One of the things that has surprised me while working on the slush pile is the necessity of a platform in a non-fiction book proposal. If you want to get a non-fiction book published, you submit a proposal instead of the whole thing to an agency. A proposal consists of a description of the book, sample chapters, a table of contents, a marketing strategy, and author information (not necessarily in that order). The first two things we look at are the marketing strategy and the author information.
I recently read a proposal who gave a biography of the author including their community activities, like performing in a play. That’s not what we’re looking for in the author information section. What we’re looking for is who you are: what gives you the right to write a book on whatever you’ve written your book? But it’s not just about credentials; it’s also about platform.
Platform is how many people are already paying attention to you. For us to consider a non-fiction author, they at least need to have a website and some sort of social media, be it a blog, twitter, facebook, or email list, that reaches a lot of people. It doesn’t matter if you have a thousand PhDs in the field you’re writing about: if you don’t have a platform, you’re going to get rejected. This goes for memoir too: our deepest congratulations on surviving cancer, but if no one knows who you are, we’re going to reject you.
When I first learned this policy, I was a little shocked. After all, doesn’t that mean that only Jennifer Love Hewitts will get their dating books published leaving girls from Kansas with better-written manuals without an agent? And that OJ Simpson will have agents clamoring over him while respectable grandfathers can’t get their work looked at?
But if you think about it, it makes sense. I’m not one to pick up non-fiction in a bookstore, but if I do, I always ask: who is this person? Why should I read what they have to say? In fiction, the author is secondary to the story: I don’t care whether they have an MFA or not, I just care whether the back-of-the-book description pulls me in. But in non-fiction, the author shapes the whole point of the book. Their thesis is their opinion. It does matter what their background is because that will tell me whether their ideas will be similar to mine and if I should even listen to them in the first place.
I guess it’s just another example of the world being unfair. So non-fiction writers, get your platform built before you query! Start a blog, build a website, and get as many people following you as you can!