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All Posts in Category: The Business of Books

The Book Doctor Is In: Platform and Your Query Letter

Q. I’m sending queries to agents regarding my memoir. I’ve noticed a lot of writers talking about the importance of platform, basically saying you can’t get a book deal without one. I don’t have a huge platform, but should I mention what I do have in my query?

A. Platform is certainly an important piece of the publishing puzzle, but it’s not a simple A = B calculation. Plenty of people with huge platforms see little success with their books while others with smaller platforms or no platforms at all go on to sell tons of books. No one knows why some books sell and others don’t. Why is one well-written book passed over by readers in favor of one that’s not nearly as well done? No one knows. If anyone knew, publishing would be a very different world. (Everyone who writes erotica was astonished by the whole 50 Shades thing. Not that there were readers for BDSM, but that so many people would read such bad BDSM when there is a ton of much much better erotica available.)

Platform is more important in regular nonfiction publishing (by which I mean things like self-help and how-to) than in creative nonfiction (memoir) and fiction because there is a clearer A = B connection there. That is to say, people with a platform writing in the subject for which they have the platform (Oprah and living your best life stuff) tend to do better than people without.

Remember also that publishing is a business. An acquisitions editor (AE) can point to X number of Twitter followers and Y number of people who watch your television show as evidence that there will be an audience for your book; it makes her decision to publish your book defensible. If you have no platform and the book fails, the publisher fires the AE for placing a bet on someone without a platform (and that’s assuming the AE could get such a project past the editorial committee in the first place, which is a great big if). If you have a big platform and the book fails, the publisher and the AE drown their sorrows at the bar together. “What could we have done differently?” they’ll cry. “She has a great platform!”

I call this my CYA theory of acquisitions.

The platform is important to some degree but it isn’t the most important thing in memoir, nor is it the thing that will make or break your chances for publication. Does having a huge platform improve your chances of publication? Yes. Does lack of one mean you’re doomed? No.

As far as the query is concerned, you’re just trying to get the agent/editor to request the proposal or sample chapters. You’re not (yet) trying to make an argument for publication. So, the bulk of the query is necessarily designed to pique the agent/editor’s interest so she requests that additional material.

All of that said, a brief sentence at the close of the query (when you’re saying a few words about yourself) that shows your new online project has a pretty large readership is not a bad idea. Can’t hurt, might help. But I would not spend a lot of time on that aspect of the query.

New books for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!

Crafting Your Pitch Letter

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll need to pitch your message so that it gets heard – and read – by agents who’ll want to sign you up and by editors who’ll want to publish your book. Then use this pitch to interest media in your subject, too, getting two uses for the price of one.

The pitch letter (also called a query letter) should convey your book idea and your credentials for writing the book in one page (about 200-300 words, no more).

  • Describe your big message in one or two sentences. For instance, Dojo Wisdom is about using the principles of martial arts to get what you want from life. You’ll need this brief description many times as you write, publish, and promote your book. Whenever anyone asks, “What’s your book about?” you need to have this brief message ready to go.
  • Why do people need your book? What problem does it help them solve? The answer to those questions goes in your pitch letter.
  • What’s your unique angle? What is different about your approach to the subject matter? If you don’t have a fresh approach, people aren’t going to be interested in your book.
  • Why are you the one? What is it about you that makes you uniquely qualified to write the book? If you’re partnering with an expert (or are an expert partnering with a writer), mention this.
  • Use a pitch letter to introduce your proposal. It grabs an agent’s or editor’s attention and shows them why they should read – and buy – the book!

Six-Week Book Proposal Class – Starts September 9!

Write Your Book Proposal E-Course

Starts September 9, 2013

For many writers and experts who’d like to write a nonfiction book, putting together the book proposal is the most intimidating – yet most important – part of the process. Veteran book author Jennifer Lawler’s six-week e-course will walk you through every step of the way, from idea to finished proposal. This class is offered just two times per year, in March and September.

For complete information about this class, click here.

Book Proposal Boot Camp – June 15th and 16th

Book Proposal Boot Camp

Write your book proposal in a weekend! 

June 15th and 16th, 2013!

My popular book proposal class usually takes place over the course of six weeks. But I’m offering a new approach – Book Proposal Boot Camp! This is a virtual class – everything takes place via email and online – that will take place over just one weekend.

