Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Grand Central Executive Editor, Jaime Levine

  1. Jeff Rivera: What is a platform exactly in the mindset of someone who acquires books?
Jaime Levine: A platform is something that starts the writer from a higher level promotionally and makes them stand out from the crowd.
In Nonfiction, the platform is the mechanism an author has or activities they participate in that enable them to help promote their own book. Is there a way in which people seek them out to hear what they think? Has the author already got an established audience that would be interested in reading a book? (Note: it's important that the book be about the subject the person is known for). E.g. are they a journalist who already has a popular column or steady work publishing articles, a segment on a tv show, or website on which they can talk about their book? Are they signed up with a speaker's bureau and regularly speaking publicly? Are they already sought after for interviews or articles on their subject by the press or media or relevant organizations?
Another element that goes into having or establishing a platform is the author's credentials. I.e. the aspects of the person's life that make him or her relevant to write about their subject and create the perception that they are a reliable resource. E.g. a doctor writing about a medical issue. A chef writing a cookbook. The leader of a successful company writing about his business style or leadership style or managerial style. An academic or a person who has done tremendous research on a subject writing about a historical moment.
In the world of Fiction, a platform is not a requirement. In fact, I don't think I ever talk about platforms when I'm discussing acquisition of fiction novels. My decisions are based on my response to reading the manuscript.
However, for purposes of discussion: Having a platform as a fiction writer can mean a couple of things, but always they are mechanisms for getting attention for a new book. A platform can therefore be an already established reputation as a writer by having published other books successfully. Another way of having a platform as a fiction writer are having the means to help by doing your own promotion. I.e. someone who has an active online presence and will draw attention to themselves. (Note: Every author should at the very least build their own personal websites, no excuses. In this day and age, there's no reason not to have posted a couple of pages of information about your books, when the next one is coming and when/where you'll be appearing in public.) Online is not the only mechanism for self-promotion, though, there's also attending and networking at professional or consumer conventions. Or simply being creative and coming up with marketing ideas, then implementing them. The catch is that this sort of thing can't be taught. I mean, one can take a seminar on marketing or buy a book on marketing, but then one has to think outside the box and come up with something that hasn't been done before, and have the energy to pursue it. Brad Meltzer is an amazing self-marketer and he is his own platform. He's creative and innovative and willing to consider any idea, no matter how outlandish. He then takes action on his ideas by networking and developing the sort of contacts that enable his ideas to come to fruition.
A part of having a platform as a fiction writer is also about credentials--having some basis for knowledge of your fictional subject. E.g. John Grisham and Scott Turow were both lawyers before they turned to novel writing, and they write legal thrillers. Nelson Demille did a tremendous amount of research on the investigation of the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that was the basis for his novel Nightfall. This kind of professional/personal history for the author merely gives interviewers and features writers something to hook their questions on when getting to know an author in an interview--the author essentially bills themselves as an expert on the subject. It's really difficult to get publicity for fiction writers in part because it would be boring to interview a writer who is merely going to sit and describe the plot of their book. Interviewers want to know more about the author, how they got published, why they got into writing, and what they know that lends itself to writing great novels. For these purposes, it can help to have lived the experience you are writing about.
I want to stress that in the world of fiction, the platform is really not a requirement. It doesn't matter what the author can or would do to promote themselves if I don't actually enjoy reading their manuscript. And when I find a novel that I love and want to publish, I only hope the author is open to self-marketing, but I don't need to know what they'd do in advance to win me to buying their book.

