For first-time nonfiction authors, the passive pressure to “build” an “author platform”  shares some of the urgent-but-empty significance of corporate jargon. What does it mean? Is it really necessary?

Brooke Warner describes it at The Write Life as an “author’s visibility”; Agent Kate McKean describes it as “name recognition”; and Jane Friedman, publishing industry insider, describes it as the “ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is  a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects. 

For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects. 

Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.” 

Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.

The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

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You may not be in the market for a book cover, but we’re all—surely—in the market for inspiration. You’ll find it at the Book Cover Archive, “for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design.”

There, you might marvel at how delightfully disparate design can be:

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Or, browse its links to consider the drawbacks—​but also the benefits—​of relying on Getty Images

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There’s value in a cover that places a book in conversation with its genre: When you pick up a book with “Man in the Fog,” you know just the sort of noir you’re going to get.

But of course, there’s value in arresting design, too.

The cover to Forgetting Things doesn’t reveal its origins in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But its cover certainly suggests something a bit forbidding, a bit primitive, a bit universal, and a bit fanciful, too.

Ultimately, the best book covers draw a map of a world that readers want to explore.

This post it not a how-to. No primer, no matter how comprehensive, can teach the know-it-when-you-see-it quality that catapults an everyday shelf-piece into the realm of  book art.

The Peter Mendelsund-designed Ulysses (as well as Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), provides a startlingly effective illustration. Here is style and savvy in spades. But here, too, is the kind of entrainment between writer, reader, and designer that channels  a book’s essence.

In The Wave and the Mind, Ursula Le Guin describes entrainment as the tendency for two wall-mounted clock pendulums to slowly swing in sync. Physicists call this “mutual phase-locking”; Le Guin describes it as the “beautiful economical laziness” by which successful relationships are formed.

It’s all a little spectral, but this (2013) Ulysses cover illustrates the certain quiescence by which a design imparts the spirit of a story. What looks like boldly scribbled marginalia interrupts but also completes the title with the “yes” acknowledging the book’s last—and now first—word and its (arguably) most famous line:  “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

While this isn’t a how-to, it does offer an injunction: When approaching book cover design, find inspiration in books that illustrate style, savvy, and this kind of economical soul. Then, aim that high.

bullhorn illustrationThe best books depend on a team effort.

This is not to say that a book idea should be divided up and conquered by a team of writers (although that works, too); it’s to say that generating ideas, finding good and helpful feedback, procuring specialized editing services, designing engaging interiors and exteriors, creating solid marketing plans, and more depend on a team of specialists.

Among these specialists, a publicist or PR rep is invaluable.

For some authors, a publicist feels unnecessary: Isn’t the author the person best positioned to sell their book? Aren’t they most capable of speaking (and loudly) to its merits? For other authors, a publicist feels extraneous: Why should an author pay someone else to market a book that’s already great?

But regardless of an author’s intent or a book’s brilliance, selling a book is hard work. It requires a plan for priorities and scope, a deep(ish) list of relevant contacts, and attention to small and large details over the long term.

An author can often meet many of these criterion, but they’re almost always better positioned to do so with the help of a good publicist.

A good publicist will mean different things to different authors. But in general, a good publicist has broad experience in the author’s genre. Because of that, a good publicist also has a list of contacts in relevant media industries and with outlets where their authors will benefit from coverage. A good publicist is familiar with media lead lists and is comfortable engaging in a variety of ways on social media. A good publicist works with authors to ensure authors articulate their goals, are best positioned to meet those goals, and are able to recognize—and celebrate—when those goals are met.

Publicists are an investment, and that, coupled with the sense that they aren’t really necessary for good books, means that they’re often overlooked. But smart authors know they can best sell a book the same way they wrote it: with the help of a team.

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Source: CurvaBezier/Adobe Stock
When I prepare for phone calls with passionate authors, I like to revisit “How to Conduct Difficult Interviews” from The Open Notebook. I do it not because my authors are difficult (never!), but because the article is so widely applicable. Who hasn’t had a tough conversation with a business partner, boss, team member, or client (or a friend, partner, or spouse)? In these conversations, you don’t gain a lot of ground by gaining points; you gain ground by gaining information.

When facing a discussion that may feel intimidating or adversarial (for me, this is typically an interventional phone call for a fragile or otherwise off-track project), “intimidating” can stand, but “adversarial” must be recast.

Feeling intimidated, or what Mallory Pickett calls feeling the fear, can be an excellent exercise in humility. The Antidote persuasively argues that getting comfortable with this kind of discomfort is an important and worthwhile skill. It doesn’t mean ignoring discomfort, though—quite the contrary—it means allowing discomfort to exist, allowing conversations to feel and be challenging, allowing uncomfortable silences to happen, and, ideally, allowing all points of view to emerge.

