On Jodi Picoult, Writing, and Platforms

I attended the morning portion of today’s Book Expo America/Writer’s Digest Books Writer’s Conference, partly for the day job and partly for my own personal interests and came away with a few good nuggets, not the least of which was a new [to me] author to check out, Jodi Picoult. While she’s a “New York Times Bestselling Author,” I’d never heard of her before she was announced as the second high-profile writer tabbed to save DC’s disastrous relaunch of Wonder Woman, but after her inspiring keynote speech this morning, she’s jumped to the top of my list of authors to check out.

The gist of her speech was about how when she first started writing she felt handicapped by the old saw, “Write what you know”, so instead tweaked it to “Write what [you’re] willing to learn.” She proceeded to offer some anecdotes about the research that went into three of her novels, and the one that really stuck out for me was the story behind Second Glance, that found her learning about the Vermont Eugenics Project (good old Americans leading the way in the field of racial cleansing BEFORE Hitler took it to another level!), Abenaki Indians and ghost hunting. If the book is half as engaging as her stories about researching it were, it will be one of the best reads I’ve had in a while.

Picoult was an unusually lively speaker for a writer, much more ready for the slam stage than most poets who step up to the mic, and I particularly liked her explanation of why she writes and her approach to choosing subject matter:

“I write to get people talking…
Some people want to entertain;
some want to educate. I want to
poke things with a stick!”

Amen to that!

The two morning sessions I attended were about breaking into magazines and an overview of sales & marketing in the book industry, the former of which was more of a refresher course while the latter filled in a lot of the gaps where things are different in periodical publishing, which is where my background is. One common thread popped up in both sessions that I thought was really interesting, though: platforms.

The stronger the platform a writer has, the better shot they have at being published in the traditional manner. Simply put, a platform is a built-in audience of some sort, via anything from a widely read (or downloaded) column, blog or podcast; a couple of cross-country reading tours (with many books or CDs sold along the way); a specialization in a particular field or topic; hell, even a reading series of some repute in a major metropolitan area! Anything that can offer a potential publisher a solid foundation to work from when deciding on whether or not to publish your work qualifies as a platform and puts you a step ahead of the competition.

And as was noted in the Sales & Marketing session, there’s a ton of competition for limited shelf space, not just from the tens of thousands of books published via traditional channels each year, but from the perennial backlists of the likes of Shakespeare, Poe, Dickinson and God himself! (Amazon.com returns 15,809 results from a “Holy Bible” search within their Religion & Spirituality category.) It was estimated that only 5% of the books published each year ever make it onto the shelves at Barnes & Noble, which was simultaneously astounding while offering a flash of pride as I spotted copies of Burning Down the House at several B&Ns when it was first released. 🙂

But yeah, platforms. Something to think about as I continue to refine my master plan for the rest of the year and 2008.

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