Chip MacGregor

May 14, 2017

Ask the Agent: Platforms, Publications, and Mother’s Day


As I write this, it’s Mother’s Day, and I happen to have been born on Mother’s Day oh those many decades ago. I’m home, my mom is long gone, and I realized writers have been sending in a LOT of questions, so I thought I should take a Sunday afternoon and try to do a bunch of them, in order to catch up on the pile a bit. Again, all this month we’re inviting authors to send the question they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, if only they could be face to face. Here are some that have come in recently…

I know many agents are looking for an author to have a big “platform.” How do you define a platform. And what does a big platform look like to you?

A platform is a number. Do you speak? How many people do you speak to over the course of a year? You write a column? What’s your readership? You’re on radio? What’s your listenership? You blog? How many hits do you get? You do a column? How many people read your work? You belong to organizations? How many people are you connected to? All of those are numbers — just add up the numbers, and you’ll know how big your platform is. The bigger the number, more people you have the potential to reach out to, the happier a publisher is going to be. More important is how many people you actually have some sort of relationship with — that is, how many of those folks do you speak to or consider an acquaintance? Can you suggest what percentage might actually purchase a book? A small publisher may be happy with a platform of ten to twenty thousand. A medium sized published may be looking for a platform that is at least forty to sixty thousand. A large publisher may not be all that interested if your platform is less than 100,000 — possibly not interested if your platform is less than 250,000, even 500,000 people, depending on the project. So think in terms of economies of scale. The bigger your reach to those who have a connection with you, the bigger your platform.

Is it pointless to seek publication before launching a blog? I have substantial Facebook and growing Twitter following, but haven’t launched my blog yet.

I’m not sure a blog is as vital as it was a few years ago. Some authors have built a platform using Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Facebook, Vine, etc. Others have really used GoodReads and Amazon in lieu of a blog. I think the important things to consider are (1) the numbers, (2) the connection they have with you, and (3) the content you’re sharing. Here’s what I mean — if you have a bunch of friends on Facebook because you’ve shared a lot of conservative political flamethrower stuff, but you’re writing a contemporary romantic suspense, the content doesn’t connect with the book’s expected readership. So even huge numbers on Facebook may not translate into book sales. So in today’s publishing market you may or may not need a blog, but the important thing with a blog these days is to get noticed — to demonstrate you’re getting read, just like in publishing a book. There are currently more than 30 million blogs available to follow… how is yours going to grow a readership?

I’ve been asked to write a column for an online magazine which sounds good, but they refuse to tell writers what their numbers look like. Also, they pay, but they demand all rights. As an agent, do you think I should participate?

It depends on your expectations. If you need the money, a paid writing gig like this is great. As for demanding rights, lots of magazines these days are moving that direction — you have to be at peace with the fact you are basically using this as a work-for-hire, to earn some dough while you’re working away on your big book. Of course, you could do some research on third party sites to find out some basic numbers for the magazine and make an educated guess at the numbers they’re hitting.

Do writers these days write specifically for the ebook market, or are they really writing for a print market and settling for a digital book?

Love the question, because for all the excitement about dedicated e-book authors, I find most writers are still hoping to land in print. Not all, certainly, but most. Why? Because traditionally that’s where success has come (and yes, that may be changing), and because legacy publishers can get authors into stores around the country. So it’s really a “reach” argument — that legacy publishers offer greater reach. That may or may not actually be true. We’re in an era of revolution, and there are plenty of writers who have basically given up on the notion of working with a legacy publisher, and have become focused on creating their own ebooks and taking them to market via Amazon, Nook, and the iBookstore.

I heard you say at a conference that the one thing you look for most in a book proposal is “voice.” What are you really looking for when you say you want to see a strong voice in a proposal?