But while it’s okay to be intimidated by the prospect of a difficult conversation, it’s not productive to sustain an inner dialogue and accompanying imagery that casts the conversation as a battle in which a winner will emerge victorious after vanquishing a loser. I know when I rehearse a difficult conversation, I sometimes slip into attack-and-defense mode—but when I want to win and not lose, I’m focused not on the project but on my (single, limited) point of view.

Instead of viewing conflict as adversarial, it’s helpful to occupy the position of a science journalist who works not to win a point but to gain as much information as possible. Making information the goal takes the onus off conversational combat and helps to unify different views by refocusing them on the project.

Because gaining information is the goal, the best preparation for difficult conversations is, ultimately, preparation. This might take the form of role playing a difficult conversation, or it may take the form of research that provides insight and context for the client’s point of view, or it might take the form of breathing exercises that can provide comfort in the midst of discomfort. Science journalists take on the work of confrontational reporting because they want to fully answer a sometimes slippery question. Their techniques apply to anyone who has to talk it out.

Writers come to us when they’re passionate about a subject or excited to share a powerful message. They’re often way past ready to jump into the long and difficult work of turning their ideas into a real, and really good, book.
Typically, we listen to their (brilliant) ideas and then ask a few questions. Among these are questions about audience: Who is this book for? Who will be persuaded by this argument and this evidence? Who wants to be moved by this message?
 
For many of our authors, the reflexive answer is “everybody.”

Writers of nonfiction often assume that the wider they spread their net, the more readers they’ll capture. While it’s part of our job to convince them that this isn’t the case, it’s not an easy argument. Why not write your book for everybody? Why not offer something with wide appeal? Why not aim to attract both your employee’s millennial social-worker daughter and your grandmother’s middle-aged podcast-loving male nurse?
 
The answer is simple: Because you can’t. You can’t shape your message—in a real and genuine and sincere way—so that it resonates at a deep level with absolutely everyone. The more you try to broaden its appeal, the thinner and more stretched and more general your message becomes. (And if your message is general, it’s just not necessary to spend the time and expend the effort on writing it into a book.)
 
In fact, if you’re writing your book for everybody, nobody will read it. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Reading a book is an intimate act. We invite the authorial voice into our head, and we allow ourselves to be moved by its argument. If the voice feels artificial and insincere, or if the argument doesn’t seem applicable, we close ourselves to the message and toss the book into an abyss of forgetfulness.
 
So we encourage our writers to get specific in the book development stage—really specific. When we ask them to think about their audience and how their message will land, we crib from Seth Godin’s “Marketing in Five Steps” (from This Is Marketing):

  1. Invent a thing worth making, with a story worth telling
  2. Design and build it in a way that a few people will benefit from and care about
  3. Tell a story that matches the built-in narrative and dreams of that small group
  4. Spread the word
  5. Show up

 
For some writers, it feels ugly to overlay marketing and bookmaking. But a marketing mindset is valuable. By focusing on the needs and dreams of a small group of people, you ensure that your “thing”—your story and your message—are meaningful because they absolutely and truly resonate with someone.

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Tidying Up, the Netflix show based on Marie Kondo’s blockbuster book, debuted this month to many, many hot takes. Even if you haven’t read the book, you still probably know that the show anticipates (and fuels) January’s zeitgeist by helping hoarder-lite accumulators streamline their possessions.

The many responses to Marie Kondo, her book, her method, and her show are worth a read. There is something delightful about the method’s animistic approach to stuff. It feels right that every single one of our possessions should spark something—whether that’s joy, usefulness, hope…or just recognition. But, as others (and Twitter) have vociferously argued, there’s also something depressing about radically minimizing our possessions according to our current feelings. Times and feelings, perceptions of “sparks” and “joy,” change. All the time!

Whether you’re all in on KonMari mania or you’ve chosen to hold on to that double-stack tower of unread books, KonMari can be usefully applied to writing projects. While it’s the rare MS Word snippet that inherently “sparks joy,” KonMari’s emphasis on disciplined organization—decanting, disposing, and developing a daily habit—can help productively compose a jumbled Google doc.

Consider the KonMari-approved method of decanting household products into simple containers. This, argues Kondo, reduces the extraneous “noise” of packaging and frees the product to be, as designer William Morris once advised, beautiful and useful. Beginning a project by freeing it from the confines of its context—perhaps by using Webjets, Scrivener, a new doc, a legal pad, or Nabokov-approved notecards—can help you see your work in a new way, enabling you to push it in more generative directions.

