Platform for Non-Fiction Authors

cesar-millanIf you’re writing a non-fiction book and it’s not memoir, keep in mind you’re going to need some kind of platform in order to sell it. You’re also going to need a strong hook or a fresh angle on the topic.

Put yourself in the place of the reader or book-buyer: If you need a book on dog-training for example, and there are 55 books available on that topic, how will you make your buying decision? You’ll be looking for the book that takes an approach that appeals to you; and you’ll be looking at the individual authors and how qualified they are to give you advice. You might gravitate toward someone famous (Cesar Millan) or you might prefer someone you’ve never heard of but who seems to have an incredible track record of training dogs. In any case, you’ll be looking hard at the authors and their “hooks” to help you decide.

Some topics require more platform or credentials than others. But if you’re a non-fiction writer and want to sell books, be aware that agents and publishers will be asking these questions:

  • Are you working in the field of whatever your non-fiction book is about?
  • Do you have a go-to blog on that topic?
  • Do you speak to audiences about the topic?
  • Have you published magazine, journal, or online articles about it?
  • Do you belong to organizations based around it?
  • Do you have degrees or letters after your name certifying you in this area?
  • Do you already have a built-in audience of thousands of people who are likely to buy your book?

In other words…

Have you taken steps to become a “go-to” expert in this topic?

Even if you’re planning to self publish, these questions are important because they help determine if you’re going to be able to sell your non-fiction book through your own efforts, or if it’s just going to sit on the virtual shelves gathering e-dust.

As a reader, what do YOU look for when buying a non-fiction book?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] there are people interested in your work. (Read this entry by literary agent Rachelle Gardner on why a non-fiction platform is so important and this blog post by agent Amanda Luedeke on how big a writer’s platform needs to […]

  2. kleck on December 20, 2011 at 3:05 AM

    HI Jane Goude:
    Thanks for sharing. How do I find the post that you speak of? And how do I find a writer that I could afford that
    wouldn’t lose me in the process. I have tried writers in 1976,77 & 79 and they were pretty expensive and I got lost in the process. It wasn’t my feelings nor the inspirational book I wanted to produce. Thanks for your help.

    • Janey Goude on February 10, 2012 at 2:41 AM


      Sorry for the delayed response. I just found this by accident, but glad I did.

      God is the Master Orchestrator. I would pray and place your story in His hands. He is able to being you to the person who is the right fit. I marvel at the God connection stories I have regarding the way my projects have come to be.

      That said, there are some things you can look for.

      As far as the who:
      It has to be a right fit – for both of you. Let the person read some of your work but don’t tell them much upfront. Just ask them to read it and give you their input. Ask them what vision they have for your book. If it is the right person they will tell you your vision without you having to say anything first. God will give you both the same vision. Also, they may see things that you missed because you are so close to it. But, if they offer something that you disagree with, they should be willing to let it go. You should be able to talk openly with that person without fear of being shot down or disregarded. They should have that same liberty with you. The first time you collaborate with someone on a project, there will be a learning curve while you figure out how one another communicates and what the expectations are. You have to be able to be honest to work through those. If it isn’t a right fit, feel free to say, “No, thank you.” and move on.

      As far as the price:
      Unfortunately, many people do not have a realistic expectation of what to pay for a ghostwriter. That is at least partly because they don’t have a good idea of what that entails. Do some research to find out what the going rate is (google) and what options you have for negotiating a lower rate. For instance, some might be willing to take a lesser upfront for their name on the book and/or a percentage of profits.

      As far as the when:
      Sometimes we have a vision for a project way before its time. I had a vision years ago for a book on a program for ministering to the infirmed and mourning in the church body. I thought it was ready. But a few years later, through more life experience I was able to add greatly the manuscript. I could see that God wasn’t done writing that book yet. Before you pursue a writer/editor, make sure you aren’t getting the vision ahead of the timing. Make sure you have complete peace that the story is complete.

      As far as the why:
      Sometimes God is asking us to trust Him with His vision. That means stepping out in faith. That may mean writing the manuscript before you have a publisher. It may mean paying an editor/ghostwriter before you have a publisher. Sometimes, He doesn’t provide the finances until we’ve stepped out in faith believing for His provision. I would never take a project knowing the client was going in to debt to pay me. I have offered a montly payment, where if God doesn’t supply the money, we simply stop until the finances are there again. We take a lack of funds as God’s way of keeping the project on His time table.

