Monday, March 10, 2008

What Credentials Do Nonfiction Writers Need

I preach regularly about the need for a platform for all nonfiction authors, but what does platform mean. Is a degree enough, job experience, what about personal experience? First let me clarify that when writing a memoir, personal experience is definitely enough. When writing self-help or prescriptive nonfiction, you’re going to need more. You’re going to need a degree and you’re going to need job experience and you’re also going to need more. You’re going to need something that makes you stand out from every other person with your degree and your job experience. What makes you an expert above all others in your field?

Do you write a column for a local or national newspaper? Do you regularly give workshops on the subject, preferably to a national audience, or, and this is the piece of platform that’s rarely discussed, is your book so radically different from all others that it stands alone as its own platform? What do I mean by this?

Here’s an example. Years ago, in my beginning days as an editor, one of my colleagues (also an assistant) presented a book proposal on being a bridesmaid. The authors had no credentials other than the fact that they had both been bridesmaids more times than they could count. At the time, however, the book was revolutionary. Their credentials and experience were enough because no one had ever done a book like this before. The book was published and I believe, nearly fifteen years later, is still in print. Because, despite the fact that other similar books have since been published, this was the one that started it all. This is an example of when the book itself was enough of a platform.

But examples like that are rare, especially now. Now publishers depend on the authors for the platform. Authors often get frustrated by this need for platform, but let’s face it, this doesn’t come from publishers without reason. You as readers demand it. There are about 15 billion (slight exaggeration maybe) books on pregnancy. Any woman who has ever been pregnant knows this. So when faced with the selection, what makes you pick up a book? Would you choose one that isn’t written by an MD when there are so many others that are? Do you gravitate toward those that are familiar or branch out to something you’ve never heard of? What about someone choosing a business book? What makes you pick one up? It’s usually because the author is respected and you’ve heard of them. You’ve heard of them because the author has a platform.

For me the author has to have a new, unique, and different idea. An idea that has a platform of its own. The author herself also needs a platform. She needs to have some sort of major credentials—regular articles in major newspapers, a Web site with millions of unique visitors, attention in national magazines, a syndicated radio show, or is simply the recognized expert on this particular subject.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are always times when people with a small platform can and do publish books, but those are rare. If you truly want to write nonfiction and you have an expertise, I would suggest you also work on building you platform.



Anonymous said...

I've been wondering about this for a while. I'm an expert in my field and didn't plan on doing anything with that until the Wall Street Journal and CNN picked up some of my writing in my area of expertise and linked to it as related content. Since then, I've been thinking I should build a platform and write a book. We'll see. I'm working on it in small steps right now. I've noticed it's hard to take the world by storm when you're caring for a teething infant.


Anonymous said...

Great topic, Jessica!

Do you think having a non-fiction sale in a semi-related topic would help with fiction sales? Or vice versa? No particular reason for asking this, of course. *g*



Kate Douglas said...

I borrowed my platform for a non-fiction book published by a small winery our neighbors owned. During a family illness, I volunteered to help the tasting room manager prepare foods for a number of their wine tasting events. We had so many requests for the recipes we developed that we ended up writing cookbook based on the munchies we'd created specifically for the winery. It was a small press project sold only through the winery, but Glass in Hand Cooking went through a number of print runs before the family finally sold the winery. I think the book folded when they did.

Aimlesswriter said...

Does the book have to be written/finished before submitting it to an agent?
I've been in this field for nine years, seen too much to list. What I'd like to write (and have already outlined) is a how-to book for the families wanting to get involved.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this is very helpful. I have a question in the fiction-related field. I write an article regularly in two separate online news journals. Should I have included this in my query letter, as I am a first-time novellist?

EB said...

Jessica, good post. I'm wondering if you can help me with a question about the mix of fiction and non-fiction in a writer's repertoire. I wrote a NF manuscript that an agent accepted and we're waiting to begin pitching it to publishers until, as you put it, my platform is a bit better constructed. In the meantime, I've written a fiction MS unrelated to the non-fiction work. Obviously the fiction doesn't need the same platform. Does it hurt the nonfiction to sell the fiction first?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Questions, questions and here are answers, answers.

Sadly I don't know that writing a non-fiction book, even if it is semi-related to the fiction you are writing, will help. It does show that you are a publishable author, but ultimately fiction and non-fiction are judged on two very different criteria so in the end all that's going to matter with your fiction is that the editor loves it.

While it always helps to mention writing credits of any kind in a query it doesn't matter in the long run.

And no, non-narrative nonfiction does not have to be finished. I always sell on proposal.


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I don't think it hurts either to have one sell before the other.


Anonymous said...

Angie Fox still has good advice...

...when applied to building your nonfiction platform:

The “No Way” Factor

The “Brainstorm” Factor

The “Surprise” Factor

It's a crowded field out there - according to Jessica's calculations...more than 1 pregnancy book per person on earth! :) - maybe you don't have a PhD - what are other ways to build up that platform, nationally or internationally? Think outside of the box - apply Angie Fox's Three Factors.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Honestly, the one book I loved loved loved when I was pregnant and dealing with the first year of Hell--I mean child rearing, was Anne Lamott's book "Operating Instructions". Her credentials? She was a writer with a kid.
I love that book.
And my other favorite recent nonfiction book "The Heartless Stone" by Tim Zoeller had a personal angle too. He's not a diamond expert or anything. I love that.
Perhaps the demand for "doctor of this" or "President of that" doesn't necessarily appeal to every reader.
At least not THIS reader.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Jessica! Thank you for the input! (anon @ 1:46p.m.)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica!


