Posts Tagged ‘todd farley’

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.


What’s Wrong With Standardized Testing?

October 2, 2009

Making the Grades

Todd Farley is the author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, published this week by PoliPoint Press. Todd’s book is a remarkable memoir of his 15-year involvement with the tests, first as a scorer of 4th grade essays, later as a manager. Full disclosure: I’m Todd’s literary agent.

Todd’s book is an eloquent and withering attack on the methodology and practice of the tests. It is the first book by an insider. It also is one of the funniest books ever written., I mean side-splittingly funny, fall out of the bed funny. As in Catch 22  (an apt comparison), Todd shows that humor and inspired ridicule are the best weapons against pretense. 

I give a lot of talks to writers. In this publishing climate it is pretty hard to offer words of inspiration for the unpublished author. I always tell Todd’s story to them. Todd contacted me over the transom through a query letter. I was curious about the subject, so I asked him to send more.  We struggled to get the book published over objections that the author lacked “platform” or that the book  had a limited audience. (33 rejections, to be precise).  We found a publisher who believed in him. This week Todd has written the Op-ed essay in The New York Times and has been read by over  1,000,000 people worldwide. Limited audience, indeed!

 Andy: Todd, you are a smart guy. How did you end up in the boiler room of a test scoring company?

Todd:   I ended up in the business because I was a slacker in my 20’s, living the good life in Iowa City as a reader and drinker, and I stumbled upon a job scoring student responses to standardized tests.  I don’t know that I was in any way qualified to do that job, and I certainly had no interest in it, but the pay was decent so I took the job.  Then fifteen years of me working in testing just to pay the bills crept by and now here we are….

Andy: And when did you realize things were terribly wrong with the theory and practice of testing? Did you have a “Eureka” moment?

Todd:   I thought it was a screwed up process pretty much the first day I started. Kids answer dozens of questions in some far-distant state and then their tests get chopped up into all these pieces—multiple-choice answers go this way, fill in the blank questions go that way, essays questions somewhere else—and are then read and scored by a temporary employee counting the minutes till quitting time?  It took no time at all to see what a bad idea that was. And all those doubts I had about testing were confirmed over the next 15 years. 

 Andy: Your book is full of stories that are as hilarious as they are disturbing. Can you relate a story that epitomizes the failings of standardized testing? 

Todd: I have more anecdotes about the foolishness of the business than there is space on the Internet.  I think about the very first essay-scoring project I worked on, when all us temporary employees were told we would have to qualify to be able to keep the job scoring high school writing—we’d have to do a good enough job during a training session to prove we could assess essays in a “standardized” way.  Then, when nearly half the hundred people applying for the job failed the “qualifying tests” and were fired, you know what happened?  The for-profit testing company in charge of the project simply lowered the qualifying score to make us (yes, “us’) all eligible to work.  The point is the scoring company had these high standards about employee qualifications, at least until they realized firing us all would leave them short on personnel.  Once they realized that, all us “flunkies” were immediately un-fired and given jobs reading and scoring all those tests.

 Andy: Standardized testing has been the mantra of efforts to reform the education system. It has been embraced by politicians  of both parties, most recently by President Obama. From your own experience, what is the flaw in the reasoning? What is the essential fallacy of the concept? 

 Todd: For me the fallacy is the utter inefficacy of a system that trusts for-profit companies and for-profit people (like me) to make decisions about American education, something that is supposed to be separate from the bottom line.  Because there are so many tests to be scored each year, every imaginable shortcut has to be taken to meet deadlines, with the end result being that scores are returned to students that I don’t necessarily believe are the right scores.  As far as I’m concerned, they are just scores, random numbers that vary as much due to the vagaries of the testing business as to the quality of student work. 

Andy: And while we are at it, how is the application of the theory in the actual grading of tests at odds with the espoused objectives?

Todd:  Andy, that seems like a very complex question for someone of my limited intelligence, but I can see why people believe there needs to be accountability in schools.  On the other hand, the fifteen years I just spent in the K-12 testing business convinced me that for-profit testing companies can’t provide that accountability.  Imagine, the theory of standardized testing is in effect that the best way to see what’s going on in American education is to ask the opinion of a bunch of massive corporations situated hundred, if not thousands, of miles away from the classrooms.  That is simply illogical, as my book explains in great—albeit hilarious—detail.

Andy: You say in your book that when the statistical results of the grading of the groups are at variance with the predicted results, then the results are fudged. That is a pretty damning critique. Can you elaborate?

