Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to grow an author platform: Christina Katz

Christina Katz's reputation precedes her. I first heard about her from Writers Digest Books editor extraordinaire Jane Friedman who was raving about this hot-shot writer who was absolutely amazing at promoting her work and creating community, and this was before her first book WRITER MAMA had even come out. In promoting WM into one of Writers Digest's bestsellers, Christina turned what she was--a mother--into that elusive gold we writers search for, "platform."

Now she's written GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL, a guide for other writers who want to turn their personal strength into a winning, book-selling platform.

Welcome, Christina!

JR: What exactly is a platform and why do writers need one...before the deal?
CK: A platform is a promise, which says you will not only create something to sell (a book), but also promote it to the specific readers who will want to purchase it. Agents and editors have known this for years and they look for platform-strong writers and getting them book deals. If you want to land the book deal today, then you need to be a platform-strong writer.

Your platform communicates your expertise to others, and it works all the time so you d
on’t have to. 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. If others already recognize your expertise on a given topic or for a specific audience or both, then that is your platform. A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. When you sign a book contract, you promise to use your platform to sell your book. But you can’t deliver on that promise unless you start in advance—long before you even pitch a book.

JR: Most of us don't realize we need a platform until our book is about to come out. How did you know you needed to create one for yourself when you wrote WRITER MAMA, and how did you go about it?
CK: I was fortunate by the time WM came out that I’d been cultivating my platform for three and a half years. For me, platform-development is not only instinctive; it’s fun. My platform-in-progress was instrumental in landing the deal for WM. I say platform-in-progress because writers often forget that platform is active, it’s what you do, not what you’ve done. When I pitched WM, I was already a freelance writer and a writing teacher, and that was good because my publisher likes to work with writing teachers.

But I needed speaking experience, so as soon as I signed my book contract I started looking for speaking opportunities to beef up my credentials. Whereas I used to have to pitch myself to get a speaking gig, now about half the time I am invited by people who have heard about me. That’s two years of practice starting to pay off and that’s the way we all need to think. “How can ramp up my platform to increase my reach when my book comes out?” The way to do that is by identifying your expertise, clarifying what you offer, and putting it to work.

JR: Is there a single most important thing authors need to do to build a platform?

CK: When you think about the fact that about 500 books are published each day in this country, you realize that having a book is NOT going to set you apart from anybody.

So, the first thing you need to know is what makes you and your expertise unique and communicate that. If you don’t know who you are and what you uniquely offer, how is anyone else going to know? I call this your identity, not branding, because that word is so grossly overused these days.

JR: What I love about your book is that there are so many suggestions for exactly how to do this. What's the biggest mistake to-be-published authors make?

CK: Not taking 100% responsibility for their writing careers.
My mission is to try to get every writer who aspires to book publication to realize this in advance of the book deal. Thinking that anyone else is ever going to care as much as you do. Trust me, they won’t. And then you’ll be disappointed and looking for someone to blame. It’s been fashionable for a long time to blame the publicist at your publisher.

I remember before my first book came out, I read the line, “No one cares is you’ve written a book,” and I didn’t believe it. Then I wrote a book and I found out it’s true.You have to know why others should care and be able to communicate the reasons concisely. If you don’t know what your expertise is—and even more specifically what your niche topic is within that larger body of expertise—then you are just going to be a writer lost in a crowd of writers, an author lost in a crowd of authors.

JR: What social- and/or book-oriented on-line communities do you recommend most for authors?

Facebook and Twitter are really interesting right now but the list for social networks for authors is long.
And, of course, you never know how folks will hear about you, so you may as well get your face and your expertise out there as much as possible.

It’s fine to spend most of your time on Facebook, if that’s your favorite social network, but don’t neglect MySpace, Squidoo, Twitter, Red Room, Shelfari, Goodreads, Linkedin, etc. Because of the clickable nature of the Internet, you never know how someone will find you. It only takes about a half hour to get set up on any site, just be sure to visit occasionally to touch base and keep your info up to date.

