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Christina Katz
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Christina Katz

Interview conducted by Leah Tallon

Christina Katz, the author of Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform (Writer's Digest Books), is a Columbia College Alumni, which is probably why it was so comfortable to sit down in a café to grill her about her thoughts on publishing. Seven years ago, Christina took her own advice and started her author platform "for fun." Now she's a popular speaker for conferences, bookstores, libraries. She's even been on Good Morning America. Alongside writing articles for different publications, she also teaches e-courses on platform development and writing nonfiction for publication and hosts the Northwest Author Series in Oregon. Talk about a full plate! She is also the author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer's Digest Books). In her interview with the Publishing Lab, she gave vital information and clever advice for emerging writers on how to make themselves known even before the big publication. For more information about Christina, check out her Web site: www.christinakatz.com.

Publishing Lab: In your book Get Known Before the Book Deal you write about writers needing to build a platform. What is a platform and why is it so important to have?

Christina Katz: A platform communicates your expertise to others. Your platform includes your Web presence, any public speaking you do, the classes you teach, the media contacts you've established, the articles you've published, and any other means you currently have for making your name and your future books known to a viable readership.
A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. Once you establish a platform, it can work for you 24/7, reaching readers even as you sleep. But, of course, this kind of reach takes time. A platform isn't what you once did. It's what you currently do. If others already recognize your expertise on a given topic or for a specific audience or both, then that is your platform.

I work mostly with writers looking to develop a platform from scratch, as opposed to established experts looking to expand or modify a platform, so I find it helpful to define a platform as a promise writers make to not only create something to sell (a book), but also promote it to the specific readers who will want to purchase it. This takes both time and effort, not to mention considerable focus.

PL: There are hundreds of self-help books for writers out there. It can be impossible to choose. What does your book have that the others don't?

Katz: Let's not just talk about my book since there are four aspects of any balanced writing career: craft, selling your words, career development, and platform building. Writers need to be reading books on all four of these topics.

There are tons of books on writing craft. Many of them are worth buying and can cater to your specific genre needs. One that I personally love is Strunk & White because it's the usage Bible for every writer.
Sales or pitching your work is part of any business. Therefore, any writer who hopes to be published needs knowledge of the sales or pitching side of the writing biz. Two good books that come to mind that address how to sell your words are the annual Writer's Market and Wendy Burt-Thomas' The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters.

Professional development is critical for any writer who wants to become published. The best thing to do for professional development is join writing associations that emphasize interaction with publishing professionals and subscribe to writing trade publications like Writer's Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers.

Finally, we come to platform development and building. Self-promotion may appear to come last, but it's just as important as all of the other aspects. My book, Get Known Before the Book Deal, walks aspiring authors through the importance of raising a platform alongside your writing career to maximize your chances for publication success. It's the only book on the shelves to comprehensively address the issue of platform development for writers.

PL: The Internet took over a long time ago, yet some are still fighting it. What are a few ways young writers can take advantage of being more Internet-savvy?

Katz: If you are already comfortable online and using the Internet as the incredible communications tool that it is, then there is no doubt you have a huge advantage. However just because the tools are available doesn't mean young people are using their time online wisely and for professional advancement. Some examples of smart uses of time online would be using Google Reader for collecting pertinent research for writing projects, blogging to a target niche of readers, and developing an online presence.

There's an awful lot of wheel-spinning going on online, not to mention pure recreation and socializing. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but writers need to remember that the Internet is a great tool for niche-interest community building. This is probably the most powerful use of the Internet for writers looking to cultivate a readership. To accomplish this it's crucial to have clear intentions every time you hop online. Otherwise you can just get lost, lost, lost.

PL: Blogs are a big deal right now. They're a cheap and easy way for students to get their writing "out there." What are a few suggestions you have for writers on making a unique blog that sets itself apart from the thousands that are already out there?

Katz: Before you blog you need to establish these three things:

1. What's your clearly defined body of expertise? There are millions of blogs out there and more being launched every day. So the first thing you need to know is what makes you and your expertise unique and then communicate that. If you don't know who you are and what you uniquely offer, how is anyone else going to know? I call this cultivating your identity, not branding, because that word is so grossly overused these days. Identity also nods to the importance of keeping things real and staying true to yourself as a writer, while also making self-promotion a priority.

2. What's the distinct niche that will set you apart from others in the same field? How are you different? You'll have to communicate who you are and what you do quickly. Attention spans are getting shorter, so writing down what you do concisely is critical. Platform isn't the credentials or your resume; it's what you currently do. It's current, constantly evolving, and updated on an ongoing basis. A blog is a good example of a way a writer can authentically share what he is noticing to assist others. And then realize that a hundred people might already be blogging on the same topic and give yours even more thought.

3. How will you have an ongoing relationship with a clearly defined audience? If you are vague about your audience, the whole writing process takes longer and typically requires more rewriting. Typically, clarifying an audience will bring the whole platform into clearer perspective. This applies to books, blogs and everything else. Once you identify your specific audience and start speaking to them directly, the conversation will spark all kinds of ideas, connections, and opportunities. Small concrete platform-building efforts catalyze relationships over time and create community.

