Are You Sure You Don’t Have an Author Platform? | Jane Friedman

Are You Sure You Don’t Have an Author Platform? | Jane Friedman

Today’s post is by author and educator Lena Nelson, author of America’s Youngest Ambassador.

In spring 2017, after learning that an aspiring nonfiction author would need a book proposal to find a publisher, I enrolled in a two-Saturday proposal writing class at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. After my first 8-hour Saturday that included group discussions and exercises on “who, what, and why,” I realized that I had no answer to the question that is part of every book proposal: “Why am I the best person to write this book?”

Eight years ago, when I started work on America’s Youngest Ambassador: The Cold War Story of Samantha Smith’s Lasting Message of Peace (Down East Books, 2023), I had no idea how to go about writing it. It was the Cold War tale of Samantha Smith, the ten-year-old American schoolgirl who, in the fall of 1982, wrote a letter to the Soviet leader expressing her fear of nuclear war.

This story had been part of my life since I was a child growing up in the former USSR. Samantha’s historic journey to the Soviet Union helped transform the hearts and minds of two nations on a collision course. In 1985, I learned that Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash in Maine. So I started a scrapbook about her, the first American I’d ever seen. Thirty some years later, the scrapbook became the basis for the, a website I developed in her memory.

In 2013, Samantha’s mother, Jane, who by then had come to support my efforts, suggested that I write a book about her daughter. “You would be a perfect person to do it—you have the perspectives of both sides!” she told me. I was touched but didn’t take her suggestion too seriously at first. Not an official Cold War scholar, I was essentially just a citizen historian who assembled an extensive archive about this slice of Cold War history. I was really hoping that someone else with more expertise would use my website’s archive to write a book.

A couple more years went by, and while several scholarly articles were in the works, no one had shown interest in writing a book-length manuscript. So, I signed up for some creative nonfiction classes and had several chapters in drafts of various stages when I learned that I needed a book proposal before submitting to the publishers. On that first Saturday, when it was my turn to tell my classmates why I was the best person to write this book, I said that I didn’t really have an answer. I didn’t think I qualified just because I grew up in the Soviet Union, kept a scrapbook about Samantha (not unlike many other Soviet children of my generation), and then created a website about her and met her mother.

My professor had an answer that I didn’t anticipate: access. Somehow, I had failed to see it on my own. I was so preoccupied with the crusade of bringing this story its much overdue credit that I never paused to take an inventory of what that meant for my author platform. Since 2005, whenever someone searched “Samantha Smith,” they’d come to my website or the YouTube channel. If they had questions about the girl known as America’s Youngest Ambassador, their email would land in my inbox. I had responded to every scholarly and media inquiry about Samantha, assisted with interviews and articles, helped organize a photo exhibit in Samantha’s home state of Maine, and regularly answered emails from schoolchildren needing help with their National History Day Contest projects. I recognized locations of the photographs taken decades ago and could navigate my archive down to the very quote someone needed. “You’re a part of the story now,” Jane encouraged me.

Suddenly, I was seeing that by researching and documenting Samantha’s story for so many years, and meeting and working with Jane, I had carved out my own place in relation to it. I knew I had a great story to tell, but I simply didn’t take the time to appreciate the work I had put into my website and the relationships I had built in the process of unearthing and preserving the story.

When I started making a list of my accomplishments, I put down my website and the YouTube channel, plus noted the links to the Smithsonian article I was interviewed for alongside several others—and the op-ed I had written in 2013 for which I interviewed President Gorbachev on the thirtieth anniversary of Samantha’s trip to the Soviet Union.

I slowly realized that while I didn’t have a celebrity-size platform (or following), I did have enough of an author platform to get the publisher’s interest. and of course, I didn’t forget to mention being a former Soviet child and the fact that I worked with Samantha’s mother.

Finally, the fact that I did have something to write in that About the Author section not only inspired me to continue but gave me a certain degree of faith that maybe I was the person to tackle this after all. Now that my book is about to be released, I now see that a citizen historian writing about a citizen diplomat might be quite fitting, indeed.

Lena Nelson

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