Whoooooooo boy. The lovely Maris Kreizman altered me, via her twitter feed, about a new article in the New York Times that says, basically, that famous person’s book didn’t sell as well as they thought it would. Specifically, the reporter (whose work I really like!) explains that publishers thought Billie Eliish’s book would sell more copies than it did, especially for what they paid for it, and goes on to mention other celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Representative Ilhan Omar, whose books suffered a similar fate. Why didn’t those books sell (comparatively) that much? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I have been talking about books that come from the Internet for a long time. That is not exactly the same as celebrity books, but they share a common denominator—a big platform. We’ve talked about platform before. I get asked all the time but what NUMBER do I need? How many followers???????????? And yes, I know why you are asking that. The number is the thing you can see. The number is a (mostly) attainable goal (though not quickly). The number is the first thing people ask when they ask about a platform.
But the number does not equal sales. It hardly predicts sales. The number, in the end, is mostly meaningless.
I know! I’m sorry!
Authors, though, primarily in non-fiction, still need to go after the number. Publishing as a whole is not going to abandon the idea that “a big platform” is necessary for success. I’m sorry. I know it sucks. I know it’s wrong. It is one of the many things that people are wrong about these days. I wish it weren’t so. But since it is, here’s what I think you can do at the same time as worrying about the number to set yourself up for success. (And in fact, I think these things will work BETTER than just focusing on the number, and I hope publishers will start to see that, too.)
It has to work as a book.
Maybe you have a big platform already. Maybe you are on the cusp of a big platform and you’re starting to think about writing a book. Maybe you want to be a big deal online and a book is just one part of your grand plan. All these things are great.You can’t, however, just shove all your ~~content~~ in a book and call it a day. What works online doesn’t not always work in a book. Do people routinely turn to a book to learn more about your subject, or is it just something they google? Is it practical to put you content in book form, or would it be 4,000 random full color photographs? Is there a shelf in the store where your book would logically live? (You only get one shelf. There is no “fictional memoir” shelf, except the one called “fiction.”) Do people have a reason to buy your book, aside from the fact that you wrote it? (c.f. Billie Ellish, and see below.) If it doesn’t work as a book, your platform isn’t going to make up the difference.
Are your followers engaged?
As other smart people brought up in Maris’ mentions, all those who follow you on the internet are not…people. This is likely more true for celebrities than us commoners, but if you have a very big following, there’s a good chance a portion of those numbers are bots. Or they were purchased to inflate the follower count. (In case you didn’t already know, don’t do this. Do not buy followers to inflate your social media stats.) So that means the numbers look big! Hurray! But there’s no there there. There’s no one to market the book to and there’s no one there to buy it.
What does this mean to you if you’re not a celebrity buying followers? It means you need to focus on engagement. How many likes you’re getting. How many comments. If you’re tweeting (or whatever, I tend to just talk about twitter because that’s what I’m hopeless addicted to, I mean, that’s where a lot of writers are) into the void and no one is responding, even if you have a lot of followers, then what good is that? It is not a good indicator that your followers are going to go out and take action and buy your book.
To increase engagement, you need to try a bunch of stuff. Yes, that is the technical term for it. Try posting more pictures if you don’t do that much. Pivot to video? (I kid.) Link to other’s work (in good faith) to start conversations with your following. Ask what they want to know. Take questions. Engage with them yourself to see what they want to know. It takes work, but if you want to reap the benefits of an author platform, you have to put in some effort.
Your reader needs a reason to buy your book.
This is sorta related to It has to work as a book, but takes it one step further. One reason I think the I Can Has Cheezburger books worked so well is that, for whatever reason, people buy books about cats. They just do! For a while there, they didn’t buy books about dogs, but thankfully (for me and my clients) that has changed. People also, historically and perennially, buy books about WWII and baseball. Are those all the only genres anyone ever buys books in? Of course not. But, in non-fiction, it has been easier to sell a book about baseball than football. Why? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Fans of baseball like books more than fans of football, I guess? It’s just one of those things.
I mention this to highlight that the “generally interested reader” is a myth. The person who will stumble upon your book and think that looks cool is not a reliable market segment. Publishers (and agents) want to be able to pinpoint a reason a potential reader will take action and buy the book. To me, some of those reasons to buy are:
NEW NEW NEW: research, info, stories, approach, etc
Solves a Problem: This book will ____ and change your life. (has to be a subject that readers turn to BOOKS for, and won’t just google, as said before.)
Merch: This is like to buying the band t-shirt at a concert. It’s an expression of fandom.
Gift-giving: Mother’s Day? Father’s Day? Graduation? Christmas? Hanukkah? Easter? (No really.) Other book-buying holidays? Your book might be great to be marketed around the 4th of July, but no one really buys other people books for the 4th of July.
This is not an exhaustive list. But it will get you thinking about what will compel your reader to actually buy the book, besides it being good. Think about how you buy books, and turn it around on your own work.
I’m writing fiction. What does this all mean for me?
Hi fiction writers, sorry. I know this has been non-fiction heavy, because platforms mean more in non-fiction (whether they should or not!!!!). Do you need a platform if you’re writing fiction? It can’t hurt. I know that answer sucks, because it doesn’t answer the follow up question: so, do I need to put in actual effort into building my platform then? My answer there is, you don’t have to put Build Platform on your to do list. You can, as part of being a writer in the world, use your platform to talk about books you like (or hate, but don’t tag the author in those posts, please), to talk to other writers about <whatever you want>, to comment on things relative to your work so that you can engage with others interested in those topics and start to form connections with them. You can try to write for other venues about whatever topics you’re interested in/writing about in your fiction and use your platform to promote those things. Your platform will likely grow if you’re engaged with it yourself, and it will attract those who are also interested in the things you’re interested in. That’s how you grow a platform as a fiction writer. FYI, it takes years, but it works!
Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to figure out the single (or several) reason why or how a book sells. If we did, everyone would just do that and it would stop working. I know that everyone expects the author to crack the code on book sales, and authors expect the publisher to have some magic spells that make numbers go up. But we don’t. We collectively don’t. So what do we do? Just keep trying, keep talking to readers, keep writing.
Hey did you see that I wrote about contracts for Catapult.co? You should check these out:
Book Contracts: Let’s Talk Money!
Book Contracts: Let’s Talk Rights!
Book Contracts: Let’s Talk Surprise!
Happy holiday book shopping, my friends.
Remember, there is room or all kinds of books in publishing. Books like these do not take away from books that are art. It doesn’t mean these book aren’t art themselves.
So what you're saying is I should write a book about a cat who gives up her baseball career to serve in WW2 and not focus so much on building my platform?