JR: What are the special challenges for fiction writers building a platform?
fiction/memoir/children’s writer will often spin off a series of topics they can explore to help promote themes they’ve already written about and hope to sell in book form. For example, novelist Marc Acito wrote "How I Paid For College, A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater. Afterwards," it made sense for him to write and teach and speak on how to write humorous fiction or how to write a page-turner. Note how specific his topics were. He spun them off after mastering them in his process.

Other things fiction writers often learn about involve: place, a topic from their research, a time period, a truth or phenomenon, 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.

JR: Are there any types of writers who don’t need a platform?

CK: Yes. Only writers who want to establish themselves as professional writers, who aspire to publish a book or a self-published book need to concern themselves with platform development, in my opinion. If you are writing for other reasons, such as to heal, to connect with friends and family, or just for pleasure, then probably you don’t need a platform.

JR: When you're done platform building, how do you find time to write?

CK: My career goes in cycles. I have periods that focus on writing followed by periods that focus on self-promotion. I’m in a promo cycle right now and it’s fun! And I’m still writing plenty. I have noticed that these supposed “non-writing times,” often yield the next book idea and that has been the case again this time. I can’t wait to pitch it!

If a writer allows platform development to be an integrated aspect of her writing career, I’m sure she will find that the two efforts really do feed into each other and help her career to grow naturally and authentically. What writer wouldn’t want that?

Now for our Jungle Red Quiz:

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?

Miss Marple. I’m a feminist.

Sex or violence?

Definitely sex.

Pizza or chocolate?

Chocolate all the way. Preferably dark.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?

Neither. Robert Downey Jr.

Facebook or MySpace?

Love my Facebook friends!

Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?

Oh, Katherine. Admire her Yankee spunk.

Your favorite non-mystery book?

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. She should have won the National Book Award that year.

Making dinner or making reservations?

Reservations for three, though we usually just show up.

And now tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess.

I have a tattoo on my right hip.

My cats names are Mercury, Buddha, Devo, and Mama.

My degree is in fiction, though I write primarily nonfiction.

My true hair color is increasingly silver.

NOW IT'S YOUR TURN -- Post your questions about platform building today and tomorrow and Christina will be on JRW to answer them.


  1. Thank you for visiting, Christina. What perfect timing for me! Because a question that I could ask right here came up for me the other day.

    A few months ago, I started a blog/magazine website that relates to my WIP, shows my voice and serves what I believe has been an under-served niche.

    Anyway, I've been taking one of those online blogging-for-business courses. The guy who runs it has his expertise in online business, but not necessarily writing nor traditional publishing. He has recommended that we write an ebook or white paper that we offer for free via our blogs, as a way to build traffic and establish ourselves as authorities in our niches.

    I do have an idea for one, a non-fiction report, but I want to play it smart. I don't want the fact that I'll have what amounts to a self-published ebook to hurt my chances with traditional publishers.

    How would you suggest that I work this free ebook to my eventual hoped-for outcome of being published for fiction?

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi Christina! Welcome to Jungle Red. (And yes, I love Robert Downey Jr. I can't wait to see him as Sherlock Holmes.)

    The platform thing haunts me--I always think there's more I could be doing.

    Do you think using an outside publicist is valuable?

    ( you think blogs are valuable?)

  3. "( you think blogs are valuable?)"

    Oh, me, me! I'd like to answer that one if I may.

    As a reader, I find blogs very valuable. They have provided me with lists of books and authors I might not have known about otherwise.

    A lot of blogs I read regularly show me a bit about the author(s). I enjoy learning about the story behind the story; the writer behind the words.

    This blog, and its wonderful writers, does just that.

    So, yes Hank, in case you ever doubt the value or usefulness of this blog: In my opinion, you all do a great job. Safe to say I'm not alone in thinking that.


  4. I had thought about LinkedIn as a career/job networking site, not for a book writer site, but I can see your point of view. The more friends and colleagues see what you're producing the better.


