Posts Tagged ‘PLATFORM’

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Write Your Book

January 11, 2013

I see a lot of non-fiction book proposals that are based on wishful thinking about whether the project is publishable. If writers asked some basic questions before beginning the process, they would save themselves a lot of time and grief. They would either refine their concept into one that is attractive as a commercial publishing venture, or they would realize that the idea is ill-conceived. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself.

1. How many books am I trying to write? You have no idea how often I speak to prospective authors who can’t decide which of their many fabulous ideas they want to write about. So they try to shoehorn all of them into a single book. I see short descriptions in proposals such as : “This book is a self-help book about curing back pain with elements of a memoir included.” My advice. Save the memoir for the next book. I always sense a problem when the proposal announces that the project “crosses genres.” Yes, there are some cross-genre books, but more often the author is just being lazy and is unwilling to choose what genre she really wants to write in. Publishers say they are looking for “fresh new approaches”, but if the approach is too fresh and too new, if the publisher can’t figure out what the book is about, if the bookseller can’t visualize what section the book will be shelved in, then they’ll just take pass on it. I know. I bought books at Cody’s for 30 years. When I couldn’t figure out where I’d shelve a book, I tended not to order it.

2. Is this a blog, not a book? Is this a long form article, not a book? I get a lot of rejection letters from publishers because of these concerns. A lot of us are blogging and we’d like to take our precious material and put it all together into something that will make us some money. There’s also the added benefit that the hard work has already been done, and it just needs a little slicing and dicing. Publishers don’t want books derived from blogs. Why would readers pay for stuff that is already available for free online? The question about whether the subject works better as a shorter journalistic piece is a little more complicated. But if your manuscript is less than 50,000 words, it probably is too short for a book. With e-books, publishers are exploring new formats and are doing projects with shorter word counts.

3. Who are my readers and what do they care about? A lot of writers don’t ask this question, but it is the single most important question that needs to be addressed in an effective book proposal. In the world of commercial publishing, the reader is sovereign. I once tried to sell a self-help book about how to deal with a variety of office injuries, written by an author with very good bona fides. It got rejected. Editors pointed out that readers who have back pain don’t really care about how to treat repetitive stress syndrome. The reader is selfish and self-absorbed. She wants you to speak to her concerns. That’s why she paid good money to read your book.

4. If there are no other books on this subject, is there possibly a reason for that? Most authors think that a great pitch is: “there are no other books out there like mine.” For publishers, this begs the question of “why aren’t there any?” And the answer for them is usually that there is no audience big enough to justify publishing on this subject. What publishers really want is a book on a subject that has been written about in other very successful books. But you need to prove that you have something special that will make this robust audience spend money to read what you have new to say.

5. How different is my book, really, from all the others on the subject? You need to ask yourself if the things which distinguish your book from all the others really make a difference to the reader. And this is important. You may have come up with an astoundingly original interpretation of Jefferson’s role in the expansion of the young American republic. And it may have led to much bloviation and vitriole amongst the Jefferson scholars at the convention of the American Historical Association. Publishers aren’t so subtle. Their evaluation of the proposal will probably begin and end with: “Sorry. We don’t need another book about Jefferson.” Or maybe something like: “Sorry. Barnes and Noble didn’t order our last book on Jefferson.”

6. Do I have “platform?” We have written at length about platform in this blog, because publishers are obsessed with platform in our media-driven age. In non-fiction genres, platform is very, very important. And publishers’ idea of platform is probably different from yours. I often tell audiences that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser (the latter is vastly preferable). Being a local tv personality with an audience of 500,000 viewers is not impressive platform. It’s “regional” unless your audience is in Manhattan. Then it’s national. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is good platform if your project is about the subject you won the prize for (and if it isn’t regional). A blog with 5000 views a month isn’t platform. A blog with 50,000 views a month also isn’t platform. Get the picture? Celebrities operate by their own rules. Nobel Laureates, presidential candidates, and Lindsey Lohan can write any nonsense they choose.

7. Wouldn’t this book make [a great profile in The New Yorker? ] [a great movie?] [a great subject for Oprah?] The answer is easy. “Maybe, maybe not. It probably won’t happen anyway, so stop dreaming and get realistic.”

How to Write a Great Marketing Plan For Your Book Proposal

December 23, 2012

Most writers are intimidated by book proposals. I can see why. Writers are writers, not salesmen, not marketers, not researchers,  and not necessarily aggressive self-promoters.  But all of these qualities are necessary when you are putting together your proposal.

