Posts Tagged ‘authors guild’

Amazon’s Latest Indignity: Free Lending

November 14, 2011

Last week I was in New York City for 3 days conferring with editors. 25 of them to be exact. I’m exhausted. I’ll write about this more in  the next few days.

I frequently talk about how difficult it is to gauge editors’ reactions to submissions. It is all very subjective and editors have a pretty broad diversity of sensibilities. But there appears to be one subject that elicits strong feelings across the spectrum. That is a loathing for This is a little puzzling since Amazon has surpassed Barnes and Noble as the largest purveyor of books in America. Usually publishers, who are no different from any other business, are pretty circumspect about criticizing their largest account. Not so with

The newest Amazon indignity that is causing a huge uproar with authors, agents, and publishers is the  free book lending policy that is offered as part of Amazon’s new “Prime” program. The  cost of joining Amazon Prime is $79.95 per year. It’s  a pretty good deal.  You can get free shipping from Amazon on all orders and receive thousands of streaming videos at no extra cost. But the  part of the package that is upsetting authors is the lending program that allows Prime members to borrow a book for free once a month.

There seems to be some question as to whether  publishers can and will  license their books to be read for free by Amazon,  and authors are incensed that they have  not, possibly will not be consulted in the event that the program takes off . First of all, the good news is that there are only 5000 books being offered and a lot of them will be of no interest to most readers. Amazon approached the 6 largest publishers: Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster. All of them turned Amazon down. The next tier of mid-size publishers: Norton, Houghton Mifflin, and Bloomsbury apparently refused as well. But Amazon went ahead without their permission  putting some few  of  their books on the list. Amazon claims that if they pay the publisher the cost of an e-book every time one is checked out (thus treating it like a sale), the publisher has no say in the matter. Publishers argue that they never intended that their books be used in this manner, essentially as premiums to induce customers to buy hardware or services.

Probably the heart of the problem is concern by authors and publishers that the new culture of “free” or, at any rate, “almost free” will further degrade the public’s sense of the inherent value of books and writing. Amazon has been cultivating this sensibility for a long time. The most extreme examples are the used books that are being offered for 1 cent all over the Amazon site. But Amazon has been attempting in other ways to dictate what the inherent value of e-books should be. They have been willing to sell e-books below cost. That is no problem for Amazon. Once  customers gets on the site, they are more likely to buy other merchandise. For instance: cameras, computers, or condoms.

The Authors Guild,  which is the largest organization representing authors, is practically apoplectic over this. They are particularly concerned that authors have no say in this matter, that there is no equitable formula for compensating authors if a publisher sells a license to Amazon for this use,  and that the existing book contracts could only permit this use under a tortured interpretation.

I’m sure we will be hearing more about this soon. So stay tuned.

How E-book Royalties are Cheating Authors

February 3, 2011

Yesterday The Authors Guild posted a very interesting analyis about the dynamics of competition between Apple, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble as they jockey for the e-book market. The analysis came down very hard on Amazon.

Today The Authors Guild has published an equally fascinating analysis of how  the prevailing formula for author royalties on e-books  unfairly diminishes authors’ income even as publishers earn more for each e-book sold.  Below is the  text of this analysis.

