Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Book Passage Connection

By Ona Russell
(Paula's note: The following article is by one of my clients, historical mystery author, Ona Russell. Since a number of you have asked about signing at Book Passage, I thought you'd enjoy hearing Ona's take on her interesting experience there last week. Enjoy! -PM)

We are all connected. So Charles Darwin, whose bicentennial is being celebrated worldwide this year, suggests in his theory of evolution. Indeed, a logical outgrowth of Darwin's well-known scientific observations about our common origin is this simple, yet profound idea: we are all connected.

I concur whole-heartedly with this idea having just had a first-hand taste of it at my book-signing this past Valentine's Day at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Now, I must admit that I have more than a passing interest in Darwin. My book, The Natural Selection, is a historical mystery set against the backdrop of the Scopes "monkey" trial, the 1925 legal battle that first put the teaching of evolution to the constitutional test (very briefly, the ACLU instigated the trial to challenge Tennessee's then Butler Law, which forbade the teaching of evolution because it conflicted with the Bible. Sound familiar?) In the story, Sarah Kaufman, a real 1920s Jewish woman whom I've adopted as my fictional sleuth, gets drawn into the investigation of the murder of a college professor. Through a series of events, she travels to the trial and ultimately solves the crime with the help of some of its key players.

With this in mind, consider that I was greeted at this wonderful bookstore by my gracious host, Susan Leipsic, with a mysterious-looking pamphlet in hand. Susan gave me an excited look, and then told me about the document. It was written by her grandfather, Herman Rosenwasser, the only rabbi solicited by Clarence Darrow to testify for the defense at the Scopes trial. Entitled Is Evolution Spiritual?, it was, like that of all the other expert witnesses for the defense, unfortunately never admitted in court. Well, of course I was fascinated. In doing my research for the book, I had never come across his name. Had I done so, I very well might have referred to him, because his words reflect precisely (and elegantly) the point of view that I have Sarah espouse in the book, a view that was typical before the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s: that evolution and religion could coexist.

This was intriguing enough by itself. But the fact that he was a Jew, a rabbi no less, made the discovery all the more poignant as Sarah, in both this book and the one that begins the series, O'Brien's Desk, struggles with her own Jewish identity. Moreover, Susan informed me that she had only been given the assignment of hosting me the previous evening, that any number of others could have been delegated the job. The odds of everything falling into alignment were, in fact, remote.

Now, one is tempted to attribute such strangely coincidental situations to a mystical power. But on his bicentennial, one might also think of Darwin, of his notion that we are all connected and that somewhere along the path we may meet someone to help us illuminate that truth. Then again, as the good rabbi suggested, it could be a little of both.
Ona Russell is a historical mystery author and PEN/Faulkner Award nominee for her first Sarah Kaufman series novel, O'Brien's Desk. Her novels can be ordered at bookstores nationwide and at You can reach her at, or visit her website at

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Building Your Platform, Step by Step

Whenever I speak at writers’ conferences, authors often ask me what is meant by the term “platform.” Simply put, your platform is all about you — the experience, background, and expertise you bring to the table, in addition to the wonderful book you’ve written.

The concept of platform is important when selling a book because it’s what the media, especially radio and TV folks, are most interested in when it comes time to set up promotional appearances. I once had a radio producer in New York tell me, “Paula, I don’t give a damn about this author’s book; I want to know about his background and experience. If he doesn’t interest me, his book never will.” This may sound a bit harsh, but it’s all too true in the world of publicity. If you want premium exposure for your book through traditional radio and TV, you are going to be the story.

And it should be a good one. Media producers expect authors to be knowledgeable and experienced in their subject matter, whether the book is non-fiction or fiction. If you have a compelling personal history, experience in the industry you’ve written about, or an interesting angle to bring to the interview, then you’re more likely to get a yes nod from a producer trying to a fill radio or TV time slot. Reporters and producers look for individuals who are unique, compelling, and entertaining as interview subjects. If you’re a celebrity or have notoriety in your field, the pathway will be easier. But if not, you’ve got to develop a platform that will intrigue members of the media if you want to get maximum exposure for your work.

So, how do you go about building your platform? Many authors write about subjects that fascinate them, but they don’t always have expertise in those areas. When this is the case, I recommend the following:

1. Teach or give lectures, presentations, and workshops on the topic, even if it’s one you only know through research.
2. Keep a list of the presentations you give, and include them in your bio.
3. Get testimonials from the organizers and attendees at your talks and print them on all of your promotional material, including your website.
4. If you haven’t yet done so, create a website and a blog for your book and update both regularly with current information.
5. Follow other blogs in your subject area and comment on them. List your website and blog URL when you write comments, and develop relationships with bloggers and blog readers in your subject area.
6. Use your blog posts as starting points for articles that you can then send to established websites, blog sites, and trade publications.
7. Offer to become a guest blogger or reviewer on other sites, and invite experts in your subject area to guest write for your blog and website.
8. Make connections with experts in your subject area and ask them to endorse you and your book.
9. Demonstrate your passion for your subject when you speak about it. Know recent statistics and be able to talk about new research or events relevant to your subject area.
10. Develop an up-to-date curriculum vitae (c.v.) that lists all your accomplishments and achievements and demonstrates how well you know your subject area.

Many authors are lucky to have agents who understand the importance of platform and have helped them develop the items listed above. But self-published authors, or others who don’t have an agent to help them, may need to do some of the development work on their own.

Take a look at your platform and if it needs developing, get going on building it, one step at a time.