I had intended to broach the subject of writing credentials yesterday, campers, as a Halloween treat. But honestly, I was afraid that even a lighthearted treatment might scare some of you to death.
Oh, you thought you were alone in feeling this way when an agency’s submission guidelines or querying form ask for your credentials? Far from it. To your garden-variety aspiring writer, the mere notion of having to come up with writing credentials, much less including an entire platform paragraph in a query, induces a level of spontaneous terror that would have made the late, great Vincent Price groan with envy — and a level of anxiety over what does or does not count as a credential that would have caused suspense-monger Alfred Hitchcock to say, “No kidding? All of that, just from a set of query guidelines?”
Even now, I can hear previously unpublished writers everywhere moaning and casting their gazes wildly about for the nearest fainting couch. “What do you mean, credentials paragraph?” they demand, clutching at their tightening gullets. “All that bone-chilling set of query guidelines asked for was a mention of whether I’d published anything before. And I thought only nonfiction writers had to worry about coming up with a platform!”
At the risk of causing your windpipes to close entirely, I shall show you an example. Don’t be scared: it’s something you’ve undoubtedly seen before, at least if you have been following Queryfest. As always, if you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.
Just in case anyone had trouble finding it, it’s the entire third paragraph, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to… As Aspiring’s query demonstrates, the credentials paragraph need not contain only publishing credits; it can contain an array of relevant experience.
In fact, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, a platform need not be made up of previous publications and/or television appearances. What renders a writer qualified to write any given book is — wait for it — specific to that book.
Ah, there’s nothing like dropping one’s jaw onto the floorboards for restoring normal breathing patterns.
Before we proceed, let’s define our terms. A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth — or, at any rate, one of the best persons currently inhabiting the earth — to write the particular book she is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.
And a forest of hands sprouts up in the ether. Go ahead and ask the question on your minds, frantic wavers. “It’s all very well to say that what will work to make that case varies from book to book and writer to writer,” writers everywhere point out, “but that doesn’t necessarily help me figure out what to put in my platform paragraph. I know what I bring to this book, but what kinds of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform? Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what can I dredge up from my past that’s guaranteed to impress Millicent the agency screener?
Good question, hand-raisers, but 85% of you just tensed up again, didn’t you? Not too surprising: most aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with the prospect of having to justify having had the audacity to sit down to write her book in the first place.
But let’s stop the self-defeating interior monologue right there: the purpose of the credentials paragraph is not to justify daring to be a writer. You’re a writer because you’re a writer; everyone in the publishing industry understands that, so you don’t need to explain it to Millicent. And, frankly, if your book description hasn’t already caught her interest, it’s unlikely that even a pretty stellar platform will make up for it.
What the platform paragraph gives you an opportunity to do is bolster the case you have already made to have your writing taken seriously by demonstrating that you have a background that renders you an expert in the book’s subject matter. Or that others have noticed you for your writing, in the case of publications or awards. Or even, in the case of academic degrees, that you are a person who finishes what you start.
All of these are desirable traits in an author. But you hadn’t been thinking of your credentials in these terms, had you?
To be fair, this is seldom the way agency websites and speakers at writers’ conferences tend to talk about platform; their definitions are often pretty cut-and-dried. It’s not unusual for a fledgling writer to walk away with the impression that he cannot possibly land an agent unless he happens already to have (a) published several books with major publishing houses, yet somehow managed to avoid picking up an agent along the way, (b) won a major literary contest, (c) published a plethora of short stories in The New Yorker, or (d) had the foresight to have become a celebrity in his spare time. While none of these are actually prerequisites, no one in the industry would deny that they are mighty decorative in a query.
And what is the hapless writer who cannot legitimately claim (a) – (d)? I’m afraid the classic professional answer is a trifle on the callous side: if you don’t have writing credentials, get some.
Most aspiring writers are turned off by this advice, because they assume it could only be referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possibility here. Admittedly, people who have never tried to write for publication sometimes do think it’s easier for a good writer to break into print than it actually is — you’d be astonished at how many agents and editors can still be heard urging literary conference attendees to start their careers by trying to get short stories and poetry published in small journals, as if the number of publication slots (and, indeed, of small literary journals) had not dropped precipitously in recent years. There’s even a fairly substantial school of thought that the rise of the Internet has rendered getting one’s writing in front of others so much easier than it used to be that a print-ready writer’s not having some sort of previous publication is actually surprising.