For complete information about this class, click here.

Unique Ideas Are Overrated

I often get anxious emails from authors who want to write about a certain subject but find that many books on the matter have already been published. I always tell such authors to take a deep breath and remember that your book idea doesn’t have to be unique. There is plenty of room in the world for new voices, contrary ideas, different approaches, and fresh angles on a well-known subject.

Many proposals that start with the line, “No one has ever written a book on this subject until now,” are immediately rejected. Why? Because the editor assumes that you haven’t done your homework, or there’s no audience for your book, or the idea isn’t big enough for a book – it’s actually a magazine article.

The key is in distinguishing your book from others like it. What makes your book different and better? And how does this benefit your audience?

Creating a Nonfiction Voice

Unless you’re writing a textbook that you’re assiging to your students, no one has to read your book. So if reading your book is a difficult and frustrating task, no one (except those students) will do it.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Book editors know this, which is why they prize writers who can communicate ideas clearly and in a friendly, accessible way.

That doesn’t mean you have to use only one-syllable words. It does mean that you need to present your ideas in a logical and approachable format. Readers expect you to anticipate questions and concerns they will have, and to use straightforward, active language and concrete suggestions.

For nonfiction writers, using case studies and anecdotes can be crucial to making material meaningful to readers. Apply your ideas to real world situations so readers can visualize them.

Most important, have beta readers review your work and let you know where they’re getting hung up.

The Sample Chapter

As you know, nonfiction books are sold by proposal, not complete manuscript. An editor needs to be confident that you will write the book well; publishing a book is always a financial risk for a publisher, and providing a compelling sample chapter will help convince the powers-that-be that you–and your book–are worth taking a risk on. You’ll want to impress the editor with a sample chapter (or chapters) that convey your message in a friendly, entertaining way.

Some agents or editors will ask for as many as three sample chapters. I usually recommend starting with one and seeing what kind of feedback you get. There’s no point in spending the time it will take to write three sample chapters only to find that you’re on the wrong track. An agent who is interested in your proposal may have suggestions for improving your project; if you are not wedded to your approach, you will show the kind of flexibility that will help you succeed in publishing.

Your sample chapter should showcase both your voice and the content of your book. Pick a chapter that will allow you to do this well. You don’t have to write the first chapter, if it is not representative of the rest of the book. Choose the most engaging material to write about. And make sure that what you write matches the chapter outline in your book!

When Shortcuts Are Short Circuits

In my many years as a book author and freelancer, I have met hundreds of writers, professionals and wannabes, and it has struck me that we tend to do one of these two things, neither of which is in our best interest:

  1. We don’t put our work out into the world. We are waiting for some future moment when all will be perfect with the work and ourselves. That time will never come, but knowing that doesn’t stop us from waiting.
  2. We put our work out into the world before it’s ready. By this I mean taking shortcuts to get our work out into the world. Thinking, “This is wonderful and ready!” and hitting send and then finding out that no one agrees with you is one thing. Thinking, “Eh, close enough” and hitting send is another.

I see this type of thing happening a lot when people decide to self-publish. It’s not that I don’t completely understand the whole “I can avoid rejection this way” mindset, or that I don’t understand that it may be the only way a good book will actually see the light of day, or any of a
hundred reasons why people make this choice. I don’t quibble with those reasons.

My argument is that taking a shortcut because otherwise you will have to spend time getting better at the work does you no good in the long run.  If your goal is to just have 70,000 words with your name out there in the world, then by all means, shortcuts are a fine way to get there. If you are trying to be a good writer, or a good anything, then you need to be aware of the trap of the shortcut.

It isn’t only in self-publishing versus traditional publishing where I see this mistake. I cannot count the number of people who are dissatisfied with their current agents (and for very good
reasons, not just the usual angst over the advance should have been huger) but who don’t do anything about it because then they would have to find another agent. And not only would that mean time spend trying to find one, but maybe they would have to step up their work a notch to catch someone’s eye. It’s easier to stick with the status quo.

Or nonfiction writers who think hiring a publicist will get them out of the work of building a platform and doing publicity (I think publicists are great, but hiring one doesn’t mean your work
as an author is done).

I struggle with this myself, a lot more than I would like to admit. In the end, I have learned to ask myself the key question: “Am I considering this because it’s easy or because it’s the right thing for my work?”