E-Book Royalty Math: The Big Tilt

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Great Blackout, Amazon’s weeklong shut down of e-commerce for nearly all of Macmillan’s titles, we’re sending out a series of alerts this week and next on the state of e-books, authorship, and publishing. The first installment (How Apple Saved Barnes & Noble. Probably.) discussed the outcome, one year later, of that battle. Today, we look at the e-royalty debate, which has been simmering for a while, but is likely to soon heat up as the e-book market grows. 
E-book royalty rates for major trade publishers have coalesced, for the moment, at 25% of the publisher’s receipts. As we’ve pointed out previously, this is contrary to longstanding tradition in trade book publishing, in which authors and publishers effectively split the net proceeds of book sales (that’s how the industry arrived at the standard hardcover royalty rate of 15% of  list price). Among the ills of this radical pay cut is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.
How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of author’s royalties compared to publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:  
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett  
Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book. Author’s E-Loss = -39% 
Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book. Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%
“Hell’s Corner,” by David Baldacci 
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book. Author’s E-Loss = -37% 
Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book. Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%
“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand 
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book. Author’s E-Loss = -17% 
Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book. Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%
So, everything else being equal, publishers will naturally have a strong bias toward e-book sales. It certainly does wonders for cash flow: not only does the publisher net more, but the reduced royalty means that every time an e-book purchase displaces a hardcover purchase, the odds that the author’s advance will earn out — and the publisher will have to cut a check for royalties — diminishes. In more ways than one, the author’s e-loss is the publisher’s e-gain.
Inertia, unfortunately, is embedded in the contractual landscape. If the publisher were to offer more equitable e-royalties in new contracts, it would ripple through much of the publisher’s catalog: most major trade publishers have thousands of contracts that require an automatic adjustment or renegotiation of e-book royalties if the publisher starts offering better terms. (Some publishers finesse this issue when they amend older contracts, many of which allow e-royalty rates to quickly escalate to 40% of the publisher’s receipts. Amending old contracts to grant the publisher digital rights doesn’t trigger the automatic adjustment, in the publisher’s view.) Given these substantial collateral costs, publishers will continue to strongly resist changes to their e-book royalties for new books.
Resistance, in the long run, will be futile. As the e-book market continues to grow, competitive pressures will almost certainly force publishers to share e-book proceeds fairly. Authors with clout simply won’t put up with junior partner status in an increasingly important market. New publishers are already willing to share fairly. Once one of those publishers has the capital to pay even a handful of authors meaningful advances, or a major trade publisher decides to take the plunge, the tipping point will likely be at hand.
In the meantime, what’s to be done? We’ll address that in our next installment in this series, on Monday.
Our assumptions and calculations for the figures above follow.
Doing the Numbers: Hardcover
To keep things as simple as possible, we assumed that for hardcovers: (1) the publisher sells at an average 50% discount to the wholesaler or retailer (2) the royalty rate is 15% of list price (as it is for most hardcover books, after 10,000 units are sold), (3) the average marginal cost to manufacture the book and get it to the store is $3, and (4) the return rate is 25% (a handy number — if one of four books produced is returned, then the $3 marginal cost of producing the book is spread over three other books, giving us a return cost of $1 per book). We also rounded up retail list price a few pennies to give us easy figures to work with.
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett has a hardcover retail list price of $25. The standard royalty (15% of list) would be $3.75. The publisher grosses $12.50 per book at a 50% discount. Subtract from that the author’s royalty ($3.75), cost of production ($3), and cost of returns ($1), and the publisher nets $4.75 on the sale of a hardcover book.
“Hell’s Corner” by David Baldacci, has a retail list price is $28. The standard royalty is $4.20; the publisher’s gross is $14. Subtract royalties ($4.20), production and return costs ($4), and the publisher nets $5.80.
“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand has a hardcover list price of $27. Standard royalties are $4.05. The publisher’s gross is $13.50. Subtract royalties of $4.05 and production and return costs of $4, and the publisher nets $5.45.
Doing the Numbers: E-Book
E-book royalty rates are uniform among the major trade publishers, but pricing and discounting formulas fall into two camps: the reseller model favored by Amazon (Random House is the only large trade publisher using this model) and the agency model introduced by Apple a year ago. (See yesterday’s alert for more information on these models.)
Under the reseller model, the online bookseller pays 50% of the retail list price of the book to the publisher and sells the book at whatever price the bookseller chooses (for bestsellers, Amazon typically sells Random House e-books at a significant loss). Random House frequently prices the e-book at the same price as the hardcover until a paperback edition is available.
Under the agency model, the online bookseller pays 70% of the retail list price of the e-book to the publisher. The bookseller, acting as the publisher’s agent, sells the e-book at the price established by the publisher, but the publisher is constrained by agreement with Apple and others to set a price significantly below that for the hardcover version.
The unit costs to the publisher, under either model, are simply the author’s royalty and the encryption fee, for which we’ll use a generous 50 cents per unit.
Here’s the math:
“The Help” has an e-book list price of $13 and is sold under the agency model. Publisher grosses 70% of retail price, or $9.10. Author’s royalty is 25% of publisher receipts, or $2.28. Publisher nets $6.32. ($9.10 minus $2.28 royalties and $0.50 encryption fee.)
“Hell’s Corner” is also sold under the agency model at a retail list price of $15 list price. Publisher grosses 70% of retail price, $10.50. Author’s royalty is 25% of publisher receipts, or $2.63. Publisher nets $7.37. ($10.50 minus $2.63 royalties and $0.50 encryption fee.) 
“Unbroken” is sold by Random House under the reseller model at a retail list price of $27. Publisher grosses $13.50 on the sale. Author’s royalty, at 25%, is $3.38. Random House nets $9.62. ($13.50 minus $3.38 royalties and $0.50 encryption fee.)

