Authors have been told for years that they need a “platform” if they want any chance of finding an agent and/or getting a book deal with a major publisher, and many publishers have internal benchmarks for author platforms that still include vanity metrics to help guide their acquisition and marketing decisions. As a result, there’s an entire cottage industry for platform-building advice and services targeting authors—some good, mostly bad.
Oddly enough, you rarely hear a push in the other direction—What about publishers’ platforms?—especially considering how much marketing authors are expected to do on their own these days, regardless of their chosen path to publication. Even worse, it’s become conventional wisdom that an author’s advance should be invested directly into building their own platform rather than giving them some financial breathing room to write their next book.
While an author’s platform is definitely an important factor in the long-term viability of their career, it shouldn’t be seen as a core requirement for the potential success of any given book—unless their publisher is just a dumb pipe feeding ebook files and metadata to Amazon, in which case, just go full DIY! Plenty of authors who don’t have what’s considered a traditional platform today have had successful books, while remainder bins are full of books by authors with “large platforms” and Big 5 publisher imprints on their spines.
In 2019, I remain astounded (but not totally surprised) by how many authors’ platforms lack the basics—if they have one at all—but far more egregiously, too many publishers are way behind the curve with their own platforms, doing a disservice to the authors they’ve committed to support and help succeed.
If you’re querying a publisher—big or small, traditional or hybrid—you (or your agent) should be able to satisfactorily address these three planks of their own platform before they inquire about yours. Each one is potentially more important than the size of your advance, and definitely more important than the size of your own Twitter following or email list.
BOOKSELLERS & LIBRARIES
Between Amazon and services like IngramSpark and PublishDrive, the basics of distribution have effectively been democratized so the real differentiation between traditional publishers vs. hybrid or DIY comes down to strong relationships with major retailers, libraries and, depending on your genre/category, specialty markets. Just because they’re a Big 5 publisher doesn’t mean you’ll get the same level of attention as their A-list authors. Smaller publishers might not have a lot of resources but they might be more invested in your book’s success, while hybrid publishers might charge you for handling basic DIY services without offering any additional value beyond convenience.
One of the first steps in your search for a potential publisher should be poking around the trade section of their website (usually under Booksellers, Librarians, etc.) to get a feel for how they market themselves and their books to booksellers and librarians, their primary customers, and figure out where you and your book would most likely fit in.
Don’t waste time querying a publisher that won’t be a good fit for you and your book, and be leery of an agent who can’t get answers to these basic questions about any publishers they’re querying on your behalf:
- How big are the sales and marketing teams?
- Which industry conferences do they support and attend?
- How much influence do Amazon and B&N buyers have over acquisitions and covers?
- What’s their library pricing and royalty model?
- What level of support can you realistically expect your book to receive, and what will be expected from you?
Reviews remain a critical tool in successfully marketing a book—both pre-publication (where so many DIY efforts continue to fall short) to drive initial bookseller and library orders, and post-publication to keep/build momentum after your book birthday party ends. Effective publishers have established relationships with (and typically support through advertising) the major trade review outlets that booksellers and librarians rely on for pre-orders (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, School Library Journal), and what’s left of consumer media still publishing book reviews (NY Times, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly), while also working with book bloggers and other “influencers” to drive awareness in relevant communities.
When doing your own market research, particularly identifying comps, be sure to note which ones had advance reviews in professional outlets and/or book blogs, and which publishers are regularly getting them for multiple authors, particularly their debuts. And when engaging a potential publisher for your own book, ask for a specific plan to garner reviews from relevant outlets and communities—not just a hit list for Advance Review Copies (ARCs), but an actual plan to generate reviews.
ARCs—ideally print and digital—are a necessity as most review deadlines are several months ahead of publication, and no reputable publisher should drop a book into the market without a few advance reviews to help build some buzz. If ARCs aren’t in the plan or budget, that’s a big red flag.
NOTE: While there are a number of “services” and related schemes that will provide book reviews for a fee, they are generally not the reviews that drive pre-orders from booksellers and librarians. Caveat emptor.
DIRECT TO CONSUMER
Contrary to popular belief, DTC doesn’t necessarily mean e-commerce, although it can be a key differentiation, especially for smaller niche publishers. If it is presented as a key differentiation, be sure to evaluate the customer experience first, end-to-end. Sign up for their email list; wait a few weeks and then order a couple of books similar to yours; see how they engage with you throughout the process, including the next several weeks after your order. Don’t compare them to Amazon, but don’t let them off the hook because “they’re just publishers.” If e-commerce is truly a key differentiation, they’re not “just publishers” and should be able to deliver a satisfactory end-to-end customer experience. If not, they’re just publishers who are likely in over their heads.
More importantly, though, direct to consumer refers to having a direct relationship with consumers—aka, readers—so a publisher isn’t solely reliant on wholesalers, booksellers, librarians, and reviewers to drive awareness and sales for their own books. Too often, the author’s platform is expected to fill the gap, typically combined with a vaguely defined “marketing plan” that will inevitably underwhelm all parties involved, including the marketers tasked with executing them.
If you’re already engaged with the community of potential readers for your books, you’ve probably already bumped into the ideal publisher for you along the way. Whether it’s via your favorite social network, a website or email newsletter, in-person events, or wherever your community prefers to gather, the most effective publishers are going to be actively engaged there, too.
If they’re not visible there, chances are you’re going to be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing to relevant communities. If you’re also not visible there, your book’s most likely destined to become a statistic, the anchor that keeps “average book sales” depressingly low—depending on context and expectations, of course.
NOTE TO PUBLISHERS: If any of this was a little uncomfortable, maybe a little too familiar in all the wrong ways, there’s hope. Let’s talk.