it will take to go from idea to finished book. But if a writer lets the process take as long as it takes and works on platform development in the meantime, she’ll be a lot better off. Just like nonfiction writers, fiction writers need to begin working on a platform long before the manuscript is complete.

Typically, after fiction books are published, fiction writers will spin off a series of topics based on their book that they can explore to help promote themes they’ve written about. So fiction writers can follow all the same strategies I describe for nonfiction writers in Get Known. It’s not like if you write wonderful fiction, you’re done. Most fiction writers cross over to nonfiction writing fairly easily.

Other things fiction writers often learn from their writing process include knowledge of a place, familiarity with a topic from their research, insight into a time period, a truth or phenomenon that may be mostly unknown to the general public, universal human themes, a particular time or phase every person experiences (like coming of age), or the creative process itself. These can become promotional opportunities (sometimes even paying ones) that spark book sales.

QT: Where should a writer start in the platform-building business?

CK: I think every writer should start with relationship building. Study the work of people you admire. Take classes with them if you can. Be discriminating. Don’t just follow the masses. Base your platform on the intersection between what matters to you and what matters to your readers. There are plenty of people who are doing this extremely well to emulate.

Don’t throw the art of relationship building out while establishing your online life. One thing about the publishing industry hasn’t changed. It’s still a business fueled by personal connections. I’m very humbled and pleased to play a small part in it. You can too. But you have to be practical and create a plan. Otherwise, you can exhaust yourself in no time.

Thank you so much, Christina!

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. 

Have a psychology/writing question?  Ask here (or using my email address to the right) and you may see it answered on the QueryTracker.net Blog!


Christine Fonseca said...

Thanks for this - I love Christina and have always found her information invaluable - both with my NF endeavors and my fiction. Her websites are an absolute MUST!

Becky Mushko said...

Good advice that I'll share with my writers group. Thank you for posting it.

Christina Katz said...

You're both very welcome. Thank you, Carolyn, for hosting. Be happy to answer any platform-related questions today. Let 'em rip! :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Wow, it looks to me like Christina covered things so well in her interview that everyone just ran out to buy the book! ;-)

Thank you so much again, Christina, not only for the interview, but also for being so willing to answer questions!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Wow, what a great interview. Thanks.

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Really appreciate the helpful info. Now I'm off to make some notes for future reference! Thank you!

Suzette Saxton said...

Stellar interview. Thank you SO MUCH, Christina and Carolyn. I cannot wait to buy your books and to check out your websites.

Bethany Wiggins said...

I know I'm late to ask a question, so if I don't get an answer, that is okay. But... how big a platform do you need to really succeed in the fiction area? And isn't that an agent's main function?

Christina Katz said...

Hi Bethany, I wouldn't normally suggest that you read it in a forum like this, but based on what you've asked, you've really got to clear up your misunderstandings about what agents do and don't do. Writers are 100% responsible for their own success. Give my book a skim for an overview of how the publishing industry works, okay? Also, I hope everyone on Twitter will check out #platformchat every other Friday. Thanks for all the kind words. I hope those who read Get Known will let me know what they think. Happy platform-building!

Judith Mercado said...

What a wonderful article. I just started my blog and have been surprised by how much fun I’m having discussing my books and other ideas. Interestingly, it has also sparked a serious look at what other avenues I might have to make myself known as a writer. Since simultaneously I am also querying agents, the glow of the fun is falling over the previously dreaded exercise of querying. For the first time, I’m actually excited about the marketing stage of my work. Who knew? I’m sure I will be referring to your article again and again for guidance.