The New York Observer has an interesting article about publishing and the almighty platform. If you don't have one, you're toast.
Trying to identify the components of a platform, the literary agents who are quoted all seem to be saying the same thing. What the author needs is credentials. You have to be published or be famous or be known for something. The publishing houses don't want to spend the money needed to make the author known, so the author has to do it.
Platforms used to be de riguer for non-fiction writers, who pretty much have to be experts in their fields before an agent will consider their manuscript. History professors at name brand universities can scribe texts, or they could push the envelope and write a historical novel, as long as the subject matter falls within their particular specialty.
What if you are not a professor, or a lawyer writing courtroom drama, or a police detective writing a thriller? Well, who are you? Just someone with a flair for writing and enough brains to do the research? Not good enough, unfortunately. Now, if you could count Oprah as a close personal friend, you've got a platform. If you don't know her, or someone with a television show that could feature you, you're up the creek.
Of course, if you are an immigrant from an Arab country, female, and writing about the hard life you led, you've got something that the publisher can market. Just an average American? Not for us, alas, even if the writing is stellar and the novel is entertaining. It's all about marketing these days, according to Larry Kirshbaum of LJK Literary Agency. The author has to have something that can be built on to generate publicity and word of mouth buzz, and if you've nothing but a good book, there's no buzz.
An anonymous publishing executive claims that a really good book can be its own platform, but after reading the article, one has to wonder if he's only thinking wishfully. So put away your manuscript, put pen to paper, and start writing. Short stories, news articles for the local paper, anything that can be submitted to literary journals, and get published.
See? To get your novel published, you have to be published before. Agents can claim all they like that you don't need prior credits, but the publishers are saying something else entirely. It's a business, designed to make money, and the position of published author is not open to just anyone.