Or try the KonMari argument for guilt-free disposal. Because writing can be so difficult, the material we produce often feels sacred. We might think that a great paragraph—even if it doesn’t really work—is just too good to let go. While these sentences might spark joy, their sparks are obstructive rather than clarifying. If you can, delete your fragmentary darlings with impunity. If you absolutely can’t, create a separate file for fragments. You may find a use for them yet.

KonMari also suggests developing a daily habit of cleaning out your bag. We already know that organized writing aids sleep, so when it comes to your projects, this isn’t just helpful, it’s healthy. At the end of your work, go back over what you’ve written. Determine what works and what doesn’t. File the uselessly joyful/joyfully useless fragments in a separate doc. Run spellcheck and format the page. Note what still needs to be outsourced (and sourced), and create a list of writing to-dos for the next session. Like the concept of parking your car downhill, when you make a habit of regularly tidying up your work, you position yourself for maximum momentum.

Tragically, the KonMari method is not going to transform your project into a minimalist masterpiece. Big projects will probably always require baroque amounts of  blood, sweat, and tears to be magically transformative. But the KonMari method offers easy-to-execute organizing habits that can help every writer.


If you’re like me (meaning a tech-curious but otherwise regular computer user), new web apps can inspire a bit of excitement. New always promises to be more fun or beautiful or useful than old, but I usually realize and pretty quickly that the new app doesn’t address a need I have, and it quickly disappears into the ether.
Not so with Webjets! Webjets, which I first read about in Kai Brach’s newsletter Dense Discovery, is a mood-board-esque desktop for your desktop. It’s a bit like Pinterest, or Pocket, or Evernote, or a variety of other visually organized bookmarking and note-taking tools. But it’s also broader and much more dexterous. Basically Webjets is an easy-to-use interactive canvas that lets you drag, drop, and arrange images, videos, live links, docs—any type of file—and then organize, connect, and annotate everything in a (limited) variety of different ways.
 
For example, if you’re working on a speech or a presentation, you could fill your canvas with thumbnail links of your subject matter. You could then attach other links (like particularly apt comments or tweets or relevant op-eds), other images (like a grabs from previous presentations), and text-based responses (like lists of audience questions) onto the images themselves.

This is helpful, and in some surprisingly deep ways. If you’re looking to repurpose or refresh a project, Webjets provides an engaging format through which to envision your work. If you’re looking to gain insights or access points into stubborn questions, Webjets can help you reorganize your files in new ways (like lists, cards, folders, or mind maps). If you’re looking to collaborate with a partner or a team, Webjets lets you share your screen for pretty efficient (and frankly very fun) collaborative brainstorming sessions.
 
Did I need a new way to envision and brainstorm new projects? In fact, yes! My old way of brainstorming cannot even be called a “way”; it’s certainly not efficient; and it’s not at all conducive to structured collaboration. As we work on bigger, more collaborative projects at MWS, Webjets offers a narrative snapshot that is more comprehensive and more dynamic than a linear or written description.
 
The question of whether or not Webjets aids productivity is harder to answer. On the one hand, it will undoubtedly add to the bottomline of time spent brainstorming and collaborating. On the other hand, if it means the end result is a smarter and more creative project, then I’ll happily take it. Have you used Webjets? Tell me more.

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As part of the Do-More/Do-Less banner I’ve unfurled for 2019, I’m revisiting Jane Friedman’s book The Business of Being A Writer. Friedman, whose Twitter bio declares that she knows “far too much about the publishing industry,” is the cofounder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house newsletter about publishing.

​​Her book gives a comprehensive overview of professional writing and pragmatic, utterly helpful advice. While it’s an ideal reference for anyone dipping a toe into the world of professional writing, the insight and advice ripples outward to other professionals, too.
 
Take, for instance, Friedman’s injunction to avoid wasting someone’s time. For writers, a pitch to an unresearched editor, to an ill-chosen agent, or to an unsuitable publication is not a hail-mary strategy—it’s a waste of the reader’s time and a waste of the writer’s time.
 
This is the case for all types of pitch-makers. You might be pitching a report to shareholders, a book to an agent, an argument to an audience, a grant to a grantor, or a professional background to an interviewer. In each case, your aspiration should be for your audience to consider the time they spend with you and your work to be worthwhile.
 
You will gain their appreciation by knowing that audience not as an indistinct bulk but as a single person. Recognizing your audience as a single (and actual) person makes it easier to undertake the work of understanding their professional background, needs, and aspirations. Only then can you determine if your work (or your speech or your grant) really is a good fit. Can you give this person something they need? If yes, then you can succinctly and persuasively explain what you have to offer.
 
This type of reconnaissance isn’t as fuzzy as it sounds. You don’t have to divine motivations (though you may want to). You simply have to turn to Google to trace your audience’s past work and current efforts. The time you spend—no matter your pitch, no matter your audience—will always be well-spent.