I don’t think proposals are that hard, that is unless you don’t have a clear idea of what your book is about. And even then, I have found that in the process of writing the proposal, the writer’s ideas become clarified, the structure of the book tightened up, weaknesses become apparent,  and more often than not  the concept of the book gets  strengthened.  Writing the proposal is time well spent. And a good agent will lead you through that process.

Simply put, a book proposal is a business plan. The purpose of the proposal is to describe   your book idea to a publisher and to get them excited about it.  But you also need to be careful not to oversell. Publishers are going to give you a lot of money (well, probably only an insultingly small amount of  money) based on the material in the proposal, and they have a right to know what they are buying.  Trying to dazzle them with hype or baffle them with bullshit  isn’t going to work. We have heard the pitches  a million times about the book being  a shoe-in for Oprah,  being the newest Eat Pray Love, or the next Spielberg blockbuster. Certainly all of those things would be nice, but they usually don’t happen. Trying to oversell the book sends the message that the writer is either  unrealistic or manipulative. These are messages you don’t want to convey in the proposal.

A good proposal anticipates the questions and concerns an editor is going to bring to her reading of your proposal. I did a blog post about this last year called “Think Like an Editor.”  You need to know what those questions are, and your proposal needs to answer them convincingly.

Of course, the $64,000 question is going to be whether your book will make money. And one of the questions you will need to answer is “what will the writer do to help sell the book”.  That question needs to be addressed in the “marketing” section of the book proposal. That’s usually the section that authors have the most difficulty with. So let’s talk about that today.

The marketing sections that come to me in draft proposals usually fall between the Scylla of  being totally lame and the Charybdis of grandiosity. I’ve previously written a blog post called “The Art of the Pitch” where I tried to evaluate pitches that work compared to those that don’t. We have already mentioned above some examples of grandiosity. I will not  allow the word “Oprah”  to be mentioned in a proposal that I am submitting, unless you happen to be sleeping with Oprah’s latest diet guru. At the other end of the scale, I see marketing plans which tell the publisher that the author will have a publication party at her mom’s house and might contact local booksellers to (try to) schedule events. These pitches are totally lame. My favorite pitch was by an author who said  that he would agree to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, time permitting.

Remember that the marketing section is about what you are going to do. You don’t have to advise  the publisher  about what they already know. You don’t have to make a list of  major national periodicals to send review copies to. But if you are aware of niches that the publisher might not know about, you should bring that up.

And you should be quite emphatic about what you will do. And that means don’t fill up the proposal with  errant speculation and wishful thinking. I generally tell my clients not to use the word “might” in their marketing section. It’s weak and sends the message that you also “might not” do what you are proposing and probably won’t. And while you are at it, don’t use the word “try” either (as in “I will try to get Cameron Diaz to give me a blurb.)

A good marketing plan needs to be robust, but it also needs to be convincing.   You have to speak with authority. That means that you need to have a realistic and professional tone. And you also have to be honest. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

Here are some  points you should be thinking about when writing   your plan.

  • Websites. Publishers expect you to have a website for your book. So you should mention that you intend to do it. Now if you already have a website with lots of fans and lots of unique views, then you have a compelling pitch and you should make it.
  • Blogs and social media. Publishers like authors to blog. If you have one, that’s great. And if you have impressive numbers of followers and viewers, let the publisher know.  But a lot of writers aren’t going to do blogs. Maybe you don’t have that kind of time. So don’t promise one unless you are committed to it.  Publishers also expect you to engage in social media like Facebook and maybe Twitter, so you should address that. And if you have an impressive  amount of friends and followers in social media, then let the publisher know.
  • Media appearances. If you have strong connections with media and have a realistic chance of getting bookings, then mention that in the proposal. It helps if you have had previous appearances in those venues or if you have a close relationships with people who can help you line them up. But again, don’t engage in wishful thinking.
  • Blurbs are good, but make sure that you either already have the blurbs or have firm commitments. It’s ok to say that Cameron Diaz will blurb your book if she has agreed to do it. Don’t make a list of celebrities that you will “approach” for blurbs, although by all means, start thinking about who to approach for blurbs after you get a book contract.
  • Speaking engagements. If you  do public speaking as part of your job or your platform, then talk about the major venues where you will be speaking at the time of publication. You should probably limit this to major venues with significant audiences.
  • Book signings. It’s ok to say that you will aggressively seek out book signings. Remember that publishers usually make the initial contact with the bookstores.
  • Book tours. Publishers won’t send you on a book tour unless you are a huge author. Some authors will go on a tour at their own expense. If you intend to do this, mention it in the proposal. Give the publisher a list of cities and tell them you will work with the publisher to line up signings and media appearances in those cities.
  • Book groups. Offer to meet with book groups reading your book or to do Skype appearances. It’s always a little tricky trying to ferret out these groups. If you have ways of doing it, let the publisher know.
  • Press kits. It’s always nice to put this in the marketing plan, because it shows that you are savvy at promotion. Describe the press kit a little. And if you have creative ways to disseminate it,  let the publisher know. Again remember not to tell the publisher how to do their job.
  • Other  stuff. You should try to think of other creative ways to promote the book that won’t be done by the publisher. Do blog tours, giveaways, op-ed pieces. Hire your own publicist, but let the publisher know and make sure that you will be working closely with the publisher on promotion
  • Platform. Platform is a subject unto itself. I have another blog post called “Platform is More than Just a Website and a Blog”. If you have a platform, make sure that you leverage it for marketing the book and explain in detail how you plan to do that.

These are just a few ideas. You need to think long and hard about this. Remember whatever you say in this section, the most important thing is to be realistic and convincing. And that means –in this and in all things–be honest.

Platform is More Than Just a Website and a Blog

July 29, 2011

Now That's Platform!

There is a lot of nonsense about “platform” floating around. You hear about it from  motivational speakers at writers conferences, and you read about it in “tip” pieces in magazines and blogs  directed at  writers. A lot of people charge hefty consulting fees to tell you how to “create your own platform”.

 There is really nothing wrong with this advice. Most of these tips are true and useful. Yes. You might find it helpful to set up a blog and, if you have a book published, you will need to have a website. You should  mine the social media. Facebook is de rigeur. Some people swear by Twitter; although when I set up my Twitter account, I only seemed to get invitations from prostitutes.

 The problem is that most of this advice is motivational, inspired by the gospel of “positive thinking”, and, not to make too fine a point, deceptive. The subtext of a lot of this  is that if you follow a few simple  tips, you can develop a platform that will be the key to getting your book published. This is not true. Book publishers have set a very high bar for platform.  A robust platform is not just a blog, a website, and a  twitter account, even if your  friends and followers  are legion.

    A syndicated New York Times columnist has an impressive platform. A holder of a chaired professorship at Harvard has an impressive platform, but only if she is writing in her specialized field and only if the subject is going to interest a wide non-academic audience. Unlike the Harvard professor, a Nobel laureate has an impressive platform and can pretty much pontificate about any old nonsense that suits his fancy. A Pulitzer Prize winner   has an impressive platform, but he also needs a book idea that a publisher thinks will make money. I’ve gotten rejections from publishers  for books by  Pulitzer Prize winners.

 A popular blog or website with a lot of hits  may or may not be an impressive platform. I had a client whose website got 75,000 views per day. But I couldn’t get a book contract for him. And no matter how popular your blog is, book publishers do not want to recycle your blog posts. How can they justify charging money for material that is being given away for free?

 A television or media personality has an impressive platform. But if the personality is regional, that reduces the value of their platform. Publishers are wary of regional titles.  However national media celebrities, especially those with a certain kind of reputation, especially those whose tawdry personal lives you read about while checking out your groceries, especially those who have no reason for being famous other than the fact  that they are famous — now that is the platinum standard for platform. If I were the agent for the Sisters Kardashian, I’d be on easy street. I could afford a Rolex watch. I might even be able to buy a diamond pinky ring.

 As readers of this blog know, I do not believe in the power of positive thinking. I believe in the power of realism and transparency. And in that spirit, I want to say that positive thinking  and bullet points in Writers Digest are not going to help you build a platform by itself. Real platform arises from your work in the real world. And if that work is likely to be of interest to a wide audience, then it will also be of interest to a book publisher or literary agent.

 Now before you decide to give up writing  and direct your  future toward sacking groceries at Safeway, you need to know that a weak platform is not an absolute impediment to getting your book published. But not having one is a significant hurdle that must be overcome.