  5. I agree, anonymous. Not to make like I'm some blogging expert or anything, but I think that blogs and search engines help us reach potential readers around the world.

    Blogging helps us swing "The Long Tail," a niche-friendly marketing term, to attract readers we wouldn't ordinarily reach.

    I've only been blogging since August, but I have readers in the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, especially since my blog topic leads to me riffing occasionally on topics in popular culture. That kind of "link bait" gives my Google Analytics stats a roller-coaster look, but some of those readers do stay.

    Now, the big question is, would they PAY to read my content? Maybe, if it's different-but-related content with extra value? Maybe, once the site and I are more established.

  6. I started to feel alittle overwhelmed with the whole Librarything, Goodreads, Shelfari segment of this. At all hours of the day people were asking me if they should read something I read three years got a little weird.

    But building a platform is key.I'm convinced that's how i got my agent - by including that info in my initial letter to her.

  7. Hi Christina,
    Welcome to Jungle Red, I don't think I've ever read anything quite so carefully as your interview -- such good advice.

    I still can't figure out the Twitter thing, mostly because the only option to download contacts doesn't include Outlook or Comcast. So I've got a Twitter account with no one to Twitter to...

    so sad, really!!

    thanks for the great info!

  8. The number of social media sites out there absolutely baffle me, too. There are so many. And I've gotten the impression that Twitter is absolutely huge. Do you need a cellphone to do it? And do I want to do it? Yikes.

  9. Hi Rhonda,

    Good morning! I'd be happy to offer my two cents. :)

    To my mind there are certain topics that lend themselves to e-book sales, while many topics don't necessarily lend themselves to e-book sales at all. So, first I would consider whether or not your nonfiction topic will actually garner interest and sales as an e-book.

    If the answer is no (and I can't say, since I don't know your topic), then consider going the platform development route, which would consist of developing a non-fiction topic alongside your fiction topic and then striving to get more known by pitching it to publications, teaching, speaking, consulting or coaching on the topic, and just creating a niche for yourself where you become the go-to person on that topic.

    Generally speaking, once you are more known as an expert on a topic is a better time to release any book, unless it's that one in a million topic that will generate interest in and of itself.

    As far as hurting you, I know authors who have gone from e-books to traditional publishing (and vice-versa) and I don't think you need to worry about a stigma. What I've seen is that there is a greater stigma with self-published books because of the multiple challenges of distribution, which tends to lead to discouraged writers (not always, but often). But with e-books, the distribution challenges are significantly less.

    As far as leveraging an e-book into a fiction book deal, that's not something I've seen (yet!). If writing the e-book helps you clarify and communicate your expertise, then I'd say the benefits fall on your side. But I'd be realistic and realize that writing and selling an e-book is a business in and of itself.

    You might want to consider what types of publication credits are going to be most empowering to you as a writer and go in that direction.

    Best of luck!

  10. Hi, Christina!
    I wish you'd written your book 12 years ago when I started writing mysteries. I didn't find out about what I should be doing to sell my product until the book wa on the shelves--way too late.

    Now I belong to so many online things that I could spend all day Twittering away, comparing Goodreads and watching UTube videos, when I should be writing two books a year!

  11. Your advice is most welcome to a relatively new writer in a crowded market.

    At lot of us blog and follow on-line loops, which is wonderful for support, but does it sell many books? We're all preaching to the converted there.

    Do you find the social networks attract new readers (non-writers)? Which ones are most effective?

  12. Hi Hank,

    Don't let platform haunt you. Because the beauty of platform development is that you really can find your own rhythm, just as with writing. Platform is such a fun, creative, collaborative process, as we are all participating in here today, that we really can't let it intimidate us or lose touch with our instincts.

