Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Are You the Right Person to Write That Book?

Happy New Year everyone!

I received a whole bunch of query letters over the holiday, somewhere between two and three hundred (thanks to everyone who sent one). It's actually very interesting to read a lot of query letters at once because I feel like I can get a sense of the pulse of readers out there by analyzing query letter trends.

For instance, a few years back I was receiving a ton of query letters about vampires. I couldn't figure out why I was getting all these vampire letters -- I don't represent any vampire literature, I am not personally a vampire (some might disagree), and at that time there was no movie or book out there that would really explain the sudden surge in vampire queries. And yet just a year later, Elizabeth Kostova's THE HISTORIAN, a book in part about, yes, vampires, went on to mega-bestsellerdom. So there was something in the air that people out there sensed, and my query-letter-based prediction that a vampire book would become a huge bestseller panned out (I did not, sadly, win any money or a cool prize for this prediction.)

Subsequent query-letter waves have been a bit more mundane. There was the wave of Da Vinci Code ripoffs... I mean imitators (which, uh, told me that people liked the Da Vinci Code), the wave of people who wanted to either explain or debunk religion (which predicted the marked success of books like Karen Armstrong's THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION and Richard Dawkins' THE GOD DELUSION), and, of course, the first person accounts of extra-terrestrial encounters (which tell me that there are a lot of crazy people out there).

So what's the current hot query theme? Terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism. I'm not sure why there's a sudden uptick in terrorism queries, but nonfiction proposals on terrorism are really common.

But here's the problem: no one who is writing me is an expert on terrorism.

Let's say you are thinking about writing a book of nonfiction. The first thing you need to do is assume that every single person in the entire world wants to write a book (which isn't really an assumption, it's basically true). The second thing you need to do is ask yourself if you are the most qualified person in the entire world to write that book.

This applies to virtually all nonfiction. If you want to write a cookbook, are you a nationally recognized chef or on the Food Network? If you want to write about terrorism, are you one of the world's foremost experts on terrorism? If you want to write about an actual event that happened, are you a decorated journalist? Heck, if you want to write a book about extraterrestrial encounters, are you an internationally recognized expert on extraterrestrial encounters?

If the answer to that question is no, then sorry, chances are you're not going to get your book published. If you can imagine someone out there who is more qualified than you to write a book, then that person probably already has their proposal in front of publishers as we speak.

In the publishing industry, this is called "platform" -- publishers want to know that you are the best person in the entire world to be writing that book. They want to know that you have the authority to speak on the topic, that you are the type of expert that people will want to interview on TV, that you are the most qualified person out there. Publishers are obsessed with platform almost to a fault -- people who have some platform and who are great writers are often passed over because they don't have enough platform to pass muster.

Publishers are even starting to look more and more at platform in fiction. A lot of debut novelists already have a web-based following or are fixtures in their local writing scenes. Or they are a celebrity or have a good backstory. You can see publishers' obsession with platform reflected in the JT Leroy scandal. Great writing is not always enough, and, recognizing this, a struggling writer created an entire fictional author with a tragic (completely made up) life history just to get ahead. It actually worked until, you know, the supoosedly HIV+ transgender former teenage prostitute author was discovered to be a 42 year old woman.

Now, I'm not saying you should invent a fictional persona, but it just goes to show how hungry publishers and the reading public are for a good platform to go along with a good novel.

So think hard about your platform when you're picking a book topic. Even if you saw an honest-to-god alien messing with your dog last night, remember that the world's foremost expert on alien/dog interactions just had drinks with his agent and polished off his book proposal.


David Isaak said...

Platforms may be legitimate concerns in nonfiction and possibly even in shoes, but they are idiotic ideas with reference to novels. Neither Stephen Crane nor Tom Clancy ever had the slightest experience of the military or combat, and I'm pretty certain that Wally Lamb was never a woman nor Joyce Carol Oates a boxer.

There is a reason for opprobrium to be heaped on James Frey, but in the case of JT Leroy I say more power to her. If people are stupid enough to buy novels based on their perceptions of the author's life, they are sheep who deeply deserve shearing. The concepts of "platform" and "novel" should never have come within a mile of one another.

kcoldiron said...

Any thoughts on platform when it comes to memoir?

The_Inquirer said...

I'm surprised to see too few comments on a topic that, as per Nathan's post, seems far too important. Certainly platform is very important for non-fiction to prove your expertise on the matter - but what if someone is working on an "inner platform" for years, without any visible proof of recognition in the other people's eyes? And then they write a book on a topic they have no "expertise" in but feel very strongly about and have something genuine and original to share with the world? Who among the seven billion of us can claim to be an expert on, say, love? Or, for that matter, on why we laugh, cry, fight, and do zillion other things that make us human? Would an agent still harp on "platform" and ignore the merit of the writing itself? Is there any chance such a wannabe writer would be given a hearing by an agent?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting (as usual), Nathan. Thanks for bringing this topic to our attention. I also echo Inquirer's remarks. As someone who has been researching and writing a multi-disciplinary nonfiction book for about 10 years, I worry a great deal about platform. Years ago, the advice was: if you write a great proposal for nonfiction, it doesn't matter how invisible you have been. (Fiction might be a bit trickier.) More recently - and I blame reality shows with celebrity chefs & celebrity money managers (celebrity this and that actually) - that advice seems to be passé. Although I write well and have original ideas, my obscurity damns me to further obscurity. The latest advice? Get a blog. Then the NY Times Style page says what I've been saying about blogs: many fail because no one knows about them (there are millions to read, after all!) so no one comments. No comments, no "fame," and no tie-in with that book you want. I really shudder to think about the fate of the book if these kind of hoops must be jumped through. It's all about safety - for agents and publishers. I understand they want to keep their jobs, but where is the risk that accompanies all great art and the pursuit of knowledge? Sad.

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