Chip MacGregor

November 9, 2012

How can I get noticed?


We’re sticking with answering a bunch of shorter questions for a few days…

One author wrote and noted, “As I research book publishing, I’m intrigued by the ‘platform’ thing. And as I think about how to build my platform, I’m having a hard time discerning whether publishers would consider my platform attractive or small potatoes. I edit a professional magazines (10,000 readers), help manage an advertising agroup (500 advertisers), am busy with the local Chamber of Commerce (another 500 members), contribute to a popular blog site, have access to a handful of other groups, and have been invited to submit articles to some very popular websites. Is that enough to get an editor’s attention?”

That certainly sounds like the start of a good platform. Of course, some of the “platform” issue will depend on what you’re writing and who you’re writing to. If all of your professional contacts are finance related, and you’ve written a romance novel, publishers may tend to discount the value of all those contacts. But if you’re writing a book that speaks directly to your contacts, I imagine publishers would find your data base of people interesting. There’s not really a magic number that you’re trying to hit — other than to say “the bigger it is, the better they’ll like you.” However, you’re really beginning to think like a publisher when you approach your platform this way. How many people do you already reach? How often? In how many ways? How can you approach them about your book? Those are questions to talk about with a prospective publisher or agent.

Another wanted to know, “If my book is published with a small house, what are the chances it will get into Target or Wal-Mart? Do those companies only buy books from big publishers?”

Wal-Mart and Target use book buyers to select the books they sell. The larger companies have full-time sales staff dedicated just to those accounts (for example, Grand Central has a couple sales people who do nothing but sell to Wal-Mart). That exclusivity, and the size of their lists, gives them a big advantage. They have a lot of products to show the buyers, they’re talking all the time, and they’ve worked to understand what the seller does best. That said, you never know what a Wal-Mart will buy. They like high-concept books that meet the felt needs of blue collar people, so if you’re doing something like that, you stand a chance. And yes, they’ll look at it, assuming your publisher has a sales rep who gets in front of them.

Someone wrote this: “I’ve approached several editors and agents who all say to me the writing in my novel is good, but the topic isn’t right for their needs or the market right now. However, everybody who reads a series of chapters in my book tells me they love the story. How can I get an editor to give me a break?”

Um… I can think of several responses for you. First, your writing might not be that good, but your friends might love you. Second, your writing might not be that good, but your friends aren’t as sophisticated as the editors and agents you’re talking to. (Put another way, who do you want to take  publishing advice from — your friends, or professionals in the industry?) Third, your writing might be good, but right now isn’t the time. If that’s the case, STOP TRYING TO SELL THAT BOOK AND MOVE ON TO SOMETHING ELSE. Most novelists don’t get their first book published — they go through several manuscripts before they find one that hits. Fourth, your writing might be good, and you just need to keep trying until you hit the right editor and the right house. If that’s the case, then you need to go to some conferences, meet editors face-to-face, and ask them to read some of your book. Not just talk about it, and not just read the synopsis, but give them a sample chapter and sit quietly while they read a chapter during your meeting time. Fifth, your writing might be good, and everybody in the industry is wrong… but I doubt it. I  mean, it’s possible. But in my experience over the past three decades, I’ve met a lot of authors who felt their stuff was great, and in fact it wasn’t. Just a thought.

An author wrote and noted, “I have three books with a small niche publisher. Since my next book is outside that niche, do I need to get an agent? And do you think I’m established enough as a writer that I could get a publishing deal before the book is fully written? Or should I not even bother to begin a conversation with an agent until it is completed?”

It depends on the book, but generally speaking we are moving toward having nearly every book at major houses represented by an agent. We’re a specialized society, and the agent knows how to protect the author’s interests (because the publisher, while a nice guy, is not in business to protect the author’s interests). Think of an agent doing what a lawyer does as he draws up your will, or what a good realtor does when she draws up your closing papers — bring experience to look after your best interests in a legal transaction.

With three small niche books, I doubt you’d be considered “established” in the world of commercial publishing (though it would depend on how successful those books were). However, I wouldn’t necessarily wait to talk with an agent. You’ve been through the process, so go ahead and start having those agent conversations. Even if the book isn’t done, a good agent should be able to evaluate your book idea, and perhaps give you some direction in the writing.

Someone asked, “With the economy still experiencing a downturn, would you recommend writers, especially new writers, wait for better times to approach agents and publishers?”

I am SO tempted to say, “No, I recommend they call someone besides me,” but I won’t because people keep accusing me of being snarky. Um… okay, for all the talk of oil prices and home mortgages ruining our economy, people still seem to be buying books. Yes, I think publishers are scared (everybody seems to be retrenching these days), but I can guarantee you they are all looking for a GREAT idea, expressed through GREAT writing, by an author with a GREAT platform. If you have all of those pieces in place, don’t wait. If you don’t have all those pieces… well, you probably aren’t ready anyway.

And one young writer wrote this to me: “I’m an unpublished writer living outside the US, but hoping to break into the US market. How much will my geographic location be an issue in trying to get published?”

It doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s an issue. US publishers like to have their authors on US soil, so that they’re available for phone calls, media interviews, book tours, and the like. It’s certainly possible to live elsewhere and do well in the States (Ms Rowling did okay, as I recall), but for most beginning authors, living outside the US is just another reason for a publisher to say “no thanks” to your proposal.

Finally, an author I represent, noticing my comment about naked juice the other day, sent me this: “When I was in Thailand recently, I bought some Tiger Balm sports rub, since it claims to be an Asian remedy. Why not get the real thing? I got it home and read the directions: ‘For sore muscles, aches, sprains and flatulence. Apply to affected areas.’ Um… ???”


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  • Brilliant (yet hard-hitting) advice. Most of the time, when we think we’re ready, we’re not. But when others in the industry think we’re ready, we are. Love the trifold advice: Great idea, Great writing, Great platform. Though it is possible to have all three and not fit in the market. Then we move on to book number two. Or three…

  • Judith Robl says:

    Thank you for the dose of reality. I’ve been beating my head against the brick wall of “platform” for several years. Boy, do I wish there were a magic bullet – or even a measurable goal – instead of the nebulous platform.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, there’s no fast way to build a platform, but writing good material for a variety of sources can’t hurt, Judith.

  • Karen Morris says:

    As a fellow “snark”, I thoroughly enjoy your blog, Chip. Thank you for your (sometimes brutal) honesty in answering the questions posed to you. Thank you, thank you.

    And as an owner and believer in Tiger Balm-it is fantastic for sore/tweaked muscles. But I can honestly save I haven’t used it for that last symptom listed. 😉

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