      The bottom line is you have to seek God for His plan for your story. When you have a peace that He is telling you to take the next step and walk forward in faith – do it. He will reveal to you the person He wants to help you with it and He will provide the funding.

      Do not lean to your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.

      Best to you,

  3. Buffy MacDonald Crabtree on December 15, 2011 at 1:20 AM

    Hi Kleck,
    Writing about your feelings after losing your husband, especially leaving you with the responsibility for raising seven children, would be healing for your heart and your pain.
    Think that was what your professors were trying to tell you? Or, because of the experience you went through, you could help others to find their way? Both great reasons to write!
    I wrote “Grieving God’s Way,” after losing my hubby.
    How about “From Grief to Gladness,” for your title? Although, I’d say you may have experienced a lot of “Goodness” from others during your journey of sadness. So that’s why you chose the word…

  4. Diane Stortz on December 14, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    Truthfully, for nonfiction, if I want help or want to learn about a subject, I look at author credentials (which is only one piece of a platform) and read a bit to see if the writing style appeals. Beyond that, what hooks me is the book’s visual design–cover and interior–and often that’s what attracts me to one title over another when I start my search.

  5. Victoria Noe on December 14, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    “On the Road with Francis of Assisi” wasn’t written by a monk; rather a woman interested in Sts. Francis & Clare. It’s a travelogue, tracing their steps – literally. I wanted to book a flight by page 3. That’s the passion that draws me into nonfiction.

    My book has no relation to the letters after my name. “‘It’s Not Like They’re Family’: Mourning Our Friends and Celebrating Their Lives” looks at people who have lost a friend. It covers the disrespect shown to the grief of friends and the major life changes brought on by that experience. Funny and sad, both, just like our friends. Anyone who’s lost a friend can relate.

    I can read academic studies from now til doomsday. But I’d rather read a book by someone with the “in the trenches” experience.

  6. Abigail Stokes Palsma on December 14, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    A plot. Seriously.

    As a technical/PR writer, I think in nonfiction all day long. I can hardly stomach a few pages of news everyday. Give me fiction. I prefer to be an ignorapublicrat anyway.

  7. Cheri Gregory on December 14, 2011 at 2:12 AM

    My best teachers in high school and college were never the geniuses. They were always the teachers who knew what it was like to struggle. They knew how to find a dozen ways to approach/explain a concept. And they rarely fell victim to “the curse of knowledge”; they remembered what it was like to not know.

    When I’m buying non-fiction, I look for someone who (a) has experienced the same problem(s) I’m facing, (b) spent time struggling through them, and (c) can now articulate their growth process.

    Too often, books from “the experts” gloss over day-to-day problems. It’s almost as if they’ve always been such “experts” they never really had the types of problems I deal with.
    Or if they’ve faced big problems, they found a magical solution and *POOF* everything was solved and now they just want you to join them in happy land.

    I prefer a book from an author who’s been in the trenches of teaching / parenting / marriage. Someone who has repeatedly hit their head against a wall in frustration. Someone who has tried the “quick fixes” and figured out why each one did not, could not work.

    I’ll pay good money to learn from an author who has found a systematic approach that they can explain baby-step-by-baby-step, and that I can then adapt to my own situation.

  8. Peter DeHaan on December 13, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    I actually steer away from authors with a bunch of letters after their name. And I avoid mega-popular personalities, since it is likely that someone else actually wrote the book and the words are not their own.

    I pick books based on:
    1) recommendations from others,
    2) having enjoyed other books by that author,
    3) the buzz surrounding the book, or
    4) a catchy name and creative cover.

    Unfortunately, all of these methods have let me down way too many times. So the upshot is that I’ll be taking a break from non-fiction for a while.

  9. Theresa Froehlich on December 13, 2011 at 1:55 PM

    I am writing (or rather, have written) a self-help book to show parents how to let go of adult children when they mess up.

    My agent told me most publishers look for authors with Ph.D. in psychology or family therapy, or authors who already have name recognition.

    One thing that publishers overlook is that these parents are not just looking for professional credibility or clinical certifications, they are looking for their Tribe.

    For a book like mine, there are really 2 types of expertise: professional credential and parental credential.

    Of course, I will have to depend on my agent to persuade the publishers.

    • Carol J. Alexander on December 14, 2011 at 9:40 AM

      After I had my 4th baby I started wondering why I hung on every word of those parenting experts that only had 1 or 2 children themselves. So I quit tuning in and sought other parents of large families. After six children, I have to say I did the right thing. Keep trying.

      • Theresa Froehlich on December 14, 2011 at 4:38 PM


        It’s a little late for me to have more children… (Joking!)