 Todd:  Look, in my time in testing, I was witness to (and party to) a near constant manipulation of statistics.  The testing companies (and I) changed reliability statistics, validity statistics, qualification stats, etc etc.  Our job in the testing industry was to score tests, and within a limited time frame, and while certainly attempts were done to make the scoring legitimate, the sheer volume of tests was always so overwhelming each year that the only way to get through the process was to cheat, cheat, cheat. The companies took shortcuts to get things done and we temporary employees took shortcuts to get things done.  Many of us employees were working to keep our jobs, get raises and promotions, get plum assignments in college towns around the country, and hence we fudged the numbers all the time to make things look good.  Am I proud of that fact?  No.  On the other hand, the problems with the testing industry are so many that I didn’t think a little cheating on top of a lot of insanity was that bad a thing. 

 Andy: Todd, this blog is primarily about writing and publishing – not about education policy. I am particularly proud of this book, because you wrote it in relative obscurity. Now you are writing the op-ed essay in the New York Times. How did you begin the process of getting this book published? Can you give some inspirational words to the struggling writer?

 Todd:  I’m not sure if I have much advice for the struggling writer, because my situation was a little unusual.  I wasn’t one of ten-thousand (or fifty-thousand) people writing novels last year—I was pretty much the only one who had written an expose of the standardized testing industry.  That means I didn’t have to write the best of thousands of books, I just had to find someone to publish my one, unique book.   I realized there was a huge hue and cry in this country against standardized testing, and I knew I had lots of information that all the people against testing would love to hear, and I figured I’d get someone to publish it. Frankly, I always thought this book would sell, because an insider’s account about an important industry like testing just seemed to make sense.  Although I did have my doubts during the long process of writing the book and getting rejections, I had little doubt it would eventually sell—I was really just worried one of my colleagues in testing would write a book like this before I got to it.

 Andy: When I got your query letter, I had never heard of you. I assume you sent it out to other agents. How many? 10, 100, 1000? Was anyone else curious about the project? 

Todd: I sent query letters both to agents and publishers, maybe fifty or sixty total over the course of 8-10 months, and I did get enough interest to convince me I was on the right path—so while there was rejection, I also got considerable interest, enough to keep me at it.  I got lots of initial rejections, yes, but I also probably got 20 or so bites from agents and publishers.  Most of them thought I had written something good, but all said it might be hard to place.  I’d written a book about standardized testing, but a cheeky memoir and not an academic treatise, so no one knew where it would go.  Academic publishers (like Harvard University Press, NYU Press) were intrigued, but when they read my book they said it was too… personal, funny, not serious… for them to publish.  The same was true of agents.  Some would ask to see it and then, after telling me how funny it was, would say they couldn’t imagine where to publish it or who would buy it.  Those poor, ignorant fools… I could have made them all rich, as I did with you, Andy Ross!

 Andy: Ah, yes. Excuse me a moment while I ask my butler to call for the car.  Anyway, Todd. Thanks for being interviewed, and thanks for writing the book.  I think you have done your part in making the world a little better.

How Ramparts Changed the Way We Write about Politics

September 12, 2009


This month New Press released A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.


richardson The author, Peter Richardson, teaches California culture at San Francisco State University and is chair of the California Studies Association. I have worked with Peter in his capacity as editorial director at PoliPointPress in Marin. They are a superb publisher of books on politics and current affairs.  While New York publishers seem to be going down the primrose path of celebrity publishing, PoliPoint is doing some pretty good books of substance. (Some of them are mine, thank you very much.)

 Peter will be making numerous appearances in the Bay Area in September, including a Berkeley Arts and Letters event  on September 24 with Robert Sheer. Look at Peter’s blog for a complete list of appearances.

 A Bomb in Every Issue (great title) is a history of the flamboyant, dramatic, brilliant, and short life of Ramparts magazine. It was perhaps the most successful attempt to bring New Left ideas to the general population.

 I’d like to ask Peter some questions about why Ramparts was important then and how it has had a lasting impact on political writing.

 Peter, for all those young whippersnappers reading this blog who don’t remember the joys of living in a free love commune and reading Ramparts in the sixties, can you tell us just a little bit about the magazine and why it was so colorful but also so important?

 Ramparts was launched as a Catholic literary quarterly in 1962 but very quickly morphed into a “radical slick,” really the first of its kind.  The magazine moved from Menlo Park to San Francisco, where its office was perched between bohemian North Beach and the media and advertising district down the hill.  That location was fitting, I suppose, because Ramparts straddled both worlds. 