3. Jeff Rivera: Why is it so important to have a platform in today's marketplace compared to years ago?
Jaime Levine: This has to do with how differently books are marketed today than the were in the past. Once upon a time, books were really marketed straight to people who were already readers and already interested in books. (Probably it was a lot of the same people over and over again). Readers knew where to go for the information that would tell them about books they might want to read. The actual marketing was in the form of things like book reviews, public appearances and book signings, and handselling by booksellers in independent stores (which is what the market largely consisted of).
Nowadays we are marketing to any and all consumers, so we draw interest based on the topic of the book. I.e. we are appealing to people who are interested in a subject or person or event and want to read more about it, even if they don't otherwise ordinarily read many books. To do this, we have to approach those consumers in the place where they are getting information about that subject, peson, event etc. This often means advertising or publicizing online or on tv or on radio. It's a process that's grown difficult because there's so much more information, media and noise coming at people, so it can be hard to get across the message of the book. But that's why it's important to be creative and innovative.
4. Jeff Rivera: If someone has an amazing book proposal but practically no platform would you still be interested?
Jaime Levine: We make our decisions based on a lot of factors. There's no one detail that makes or breaks the book.
5.Jeff Rivera: If I am Joe Blow from Smallville, Kentucky how can I create a platform from scratch?
Jaime Levine: It's so specific to the individual and their book that I don't know where to begin to answer this. A platform cannot be created around just anyone, but any platform that is created is based on who the author is, what they do, and what their book is. My advice: I think the first and most important thing a "Joe Blow from Smallville" can do is research and networking. One of the things I say most often to writers is "Do Your Homework." Be a sponge for information and advice. Read books about marketing (of anything, not just books). Read books about networking. Read articles about authors who do self-promotion and see what they've done. Go to professional events for writers and pay attention in the seminars that have to do with self-marketing (e.g. go to a writers conference or if you are a genre writer, go to a consumer convention and look for the panels on the business of publishing.) Or join a professional organization for writers. (E.g. all the main commercial genres like SF/Fantasy, romance, mysteries and thrillers all have their own supportive trade organizations.) I haven't looked, but I'm sure that there's got to be plenty of advice online about self-promotion and building a platform. I bet there have been writers who probably wrote about self-promotion on their own websites or who engage in discussions about it online. There are ways to gather this information, one just has to start. A good tip, regardless of what subject your book is on or whether you publish in nonfiction or fiction--go seek the authors and information about the authors who are already writing in the area you plan to write in and see what they do, how they do it etc. Whether you are a writer, a dentist, or running a restaurant or any other business, one always has to know what one's competition is doing, so start early.
6. Jeff Rivera: What absolutely needs to be in a book proposal that would blow your socks off compared to the thousands of others that might be rotting on an editor's desk? (besides the obvious like an overview, chapter summary, etc.)

Jaime Levine: I like an overview, chapter summary, and sample of the writing (as much as possible of the latter). I like it when things are neatly organized so I can quickly get the picture. I don't want to have to sift to know what I'm reading. Otherwise, there's no right answer.
7. Jeff Rivera: What would make you read a book proposal overnight compared to one you'll "get to when you get to..."?

Jaime Levine: A great initial pitch in their cover letter (which should be brief and to the point). Basically -- give me the hook. Learn to distill your book into it's most important parts and then tell it to me at the start. Make sure to state plainly what exactly the book is (category, style etc) E.g. Here's the pitch that got me interested in my author Carrie Vaughn -- "It's a supernatural fantasy about a radio DJ who is also a werewolf---it's like Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with Frazier. If you like early Laurell K. Hamilton, you'll like Carrie Vaughn" That was the pitch. You'll notice a) they tell me exactly what the book is by category -- it's a supernatural fantasy. b) they further clarify what the book is by denoting another popular author who is similar. c) they tell me what makes this book stand out from other supernatural fantasies -- she's a radio DJ. All of this is about defining for me what the book is and why it is special in the simplest, but most exciting terms. Marketing in general is about clear and consistent messaging.
I know that sometimes writers get frustrated by the way that publishers always seem to be reducing them to categories and pigeon-holing them. Or it can feel uncomfortable to speak about one's art in language that sounds like a marketing gimick. But the truth is that everyone talks about books (or movies, or tv shows or music) in this way this all the time. Readers making recommendations to their friends don't spend hours boring and confusing their friends by describing all the intricacies of the plot of a book (they probably wouldn't keep their friends if they did!). Instead readers focus on what the book is and what they know about their friend that would make them interested. E.g. "Hey, I know that you love Laurell Hamilton and books about werewolves, and I just read someone new you should try!" Booksellers (who are often readers themselves) handsell to their customers by talking in these same sorts of soundbites. Our Sales Representatives sell to the Booksellers this way, I pitch to my Sales Reps this way, and Literary Agents pitch to me in this way. It's a very natural daisy-chain.
Another thing that will win me to reading a proposal more quickly is the enthusiasm of the literary agent. (I don't look at unsolicited materials). Enthusiasm is infectious. It's infections when it comes to anything -- agents pitching books, a movie review inspiring me to see a movie, even a friend suggesting a restaurant for dinner etc.
8.Jeff Rivera: If having a blog is a form of a platform what numbers of visitors would actually mean something to someone like you? And what numbers would you scoff at?

Jaime Levine: This really depends on what the book is and what else the platform consists of. And if the author is fiction or nonfiction. But first, having a blog isn't the only piece to the internet puzzle. One has to be networked and linked and just generally involved in the world of the internet. One has to be going and spending time on other people's sites and participating in larger discussions. Read a book about the basics of business networking, and I bet you can apply those principles in some way to the internet. Beyond that, I don't know what to say about specific numbers. It's got to feel like this person is drawing notice from more than just their friends and family.
9. Jeff Rivera: If someone has self-published their book first and it really does look professional (rather than Kinko's bound) what would make you sit up and take notice and what would make you roll your eyes?

Jaime Levine: The sales would catch my eye. If an author has self-published and managed to sell copies to more than just their friends and family, then we take notice. I may roll my eyes at ugly covers, but I don't dismiss books cause of them. Self-publishing by its nature means a different set of resources, so I don't expect the author to do things our way.