July 22, 2022

No Platform Required: When Publishers Break Their Own “Rules”

Book Publishing
Traditional Publishing

Everyday, I get a newsletter from Publisher’s Marketplace reporting the major book deals that have been signed by agents and editors. It’s an absolutely essential tool for editors and publishers; I read it religiously and love seeing the new deals that come through (sometimes with people I know IRL!). 

Usually, the newsletter recaps go like this:

NYT-bestselling author with appearances on GMA, The Today Show, and Oprah, aka The Coupon Mom, Stephanie Nelson's IMAGINE MORE: DISCOVER GOD'S AMAZING JOURNEY FOR YOU, pitched for readers of Jamie Kern Lima's BELIEVE IT and Bob Goff's DREAM BIG, providing strategies for saving money through couponing and Christian insights for serving families, neighbors, and strangers as readers make an impact for God's Kingdom—a roadmap for anyone to begin the process of identifying, pursuing, and realizing their big dreams and ambitions, to Jenny Baumgartner at Thomas Nelson, in a good deal, by Mark Gottlieb at Trident Media Group (world).

I like to look up a lot of these newly signed authors to see what kinds of platforms they have. Mostly, it’s the usual suspects—a speaker/actor/singer/influencer with millions of followers, a Tik Tok-er rising to fame, or an academic with a mile-long list of credentials. Publishing is a business, after all, and traditional publishers need to take calculated risks. The more eyeballs you already have looking at you, the more likely you are to sell books. That’s just the facts. 

But occasionally, often in the “fiction” or “nonfiction - memoir” categories, I come across authors who really don’t have much of a platform. A few hundred followers on social media, perhaps. A couple bylines in small, local publications. A website, if you’re lucky. 

I seek out these stories because their success flies in the face of what the publishing industry tells you—what I myself often tell my authors: If you want to get published, you need to have a platform. Writers of memoir, especially, are often told not to bother if they aren’t a celebrity—which, let’s be real, is most memoir authors! I personally know of a couple instances lately when aspiring memoir authors were told by agents that memoir isn’t selling, that if they want a shot at selling their book to a publisher, it needs to be self-help.

And they/we are not wrong. Remember, most of the deals that come into my inbox are for authors who do have large platforms already. Agents are talking to editors at publishing companies everyday. They know what is selling and what editors want to acquire right now. Memoir writers, and all nonfiction authors, are wise to listen to their recommendations. I know in 9 out of 10 circumstances, I’m giving my memoir authors the best advice to either self-publish, grow their platform exponentially, or transform their book into self-help. 

And yet… I hate being the bearer of this bad news; I see my authors’ shoulders slump and the light in their eyes dim a little. So I’m always looking for the exceptions to find out under what conditions a publisher, or editor, or agent, might be tempted to break their own “rules” and take a chance on someone with no platform. It does happen!

First, what is a platform?

I’ve written about this before, but here’s a quick recap: A platform is a reliable system for getting your ideas in front of an audience—whether that’s through social media, speaking, teaching, professional relationships, or a mix of everything! 

Most authors assume that platform = large social media account. This is not true! A platform can be built in other ways besides social media. And a large social media account does not guarantee book sales! As this New York Times article reports, singer/songwriter Billie Eilish had 97 million followers on Instagram, and another 7 million on Twitter. “If just a fraction of them bought her book,” Elizabeth A. Harris writes, “it would be a hit.” 

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Her book sold 64,000 copies—an impressive number for most of us, to be sure—but not enough to earn back her even-more-impressive advance. Ultimately, the book cost her publisher over $1,000,000!!

So, no—a large social media following does not guarantee book sales.

That’s one reason a publisher might be tempted to buck conventional wisdom and take a chance on an unknown.

But I think the real reason is more poetic than that.

Yes, publishing is a business, but editors and publishers are people, too. They get bored. They read hundreds of book ideas every month. They see the same types of proposals pass across their desks. Publishing can get stuck in trends, with the same kinds of authors all publishing the same kinds of books. It gets old fast. When I was an acquisitions editor, I often had to remind myself that just because I was nauseated by the umpteenth book pitch for the next manifesto on the future of education doesn’t mean my audience would also be. Still, it’s nice to read something refreshing.

Legendary editor Max Perkins popularized the idea of taking chances on new voices and ideas. He didn’t just want a safe bet; he wanted someone who was courageous with their writing, someone who tested boundaries and spoke to readers’ hearts. Perkins knew that not all of his risks would pay off—but he also knew that if he never tried, new voices would never be heard. Thank goodness he did; he’s the reason we know the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway! 

Publishers are looking for large platforms, but they’re looking for more than that, too. They’re looking for daring new voices. They’re looking for people who will push boundaries. They’re looking for incredible stories. They’re looking for truly new ideas, not just a rehashing of the same thing. 

Recently, I was chatting with an agent who told me that the #1 thing she wanted to see in a proposal was something new. Agents and editors are always on the lookout for that something new—that X factor, that special voice or story or idea that will grab a reader’s attention. Every editor wants to be the next Max Perkins.

So if you don’t have a large platform, should you try?

Here’s the answer everyone hates, but it’s the truth… it’s up to you. A large platform will never be the reason you get rejected, but a small platform could be. Here’s what I would ask myself if I were in your shoes:

  • How much stamina do I have to handle rejection? It’s likely that you’d face a lot of rejection before you get published, even if it happens eventually. Is it worth going through months or years of “nos” to get to your “yes”? 
  • Is my idea/story/voice truly the X factor that agents/editors will love? Comp titles can help here—can you find any instances of books that had a similar X factor that sold well? Send your pitch to beta readers (unbiased ones, preferably!) and get their honest feedback to validate the idea. 
  • How will I grow my platform in the meantime? Don’t send off a batch of query letters and then sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait for responses! Use this time to start making yourself a more attractive author. Take classes, post on social media, pitch other publications, devote yourself to spreading your message far and wide.

And to give you some hope and real life examples to look at, here are three authors with small platforms who successfully signed book deals just this month! 

What do you think might be the X factor they had?

Three authors with small platforms

Professional photographer Casey Bradley Gent's NO WASTED DAYS, about the journey of a mother held hostage by her son's life-threatening illness and what it takes to create and sustain optimism, to Judith Bailey at Armin Lear Press, in a nice deal, for publication in spring 2023, by Sydney Harriet at Agent's Ink (world).
Court appointed special advocate (CASA) and victims of violent crime assistant Lindsey Frazier's OH LOVE, COME CLOSE, about the author's own experience with the ways that trauma fractured her identity and the steps she took to pick up the pieces left behind in order to fully live and love again, to Lauren Langston Stewart at Dexterity, in a nice deal, in an exclusive submission, for publication in spring 2023 (world).
Life coach, astrologist, and color oracle reader Ilona Pamplona's THIS JOURNAL IS YOUR MOOD RING, a rainbow of pages demonstrating how colors can reflect and influence how we feel and providing space to journal about those feelings, to Claire Gilhuly at Chronicle, in an exclusive submission, for publication in spring 2023, by Lindsey Smith at Speilburg Literary Agency.