        In fact, there have been two similar books written by parents (who are not clinical professionals) and their books are selling very well. Parents who have been through what I’ve experienced are really looking for other moms with similar experience, the soldiers in the trenches.

  10. David Todd on December 13, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Most of my non-fiction reading is in history type books: biography, autobiography, history period books, electoral history, even history textbooks. I have found most history books by experts to be so agenda-driven that I’m starting to shy away from them. I’d almost rather read source documents or history texts by a layman/non-historian, for they will be more about history and less about the author’s agenda.

    I wonder, in our Interet savvy society, if easy access to information isn’t reducing the demand for an expert in the subject. High rank in a search engine results page seems to be of greater importance than expertise.

    I’ve said before that I don’t understand this whole business about speaking before having a book. I’m not going to go out of my way hear someone speak who doesn’t have a book published. The book is what gives authority, not the fact that someone speaks on a subject. IMnsHO.

    • Anne Martin Fletcher on December 14, 2011 at 9:15 AM

      I’m with you–what I look for in an author is a balanced, expert approach to her subject, from someone who is still involved with the subject enough to be a lifelong student of it. I avoid titles with keywords indicating that only one opinion will be discussed. For example, I will never read one best-selling author whose title began, “How to talk AT… ” That implies the author will never listen nor change her mind, even if she encounters new information.

  11. Joe Pote on December 13, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    For Christian non-fiction, I tend to follow authors, much as I do for fiction. When I find an author I like, I’m likely to buy more books by the same author.

    For how-to non-fiction, I tend to go by whether the book looks like it will provide what I need. I’m less likely to go by the title or cover, and more likely to browse the table of contents before purchasing.

  12. Addie Zierman on December 13, 2011 at 11:58 AM

    In my experience, this is increasingly true of memoir too. At least it’s been true in my log-jammed journey toward publication.

    The difference I think is about expertise. For a straight-up nonfiction book, we want to hear from the best. When it comes to memoir, you can’t get more expert on your own life. But you can get more visible. You can get more engaged.

    • Timothy Fish on December 13, 2011 at 12:31 PM

      As true as that is, “the best” seldom write books. The best books out there are usually written by people who have adequate understanding of the subject, but they are not “the best.”

  13. Jeff Goins on December 13, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Why is memoir the exception?

  14. Irene on December 13, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    Great post, thank you very much!

    >> As a reader, what do YOU look for when buying a non-fiction book?

    Personally, I don’t look at the author’s platform – I just assume that as the book’s been published by a traditional publisher, his credentials are OK. What I do look at is the writing itself and whether the author’s take on the subject appeals to me. I’ve passed on lots of potentially interesting non-fiction books with impressive credentials simply because I didn’t find the writing engaging enough.

    Having said that, if the author’s self-published, I’ll definitely look at his credentials first.

    • Timothy Fish on December 13, 2011 at 10:40 AM

      It is often difficult to tell whether a book has been self-published or not. If my concern is whether the author knows what he’s talking about or not, it is easier to just check his credentials than it is to check whether the imprint that published the book is that of a traditional publisher or not.

      • Irene on December 13, 2011 at 12:43 PM

        Actually, I have to agree! I thought about it myself after I’d posted my comment. Besides, I know some very good and popular experts/non-fiction authors who chose to self-publish.

        In any case, I do look at the writing first.

  15. Marielena on December 13, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    As writers, we tend to forget that publishing is a business. As such, platform is everything to sell books.

    Non-fiction books? I’m always drawn to the psychology, self-help or spiritual section of the bookstore. I believe readers are looking for “hope” in today’s chaotic, digital, too-busy world.

    Not only is that the kind of book I’d like to buy … it’s the kind I want to write (and hope I’ve written), whether it’s non-fiction or fiction.

    • Timothy Fish on December 13, 2011 at 10:43 AM

      I’m the opposite. I write books that make our world even more digital.

  16. Timothy Fish on December 13, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    As a reader, I look for a book that solves my problem. If there are five books on the same subject, I look for the one that most closely addresses my problem. So, if I’m just learning about something, I look for the book that introduces it. If I’ve already got some experience, I look for the more advanced books.

  17. Jodi Aman on December 13, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    The title hooks me every time. If the title clicks in my soul, I add the book to my nightstand. It is piled high. I hope someday my book is on someone else’s nightstand. 🙂

    • Kleck on December 13, 2011 at 3:04 PM

      How do you like the title,
      “From Grief to Goodness.” Is that catchy
      enough to get noticed…some say yes, others say no…some even change the words. Let me know what you think.