 When the magazine first got liftoff, Warren Hinckle was the editor, and he supplied the showmanship.  Art director Dugald Stermer added the visual fireworks, and Robert Scheer made waves with big whistleblower stories, including one about  CIA activity in Vietnam.  Later, founding publisher Edward Keating recruited Eldridge Cleaver—even arranging for his release from San Quentin—and Ramparts helped make the Black Panthers internationally recognized icons.

 Ramparts was important primarily because it proved that mainstream media techniques—including lively writing, sophisticated design, and more than a dash of sensationalism—could be used to advance progressive politics.  The magazine’s production values distinguished it from its stodgier East Coast counterparts and its grittier underground ones.  So in a very direct way, Ramparts opened the door to magazines like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, both of which were founded by Ramparts alumni. 

 How did they differ from the other left-wing periodicals of the time? Life I.F. Stone’s Weekly, or even the political articles in the New York Review of Books?

 Stone was a hero to the much younger staffers at Ramparts.  In fact, they ran his work frequently and employed three of his relatives.  But mostly Stone stayed in DC and debunked official nonsense.  Ramparts became a magnet for whistleblowers of all stripes, and the youth of its staffers and their Bay Area location gave them the inside track on the counterculture.  The New York Review of Books was more intellectual, less sensational, and not so focused on blockbuster stories. 

 I can’t imagine, for example, Hunter Thompson partying with Izzy Stone or the editors of TNYRB.  Who knows, maybe that happened.  But Thompson enjoyed cavorting with Hinckle and called Ramparts the crossroads of his world in San Francisco. Later, Hinckle matched Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman and helped create Gonzo journalism.  Jann Wenner, who worked on the Ramparts spinoff newspaper, eventually recruited Thompson and published his most notable work in Rolling Stone.

 But what really distinguished Ramparts from other publications was its ability to compel bigger news organizations, especially the New York Times, to pick up its stories. All told, the Times covered about a half dozen Ramparts stories on its front page: for example, when Ramparts revealed that the CIA was secretly funding the National Student Association. And during the late sixties and early seventies, Time magazine ran about ten stories about Ramparts, mostly to disparage it.  But all those stories did was raise Ramparts’ profile.  

 Ramparts had some pretty good investigative journalism, not just the garden-variety radical ranting, isn’t that right? Some of it had profound historical importance. Can you tell us a little about that?

Right, they didn’t fall back on opinion pieces and leftist formulations—Marxese, as editor David Horowitz called it later.  Instead, they broke big stories that read like detective fiction. 

 The first big investigative story was an April 1966 piece about CIA activity in Vietnam.  Strangely, Robert Scheer came upon the key documents not in Vietnam, but in Berkeley’s Doe Library.  It turns out the CIA was secretly training police, writing a new constitution, and torturing Vietnamese, all under the auspices of a Michigan State University program.  Eventually, that story—and the CIA’s subsequent decision to illegally investigate Ramparts and its personnel—led to the first congressional investigations and oversight of the CIA and FBI.  The Senate committee was led by Frank Church, one of Keating’s undergraduate friends at Stanford. 

 Another good example of that historical importance you mention is the way a Ramparts story affected Martin Luther King.  While eating lunch in an airport, Dr. King came upon a photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam,” which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnamese children.  King’s advisors had been telling him to stay out of foreign policy, but he decided on the spot to come out against the war.  He was criticized in the mainstream press, but he knew he had to do it, and he later said the Ramparts piece was the key to that decision.

 Another Ramparts story shows how the magazine went beyond the conventions of traditional journalism.  When Eldridge Cleaver became a contributing editor, he accompanied the Black Panthers to Sacramento, where they walked onto the floor of the state assembly, armed to the teeth, to protest a new gun control law. Cleaver was arrested along with the Panthers, but he was released because he wasn’t armed and because he was covering the event for Ramparts.  The media frenzy that followed turned the Panthers into celebrities, and Cleaver became the party’s minister of information. 

 So yes, Ramparts was far from typical.  Toward the end of its life, it did fewer big stories, but it was still more interesting than most political coverage now—which is largely a matter of journalists relaying what their official sources said, or pundits bullshitting about what they read in the paper that morning.         

 What was really new about Ramparts journalism? At PoliPoint, you publish mostly progressive political books. Can you tell us how all of these books have been impacted by what Ramparts did?

 The main innovation was Ramparts’ ability to reach broad audiences by imitating Time magazine’s methods.  That drove Time crazy.  And Ramparts took full advantage of the mainstream media’s inadequacies.  When I asked Warren Hinckle why Ramparts was so successful, he said, “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty.”

