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Gigi Will Know: How can I build a modern author’s platform for a book set in the past?

"My memoir covers a period in my life that happened 50 years ago. How do I build a platform when there has been such a huge gap in time?"

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I had an agent contact me for representation in April 2019. Per her request, I emailed her my manuscript and proposal. She really liked my story, a memoir, and was complimentary of my writing. In our first phone call, I asked her if she had read my entire manuscript. She said she only reads the first three chapters of nonfiction manuscripts. Is this typical? She was enthusiastic about my story and was happy with my proposal. She emailed me a sample of her contract to review, but it had not been customized. I suspect she was waiting to see the results of her appointments at the Book Fair in NY in May 2019.

She presented my project at the Book Fair to a number of editors. She was so excited about the responses she got that she emailed me from NY telling me a number of editors “loved” my story. They all eventually passed on it because they didn’t feel I had enough visibility to drive sales. My memoir covers a period in my life that happened 50 years ago (all-girl band in the sixties). I am no longer active in that field so do not have a connection to it anymore. I do have a Facebook page and YouTube page for the band. My question: How do I build a platform when there has been such a huge gap in time?

—Still Rockin’; Not Sure I’m Still Rollin’

Dear Rockin’,

The first part of your query is something you need to talk to your agent directly about. (If the contract isn’t bespoke to you, don’t sign it.) It is normal for some agents to read only portions of the book; nonfiction work is prone to changing as the writer gathers research. However, your work is a memoir, and it is less likely that an agent or editor won’t want to read the whole thing. Again, to each agent their own working methodology. Related: If you haven’t signed the contract, then she’s not “your” agent yet.

Platform is the subject of the second part of your query, and yours is an interesting quandary. It’s an unfortunate reality that many editors will want to know that you can pull the weight of an audience and bring along your own existing fan base, in part because they want to know that you can do your share of the marketing. Is this fair? Enh. My jury’s out. Publishing companies have marketing budgets, after all, that they can spend on you if they believe in your story enough to buy it in the first place. But no one is better equipped to tell your story and sell it than you are.

Anyway, I don’t see your problem as all that big, even if you did leave that life behind decades ago. I’ll lean on publishing expert Jane Friedman to help me illustrate. Years ago, I saw her lecture, and she defined platform as the answers to these four questions:

  • What do people say is remarkable about me?
  • What can I not shut up about?
  • What’s fun to me?
  • What do I know more about than anyone?

Take these four questions and ask them of two parts of your life: Your current life and your years as a member of an all-girl band.

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Think about the themes that may have come with your tenure in the band (I’m spitballing here): feminism, activism, the music scene in general, fashion and style, civil rights, the state of music in the 1960s, the 1960s overall, pop culture. Go broad. These are things you know about, and that’s enough to build a platform on, by talking about, tweeting about, posting about these things on a semi-regular basis.

You haven’t said anything about your current life, but I’d look for some common ground as you answer Friedman’s four questions and apply them to life now, post- girl band life. Are you still interested in any of the things I mentioned above? Great. You have an intersection and something to build your platform on, even if it’s something you thought you’d left behind decades ago.

Listen. Once a rock star, always a rock star.

Guitars, microphones, and keyboards,

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Gigi

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