PL: What do you feel are some of the downsides or disadvantages of Internet blogs?

Katz: There is an awful lot of hype out there claiming that you can hop online and then become successful or make a lot of money and other false promises. Some of my former students get a whiff of that promise and run off chasing it down the Internet rabbit hole. If you want to be successful blogging then look at is as a creative process that is perfect for business-building. I'm not just talking about blogging to kill time or socialize. Those are fine reasons to blog but they won't advance a writing career.

When you see someone who got a great blog-to-book deal, that person usually already understood several things: how to write short and tight, how to write to a specific audience on a targeted topic, and how to create buzz around their work. These people are not "lucky." They are sophisticated marketers. So don't be duped into thinking that success today is "all about blogging." Blogging is just yet another online tool that can be used as part of an over-arching promotion and marketing plan with your expertise at the center.

PL: A lot of times as writing students you hear "Shameless promotion! You have to be shameless!" In the book you talk about how to professionally promote yourself without pushing your work on people. Where do you draw the line between appropriate self-promotion and embarrassing promotion?

Katz: Oh, dear. Actually, I'd say effective self-promotion is the opposite of shameless. In fact, if I've learned anything, it's that effectively targeted and timed ideas don't have to be hyped. They sell themselves.
A more effective way to promote yourself might be called straightforward-yet-humble. Straightforward refers to the fact that you simply must put yourself and your message out there or no one will know you exist. And humble refers to the fact that ego really needs to be kept in check. Otherwise you are going to be susceptible to flattery, seduction, and other traps that generally plague writers who are trying to get their hard-wrought words out into the world.

PL: Where is self-publishing in all of this and do you think this is something that new writers need to be looking into? Why?

Katz: Self-publishing is now so inexpensive through a platform like Lulu.com that you can publish that family recipe book or collection of childhood poetry or any other kind of project that is really more of a labor of love. Keep in mind, however, that many self-published writers still invest a chunk of money to retain "total control" of their writing projects and end up with a garage full of books.

The reason I favor traditional publication for writers is that you can't underestimate the importance of the publisher. Somebody has to stay on top of the multitudinous ways to format and distribute your book. And that's your publisher's job.

Self-publishing is really best-suited for writers who already have a huge platform that gets them in front of audiences they can sell books to directly. Self-publishing can be a great exercise for a class or a group of writers who want to test-drive the publishing process and find out just how much work it really is. In certain specific circumstances self-publishing might be effective but if that is the case, don't forget to consider e-books, which are a lot cheaper and a great way to test the viability of a book.

PL: Obviously the publishing industry is going through major changes because of the current economic situation. Budgets have been cut and so has book production. Do you think that this makes it even harder for emerging writers to get their books on the shelves? What advice do you have for them when it comes to getting their work published?

Katz: If I'm honest, I don't think the world needs or wants all the books that writers want to publish. I think it's a mistake to only think about publishing in terms of what writers want to write without considering what readers want and need. This is pretty much what the business of publishing is all about. That said, breaking in is always going to be tough for a first-time author. Timing is also a a huge factor here. And connections never hurt when it comes to getting your foot in the door.

For example, the first book I drafted back in the late nineties wasn't published and today I understand that this was a very good thing. Of course, back when I submitted a sample chapter of it and got rejected, I didn't understand. Turns out that was my "practice book." Hindsight really is 20/20. I think writing a book and letting it be for practice is good experience for writers. Especially when, like my practice book, it shouldn't have gotten published because it had no clearly defined niche topic or target audience. Today, I know that you cannot get a book published without these two things.

Stiffer competition creates quality and prevents over-publishing, which actually works against authors who get deals by glutting the marketplace. So, too many books go right into print and then too many go right out of print. Of course, the growing sophistication of print-on-demand means books won't have to go "out of print" if they can be published in smaller batches as needed. My advice to all writers aiming for a traditional book deal is always work through an agent because it's virtually impossible to keep up with all the contractual changes on your own, and the fine print matters more than you might think.

PL: Once you left Columbia College, was there anything that you had to learn the hard way?

Katz: A big turning point for me as a writer happened while I was at Columbia College. I was invited to write for the Journalism Department's magazine. That's when I realized that there was a bigger writing world than just fiction writing. Eventually I decided that I wanted to write nonfiction instead of trying to launch a writing career by writing fiction right out of the graduation gate. This epiphany was really important to my career and would never have happened had I not been exposed to a variety of ways to approach a writing career.

We didn't have anything like the Publishing Lab when I was in school in the early nineties. So I had to learn virtually everything I know about the publishing industry on my own by reading, talking to authors, and attending writing conferences. However, my adventures in learning, teaching, and writing about writing careers has become a niche for me that has turned into two book deals so far. I want students to realize that they can customize their careers to suit their strengths too. I hope that the current students in the program realize how crucial it is to familiarize themselves with the publishing marketplace. I'm sure the Publishing Lab is an invaluable resource for them.