It’s Not As Bad As You Think
July 11, 2022 § 12 Comments
Jane Friedman analyzes 2022 memoir deals to determine the role of platform in the author’s success.
Reprinted with permission, from The Hot Sheet.
In the last decade, I haven’t hosted a single class on the business of publishing that hasn’t led to at least one question along the lines of “How many social media followers do I need to satisfy an agent/publisher?” or “Do I need to join [social media outlet] to get a book deal?”
Is it really the case that writers need a sizable following to land a book deal? Some agents and editors would have you believe that, and they might ask for platform information by default in a query/submission form. In some cases, namely nonfiction, one can understand why it might be essential. To write and publish a weight-loss book or a guide on financial planning, authors need credibility, and an online following of some kind (podcast, blog, newsletter, etc.) signals attention and trust. No one wants to publish a book by an uncredentialed, average Joe who doesn’t seem to have colleagues, relationships, or a relevant network for spreading the word. Social media serves as a frequent shortcut for determining whether someone has standing in their community or engages with their community, but it’s not the only measure.
Unfortunately, this social media shortcut increasingly causes writers to chase their tails and focus their energy in a way that could decrease their chances at a deal. However, I can’t deny that the biggest publishers and literary agents gravitate toward celebrities, influencers, and others who have strong followings or media connections.
To determine how much an author’s social media following might be driving book deals, I decided to analyze recent deals and research the online presence of the authors. For this exercise, I looked only at deals reported to Publishers Marketplace in 2022 in the category of memoir. Why memoir? Because it is exceedingly challenging to secure a memoir contract, and it’s an area dominated by celebrities and others with media connections. You can often tell immediately why the publisher took interest in the book. In those cases where an “average” person landed a memoir deal, I wanted to see if they had a significant online presence. If not, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that the book was bought on the merits of the writing or story itself.
I found 159 memoir deals in 2022 that fit my requirements (I excluded books by late authors or those I felt weren’t, in fact, memoir). Then I divided those 159 memoirs into the following categories:
- Celebrity memoirs: books by actors, comedians, athletes, musicians, etc. Examples include Chelsea Handler, Tom Felton (Draco in Harry Potter), Henry Winkler, Kendrick Perkins.
- Current events: books by people who have unique insight into stories making the headlines, such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, unionizing at Amazon, gun control, reproductive rights, etc.
- Platform focused: books by people like Instagram personality Taylor Wolfe and TikTok personality Madeline Pendleton Hansen, who are identified in part by their online presence.
- Media angle or connections: books with a built-in media angle (e.g., the author is the largest supplier of crystal meth in San Francisco; the author is the first-ever Black Radio City Rockette); books by people who work in the media (like CNN correspondents or New York Times employees).
- Established writers and authors: books by people who have a track record as an author or journalist.
- All others: no obvious platform- or marketing-related reason for the deal that I could discern.
Of course there is considerable overlap among these categories. Books about current events could be slotted under media angle because they are more likely to get media coverage, and established writers and authors are more likely to achieve visibility in the market due to the success of their previously published work. So it’s an imperfect categorization, but it can still help us understand how and why books sell.
Here’s how the deals fell out among these groups.
The good news? The largest percentage of deals is for “all others” or the type of author I described earlier as the average person who is not yet established and lacks a media angle. Of course, you could look at this in a more pessimistic way and say celebrities, influencers, and those positioned to get coverage suck up half of all book deals. Nevertheless, let’s look at “all others.” Who is publishing them, and what does their platform look like?
Notably, of the 37 deals for “all others,” 11 signed with the Big Five and the rest with independent houses. Those independent houses include publishers such as Black Lawrence Press, Row House, Hub City Press, Post Hill Press, Melville House, and Catapult, among others. That tells me that visibility or platform does play a role in the size of publisher willing to make an offer. In comparison, 70 percent of celebrity memoir deals were with the Big Five houses.
“Average” authors who scored a memoir deal usually had little or no social media following. Most had a modest online presence—usually Instagram and Twitter, sometimes Facebook or LinkedIn, along with a basic website. But their following is in the two, three, or four figures, not enough to attract a deal. With one author in particular, Sarah Mandel, I struggled to find any trace of her online and had a hard time differentiating her from others with the same name. HarperCollins bought her memoir about her sudden diagnosis of and remission from terminal metastatic breast cancer.
The “average” author with the biggest following was Imani Barbarin, who is writing a memoir about what it means for her to live with cerebral palsy. She’s published work in major outlets, has a speaking agent, and has a robust following on Twitter (160,000) and Instagram (115,000). Simon & Schuster bought her book. But she is not typical. Here’s a quick snapshot of others that are typical of what I found:
- Patrick Hutchison sold his memoir to St. Martin’s. It’s an expansion of a piece he wrote for Outside magazine. He has no website and 52 followers on Twitter.
- MFA graduate Margo Steines sold her memoir to Norton. It’s about the ways in which she has pushed her body to the brink. She’s published in a variety of literary outlets and has 291 followers on Twitter.
- Adjunct professor Nicole Treska sold her memoir to Simon & Schuster. It’s about creating a life for herself in New York while wondering if she can overcome her family history of crime, drugs, violence, and mental illness. She’s published short fiction in small outlets and has fewer than 1,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined.
- Molly Roden Winter sold her memoir to Doubleday; it’s about her open marriage. She has fewer than 500 followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook combined.
- Carolyn Dekker sold her memoir-in-essays about teaching and family life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Black Lawrence Press. She is a professor who has published in some journals and has about 200 followers on Instagram.
Bottom line: A platform isn’t required to secure a book deal if the writing or story premise appeals to the agent or publisher. However, platform has become a frequently cited reason for rejection. I see it as an easy-way-out response, because it is nearly impossible, in the short term, to build a platform big enough to merit a book deal, and agents and publishers know this. (My guess is they would rather not state they don’t believe in the work.) Fiction writers and memoirists especially should spend less time worrying about social media numbers and more time addressing questions like “Why should anyone care about this story?” or “How can I write a better story?”
Publishing expert Jane Friedman writes The Hot Sheet, full of publishing industry and market news every two weeks. Not yet a subscriber? Get two free issues.
Want to know more about what kind of platform will help you? Sign up for Jane’s webinar I Need a Platform, Pronto! August 21st.