Chip MacGregor

January 19, 2009

Catching Up On Questions


Okay, I'm up and around and not taking pain pills today, so let me try and catch up on a handful of publishing questions…

Carol wrote and said, "You've said quite a bit about platforms lately, but can you tell us how an agent or publisher determines the value of a particular writer's platform? For example, is there a certain number of listeners they want to see for an author who has a radio show? Or a certain number of subscribers to an online program? Are they looking for a certain size of audience for speakers? How are such things decided?"

Generally speaking, the larger your actual audience, the better your platform is in the publisher's eyes.  An "actual audience" is the number of people with whom you've had a point of contact in the past year — they came to hear you speak, or bought your book, or sent a donation to your organization, or actually listened to your show. (This is in comparison to a "potential audience," which is "the number of people who could have listened to your show." Radio and TV types love talking about a potential audience, because if you have a TV show on cable, it has a potential audience of billions…but that won't do you any good if nobody is actually watching.) That means you may have to dig a bit in order to find your actual audience numbers.

If you speak, this is easy to determine — you figure out how many times you spoke and how many people came to hear you. If you've got a newspaper column, it's fair to offer the paper's paid circulation as your audience. If you have a popular blog, your host  service should be able to tell you the number of hits and distinct page views you've had. If you're on local radio, Arbitron can tell you the size of your audience. If you're on local TV, your station will have the audience size, but if you're on satellite its much tougher to determine an actual audience count.

Is there a size publishers shoot for? Sure: massive. They want to work with the authors who reach the most people. If you can tell the publisher that you speak 100 times per year, and the average size of audience was 250, that sounds good…but look at the numbers. You only spoke to 25,000 people. Even if you could sell to half of that number, you'd only be promising 12,000 copies. And the percentage of people who buy books goes down considerably when you're not there live — so you probably can't count on half your blog-readers buying your book. You just put together the best numbers you can, and let the publisher interpret what they think is a fair sell-through. And, by the way, this is why having a "marketing" section in your proposal that basically says "I'm going to start a blog and I'm willing to speak to women's groups in southwest Ohio" doesn't much help your cause. Publishers aren't that interested in selling a couple dozen copies of your book. They're interested in steps that will sell hundreds or thousands of copies. Remember that a platform is built on a combination of these things, so work toward building as large an audience you can… and then write a great book.

Jim asked, "How do some books stay on the best-seller lists forever? I love Mere Christianity, but are there that many people still buying it? Is Five Love Languages so good that thousands are still picking it up?"

Yes. Sales for both those titles were strong last year. The reason? They each have a built-in audience. Small groups in churches buy Love Languages for their marriage groups each fall, keeping that book going and going. Every Christian college encourages people to read Mere Christianity in the fall, thereby keeping the book a bestseller. Elizabeth George's Woman After God's Own Heart has never really been seen as a huge bestseller, but every fall Bible studies order copies, and it has been one of the top 50 books in Christian publishing for a decade. Others, such as Purpose Driven Life and My Utmost for His Highest, are examples of evergreen books — people just keep buying them, year after year. Same on the fiction side, people keep purchasing copies of Redeeming Love because they like it, and it keeps finding a new audience. Eventually these will all fade out, but some books just keep going and going — it's part of the fun in publishing. Some titles get hot then are forgotten (the Left Behind books), others just don't wear well over time (Peretti's novels come to mind). But those that sell and sell over decades are rare gems. Oh — and do you know that last year one of the biggest books in terms of sales was Dr Suess' wonderful Horton Hears a Who… and that's more than 50 years after the book originally released!

Tim noted, "I saw an interview with the editor of Publishers Weekly, commenting on the sad state of affairs in book publishing today — layoffs, reduced acquisitions, the negative affect this will have on the next cycle of buying. She wasn't all doom and gloom, but she was close, and said the current publishing model is 'broken.' What do you suppose that means for those of us writing today?"

I've been in publishing for 30 years, and book publishing for the last 20. I've heard the death of book publishing proclaimed for a long time. Right now the issue isn't one of quality, or of availability, or even of pricing. The issues facing us now are (1) delivery and (2) the economy. Book content can now be delivered cheaply and simply via the internet and the airwaves. That puts us in a time of transition — do you want all your books to be ink-and-paper, or are you making the switch to reading books electronically on a Kindle of Sony Reader? (I'm now using the Sony, since that's what everybody in publishing prefers.) After the initial costs (editing, design, advance, marketing), there is no cost to warehouse an e-book, and very little cost to ship and send. So where does pricing go? That's an issue we haven't settled yet. And how do we protect a book from unlawful distribution? (Consider the difficulties the music industry had with this same issue.)  The change in readership in our culture has shifted money away from brick-and-mortar stores and toward online retailers and a few superstores. That put the squeeze on publishers and writers, and now this lousy economy has people purchasing fewer books, thereby squeezing us all the more.

Is it doom and gloom? Absolutely. Any time publishers are cutting staff and announcing the trimming of lists, it's a bad sign. Will we get through it? I definitely think so. Books have been around since the mid-1400's, and have been popularly available since Dickens turned everyone into readers in the mid 1800's. While futurists worried the internet would turn people away from reading, it's done just the opposite — it's made everyone read stuff on their screens all day long. It's hard to imagine getting by in the modern world as an illiterate. But we're in that transitional period, with delivery patterns changing for how we read books and where we buy them. And a big change like that requires some of the old ways to die off. It hurts, but in the end authors will still be writing, we'll still be reading, and publishers will still produce and sell books.

Ashley noted, "You said in an earlier post that your faith is supposed to shape your life. How do you think your faith currently shapes the way you work?"

The easy answer is that I represent my faith in the way I live my life, including the way I do business. Sometimes I do a good job of that. Other times I do a terrible job. But for all my failings, I'm really trying to set an example. I've had a renewed spiritual involvement these past two years, and there's no getting around it — I want to represent Christ to people. Have I succeeded in doing that? Once in a while. I'll admit I've had more failures than successes in this area — I've done stupid things, said things that weren't true, and acted poorly. But I'm trying to live out my faith through my work, which is where most people know me. I would love nothing more than to have people who worked with  me say, "You know, that Chip was a total fenderhead, but he did love Jesus Christ."


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