From Jane Friedman:
Recently an article was published at Vox titled “Everyone’s a sellout now.” The subtitle: “So you want to be an artist. Do you have to start a TikTok?”
The dour conclusion, probably the writer’s predetermined conclusion when she began her research: more or less.
This article makes the classic mistake of conflating all kinds of artists and creative industries and painting them all with the same brush. But specifically, for writers and book publishing, it spreads so many myths and misconceptions about the business of authorship that I’ll be undoing the damage for years. (My inbox last week: Did you see this article!) However, I hope this post helps reduce the length of that battle. So let’s get straight to it.
Vox: With any book, but especially nonfiction ones, publishers want a guarantee that a writer comes with a built-in audience of people who already read and support their work…
Agents and big publishers seek authors with platform for adult nonfiction work.
If a debut novelist or debut children’s author seeks a book deal with a big New York publisher, then agents and editors make their decision based on the story premise, the manuscript, and/or whether the project fits with their theory of what sells in today’s market. That theory may be driven by pop culture, by what else is selling well among their clients or at their publishing house, by trends on TikTok—you get the idea.
If you’re a debut novelist with a platform, great! But it’s not going to make up for a lackluster story or premise that’s unappealing to today’s readers. The agent or publisher has to have genuine enthusiasm for the story or writing itself. They tend to trust their instincts on story quality or story marketability, and if they don’t love it, they’ll have trouble convincing anyone else of the same. The general hope is that word of mouth and consistent recommendations by readers and influencers will fuel the book’s success—not the debut author’s platform/following. Most bestsellers occur because of readers saying to their friends and family: you must read this.
Let me be absolutely clear: Agents and publishers don’t read a novel or children’s manuscript, fall in love with it and/or think it will sell in today’s market, then check to see if it’s safe to represent or acquire based on the author’s online following. (However, I have seen such a thing happen with nonfiction. I’ve also seen it happen when an author has a poor sales track record.)
Side note: I’m adding children’s authors into the mix here because, I hope for obvious reasons, it can be problematic to expect children’s writers to build an online following among children (their readers), although some children’s writers do have strong connections in the children’s community—with librarians, educators, teachers, and so on. Children’s books often must meet considerable requirements related to format, word count, education level, curriculum expectations or standards, etc—and platform is usually low on the list of concerns even for nonfiction.
Having an online presence or following is mostly a bonus for the agent or publisher if you’re an unpublished or untested fiction writer. Think it through: if you’re an unpublished novelist who’s building a following, why are others following you exactly? It’s not for your novel, because that’s not published yet. Is it for your short fiction in literary journals? Congratulations! You have a rarefied audience of people who actually read short fiction in literary journals.
Certainly publishing credentials that impress or show you’ve been selected/vetted or validated can help you get the consideration you deserve, or make you more visible to agents or decision makers at publishing houses. And social media will do wonders for building relationships with others in the writing and publishing community. To the extent that being on social media helps you be seen by gatekeepers, sure—this is part of platform, and it can lower some barriers and lead to more connections that help you get published. But we’re not talking about a following of existing readers on social media. We’re talking about relationships and visibility to specific, influential people. You can be visible to such people with a tiny following.
None of this is to say social media doesn’t sell books—it can and it does—but it’s rarely in the way that any writer thinks. It’s not going to sell a novel that readers aren’t motivated to go and tell all their friends about, whether that’s online or offline. And that’s the quality that agents/publishers are looking for when they receive your submission. Authors will find it challenging to support word of mouth on social without having readers’ own enthusiasm for their work present at the same time.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman