Archive for July, 2011

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.


Man Booker Prize Long List Announced

July 27, 2011

The Man Booker prize is the most prestigious literary award for fiction for books published in (what is still quaintly referred to as) The British Commonwealth plus Ireland. It is the equivalent of the National Book Award in the United States. From this list of 13 titles, 6 will be selected for the short list and the prize awarded. The award will be announced on October 18. Congratulations to these fine authors.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape – Random House)
Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side (Faber)
Carol Birch,  Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate)
Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail – Profile)
Yvvette Edwards, A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Picador – Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller, Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick, Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor, Derby Day (Chatto & Windus – Random House)

Think Like an Editor – Nine Tips on Writing Book Proposals

July 12, 2011

 Book publishing is run like real business now. The six largest publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. The corporate bosses have very high expectations for return on investment, far higher than in the old days when book publishing was a cottage industry. Accordingly editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will make money, a lot of money. In those old days, deals were made informally over the famous three martini lunch. Personal relationships were key to getting a book published. At least that’s the conventional wisdom on the way things were back then. I’m not sure if it was ever true. Now the acquisition decision is primarily based on the material contained in the book proposal. A bad book proposal can kill a good book idea. Well, maybe if you are Kim Kardashian, you can get away with a lousy proposal or none at all. But gentle reader, don’t fool yourself. You are not Kim Kardashian. A good book proposal is an honest book proposal and one that will address the concerns of the editor and give her confidence that the book will meet her expectations and requirements. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and it will help you write a better proposal.

 1. A book proposal is a business plan. You have probably heard the old saying that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. At the moment the relationship is sort of S/M with commerce holding the whip. Never forget that an editor’s acquisition is a business decision and your proposal must convince the editor that your book is not just great writing. It is good business as well.

 2. Get the editor hooked right out of the gate. An editor’s life isn’t all that glamorous. She works in a 10′ x 10′ office all day, every day. She has to attend boring acquisition meetings with a bunch of other fatuous editors who are pitching their pet projects for the same slot as hers. The publisher, the sales director, and the marketing manager are all there too. Maybe they have read your proposal. Maybe they have only read the first page. Maybe just your agent’s pitch letter. Everyone in the room including your acquisition editor has a busy life leading to attention deficit disorder. If you can’t get them excited in the first two paragraphs, I’m sorry, but you are probably sunk. Make sure your writing in the first paragraph is sparkling. Make sure you can say what the book is about in one or two sentences. If you can’t, you probably haven’t figured that out yourself. And remember, you have a lot of competition. Every acquisition editor gets 20 proposals a week. Every one of those proposals has been heavily vetted by agents. Every one of them will have a very compelling reason to get published. What will make yours pop out?

 3. Don’t play the editor for a fool. Editors have seen every kind of hype that you can think of many times over. Just remember this. Don’t mention Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t mention Oprah and while you are at it, don’t mention Terry Gross. Don’t mention The New Yorker. Don’t mention Spielberg either. When you talk about your promotion opportunities, don’t use the word “might” ( as in “I might get on Oprah.”) Editors will read this as “might not” or more likely “doesn’t have a chance in hell.” This kind of hype sends a message that you are either dishonest or deluded. Neither of these are good messages to send.

 4. Focus on your competitive analysis. A lot of writers gloss over the competitive analysis and treat it as if it were an unpleasant exercise that one must get through in order to please her agent. Don’t fool yourself. Editors look very carefully at this, because it gives them important information about the potential audience for the book. The editor is looking to see if there are other books on the subject that have had impressive sales. But they also want to know that you have something new and important to say on the subject. Make sure you use comp titles that will be useful to the editor in evaluating whether there is an audience. Use books from major publishers that were successful. Don’t use books that flopped. Don’t use books that are so old that they are irrelevant to the editor’s analysis. Don’t use books that aren’t truly comparable. And, for God’s sake, don’t use self-published books. And, one last thing, remember: never say that your book is totally unique and the only book on the subject. That means to the editor that there’s probably no audience for it.

 5. Make sure your audience analysis is realistic and robust. The audience analysis section of the proposal is also an area that authors give short shrift to. When an editor looks at a proposal, the first question she will ask herself is, “Is there an audience for this book?” In the audience analysis section, you need to answer this in a compelling manner that shows you mean business and are not acting under your own illusions or just blowing smoke. I get a lot of proposals about health related topics. Frequently the author will define the audience as “everyone between 20 and 70 years old interested in health.” This is not an audience. This is a demographic. The editor doesn’t want to know how many billions of people in the world might think about your subject area from time to time. She wants to know what specific and discrete groups of people will be motivated to pay $25 to buy your book. The editor wants you to get real or get lost.

 6. When writing your bio, think like an editor. The editor will read your bio and be looking for these things. 1) Does the author have the authority to be writing about this subject? and 2)What kind of platform does the author have that will allow her to drive sales? This should not be a curriculum vitae (although if you have one, you may include it in an appendix). You will have to describe the work that you do in the real world. You will have to include a modest list of important books and articles –if such a list exists — that you have written and published. You should include media connections past and present. You must mention major venues where you have spoken and will be speaking, and any significant awards you have received. Don’t put in filler material that will not impress anyone. Don’t say that you will teach a class on the subject at your local junior college. Don’t say you came in 3rd in an unknown literary award. Don’t pretend you have a platform when you don’t. [See #3 above]

7. Impress the editor with a solid, realistic, effective and honest marketing and promotion plan. The marketing and promotion section of the proposal is another area where authors have difficulty and sometimes try to wing it. Don’t. Editors will be able to see whether you have a sophisticated understanding of marketing and promotion, whether you will do an effective job flogging your product, or whether you are callow and naïve. Show the editor that you have a good plan. Go into some detail. Don’t say “I will do Internet marketing.” Say exactly what you will do. Don’t say, “I will try to get interviews on my local radio station.” Tell them exactly what media events you will realistically be able to line up – and don’t lie about it. Don’t mention that you will have book signings at local bookstores. They know that already. Don’t say your mom will host a publication party.

8. Don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. This is primarily for those of you out there who are writing memoirs, but it applies to everyone. Don’t get me wrong. Memoirs are a very popular genre but they are hard to get published. I usually advise memoirists that it is best to look outside themselves. I have no doubt that your life has been dramatic, even the stuff of legend. Everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. But this doesn’t mean that there is an audience who will want to read about it or a publisher who will see it as a marketable commodity. By all means, write your memoir. It will give you a deeper understanding of your life and your place in the world. But try to be realistic about the chances of getting published. Again, think like an editor.

 9. I want to say one word to you, just one word: “transparency”. This is my golden rule of proposal writing. The editor must know when he has finished the proposal that everything in it is true and deliverable before and after publication and that the author is who he says he is and has the authority, connections, and savvy to make this book sell. I need to trust my author just as she needs to trust me. And the editor needs to trust both of us. There is probably an agent out there who will be able to get you a contract based on some fancy footwork. But that isn’t the way I do business, and it isn’t the way the agents I respect do business either.