Last week I got the chance to chat with literary agent David Fulgate. I always appreciate David’s advice on publishing because, even though he makes his living representing traditionally published authors, he recognizes that in some cases it’s better for authors to self-publish.
The insight I gained from him a few years ago was this:
Unless you’re getting an advance of 100K or so, publishers won’t do much to market you – they’ll hand out lots of 10K advances hoping one of them will be successful, but they won’t put many resources or backing behind them.
Unfortunately, many authors are determined to traditionally publish precisely because they hope someone else will do the marketing for them – but that’s rarely the case (unless you get a big book deal).
So for the past few years, I’ve been self-publishing and building my platform. I only had the 10K advance figure in my head, so as long as each book I write makes at least 10K in the first couple years, I feel like I’m doing pretty well, I just need more books.
However, my recent talks with David inspired me to aim higher.
Why not shoot for a 100K advance, and get the full backing of a big publishing house?
I’m getting pretty good at self-publishing and know now that I can make a living with it, but if I want to take my platform to the next level, I need to be raising my sights.
How to get a 100K book deal
Like many of my posts, I’m writing this before I actually get a deal – it may never happen. But I’m sharing my notes and processes for how I’m going to go about it.
For non-fiction, agents and publishers are going to be pretty focused on platform.
How many subscribers do you have? How many social media followers? How much traffic to your website?
Numbers vary, but I’m shooting for 100K on my email list.
That needs to be a targeted list who will enjoy the book you pitch.
I’ll need to be much more active about guest posting, posting on this blog, and posting on sites like Medium.
Publishers will be interested in the amount of hits or traffic your content gets – social media followers are important also but not crucial (you don’t sell books on social media, but they can indicate the size of your following – shoot for 25K or so).
I’ll need to post more polished, professional content about creativity, creative production, art and writing, brain science and nootropics, the history of creativity and inspiration, and I need a better optin offer targeted towards helping people discover their own creative genius.
Vanessa Van Edwards spent 10 years building her platform, and has over 3500 blogposts (she just hit the NYT bestseller lists with her book Captivate, which has opened my eyes about how presentation is affecting trust in my business.). In a keynote speech at an event in Portland recently, she asked “What’s your tower – you’re either climbing and building, or you’re jumping.”
Building a tower is hard work, and it should be going UP. I feel like my platform has been leveling off or stagnating, which indicated to me that my goals are too achievable. If you have no fear that you won’t make it, your goals aren’t high enough. They need to be a bit scary. Shoot for the stars, reach the moon. Shoot for the moon, suffocate halfway in outer space…
David Fulgate also points out that your platform includes any or leaders who will share your book for you. For the non-fiction project I’m working on, I’ve already planned to include lots of industry leaders and some businesses with a large reach – once I include them in the text it should be pretty easy to get them to agree to share with their audience. I can include those figures in my proposal.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve met a lot of interesting people in my space, but if you’re new you’ll need to start cultivating relationships fast. I’m overshooting the numbers because of weak confidence – the same problem I’ve been exploring on my platform. Basically I overdeliver on everything and undercharge. My book project idea is great, but I want to back it up with BIG numbers and make sure I get an impressive deal.
For non-fiction, a super idea on its own could be enough to get a deal even with a small platform, but the chances (and potential advance) go up along with the size of your platform… (lots of authors hope to trad publish because they DON’T have a platform, but you actually need to build one yourself.)
Interestingly, once you have a huge platform, you may not NEED a trad published deal (you might make about the same money anyway, but you’d be selling a lot more books and getting more visibility with a traditional publisher, which is what I want).
How do you build a platform? You publish a lot of great content. You cross post and get people to share. You curate content and redistribute in multiple mediums. You have great branding, design and messaging. None of this is easy, but it gets easier with time and experience. I used self-published books to build my platform but it’s been growing slowly – now I’m going to build it quickly and deliberately, with the intention of supporting a book deal.
How’s it actually work?
David says one of the mistakes authors make is choosing one agent and submitting one query at a time; what you should actually do is find around 40 potential agents and query them all. Then when you get a nibble on one, check back in with the others asking if they’ve had a chance to read your proposal, because someone else is making an offer.
Find agents on publishersmarketplace.com – look for “deals” and research the category you want your book to be in. Look at all the deals and see who made them. Find those agents contact info.
Email them with a one page pitch. For fiction, you need the first 20 pages to start, but the whole manuscript needs to be ready in case they ask for more. They want to read the writing.
For non-fiction, they’ll want a proposal and sample chapter – what is the idea, why should people care about it – along with your bio and chapter summaries. You’ll also include Publishing Details (length and how long it will take to finish), a list of related books showing why your book will be popular but new (X bestselling book was about this, which ties into my book here, but my book introduces Y).
For fiction, a platform is less important (and some publishers even prefer a new author so they have a clean slate to work with). But if you’ve already self-published some books, they’ll want to see good sales history, and having a certain number of platform/followers can help get their attention… but mostly it will depend on the quality of the book and whether or not they’re looking for books like that to fill out their catalog.
In short, getting a publisher or a publishing deal is often not a great idea, because most small presses won’t market you or might even screw up basic things like cover design, and you’ll have less control to make smart marketing decisions so your book may perform worse.
BUT if you want to get a deal, shoot for a big one, by building up a platform first.
(If you want to know how, grab my Guerrilla Publishing book and get the companion workbook).