Authors Guild Analysis of Amazon’s Failed Attempt to Control the E-book Market

February 2, 2011

There is a great statement from the Authors Guild that analyzes the failed efforts by to create a monopoly on the sale of e-books. Last year, when Amazon had about 90% of the market share of e-books, they were routinely selling them below cost for $9.99. Five of the six largest publishers (Random House is still holding out) made deals with Apple to adopt a new “agency” model whereby the publisher would set the price on the e-book and offer each retailer a 30% commission on sales.  This restricted Amazon from engaging in ruinous price competition in order to drive competition out of the e-book business. Today Barnes and Noble, Google, Apple, and independent stores are gaining market share. The strangle hold of Amazon is being attenuated.  Check out this analysis by the Authors Guild. It is the best statement I have seen explaining the history and the impact of these important developments.

Interview with Andy Ross

December 22, 2010

A few weeks ago John Marlow, who is an editor and script writer in Los Angeles, contacted me and wanted to do an interview on his Self Edit blog. It is a fantastic blog for writers who are interested in writing for movies or getting movie deals. I liked the interview so much that I’m posting it here. We will do it in 2 parts.

JRM: Why did you become—and why do you remain—an agent? What got you started, and what keeps you going?

Andy Ross: Most agents come out of publishing. Usually editorial. This makes a lot of sense. They have experience in the decision to acquire books for publishers. They know the calculations that go into making the decision, and they usually know what general sorts of books publishers are looking for.

I came into this job from an entirely different background. I was a retailer for 35 years. For 30 years I owned and managed Cody’s Books in Berkeley. It was an extremely well known and highly regarded store that had a reputation for its unusual selection of titles and its commitment to books of literary and intellectual value.

This gave me an unusual perspective. I like to say that, as buyer for the store for so many years, I have been pitched over 50,000 titles. It was invaluable experience for understanding the tastes of a very wide range of publishers.

It is pretty easy to make a submission list of the imprints from the 6 major publishers in New York (Macmillan, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, Hachette Book Group). But in the tough world of publishing, realistically it is going to be necessary to go down the list to smaller houses. As a retailer, I am more familiar with a wide range of imprints than many other agents.

When I left Cody’s in 2007, I wasn’t sure what skills I could bring to any new job. I had a sense that my future lay in…maybe…sacking groceries at Safeway. But I had a kind of epiphany that I would be a pretty good agent. I think I am. I’ve sold 21 books [link]  in my two and a half years at this job. Many are lead titles.

I love working at this other end of the book food chain. And getting an offer on a book is a really emotional experience. Getting rejections is also an emotional experience, but that is another story. Honestly, I love this work. I wish I had started years ago. It’s like Christmas every day.

JRM: Given your seen-it-all perspective, what still gets your attention and makes a query
stand out from the crowd?

Andy Ross: I see a lot of articles and presentations for writers about how to structure a query letter. Some of them even profess to offer a kind of kabalistic secret technique that will assure the writer of finding an agent and a publisher. I don’t buy that. The best kind of query letter is one that pitches a good idea for a book from a person who has the authority to write it and the platform to get attention for it

You should always look on an agent’s website for submission guidelines. Speaking only for myself, I like a short query (half page or less) sent by email with the text embedded in the email that tells me the genre of the book, succinctly what the book is about, the audience it is trying to reach and why the author has the authority to be writing about this subject.

You have no idea how often I get queries that begin with a kind of breathless narrative. Two long paragraphs later, it is still unclear whether the book is a novel, a memoir, or something else. I don’t like that.

But, notwithstanding, if I get a query with a project that excites me, it doesn’t really matter if the format is different. I just did an entry on my blog called 9 Tips for Effective Query Letters, which conveys a better idea of what I’m looking for when I read query letters.

JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see new writers make in their approach to people or the industry?

Andy Ross: There is an old cliché that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. In these hard times it is a kind of S&M marriage with commerce being a rather harsh dominatrix. Publishers are under huge pressure to make money. I suppose they have always been. And their first concern is how to find an audience large enough to make publication a viable commercial venture.

This is only to say that the decision to publish a book is quite different than a judgment about whether a book is high art or intellectually worthy. And writers need to have no illusions about that.

JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know—in general, and when approaching an agent?