Oh, you didn’t know that writing posted online is technically published? Sort of changes how you think of your blog’s value as a writing credential, doesn’t it?
Does that widespread snorting out there mean that some of you have heard different? “Yeah, right, Anne,” some of you scoff. “I’ve heard agents say at conferences that Internet publications are completely worthless as writing credentials.”
Actually, it would be a trifle surprising if you had heard those very words. As so frequently happens with brief snippets of querying advice that fly around the writers’ conference circuit, this often-heard truism is a radical oversimplification of a much more complex concept. What the pros actually tend to say when cornered on the subject is that online publications are not the same as print publications. As credentials go, they are usually taken less seriously. But that’s not the same thing as a credential’s being worthless, or even irrelevant, is it?
Stop nodding; it isn’t. By that logic, a dollar is worthless because it isn’t a hundred-dollar bill.
At query time, a writer has to work with the background he actually has, not what he would like to have in order to impress Millicent. (Assuming, of course, that he has not had the leisure to follow that advice about going out and getting some publication credits.) If a web-based award, featured article in an online publication, or regularly-maintained blog is the writing credential you have, it probably will not wow Millicent as much as a short story published someplace like the aforementioned New Yorker, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t help establish that your writing is already being read by somebody.
Oh, you hadn’t thought of your writing credentials in terms of an already-existing audience? You should: the goal of including publishing credentials in your query is not merely to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on your writing, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.
Why is that important? Well, people in agencies, like inhabitants of publishing houses, harbor a well-documented prejudice in favor of writers whose books might conceivably sell to an admiring public. They enjoy seeing evidence that an otherwise unknown writer’s name might ring a bell with some readers down the road, when the book being queried is released.
Why do you think they regard celebrities as having inherently strong platforms? It’s not just that those people are household names; they have names readers would recognize on a bookshelf.
Millicents also frequently appreciate credentials that imply some experience writing under a deadline. Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog that posts on a regular basis.
(Unlike, say, mine in recent weeks; sorry about that. This car crash recovery thing honestly is very energy-sapping. I shall try to plow through the rest of this series with more regularity.)
“This makes sense,” my former scoffers observe, “and frankly, this logic isn’t all that complicated. So why don’t agency guidelines and speakers at conferences just tell us to list what’s relevant to the book, and leave the credentials at that, instead of running down online publications?”
That’s an excellent question, ex-scoffers. Would you like the cynical answer, or the non-cynical one?
Let’s begin with the latter. To folks who deal with queries all day, every day, what is and isn’t a useful credential is pretty self-evident: a solid platform consists of facts about the author that will render the book easier to market, first to editors, then to the reading public. It just wouldn’t occur to them that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more than that.
If you happen to be querying a book in a genre with a well-established, vigorous online readership, darned right that your fourteen juried submissions to that respected online ‘zine would be worth including in your platform paragraph. So would a blog that caters to readers in your chosen book category, as well as your third-place ribbon from that highly competitive online literary contest.
But a vague reference to posting a short story on a website of which Millicent has never heard? Unlikely to help your case much.
The cynical answer, I warn you, carries a bit of a sting: like so much of the professional advice for would-be queriers floating around out there, complaints about queries that include online publications are not, generally speaking, uttered with the expectation of being treated with the force of law. Surprisingly often, the frustrated souls who produce them are thinking of a specific query offender. Or at any rate, a class of them whose queries tend to read a little something like this; see if you can spot the subtle agent-irritants throughout.
See why a query like this might stick in the mind, if not the craw? Even if Millicent could bring herself to overlook the peculiar typeface and the oddly-colored paper (“I want it to stand out in the stack!” — Casual), she’s unlikely to read beyond the hard-selling, boast-laden, practically information-free opening paragraph. While the book description does apparently lay out at least part of the book’s central conflict, who is the target reader here? Young people, after all, is a trifle non-specific. And while you may think I made up the bit about the six-figure advance and how much the writer wants to get published, screeners see these sort of assertions all the time in queries.