Voice is personality on the page. I love seeing proposals that offer strong personalities. Too many of the proposals I see are flat — they all sound the same, and could have been written by anyone. So I love seeing a project come in that seems different — big, unique, funny, insightful, with words/grammar/style/thought patterns that reveal your unique personality. If you read writers with great, unique voice, you just don’t confuse them with other writers. (Shift this conversation from writing to music — no music lover confuses Bono with Sinatra. They have different voices, different choices, different personalities, and it comes through in their music.) Great ideas come and go, but great voice lasts a long time. I see lots of ideas each month; I see very little great voice. And if you’re really interested in this topic, go to Amazon and pick up a copy of Les Edgerton’s FINDING YOUR VOICE. A wonderful book to help beginning writers figure out how to get their personality onto the page.

Do you still teach “proposal” workshops? Does a proposal still matter in these days of self-publishing one’s ebooks?

I do still teach my one-day proposal workshop. (Commercial: If your writing group or regional conference is looking for a cost-effective one-day seminar, you should get in touch.) Proposals continue to be vital for nonfiction books, and the way we usually start the conversation with fiction. I asked a senior editor at a major publishing house about this, and she wrote me back to say, “One thing I think aspiring writers need to know about proposals is that they function as a business plan for a book. That is, they demonstrate why and how a project will be viable because of the idea, the author platform, and the market environment. In nonfiction, as you know, publishing a viable book is not so much about writing as about what will happen (either because of the author or the publisher) in the market to get people to buy it. Most people don’t want to hear that because they want to believe it’s all about writing, but that is very far from the truth these days. New writers need to understand this basic fact and see the proposal as an opportunity, not a chore to be gotten past.” A great proposal can help you find success, in my view. It won’t overcome a lousy idea, but it will certainly help you sell a good idea.

Who puts a manuscript or new book into the running for awards and contests? Does the author seek them out herself and submit her entries? Does the publisher submit completed manuscripts automatically to certain contests? Would an agent make recommendations for contests and/or award to go after?

Most major writing awards are submitted by publishers. Mid-level awards can be submitted by publisher or author. Most smaller writing awards are submitted by author. These usually cost money. And yes, in almost every case the entire completed manuscript is sent (though I know of no publisher who “automatically” submits to contests). An agent can certainly make recommendations for contests and awards, and I encourage authors to have that discussion with their agent. Publishers tend to like manuscripts that proved themselves by winning contests.

I’m working on a non-fiction manuscript for which I have some personal experience, but I don’t really have the full technical expertise to completely address the topic. Would an agent consider my proposal and connect me with an expert in the field? Or do I need to do the legwork myself to find the expert?

I have occasionally connected a writer and an expert, but it’s rare… Much more commonly I’ll just say to the writer, “You know, this would be a much stronger idea if you were to partner with an expert in the field.” An example: I once did a healthy lifestyle book, and encouraged the author to connect with a nutritionist and exercise physiologist, since her personal story was great, but I felt publishers were going to insist on some sort of recognized expertise. We hooked her up, and the book sold to one of the Big Five publishers.

I notice you do a bunch of religious/inspirational fiction. Do you also do fiction for the wider market?

I’ve received this question a hundred times… YES, take a look at my list. I do some Christian fiction AND lots of general market fiction.

I did a book with a smaller publishing house earlier this year, but the information on Amazon is incorrect. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get them to fix it. What do I do?

Talk to someone in the marketing department at your publishing company, tell them EXACTLY what is incorrect and EXACTLY what you would like it to say. Be clear, be polite, don’t blame, and don’t act like your life depends on changing this information. Amazon sometimes gets this stuff wrong, and publishers often try to fix it. I ran this question by a senior editor at a large house, and she replied: “Amazon is an automated system, at least with us, but I suspect with most other publishers. Amazon’s system goes into our system and pulls the data it wants when it wants it and then puts it up on the site, often as long as 4-6 months in advance. That’s why the data is often wrong. Authors get upset when they see incorrect data and copy but that’s because Amazon is pulling the early stuff before it gets polished. Pre-orders are good, but this is what comes of it. And this is Amazon’s doing, for their own mysterious and not-so-mysterious purposes.”

Okay — got a question you’ve always wanted to sit down and ask a literary agent in some face to face setting? Send it my way. Happy Mother’s Day!

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