      • Jodi Aman on December 13, 2011 at 5:05 PM

        If I was grieving maybe, but I’d also want to feel understood and depending on the person that may feel like a big leap. For grief, say something relatable. Someone has to read the title and say, “this author knows how I feel.” I like the consonance:). I’m a counselor not a book publicist so take it with a grain of salt.:)

        • kleck on December 13, 2011 at 6:41 PM

          Thanks for the quick reply. At age 37, my husband took his life and left me to reaise 7 kids, ages four to fourteen. Two psyche professors at UW Milwaukee told me to write back in 1976. But I don’t have the confidence to write. I am a tax accountant. Numbers are my thing.
          So far I have a title. Isn’t that a laugh. But I am taking creative writing courses, so maybe I can be of some help to others. All seven have college educations and I have three degrees all since my husband died in 1971. Would that qualify for a inspirational book?
          Thanks again.

          • Jodi Aman on December 13, 2011 at 7:24 PM

            Absolutely! I don’t hate the title but maybe “tell the story” in the subtitle. So people KNOW you understand. And you do!!!

          • Janey Goude on December 20, 2011 at 2:40 AM


            I just read a post by a man who wrote another man’s story: he lost his entire family in a brutal murder. The writer calls himself an accidental collaborator. He embarked on his writing journey with plans to be a best-selling novelist. God had different plans, although he used the writer’s attempts for His glory.

            By all accounts, the man who lost his family shouldn’t have lived either. If I’m remembering correctly he was shot fire times at close range and left in a burning house. God began the healing process through one page of an out of print book – the only page that survived the fire. The author of that book wrote the victim’s story of loss and redemption.

            Maybe it is God’s plan for you to write your story. Perhaps God’s plan is for you to share your story with a writer and let him/her tell it for you.

  18. P. J. Casselman on December 13, 2011 at 2:39 AM

    Built in audience of thousands of readers? This is one of those true but annoying statements. Say the book is “Devotions from a Sea Captain.” The captain might have a seminary degree, be a brilliant writer, and have a wonderful new perspective on the glory of God seen in the aquatic world. Yet he’s on a boat in the ocean and has no audience. Unfortunately, we won’t get to read his stunning work because he doesn’t have a built in audience (unless one counts fish).
    On the other hand, the Internet has provided a great way to build an audience through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Through his satellite wireless, that old man of the sea built a large enough following to sell books. So every impasse has a way around it, over it, or through it in today’s world of technology. If we’re patient and work at it, the audience is there. Of course, they are only there again if the book is good. 😉

    • Joe Pote on December 13, 2011 at 12:26 PM

      The internet does provide lots of opportunities, for getting word out about a new book or new author.

      However, the fact that the internet is equally available to all means that it brings its own built-in hurdles.

      The shear volume of available information makes it increasingly more difficult to make one product stand out in the crowd.

      Yes, the words I’m typing right now CAN be read by millions of readers. But the reality is they WILL be read by only a very few readers.

      • P. J. Casselman on December 13, 2011 at 1:08 PM

        No doubt, Joe. That’s why I’m planning on going on a reality show and being horrible to people while I wear my most horrendous underwear in public. Oh wait, I’m a dude…nevermind…^^

        • Joe Pote on December 13, 2011 at 1:20 PM

          Hah! Funny! Sad, but true…and we may as well laugh about it!

  19. Nina Amir on December 13, 2011 at 1:48 AM

    Great post, but I’ve been told that memoir writers are well-served by having a platform as well. In fact, these days, it seems all aspiring authors stand a better chance of getting their work published if they have a platform. Is this not correct? And I don’t just mean expert status but large amounts of fans and followers from their social networking, speaking, blogging, media appearances, etc.

    • Timothy Fish on December 13, 2011 at 10:23 AM

      Even when you’re talking about fans, I think it still comes back to expert status. It is just that people who have a lot of fans have to be experts about themselves instead of some other subject matter.

  20. Marja Meijers on December 13, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Good points to consider Rachelle, it’s like really pin pointing your target audience. It is so unreal to say ‘I want everyone to read my books’, finding your field is very important. Thanks for this excellent post.

  21. BK Jackson on December 13, 2011 at 1:04 AM

    I have no comment on platform but this post proves how valuable the right photo is. Read the blog title and say “eh, not interested. Don’t write non-fiction.” But then I saw Cesar and the dogs and I had to read it. 😎