Andy Ross: It’s important for writers to understand that publishers are going to expect the writer to do the heavy lifting in promoting the book. A writer can’t just write. He has to be a savvy marketer as well.

And writers should also be realistic and be aware that we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and driven by mass media. Increasingly the books that are selling are the books that are getting media attention, books by personalities.

Sarah Palin’s rather mediocre book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 2009. All of the best selling fiction books last year were by name-brand authors. Chances are that if you don’t already have a mass following, your book will sell in modest numbers. The most difficult job I have as an agent is managing my clients’ expectations.

JRM: What qualities do you look for—and look to avoid—in a writer-client?

Andy Ross: It is always easier to sell a book by a writer with “platform”. Platform is a word you hear a lot in publishing. It means that you are famous or otherwise important and will have access to media and reviews.

A professor with an endowed chair at Harvard has platform. Anyone you see on the tabloids as you are checking out at Safeway has platform. Sarah Palin has platform. The Chilean miners have platform. Oprah’s hairdresser (or anyone else associated with Oprah) has platform. Writers, like everyone else, are all different. I try to be tolerant of their virtues and vices.

JRM: What should a writer look for—and avoid—in an agent?

Andy Ross: I hear a lot of myths about what is good and bad in an agent. I hear that it is always best to get an agent from a large prestigious New York agency. Certainly it is always nice to impress your friends by namedropping your celebrity agent, but it isn’t necessarily going to help your career. Some of these agents are pretty good. But they may not have much time to work with you. Some of them think that it is their job to flip contracts, rather than help the author develop her ideas into good and publishable projects.

A lot of authors think they need an agent, because they can’t get published without one. That is probably pretty realistic, at least with the major publishers. But no agent, no matter how prestigious, is going to be able to sell a book that would otherwise not interest a publisher.

A lot of writers think that an agent can get them a big deal with a big publisher and negotiate a very favorable contract. Agents generally have some knowledge about what to ask for in a deal and sometimes how to leverage a situation into getting a bigger advance. Some, but not all, agents know the pitfalls of publisher boilerplate contract language and can make some limited beneficial changes. But these are not really the most important parts of an agent’s job. You can check out my blog article about the book deal for more detail [link].

If you speak to published authors, most of them feel that their agents are essential and that the commissions are well-earned. But they also will tell you that the real value that the agent brings is to be a creative advisor, first line editor, business manager, intermediary with the publisher, a person who works to advance the writing career of the writer, and is sometimes a shoulder to cry on.

Watch out for agents who are not willing to go the distance to see your book get published. I have worked with a number of authors whose agents submitted their projects  to six big houses, and then gave up after six rejections. Those are not good agents.

I was on an agent’s panel recently, and another agent had a very telling story. A novelist came to her because she was unhappy with her previous agent. She said that the agent had submitted her novel to 40 publishers and it was rejected by all of them. My agent friend advised her that if she could find an agent who would do that kind of work for her even after facing so many rejections, that was a sign of a very good agent.

That said, there are a lot of people selling themselves as literary agents. Some are pretty marginal and some are scammers. Never hire an agent who charges money up front or who accepts you as a client conditional on your being willing to pay for other services. A good agent works on commission only. Anything else is a red flag. So watch out.

It is always a good idea to find an agent with some experience behind them, some one for whom agenting is a full-time job. But new agents can be good too; I was a new agent about 30 months ago. New agents will take more risks and may very well be willing to work harder for you.

Authors Guild vs. John Wiley: Royalties on List or Royalties on Net. What’s at Stake?

June 14, 2010

Authors Guild vs. Wiley: Royalties on “List” vs. “Net”.

An interesting dispute has broken out between The Authors Guild  and John Wiley Publishers   over what is the best way to calculate royalties. The dispute may seem a little arcane but it is interesting in that the issues bring to light fundamental questions of how best to structure royalty rates that are in the best interest of the author.

The dispute with Wiley  involves authors who signed contracts with Bloomberg Publishers. Bloomberg closed its doors and sold the existing contracts to Wiley. Last week Wiley sent out letters to Bloomberg authors asking them to sign off on a new royalty structure that is in accord with Wiley’s existing policies. Wiley claims that the new royalties are more favorable to authors. Authors Guild claims that they aren’t and the dispute has gone back and forth.

The biggest issue and one that illuminates an important subject for author royalties is that many of the Bloomberg  contracts had royalties based on “list price”. Wiley is asking these authors to modify their contract and base the new royalties on “net”.