 Platform is not especially important if you are writing debut literary fiction. Most agents will make the decision to represent you based on the quaint notion that your book is great writing.  Still, platform plays a part. As an agent, when I’m going through the queries for fiction manuscripts,  I will pay more attention to authors who have previously been published in prestigious literary magazines or have won literary awards. Being a Stegner fellow doesn’t hurt either. Having an agent is a kind of platform. At least the literary editor will consider your manuscript. Maybe read the first 5 or 10 pages.  But  truthfully most agented manuscripts for debut novels never get a book contract.  

  Having a previously published novel is a great platform, but only if that novel sold well. If your last novel bombed, it is worse than  having no  track record at all. I have heard that some agents have submitted second novels under a nom de plume in order to overcome this challenge.

 I speak to a lot of writers who are composing memoirs, often about overcoming a personal or family crisis. These stories are inherently dramatic but hard to get published. You do see memoirs by unknown writers occasionally showing up in a publisher’s catalogue.  Usually the memoir is tied to a big news story. A memoir by one of the Chilean miners, for instance. Otherwise the memoir is going to have to be a literary tour de force. I mean the caliber of J. D. Salinger or Joan Didion.  The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells comes to mind. Then, of course, there is Eat, Pray, Love. It is neither a celebrity book, a news story, nor is it a literary masterpiece. Oh well. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

 All this being said, I want to tell you that I have gotten book contracts by authors without platform. Yes. Memoirs even.   Todd Farley, the author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry published by Berrett-Kohler, had no platform. I pulled his query out of the slush pile. He had written the book while living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine.  He told an amazing story with sidesplitting humor about his hapless career grading standardized tests. The week of publication, Todd wrote the guest op-ed piece for The New York Times, a spot usually reserved for people with platform.

 I agented Peter Rudiak-Gould’s memoir, Surviving Paradise: One Year in a Disappearing Island published by Union Square Press. It was another unsolicited query. Peter was a 24 year old graduate student at Oxford. His book tells the story of the year he spent teaching on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands. His writing, his style was stunning. The book was acquired simply because of its inherent quality.  Certainly not because of his platform.

 I participate in a lot of agent panels. Aspiring authors usually ask us what are our tips for effective pitches or query letters. I usually say that the best way to develop a pitch is to have a good project to pitch.  Similarly, and not to be too Zen about this, the best way to develop a platform is to have a good platform to develop.

Leah Komaiko on Creating a “Platform”

October 12, 2009

Leah Komaiko is a marketing consultant who specializes in building platform. Her client list includes huge iconic corporations like Disney, Dreamworks, and Saks Fifth Avenue. But she also works with writers who need to develop a platform in these times when platform is usually what is needed to get books published. Check out her website at: http://www.leahkomaiko.com/index.html.

Leah knows about issues associated with writers. She was the author of 20 children’s books by major major publishers. Several were bought by Hollywood. I suspect that she still harbors a soft spot in her heart of writers and for books.

Andy: Leah, we hear a lot about platform in the publishing business. As in: ‘This is a brilliant book, a groundbreaking concept likely to change the world. It creates a genuine paradigm shift in consciousness. That said, we feel that the author’s platform is weak and not likely to reach a large enough audience. Good luck somewhere else.” Why can’t publishers just make decisions on the merits of the book?

Leah: Good question, Andy.  I think it’s because it seems the good old days of publishing, like the good old days of so many things, are behind us.  The editor who discovers great material for a book no longer has the biggest decision-making voice at a publishing house.  Most often it’s the marketing team.  First you need the good material. Then if there’s no market, the marketing department sees no merit regardless of the material because they’re afraid they won’t make any money.  Most publishers are struggling to stay afloat.  It used to be a business that prided itself on taking big chances.    Now they’re trying and needing to change their ways.  And they’re not doing it flawlessly. 

Andy: When writers ask me to define platform, I generally say: “it means that publishers are too stupid, lazy and cheap to promote  your book. So you will have to do it yourself.”  Ok. That is pretty glib. You tell us exactly what they mean by platform.

Leah: Glib, yet eloquently put!  And I’d add to that that publishers up until a decade or so ago were not focused on being marketers.  They knew how to publish a book but not how to sell them.  The outlets for selling were easier – the venues for getting material, entertainment, information, were not like they are today. Between blogs, social networks, self publishing, all the webcasts, podcasts, information and entertainment you can get on your cell phone, hundreds of cable TV stations, books on tape, books published on demand, e-books, on-line publishers who sell only into corporations and make millions doing it, magazines (although they’re crumbling), newspapers (although they are dying), and so much more,  book  have a lot more competition for buying dollars and they’re counting on you to help them catch up and get them into the marketing business before it is too late.  What’s a platform?  As I see it, an existing audience.   Whether that’s on TV, radio, you have a heavily visited blog (I’ve heard now publishers will be interested if you have 3,000 regular visitors at your site..), a police record, etc.   You are known to people who’d be interested in reading your book.  That is, in addition to your family.