 The link to PoliPointPress, I guess, is that we’re always looking for important stories that bigger publishers, for whatever reason, won’t touch.  One of our biggest books, Phil Longman’s Best Care Anywhere, points out that VA hospitals are beating the pants off of for-profit healthcare providers.  That’s very counterintuitive, and instructive for our current healthcare debate.  I wouldn’t call them whistleblower stories, but two of our books are first-person accounts of working in comically dysfunctional institutions: cable news television (Jeff Cohen’s Cable News Confidential) and educational testing (Todd Farley’s Making the Grades).

 Our other books take on big issues, too.  Dean Baker (Plunder and Blunder) goes after Wall Street and the federal policymakers who were supposed to regulate it.  Sarah Posner’s book, God’s Profits, looks at the links between mega-church preachers and Republican efforts to mobilize their flocks.  Looking ahead, we just signed a book on medical marijuana.  It won’t be a drug policy or law enforcement story; it will be a business and political story, with special emphasis on the way “cannabusiness” is making money and buying political support, just as Indian casinos did not too long ago. Maybe if Ramparts were still around, it would be telling these stories.  

 And still, Ramparts sort of imploded after only a few years. Was it just a matter of the left-wing infantile disorders of the time? Were they a victim of the same forces that brought down the New Left?

 Yep, those problems were part of it.  Ramparts editor Peter Collier, who ran the magazine with David Horowitz after they ousted Scheer, described that period as one of “elemental cell division” on the left. 

 But there were at least two other problems, too.  Ramparts always relied on rich funders, first the Keatings and then Fred Mitchell, a Berkeley grad student who inherited a good deal of money.  Many people don’t realize that political magazines, left and right, almost always lose money.  As Adam Hochshild told me, advertisers want to sell skis and cars and jewelry, not outrage or ideas.  Ramparts declared bankruptcy for the first time in 1969, when circulation was at its peak.  It reorganized and continued on a smaller scale until 1975, when it folded for good. 

 The second problem was Ramparts’ shrinking niche in the media ecology.  Once Ramparts showed that muckraking could work, bigger outlets got involved.  60 Minutes launched in 1968, for example, the year after Ramparts won the Polk Award.  And many new magazines sprang up, like Rolling Stone and New Times, some of which were created at least partly in Ramparts’ image.  That made it tougher to survive.  

 OK, Peter, you’re an editor who’s always looking for important political books. Can you give all those aspiring political writers out there some advice about writing? What should they learn from the story of Ramparts?

 It’s not really related to Ramparts, but most projects I see don’t articulate their unique contributions to the discussions they want to join.  That’s the first question: What are you saying that hasn’t been said before?  That means knowing what the other books say, and that means homework.

 Turning to Ramparts, I think its story has at least three lessons for political writers today.  First, be prepared to make your own party.  In 1962, the Bay Area didn’t have an important national media presence.  If young Bay Area writers wanted opportunities to practice big-time journalism, they had to create a vehicle for that.  In the book, I compare that development to a more recent one, when Daily Kos rose to national prominence a few years ago by challenging the Iraq War and the political and media establishment that supported it.  With the advent of the Internet, there are many more opportunities to write, even if that means starting your own blog and trying to make something happen.  Acquiring editors want to see not only that you have something to say, but also that you can locate and connect with your audiences. 

 Second, I once heard Joe Conason, another PoliPointPress author, tell a younger writer, “You have to pick a fight.”  Ramparts picked a fight, and so did Daily Kos.  (Happily, the fight Daily Kos picked with PoliPointPress is behind us, and we’re working with them on a big project right now.)  Conflict is an important part of any story, fiction or nonfiction, so picking a suitable adversary and clarifying the stakes of that conflict is very important.  A good example is Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater

 Finally, Ramparts took on big issues, but during its heyday it was deeply irreverent and funny.  Bestselling books on politics often have large doses of humor.  Think Al Franken, or the late Molly Ivins, or Michael Moore.  They’ve moved a lot of books because it’s not just information, which is cheap now.  You don’t have to be a comedian, but if readers think they’ll get a little amusement along with the information, that helps a lot.  I may not be riveted by details of the educational testing business, but Todd Farley’s personal stories about that racket give me a lot of information in a very entertaining way.  That made a big difference to me when I was evaluating that manuscript. 

 Thanks, Andy, for the chance to talk about Ramparts and the book.  By the way, I have a great idea for my next book.  All I need now is an agent.  Hmm….