Let’s look at this. The distinction is fundamental. Most royalties by the large New York publishers offer rates based on the “suggested list price” of the book. That is the printed price that you see on your book at most book stores. As you know, there is a lot of discounting going on particularly on internet sites, although lots of physical stores discount best sellers as well. But this is irrelevant for calculating royalties.

Let’s say that your book has a suggested list price of $25. And let’s say you are getting a 15% royalty. The dollar amount you would receive on each book would be $25 x 15% or $3.75. This would be the case regardless of whether the book in question is being discounted by the retail bookseller or not.

Royalties based on “net” are calculated by giving the author a percentage of the net amount of revenue flowing to the publisher. A lot of small presses base their royalties on net and apparently Wiley does as well.  In an ideal situation,  “net” would be the amount the publisher charges the retailer or other customer.  Most books are sold at about 50% (more or less), but there are some important issues that we will discuss later.

This shouldn’t necessarily be a problem if, for instance, the percentage royalty based on net is double the royalty based on list. In the above example, if the author received a 30% royalty on net, it would be very close to the same as the royalty based on list.

But it gets even more complicated when you consider that all publishing contracts have a so-called “deep discounting” clause. These provisions usually reduce the author’s royalty when discounts are given in excess of a specified amount. In theory this isn’t unfair if the reductions only apply to very high discounts and if the amount of the reduction is proportionate to the deep discount. These provisions can also be minimized if the author or agent can limit the application of the reduction in author royalties to books “outside normal trade channels.”

In a lot of contracts, the deep discount provision is triggered on any discount granted at 50% or more. If the contract says that for every percent of discount in excess of  50%, author’s royalty will be reduced by ½%, this is pretty fair. But more frequently the terms are that if the discount is 50% or over, the author’s royalty will be based on net instead of list. This effectively cuts the author’s royalty by half. In this situation, you could have the publisher offer a 51% discount (a price that reduces publisher’s income  by 25 cents), but would reduce the author royalty by  $1.75). Thus, the publisher makes windfall profits on the book even with a deeper  discount, and this windfall is entirely supported by reduced author royalties.

It gets even worse when the trigger discount is reduced to something like 48% (which is the case with one of the major publishers). In this situation, all sales to Barnes and Noble and Borders warehouses, all sales to and, all non-returnable sales, all sales to jobbers,  and all sales to mass merchants (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco) will have royalties reduced by half. This could include the vast majority of sales on the title.

It’s a bad deal for the author. And that is the reason that The Authors Guild is upset.

Amazon v. MacMillan: The End of the Affair

February 6, 2010

Well, it looks like as of yesterday, Amazon has restored the “buy” buttons for books published by Macmillan.  During the past week, Macmillan has been negotiating terms with Amazon. Apparently they have reached an agreement. We don’t know the details. Two days ago, Macmillan CEO John Sargeant said: “Amazon has been working very, very hard and always in good faith to find a way forward with us.” Good faith, huh!  I’m not sure that pulling a publisher’s books from the digital book shelf  during negotiations is indicative of bargaining in good faith. It certainly showed no good faith to the Macmillan authors whose books were unavailable for a week and to the readers seeking those books.  As more major publishers revise their terms for e-books, it will be interesting to see whether Amazon will stop selling those titles while negotiating in “good faith”.

This entire affair has highlighted some very important issues that go well beyond the squabbling over crumbs by  two large corporations.  You can read some of the comments on this blog and others. What are the dangers of  monopolistic concentration  in the distribution of ideas? How important are e-books in the literary future? How do commercial values conflict with literary values? What is the role  of the community book store as books turn to digital? How will authors be fairly compensated for their work under the new e-book business model? What provides the better reading experience: e-books or paper books? Are the major publishers dinosaurs? How much is a book worth?

And then there is this  notion that “information wants to be free”. We have discussed this in a previous blog entry about the book, Free by Chris Anderson.

 Amazon was playing to the house throughout this affair by implying that they were trying to protect consumers by offering e-books at a good (i.e. loss leader) price. Amazon fans made their opinions known with numerous comments that books weren’t even worth $9.95.

Humorist Roy Blount Junior, who is president of the Authors Guild,

 made a brilliant and witty statement about this curious notion in the Authors Guild winter newsletter. I’ll quote it here:

“Then of course there is the school of thought that books shouldn’t cost anything, because “information wants to be free.” One thing wrong with that notion is that just as a pie is more than its ingredients (and does anyone other than a child living at home expect pie, or even pie ingredients, to be free?), a book is more than information. It’s someone’s –several people’s—work.