Andy: Hmm. I’m  starting to get close to 3000 hits on this blog. And I used to steal hubcaps for my police record. Maybe there is big money for me. But lets keep on subject. I believe that publishers are anxious to look at worthy books where authors have a weak platform. But getting them a contract is an unbelievably difficult challenge. What exactly can a writer do to build a platform. Drug-addled Hollywood starlets with a cellulite problem  don’t need to work on platform. Scholars with endowed chairs at Harvard already have platform. But the rest of us are platform challenged. What can we do?

 Leah: Oh yeah, and you would know better than anyone.  Editors have got to be frustrated as hell because they crave worthy books and they need a platform to sell them.  Not everybody is a starlet but plenty of them don’t have platforms that can sell a book.  Remember Vanna White?  What did she get for an advance for her memoir – I think it was $3 million plus somebody’s head after it was chopped off and they lost their job..  I think to build a platform we can start by looking and seeing what we already have.  I have worked with people who had an audience that they didn’t even know they hadTheir audience looked too small for it to make a difference to them, but small can build to big pretty quickly.  I start with authors suggesting they think of themselves as a marketer.  Most authors think of themselves as writers, not as marketers. But I try to get authors to ask a basic question, a question that needs to be answered compellingly in any book proposal “Why am I the person to Write this Book?”  And the next question which is just as important:”What’s the story of my book.”  I mean that differently than what actually happens in it – I mean what does it offer to people?  Who do you want it to be offered to?  Why did you put your heart and soul and time and hopes into doing this?  Why should a reader be emotionally, intellectually or psychically connected to you?   Looking at those questions, for starts, can lead us to who and how to reach people that can be our audience. 

Andy: Leah, you are a consultant. You work with some of the biggest names in American business: Disney, Dreamworks, Mattel. It seems to me that these companies have platform up the wazoo. Why do they hire you?

Leah: They hire me to help them figure out the story of their brand.  I believe they hire me because I understand  that the “voice” of writing and the voice of a business idea to be the same.  I have seen over and over the best, most successful brands are based on someone’s simple story/vision/reason for being and ability to connect with an audience unseen.  As writers, we have the leg up here.  This is what we do naturally.  This is why I love to work with authors. 

Andy:  And what can you do for my clients, brilliant writers who have made a difference in the world, but don’t have the big platforms that will get them a book contract?

 Leah: If your clients have great books, which I know they do in order to be your clients, I can help them shift into a marketing frame of mind and still be authors.  I can help them discover the story of their brand and build their book as a brand just like a company.  (without all the expenses and employees).  I help them pull from their material chapters, aspects, ideas that could resonate with audiences they may not have thought of.  This starts to build their platform.  I  help them design worthwhile strategies from Facebook to corporate partnerships and sponsorships to public relations  strategies to leading them to excellent on-camera coaches who can help them with media appearances,  to non-profit affiliations, journalists  and more.  You have to be willing to see your book as a small business.   That is the way too that many of the most successful authors have made real money and ancillary product from their books for years.  Knowing your audience and keeping it relevant is far more important than having a zillion “tweets”.   When you know your story, I truly believe your message is unique.  And who doesn’t want to say they know someone unique – who is not uniquely a criminal?  And even then… fast way to build a platform.  But I think you can’t earn money in prison. 

Andy: Ok, Leah, I’m off to prison. And here is the $64,000 question? What are you reading right now? Do you have anything good to recommend to readers?

Leah: Right now I’m reading Julia Child’s My Life in France. I can’t cook but I can read and it’s inspired.  I’m also reading In Search of  the Common Good, by Paul Newman about building his business (I like business books) from a sane and humane “platform”.  Also on my table is Two Lives a memoir by Vikram Seth, and a wonderful new middle grade reader book called Matisse on the Loose by Georgia Bragg.  For writers I think Paul Newman’s book about how he marketed his business is encouraging because he shows that even though he was selling salad dressing he was first and foremost selling a vision “flying by the seat of his pants” which in truth, most publishers and businesses seem to be. Nobody knows ultimately what will sell or not.  So we can have some fun with the mystery of it all.


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