Curtis has been working as a literary agent for over a decade to some of the top Christian authors. If you're writing a book, have one published, or are simply curious, I hope you find this post insightful. I sure learned a lot!
I've heard some people say that your first published book (and consequent sales history) can make or break your publishing career. Do you think that's true?
Bookguy: I don't know about make or break. But something I've encountered on several occasions is that an author's sales history can, sometimes, be a millstone around their neck going forward. When a publisher is trying to sell a book to retailers, the first thing a retailer does when they're pitched a book is look up that author in their sales system to see how their last book sold with that particular retailer. That sets the expectation for that retailer for this author's next book. Because the publishers know that, they tend to treat your recent sales history as a limit on your potential. It's not that they're saying you don't have the ability to write a book that will sell better than your last. What they're saying (the publishers) is that they're going to have a hard time getting a retailer to buy your book. From the publisher's perspective, they're going to offer an advance based on what they think they can sell in the first year, and the first year sales are going to be affected (to a large degree) based on retailers' expectations and willingness to stock that book. It's difficult for a book to catch fire if there's only one copy in every store, or worse. If your first book performs poorly, or very poorly, that can have a significant limiting effect on your ability to get publishers interested or excited about your next project.
If your first book did not perform as you had hoped, what are some things you can do to help?
Bookguy: You've got to give the publisher some tangible things they can go back and give the retailer as to how your second book is going to out perform the last. They need a reason to believe the second book is going to do better than the first. Tangible things would be, a bigger platform, like X thousand more people following you on Twitter, you now have a nationally syndicated radio program, your blog following has grown by 20,000 unique visitors per month in the last 6 months, you're now speaking at different conferences in front of 8,000+ people, you're going to be a columnist in a major publication, etc. Those are examples on a large scale. But the publisher needs to be armed and equipped with something the retailer can wrap their arms around and believe in to convince the retailer to look past your last book's sales history.
Another way to overcome poor sales history is to give the publisher a reasonable explanation as to why the book under performed. One client of mine wrote a book that only sold a few thousand copies in the first year, but it was published by a small, academic publisher who didn't do anything to market it. It was also co-authored by a college professor, so the book had an academic tone. When we took his second book to a new publisher, he was in a higher profile profession, had a much bigger platform, and the book had a different tone altogether (for the non-academic reader). We were able to get a $100,000 advance despite the previous book's dismal sales performance.
It seems a little like a classic chicken and egg situation when it comes to platform. How do you get a platform without a book, but how do you get a book deal (in today's market) without a platform?
Bookguy: In our culture, having a published book gives you instant credibility, that's true. You become an authority. You can start building a self published book. I'm not a big proponent of self-publishing, but that's one way of building your platform before getting a deal with a publisher. It can open doors to speaking in different places to help build your platform.
But you don't have to have a book to build a platform. What you need is access to readers. You, personally, being able to reach them. You can build a twitter following, a speaking platform, a successful blog, by creating content of value, working hard, and gaining a following of people who appreciate what you provide. In this day, it's getting harder and harder to get published without a platform, but you don't need a book to start making a platform.
I should also add that the quality of your platform matters, too. It's not only about quantity, but knowing enough of the right people to get the ball rolling, to get a public hearing. There are several clients I've had who don't have huge platforms, are not prominent on social media, they aren't pastors or bloggers, yet they know the right people, other influencers, who help them spread the world about their book.
What are realistic expectations an author should have about what's required of them to help sell their own book?
Bookguy: Seth Godin wrote that "marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department." That's become a mantra for me in advising my authors. You can't sit back and rely solely on the publisher's marketing team to sell your book. I was recently on a call with a client, and we were reviewing a marketing plan for the first time with the publisher's marketing director. The marketing director said, "We think our marketing plan shouldn't list a bunch of ways for you to market your book. Instead, this plan is about how we plan to market your book." And that was refreshing to hear because usually the attitude most publishers exhibit these days is the opposite. Seven or eight years ago we first met with the head of one of the top New York publishers and were told, "Our job as a publisher is to find an audience for your book." Even back then it was heartening to hear a publisher volunteer that it's their responsibility.
Our friend Mike Hyatt, who recently wrote a NY Times bestseller, Platform, speaks about how to build a platform and often tells a story about a once very successful author. In the years when the author's sales were on the decline, the author was asked in a meeting to help market and sell his next book. The author told Mike (who was the publisher at Thomas Nelson at the time): "My job is to write the books. Your job is to sell them." Mike uses that story as an illustration of the way things have changed in the publishing world. He shares that the author's misguided attitude was a key reason why the author's books haven't continued to sell what they used to.
If you're going to go into publishing with the expectation that your job is to write the book and their job is to sell the book, you're going to be sorely disappointed. That isn't to say you shouldn't push the publisher to get as much out of them as you can. But at the end of the day, you have to, for the most part, take responsibility for getting the word out about your book.
I'm sure people are wondering, when it comes to platform, what kind of numbers are we talking about, to secure a publishing deal?
Bookguy: Numbers are just numbers. I've seen different people say different numbers are the threshold for success, but really, there is no definite number to shoot for. Some bloggers have huge platforms, but they cannot convert their blog readership to books. Some radio broadcasters are nationally syndicated but they can't translate listeners into book sales. So, just because you have lots of people reading your blog, listening on the radio, or following you on Twitter, it doesn't mean your books will sell. I could give you numbers, but it doesn't mean any sort of guarantee.
What books (from your firm) are you excited about personally, that are just releasing or releasing soon?
Bookguy: David Platt has a new book releasing in February called Follow me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live. It's about what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus. John Ortberg just released a new book called Who Is This Man? which explores the unfathomable impact that Jesus has had on the world in the last 2,000 years since he died. John Eldredge is publishing a book this January called The Utter Relief of Holiness. He shows readers how they can be set free from all that plagues them through the healing work of Christ in their lives. It's a portrait of holiness as liberation, rather than the typical conception of striving and straining. Finally, in January, Gary Thomas is publishing The Sacred Search: What If It's Not About Why You Marry, But Why? , a book offering biblical wisdom for choosing a marriage partner. It's a paradigm shifting book about choosing a sole mate, as opposed to looking for your one true soul mate.
To learn more about Yates & Yates, follow them on Twitter @YatesandYates or check out their cool ebook, which explains their unique approach to agenting (and highlights some authors they've helped): www.makingideasmatter.com.
Or you can follow us on Twitter: @KarenYates11 and @CurtYates.
If you have any follow up questions for Curtis, please leave a comment and ask. I'll try to finagle an answer out of him over porkchops and potatoes. :)