    I think that the very best platform strategy involves self and others. Typically, there is a bit of a gestation period for writers as they try to get a handle on, "What's my platform, anyway?" But usually, when a writer seizes the topic that really suits them best they are off and running. And once you are off and running, I think a combination of marketing strategies can create amazing synergy. The key is to work with the folks you'll be most comfortable with. So if you feel you would be comfortable working with a publicist, then I would trust that instinct.

    But certainly, what we are all doing here in this blog is pure platform poetry! Seems to me you are a platform superhero. I'd say you are in great shape to work with a publicist. I'd go for it!

  13. Paula, Joann, and RhondaL,

    The power of blogging is truly awesome, there is no doubt about it.

    I do caution my students about not getting so hooked on blogging that they neglect the other platform development steps they might be taking (especially the paying opportunities). And I really like to see a writer name and claim her individual identity online before joining up with too many other bigger, sometimes corporate entities that can sweep her far, far away from her original intention for blogging.

    I would say at this point in publishing history, that a clear and distinct online presence is a must for anyone who aspires to become an author. And whether you do it through a blog or website or whatever...I'd just do it! And do it your way.

  14. Hi Rosemary,

    How smart of you to emphasize your platform in contacting agents. Writers can't count on the strength of their prose to garner interest from agents and editors today. It's just a given that you must write very well.

    Agents and editors are mostly interested in platform-strong writers because they understand what it takes to support book sales. I know I didn't before my first book came out.

    Thanks for the insight about reader sites!

  15. Thank you, Christina. You've given me some great ideas for fine-tuning.

    And thank you, Jungle Red, for hosting Christina's visit. This is a very educational blog topic.

  16. Hi Jan,

    Thanks for the welcome! I'm so excited to be here among all you platform superheroes! Thanks to Hallie for inviting me!

    As far as Twitter goes, have you tried Tweet Deck, a free application from Adobe that makes Twitter SO much easier? Here's the link:

    I totally could not "get" Twitter until I started using Tweet Deck. Now I pop in and out on workdays with ease. I encourage everyone to check it out and then come say hello.

    On Twitter, I'm "@thewritermama"

    I'd also like to connect with everyone on Facebook. Just search for Christina Katz in Oregon once you are a member.

    Is everyone on Facebook? If not, I really encourage it! (Danger: Very addictive, especially if you have a school reunion coming up. I have two this year.)

  17. About Facebook -- that seems to be THE place to connect with the under-35s. (uh oh, that makes me sound a "cougar." ;->)

    I know that I've only skimmed the surface of what Facebook can do, but I wouldn't have know about even that without having Friended the thirtysomething children of my face2face friends.

  18. Hi Rhys,

    I'm right there with you! It's tricky to juggle continual self-promotion with writing.

    My strategy is basically fling my writing career out in front of me and then run like heck to catch it.

    Can anyone relate?

  19. Hi Sheila,

    You ask an excellent question.

    I HAVE noticed that it's so easy to get in a self-promotion rut, so to speak.

    You know, you have your readers, you have your writing friends, you have your agent and publisher support (hopefully), and you are going round and round between them but not really getting out there where you'd be a fresh face.

    This has even happened to me with speaking. I have my favorite haunts...and I need to break out of my comfort zone!

    I encourage everyone to look beyond the usual self-promotion suspects...while maintaining those relationships, of course.

    One idea is to make a top ten dream promotion opportunities list and then take ten steps in the New Year towards each of those dreams.

    And it goes without saying to always trust your gut when an offer comes to you. Sometimes I have to say no to offers because there's a weird contract involved or I just don't feel comfortable with the terms.

    And as I've said, if you are not on Facebook, you gotta get! It's the very best way to expand your visibility right now. Especially powerful when your platform foundation is already in place.

  20. I spend a couple of hours a day on line networking, blogging, and guest blogging, especially right now, since I have a new book out next month. It eats into my writing time, but it's much cheaper than sending yourself on a national tour. I'm "of an age" though, and am not a natural Facebook/Twitterer, so it's a bit painful for me. One thing I really look for is forums that are not exclusively for writers , but for a lay audience who might find my books interesting. I'm always looking for another choir to preach to.

