No, this post is not about fishing (though I have been fishing in my youth; my father taught me to bait a hook and we fished for sunfish and catfish in the shade of some trees along a still river in Georgia during the summers sometimes. I also went fishing for bluegills with a friend in high school once.) but is instead about the terms "hook" and "platform" as used primarily by agents. I'm not an agent, nor do I play one on TV, but I have an agent and I can at least pass on what he's told me about hooks and platforms.
There are two different ways this term is used. In queries, the hook is the part of your pitch that catches the agent's attention, that makes him sit up and say, "Oh, that's supercool!" It is the premise, the idea in your story that makes someone want to read it. "Zombie president" is a hook. "Father and son fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world" is a hook, if you like that sort of thing. "Innocents venture into hell to save the world" is a hook. "Sleuthing monk tries to solve a series of murders in a monastery" is a hook. Whether or not something is a hook depends a great deal on the agent's taste.
To sum up: a hook in a query is the idea/premise/sentence that grabs the agent's attention. The hook in my own query was "A sideways retelling of 'Hamlet' as told by Hamlet's best friend, Horatio." There was more to it, but essentially that's my premise and my hook. You're either intrigued or you're not. There are no universal hooks.
Hooks in queries are important because they say what's cool and different about your book. They should spark interest and excitement, because you want an agent who is interested and excited about your book. Agents will take their interest and excitement to publishers and hopefully pass along that interest and excitement, resulting in a book deal for you. Which means that you should be interested and excited in your book when you write your query. If your hook doesn't hook you, it won't hook anyone else.
In the book itself, a hook is something in the writing that gets you to keep reading past the first page. This is a very vague area, because there are no universal hooks here, either. Genre, style, reader's taste and more all figure into this. Essentially, though, the hook on the first page of the book is something that gets the reader to follow the writer into the story. It doesn't have to be an event; it could simply be the way the story is told. Though most commonly, and in the broadest sense, the author gets the reader to ask questions about the story, and to demand the answers to those questions. "This is interesting," the reader says. "I have to see what happens next!" Sometimes beautiful, confident prose is enough to hook the reader. Sometimes it takes sparkly vampires. As I say, there are no universal hooks.
Think of platform in its literal sense: something to stand on that raises you above the crowd and draws attention to you. If you are an expert in a field and write a non-fiction book about your area of expertise, you have name recognition and the authority to write on that subject. Your expertise, your credentials, are your platform.
Are you a celebrity? Your celebrity is your platform and you can get $3.5 million like Tina Fey for your memoir.
If you are a fiction writer, though, platform is a bit more amorphous and hard to come by. Mostly, it still means name recognition. Has anyone heard of you? If they have, that's your platform.
People ask a lot these days if a website or blog is a good way to establish a platform, as it's certainly an easy enough way to thrust yourself into the public eye. The only thing is, everyone else out there has a website and/or a blog, so you've got to have a lot of traffic to have your site/blog considered a real platform. How much is a lot of traffic? Try a minimum of 25,000 regular visitors/followers/readers. Why so many? Because most of your blog readers won't buy your book. Maybe 1 in 10 will if you're lucky, so if you have 4,000 followers, that translates into maybe 400 book sales, which is not an impressive number.
Platform is also recognized authority as a writer, which is a fancy way of saying publishing credits. Have you been published anywhere that has a wide readership? And by "wide readership," we're talking numbers in the range of thousands rather than hundreds. Firebox 5000 or Granta or GlimmerTrain or Paris Review or Asimov's Science Fiction and Fantasy sorts of numbers. However, it's always a good idea in a query to list any pub credits you have, especially if you were paid for it. The fact that someone paid money to print your work is significant, which is also why print media have more weight than web-only publications. No matter what the media, you should try to get something published, as often as you can.
"You're a good writer," my agent told me. "I can't believe you haven't been more widely published."
"Thanks," I said, smug as can be.
"That's not a compliment," he said. "You've been lazy."
I realize that what I've said about platform seems disheartening, but remember what every agent says, and I know it to be true: platform is nowhere as important as simply writing a good book. You should build your platform as you can, but you should focus most of your energies on writing the best book you can.