Platform

DIFW Series • Media & Communications
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By Erik Wolgemuth.

“So basically, you’re just saying that I need to get famous before you’d be interested in working with me?”

The question, posed by a potential client, jarred me in its frustration and starkness. At the same time – and in a surprising way – it resonated deeply with my own questions and concerns. As a literary agent, I was in the midst of a conversation about the book publishing process and had just reeled off the spiel about the necessity of having a platform in order to successfully place a book project with a publishing house. This topic—platform—has a place in all such conversations I have throughout my workday. Boiled down, platform numbers rule: followers, likes, favorites, comments, connections, retweets, subscribers, pageviews and the like carry serious weight.

To get a sense for why this is the way it is, take a minute and head over to our favorite behemoth retailer, Amazon. Once there, run down that great new book you haven’t heard of yet. It’s on that topic you haven’t thought about, by the author you don’t know, recommended by no one you’re familiar with. Let’s just say that, sans platform, your likelihood of bumping into a new author is low.

This challenge is only slightly diminished when one has the nostalgic experience (tragically so) of darkening the doors of the local bookstore where thousands of books claim their coveted half-inch of spine-out real estate. It’s a tough world for authors, but the challenge of discoverability isn’t relegated to those in the literary field. Every new product, service, and organization is challenged by our deafeningly noisy world. Isn’t our sole recourse to stake a claim, build a tribe, and shout down the clatter from the heights of the biggest, loftiest platform we can construct?

If so, underneath all our fancy talk and current buzzwords, aren’t we really just insinuating what that aspiring author named so clearly and contemptuously? And wasn’t he right to do so? After all, you’d be hard pressed to find Scripture encouraging this pursuit.

Perhaps the sensible solution at this point would be to call for a complete reversal of our current ways. To exchange the universal acceptance of platform building with universal rejection of it. While certain situations in life undoubtedly call for such an abrupt change of direction, I don’t think this is an instance where the 180 provides the perfect solution.

If we use Christ as our model here (never a bad idea!), let’s not forget that he wasn’t without notable numbers of his own. Whatever the equivalent to “going viral” in the first century might have been, that’s what he (and later, his Spirit-empowered followers) did. We marvel at his miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, but do we marvel at the number of growling stomachs that needed to be filled? The miracle was necessitated because of the immense audience who ventured to such a remote location to hear him speak. This man was prominent, influential and the buzz of his region of the world. Yes, let’s not gloss over his withdrawals from the crowds – his humanity on display as he refreshes and seeks after his Father – but he also actively gathered followers to himself and sought opportunities to speak, heal, teach and disrupt.

The reality is that for many – my industry included – building and using a platform is inevitable and necessary. For others, it grows organically and while grand plans weren’t formulated originally, they suddenly find themselves leading no small tribe. But regardless of how we approach and arrive at our respective platforms, a consistent fact remains: we are all fallen, prone to pride and dismissive of the threat to our quest to follow Christ’s humble example. Unfortunately, as Scripture and history clearly reveal, a brighter, bigger spotlight on a fallen person often simply serves to give our fallen-ness greater visibility.

So, the key question I’m left pondering (and asking of myself first and foremost) is if my platform is a tool of communication at my disposal or if it’s a means by which I derive my identity and self-worth. In his book, Satisfied, Jeff Manion writes about material possessions: “I don’t get my identity from my car. I bring my identity to my car.” The same criteria, I believe, can be applied to this topic: I must not get my identity from my platform; rather, I must bring my already-established identity to it.

In the rush to build and maintain a platform, have I forgotten whose I am? Have I dismissed the adoption and status that I have only through Christ in exchange for wildly fickle likes, retweets, favorites, followers…or the demoralizing lack thereof?

We live in a time where we can be known (in a sense) by thousands and yet (in reality) completely unknown. It’s natural, as a result, to project how we want our lives, character, faith and families to be perceived, but we are known by One. And it is his knowledge of our heart, motives and identity that truly matters.

Erik Wolgemuth is a literary agent with Wolgemuth & Associates and a participant in the media/communications vocation group.

  • Chris Horst

    Fantastic post, Erik. These are really sticky and important issues. As Christians, we must contend with these questions, viewing these constructs through the lens of the Gospel. Thanks for having the courage to do so in this post.

    • Erik Wolgemuth

      Thanks, Chris. Definitely a tricky issue and one that I know needs refinement in my own life.

  • Noel Birkey

    This was a great read; I struggle with the same questions myself, especially regarding my motivations for building/growing my “platform”. It’s also just a fascinating (and accurate) snapshot of the current book publishing landscape.

    • Erik Wolgemuth

      Thanks, Noel. There are good things to wrestle and struggle with here. Too often, I think we just accept without spending time thinking through our intentions and motivations.

  • Great post, Erik. I wonder if social media quietly influences our identity, without us even thinking about it. That is, even if we don’t seek our identity from our platform, can our rituals and practices shape is slowly, quietly, anyway?

    • Erik Wolgemuth

      Appreciate it, Jeff. You’re right on here. I believe that there’s a whole other topic/discussion here related to pride/humility and that we don’t naturally move in the direction of humility. We don’t set out with the intent of being prideful, but if we’re not guarded against it, we’ll end up there. Without question that has impact on this discussion of identity.

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  • davestrunk

    I think the biggest practical sticking point for anyone wishing to write a book is the immediacy of the platform. What I mean is posing this real question: “HOW is the platform constructed?”

    In my limited experience, the question in Erik’s post comes from all manner of folks, but the pressing desire to write that book is from younger folks without much to say yet.

    Instead of clamoring for likes, retweets, blog posts, followers, etc., we do well to actually first make ourselves worthy of a platform. I’d propose two ways to do so. First,there is still something to institutional heft: leadership in a culturally significant church, partnership with other institutions, etc. This type of leadership comes after good experience. I know it’s the “traditional” way of thinking about a platform but it still matters. Rob Bell had a big church, and then wrote books.

    Second, in addition to the real-time institution is letting content germinate over a lifetime, making others more likely to stick to the platform once it’s constructed. Content in the Christian field is often better when it’s written by an older person: Berry, Peterson, Keller, etc. Tim Keller barely put out a book until his late 50s, then he takes off. The Christian literary world, on the other hand, is littered with crappy books from 30-somethings who never write much else more meaningful. The platform must be constructed over time, in concert with institutions….

  • Thanks, Erik. As a new writer who has been somewhat overwhelmed by the talk of platform, this is tremendously helpful and encouraging. I liked this especially: “I must not get my identity from my platform; rather, I must bring my already-established identity to it.” It reminds me of discovering that no matter how many leadership courses a person went on, it wouldn’t necessarily make them a leader. If you wanted to know who the leaders in a group were, you needed to see if anyone was following them. You have helped me put an unknown/confusing issue (platform) into a context that makes sense to me. Thanks!