“Another thing wrong with “information wants to be free” is that it is espoused, it’s my impression, by three categories of people:

“One: People who are paid by universities to teach occasional seminars and write books that not many people would want to buy anyway if they could help it. To send one’s child to one of these universities costs (say) an author maybe $50,000 a year. How about College wants to be free?

“Two: People who have invented a high-tech gimmick that has enabled them not to need any more money the rest of their lives. How about High-tech gimmicks want to be free?

“Three: People who live at home with their parents.”

Good for you, Roy Blount! Once again the best weapon against bombast is ridicule.

Amazon vs. Publishing 3: Authors Guild Weighs in

February 2, 2010


The Authors Guild, the largest advocacy organization for authors in America, weighed in on the Amazon-MacMillan affair yesterday. Their position is, I believe, a fair and balanced position on the interests of authors as it relates to the controversy. In a rare show of solidarity, Author’s Guild has given unqualified support to the position of large publishing.   Authors Guild linked to another article by Fast Company that is a little less nuanced but probably a little more articulate of what this fight really means.

Their statement addressed a point that is worth considering relating to the long-term interests of authors on this issue. Amazon pulled the plug on Macmillan Books without notifying Macmillan or its authors. This was done on Thursday, January 28. On Sunday, January 31, Amazon made a smarmy statement characterizing Macmillan as having a “monopoly” on their books and insinuating that they were going to lose the battle. We all assumed they were conceding. As of this morning at 8:30 PST, the buttons have not been replaced on Macmillan titles. This is becoming a real problem for Macmillan authors who rely on Amazon to sell 75% of all sales on their book on-line.

Clearly Amazon is throwing its weight around and continuing to send the message to publishers that they, like the Wall Street banks, are “too big to fail”; or, at least, too big to cross. Their position is arrogant and points out eloquently the correctness of the concerns of publishers, authors, and agents that Amazon has  asymmetric market power that has become a danger to our industry. It is Amazon, not the commercial publishers, who are seeking to establish a monopoly.

 This is not the first time Amazon has removed buttons from titles, but it is the first time they have done it with all titles of a publisher.

This affair is not a tiff between quarrelling parties. It is really a struggle for the future of book publishing. Stay tuned.

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:

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.

Chris Anderson’s “Free” — A Case of Plagiarism

July 7, 2009
Free by Chris Anderson
Free by Chris Anderson

Some of you may have been following the mini whirlwind around the publication of Chris Anderson’s new Book: Free: The Future of a Radical Price. There is a great review of this silly book in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine .  In Free, he appears to be arguing against artists, musicians and writers who are so  insolent, audacious and out of step with the values of the  New Economy and Web 2.0,  that they continue to use the outdated paradigms of  actually expecting to be  paid for their work.  He seems to believe that intellectual property inexorably is moving toward being free. 

Well — apparently Mr. Anderson practices what he preaches –plagiarism, that is. After all, it is free. There is an article and a review in the Virginia Quarterly from June 23 that shows that Anderson included material without attribution that was lifted  (mostly)  from Wikipedia. The reviewer, Waldo Jaquith, found several dozen examples of direct and unattributed material.

Anderson wrote a rejoinder to Gladwell in his Wired Blog. He was shocked that Gladwell could simplify his thought so. In the blog, he didn’t mention his reliance on unattributed sources (if you can even call Wikipedia a source).

After the Virginia Quarterly exposed him, of course he cried crocodile tears and made his mea culpa. See New York Times.

 You can download his entire book for free off of Scribd. He will be doing this until August 10. Nice guy, huh? A man who practices what he preaches.

 Well, not exactly, no. Think about it. He isn’t giving it away for free. He has already been paid. According to Publisher’s Marketplace, Anderson received an advance of $500,000 for his previous book, The Long Tail.  The advance for Free is not recorded in the data base. Presumably, the advance was significant. So Anderson has nothing really to lose by posting it for free on Scribd. He has been paid and probably, a pretty penny. 

 Since Anderson believes that ideas should be free, and since  he has sold his ideas for considerably more, perhaps he should contribute some of this surplus and undeserved income  to –hmm — maybe  The Author’s Guild. After all, writers have a right to be paid for their work, don’t they?