Anonymous said...

Definitely an interesting comment. I am the wife of maniac depressive who wasn't diagnosed until five years into our marriage. By that point he had been laid up, waiting for bilateral hernia surgery, which we had to wait four months for because of health insurance. Less than a year later, the "goiter" I had on my thyroid grew, so, even though I had had more than one negative biopsy on it, they decided to operate. Turns out it was cancer. I now have no thyroid and my family has had to live with me this last year, while they figure out the right dosage. I feel this is enough for a nonfiction book, but what would be the theme? Maybe it would be better to incorporate it into a fiction booK? Would love to hear ideas, thanks.

Julie Weathers said...


I'm going to sound harsh and I don't mean to. I think we all, at times, think our trials are enough to write a book about.

When our daughter died, the minister said during her funeral, "Julie will truly be able to say, 'I know how you feel and give comfort to those mourning a lost child.'" If I hadn't been so drugged, I would have leapt like a rabid animal and tried to tear his throat out for saying that. How dare he think that I would ever want to be around anyone hurting as badly as I was?

As it happened, I was later put in the path of many mourning parents and I think I was able to help and comfort them. An English professor, who read a short story I wrote about part of the experience, said I should consider writing a book.

I think to write a book like this takes a tremendous voice and very unusual experience to carry it off. Just my opinion, but I don't want to read about someone else's troubles.

If you think you could write a book that people can be encouraged by or learn from, then go for it. Otherwise, I would say file it away for a novel. The experiences you can vividly recall for your novel will help bring it to life.

Good luck either way. If nothing else, writing is theraputic.

Anonymous said...

More than not, the types of non-fiction I read are research related, so I definitely seek the professionals to avoid errors and assumptions. However, I think many of the topics discussed here would do well in a fiction setting. To incorporate such deep personal experience into a character will get an important message across, not only to those who seek the information, but also to anyone who picks up the novel. In the case of breast cancer for example, most people would require a reason to purchase a non-fiction on the subject. Hence, a good number of people remain in the dark about what it means to battle the disease, or to lose a loved one because of it.

Sometimes, the strongest voice rests quietly in the folds, to be heard—felt—by the unsuspecting. It is human nature to crane towards a whisper, and to recoil from a shout.

Fiction is an escape of sorts. Our audience wants to be pulled in, to live a different life for those precious few hours. They want to cry, or laugh, or be too afraid to sleep. If you have a story to tell, tell it as a story. Through fiction, a writer can inspire interest in a topic by creating the believable. Even in fantasy etc., there must be something that appeals to, and can be imagined by, the reader. Anything that comes from human thought is received by the same.

If the voice itself is strong enough within the fiction, perhaps it could create the necessary platform for a non-fiction success. And even lacking the credentials to speak to those who require professional input, what your heart needed to share with the world, you achieve without ever realizing how many lives you touched

Just my thoughts…

Anyone care to agree or disagree? It would be great for my fiction endeavors to have some feedback.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Anyone care to agree or disagree? It would be great for my fiction endeavors to have some feedback."

Hmm, well, after I get some sleep first!

Anonymous said...

I can truly emapthise with Julie Weathers.
It takes a special (and hellishly courageous) person to write a non fiction book on the trials a person endures in life. The death of a child is to intense and too deeply personal to pour onto the pages of a book for the curious to gawp over.
Ten years ago we lost out twin sons at 29. The first caught a virus that attacked his heart the second died twelve weeks later, he went to sleep and didn't wake up.
No known cause.

The number of people who've come up to me and said I should write a book about that is amazing.

But my question is why should I?

I remember my boys in my way, cry when I want to, but my grief is so very personal and I'm selfish, I truly don't want to share.

But into every book of fiction, the grief and the emotions come through in characters. They're the ones who rant at fate, learn to cope with it, and look it directly in the face. And I'm much happier that way.

My favourite quotation is one from Ling: How can you expect to write if you can't cry?

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for your comments. I believe you are right. It is all intensely personal and my first instinct was to fictionalize it so I could step back from it, and only deal with one issue at a time.

Your comments moved me, and in some way unexplainable helped more than just my decision as to how to 'write out' the emotions.

Thank you again.

EB said...

This has turned into an interesting discussion. The question of should a writer turn their experiences into fiction or non-fiction seems perhaps to not be the best question. I think instead it is what kind of voice do you want to use to write about your experiences. Anon @ 11.32 I think makes a great point: you tell the story, whatever it may be, in your own voice. If your voice is better suited to fiction, so be it. Certainly readers can learn a great deal from fiction. And it has the incredible advantage of allowing the author to create powerful emotions without being tethered to the strict rules of non-fiction. And in some ways, what you're trying to say or come to grips with may be more easily approached obliquely rather than straight on, as in NF. Whatever we experience as writers pours into our work in one way or another. But that doesn't mean that we're necessarily all suited to writing a NF work. My experience has been to write what I want/like to/need to write. Some of that has been fiction, some has been NF. But they're very, very different styles. Experience doesn't make a work; the writing does.

Anonymous said...

I do have an idea for a non-fiction book. I have lived it for 10 years and I am a career marketer. So I understand the platform concept. Would that be enough for a platform without giving away the subject of my book? Also, I have a clever, witty title. Who and how do I approach someone with a proposal?