Don’t believe me? I lifted those two sentences directly from the last conversation I had with a screener; I had just asked her what a querier could say to put her off the book immediately.
Did you notice, though, how thoroughly unimpressive the online publication looks on this page of purple prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) That’s not necessarily any reflection of the publications themselves — Casual has simply not told Millicent enough about them to judge their worth as credentials. It’s simply a vague assertion, leaving her to wonder: published what online? Published where online?
Starting to make more sense that her boss might complain about online publishing credentials the next time she’s asked about it at a writers’ conference?
Some of you remain unconvinced that any non-publishing credential will do, though, don’t you? I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised; I have long suspected that part of many writer fear stems from that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers. That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can.
“What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”
A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would prefers to represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp and a month or two of chagrin by not approaching such agents at all?
It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it, in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor. They are saving the previously-unpublished some wasted time.
Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are literally hundreds of wonderful agents out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of squandering your energies resenting the others?
I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I haven’t won any online awards lately.”
Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it?
What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?
That got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t it?
Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game.
So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.
That, in case you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies. (10,000 sales is the usual threshold for impressive for the latter, by the way.) A previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.
That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?
But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query. The previously published also tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.
Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline, a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their respective jobs significantly harder.
Getting the picture? Previous publications of any sort silently signal that you approach your work like a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?
The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”
The professional response to that is immensely complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?
Seriously, why should it matter, as long as actual readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories than if you wrote periodic columns on boosting homeowners’ recycling acumen for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?
Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?
Ditto with contest wins and placings: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query. Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying.
Oh, you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem, if you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.
And the downside is?
Successful contest entries also demonstrate that — wait for it — the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.
Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers labor under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at the very concept of a deadline, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.
Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them. But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?
Any particular reason you wouldn’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query? She may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness as some others, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.
“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”
Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…
Need I go on?
Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in more than one book category. But think about it: if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?
Okay, so that is indeed what some of them mean. But most of them are just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…
You know the tune by now, right? Keep humming it in the key of G.
A few of that forest of raised hands seem to have regrown. “Back up a minute, Anne. What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”
Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well. Even established novelists often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. Book reviews. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.
Which is why Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with the book you are querying. Or even your writing.
Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might well be able to write a book about something else.
If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. (See, I told you to keep humming.)
Or this: you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference in theory, but occasionally, it does in practice. Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.
Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Have you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”
No, I hadn’t, can-booter: you’re going to have to be brief.
And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may easily be described very tersely. Not an insignificant advantage, in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.
Don’t believe me? Okay, how many lines of text would it take you to tell Millicent that you used to be a Monkee?
The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality, not a literary assessment. Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.
Nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet. So why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?
You’re dubious, are you not? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel they pitched after it?
Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness in a criminal trial: my Ph.D. would might not render me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being whose perceptions of reality could be trusted. (Perhaps because they don’t count as many academics among their acquaintance as I do.)
A personal platform is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book. Whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform also demonstrates why people in the media might be interested in interviewing the author.
While your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you have written the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for book sales, right?
Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of this NF sale:
Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.
Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.
I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA-aimed book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.
If memory serves, however, Amy Carter, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirably pleasure-seeking in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though.
It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.
Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”
I may be going out on a limb here, but how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to your book’s subject matter?
Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not; any experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading. That summer you spent following the caribou herd, documenting its — ahem — dating patterns.
Seeing where I’m going with this? At the risk of sounding like, well, pretty much anybody else who gives advice on platform, if you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can always go out and get some.
I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as publication-based ones. So why not spend the next few months making a wise time investment or two?
Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, which is a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.
Oh, you wouldn’t?
If your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by. You’re an expert in something, right?
If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. (Where have I heard that before?) Do be aware, though, that unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner a significant number of hits on a regular basis (thanks, readers!), Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se. If it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.
Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? Or those comments that in the electronic age, publication credentials are easier to come by than ever? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.
Think of it as DIY ECQLC.
Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out one individualized query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”
This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”
Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.
That being said, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question — in boldface, no less.
The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.
Again, this is old hat to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident. The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.
Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?
Yes, yes: that beautifully-written descriptive paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.
Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.
Yes, even if the query itself is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.
“Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform planks might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, AND an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”
You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph (or even two, if they’re short) pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.
Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post, I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!