What must an author bring to the table to create a potentially award-winning nonfiction book?
In the past few months I had a chance to find out, as part of a team of judges reviewing entries in a prominent national contest for books published in 2011.
I can't speak about the winning book; the results won't be released for months, even to the judges. Not can I speak of all the entries; each judge saw only a portion of the books being evaluated. But I can discuss some patterns in the nineteen I assessed.
One element that jumped out, for nearly every entry, was platform. Consider the kinds these authors had.
First were the megachurch pastors. They accounted for six of the nineteen titles. One author/pastor was at the celebrity level—with a bio listing 100 million copies of his books in print. But all the others each headed a congregation larger than most towns in eastern Colorado. One was pastor of “the fifth largest church in America.” Another was pastor of “one of the fastest-growing churches in North America.” Not an easy platform to build.
Next came four books by national ministry leaders (one co-authored with a megachurch pastor). Each had a large national constituency built around their topics. They regularly spoke around the country, sometimes internationally, on matters related to their latest book. One author's bio said, “She speaks to over 500,000 teens a year.” I'd call that a platform.
Next came three books from people who were simply multi-published, nationally recognized experts and speakers on their topic. All three had been speaking and writing in their field for at least twenty-five years. If that's a platform to which you aspire, I hope you've already started paying your dues.
Next came three books by celebrities, each of a different flavor. Each was also a joint effort, co-written by a professional author. One was “written” by a United States senator, one by a professional athlete, and one by a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who made national headlines when she switched sides and was hauled into court. Most of us can dismiss the idea of achieving a celebrity platform built around politics or athletics (or other forms of mass entertainment). And do we really want the pain of getting caught up in a matter that attracts the national press? Platform at a price.
Finally came three books by people whose level of platform seems most nearly attainable.
One book, by a mother and daughter, relates “The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice.” Of the author's three children, her bio says “two … are profoundly affected by autism.” But she is also “a venture capitalist investing in high-tech companies, and she sits on both corporate and nonprofit boards.” Maybe that helped her garner the front-cover endorsement by Tom Brokaw.
Another book, a daily devotional with stories from the Vietnam War, comes from a decorated war veteran and retired Marine Corps officer—who also served in the White House. He's a lay minister and is active with an international evangelism organization. He's a full-time writer, and this narrowly targeted book was his third published book. He built his unique platform through decades of dedicated effort.
The last book is the work of an author who may never occupy the spotlight. But his writing (and his effort to promote it) earned front- and back-cover endorsements from Randy Alcorn, J. I. Packer, singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson, and Wheaton College Professor of English Leland Ryken. The book is titled Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. His back-cover bio describes Tony Reinke as “a former journalist now serving as a theological researcher, writer, and blogger.” Checking Amazon this morning, his book has seventy-four customer reviews: forty-three with five stars and twenty-six with four stars. Its current sales ranking was 31,589. I hope that's enough to keep it in print.
What's your platform? It's worth working on.