June 28, 2023

3 Facts That Will Change the Way You Think About Publishing

Traditional Publishing

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Recently, a high-profile book coach who will not be named announced that they are “tired” of explaining to aspiring authors that, in order to have a commercially viable book, you need (in this person’s opinion) an audience of at least 100,000 people. Based on that, they’re no longer providing discovery calls/consultations for authors who don’t have a “substantial audience.” Whatever that means.

On one level, I get it—because all of us have to set boundaries on our work so that we can say yes to the things we really want to do. If this person only wants to work with high-profile authors because it makes their life easier, more blessings to them! Go forth and prosper. They’re certainly not alone.

But telling authors that it’s not possible to get a book deal and they cannot publish a commercially successful book unless they have a 100,000 people in their audience makes me want to scream.

To be fair, this person specifically said “audience” and “people” rather than “followers” or “social media followers.” I don’t know whether they meant social media followers, or perhaps they meant newsletter subscribers or some other metric. Regardless… social media followers is the only metric of an author’s audience that can be verified by someone else, like a publisher. So if we’re judging by other metrics, we’d have to rely on self-reported data from the author, which is probably fine, but simply isn’t verifiable. 

Anyway. Regardless of whether this person meant social media followers, this is how most authors will interpret their announcement.

And it’s simply not true that you need 100,000 followers to get a book deal, or to publish a commercially successful book.

Here’s what I’m tired of: I’m tired of this myth, and I’m really tired of industry professionals perpetuating it (intentionally or unintentionally). 

So let’s look at some facts.

FACT: In over 40% of deals signed (from a sample of 500 in 2022-2023), authors had less than 1000 social media followers.

Earlier this year, I did an analysis of 500 book deals reported in Publisher’s Marketplace in the last year. I wanted to find out if there was any truth to this claim that you have to have a “large” (again—whatever that means, but 100,000 is a pretty typical number) social media following to get a book deal. I was surprised and excited to find that of those book deals, more than 40% of the authors had under 1000 followers on various social media platforms. 

Liz and I talked about this in more detail in our Hungry Authors episode, “Hope for Small Platforms.

FACT: Social media followers do NOT equal book sales. (Ask Billie Eilish.)

When I was a baby acquisitions editor in 2014, my team and I had the idea to publish a series of short books on education from a handful of education influencers. Some of these influencers had millions of followers on Twitter. They all had fancy websites and blogs and were very engaged on Twitter, the dominant social media platform for our audience back then. We started pumping out these books over the next couple years… and despite a company website, tens of thousands of dollars in promotion, and the authors’ efforts to promote the books, the series was a flop. I think the book that sold the most sold about 10,000 copies—which doesn’t sound bad, but isn’t great. And the rest of the books did much, much worse. 

I learned a crucial lesson: Social media followers do NOT necessarily buy books. Putting all of your eggs in that basket is very risky indeed. Thankfully, many publishing professionals recognize this and are starting to be more skeptical of large social media platforms.

FACT: Authors with small platforms can and do publish commercially viable books.

Let’s look at some evidence. For the week ending July 2, 2023 (that’s this week), let’s analyze the New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover Nonfiction. (I know—is the NYT bestseller list a reliable metric of commercial success? Bestseller lists are imperfect and can be manipulated. But I think we can at least agree that publishers want to publish books that make the list—and that it truly does take a high number of sales, even in a small time period, to qualify.)

I took the liberty of looking up each author’s social media followings for you (current numbers as of 6/27/23), but feel free to fact check me.

  1. The Wager by David Grann: 47.2k on Twitter
  2. Outlive by Peter Attia with Bill Gifford: 676k on Instagram, 342k on Youtube
  3. Pageboy by Elliot Page: 1.8M on Twitter, 6M on Instagram
  4. 1964 by Paul McCartney: 4.2M on Twitter, 4M on Instagram
  5. The In-Between by Hadley Vlahos: 204k on Instagram, 1.5M on Tiktok
  6. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy: 5.4M on Twitter, 8.5M on Instagram 
  7. The Book of Charlie by David Von Drehle: 3522 on Twitter 
  8. My Friend Anne Frank by Hannah Pick-Goslar with Dina Kraft: Hannah: 0 followers, Dina: 1872 on Twitter
  9. The Puppeteers by Jason Chaffetz: 562k on Twitter, 166k on Instagram
  10. What an Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman: 2947 on Instagram
  11. Look for Me There by Luke Russert: 36.5k on Instagram
  12. Spare by Prince Harry: 9.4M on Instagram
  13. The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama: 22.1M on Twitter, 54.7M on Instagram
  14. Better Living Through Birding by Christian Cooper: 10k on Instagram
  15. The Daddy Diaries by Andy Cohen: 2.4M on Twitter, 5.3M on Instagram

Yes, there are the celebrities and influencers with hundreds of thousands and millions of followers—but take a look at the bolded books. All of these authors not only have less than 100,000 followers; they have less than half that many! Six out of 15 (40%) of current New York Times bestselling nonfiction authors have less than 50,000 followers.

What should be encouraging to other aspiring authors is the fact that these authors with “small” platforms had other ways of attracting an audience. One is a Washington Post columnist, and another writes for The New Yorker. One is writing about perhaps the most famous inmate of Auschwitz. One is simply a well known speaker on her topic. One is an NBC broadcaster. (The one exception on this list is Christian Cooper, who became known after an atrocious act of racism was perpetuated on him and he, in a stunning act of grace, declined to press charges.)

You might not be a reporter or a speaker on your topic—but you absolutely could be. Because the truth is that you do need some way of reliably reaching people. You do need credibility. But you don’t have to accomplish those goals through social media, and these authors are proof.

Think of all of the incredible books we would be missing out on if the industry, as a rule, decided that no one with less than 100,000 followers deserved to have their book published. Yikes. 

In my opinion, that book coach is missing out on some incredible books. And again, I get it—if that’s not where you want to focus your limited time, cool. But hopefully I’ve now convinced you, dear readers and aspiring authors, not to listen to voices who say you MUST have 100,000 followers on social media.

Some Reminders

If you’re an aspiring author and all of this talk about platform gets you down (it gets me down, too!), it might be helpful to keep these thoughts in mind:

  • Industry professionals are incentivized to perpetuate this myth. Because if we can get authors to do all the hard work for us, it makes our job easier and we get a greater reward. The question to always ask when something seems unfair/not right is: Who benefits? And guess who benefits from this myth?!
  • Many other factors besides platform determine the commercial success of your book.
  • Your book idea and the strength of your writing are just as, IF NOT MORE, important as your platform to the success of your book.

Don’t let anyone tell you your book is not worthy because you don’t have a big enough audience.