  21. Hi Donis and RhondaL,

    Donis you are so smart. Traveling can make sense, when it makes sense, but there is a lot you can do online, as your comment so aptly describes.

    And RhondaL,

    I think the age range on Facebook is a lot wider than on, say, Myspace, which leans towards the younger set. A lot of my friends' kids are on Facebook and my husbands' students are on Facebook, but increasingly the moms and dads and ahem, more mature folks like myself are jumping on and looking up old friends (sometimes assisted by the kids). There's easy features for announcing live events and creating groups too. It's a lot of fun!

    I'm trying to talk Hallie into hopping on board. I hope you will all help me egg her on!

  22. C'mon, Hallie. Facebook rocks. :)

  23. I'm coming in a little late, but welcome Christina! What a fabulous discussion. I think you're right about phases of writing vs promotion. A person can get carried away with promo and forget how important it is to write a great book. As my former ad agency exec hubby will remind me, nothing kills a bad product faster than good publicity:).

    We're so glad you're here today!

  24. Okay, I'm doing it
    Thanks to you, Christina.

    I'm joining Facebook.

    I filled out the application, with my actual real birthday and everything (which I don't see why they need to know), and it said it would email me.

    So now I'm waiting for the email.

    All the Facebook moguls are probably in their office laughing.

    Christina, you'll be my first--friend? Mwa ha ha.

    (And thanks, Paula xoxo)

  25. Anyone who joins Facebook, feel free to "Friend" me. (Whoever thought that "friend" would ever be used as a verb??) My name is Rhonda Lane.

    Some of you know me already, so you know I'm not some crazed slobbering kook. :)

    Well, okay, I'm "the good kind" of crazed slobbering kook. ;)

  26. I'm on Facebook too, as Edith Maxwell. Welcome, Hank! (Rosemary joined up recently, too.) I joined originally so I could peek into my college-sons' lives from time to time, but now find that lots of other people our age are on there. And I have located several old friends from previous lives, so it's good for that, too.


  27. Thanks, Roberta! I think your husband is right, especially these days. If your book is not well-crafted, the word-of-mouth won't pick it up and carry it along. Especially these days with the power of the Web.

    And Hank, I'm ready for you to friend me on Facebook. Just search for me or look here:

    I've friended Rhonda and I'll look for Edith Maxwell. C'mon! All the cool writers are doing it. (How's that for peer pressure, Hallie?)

  28. I joined Facebook after a relative told me, "Wow. I'm seeing a whole other side of your son. His photos are really, um, something." Took me about two seconds to sign up. Gotta admit I got a little weepy when he friended me.

    C'mon, Hallie, what are you waiting for?


  29. Facebook is not letting me in.

    I'm not taking it personally.

    But I've tried three times. It says: I'll get a confirmatory email.

    I don't get one.

    It's not in my spam filter.

    I think this is high school all over again.

  30. THANKS CHRISTINA! This has been one of our liveliest discussions ever...and I'm running out right now to buy your book for one of the writers on my Christmas list.

    Maybe maybe maybe I'll get on Face Book. When I get a minute.

  31. Hank, I'm sorry it was such a hassle to sign up but you did it!

    Hallie, thank you so much for purchasing my book for a fellow writer. That's the ultimate compliment isn't it?

    I am going to buy all of yours for my mom, who loves mysteries.

    Hey, when are you guys going to guess which of my things about me is a phony? Time to put on your super-sleuth caps!

    Also, I would be remiss not to share the link to my newest online project--a YouTube video! (Hallie, I found a couple of fan clips of you there...).

    Please, check it out, if you are interested:

    And thanks again for having me! This has been tons of fun!

  32. Okay, here goes...

    I'm guessing the lie is the tattoo. It's really on your left hip.


  33. Yes. That's correct.

    Was that a guess?

    If so, A+ for mystery solving.

    :) C

  34. An A+. Cool. Thanks!