The literary agent explains what platforms are (and what they aren’t), built-in audiences and the art of matchmaking.
Anita Bartholomew is an agent with The Salkind Literary Agency. She is a former contributing editor to Reader’s Digest, whose articles have appeared in numerous other major magazines as well including Salon, Good Housekeeping, MBA Jungle, Omni, 21st C., Continental and Woman’s Day. As a writer, editor and book doctor, her specialties have included health, science, social issues, politics, profiles, and narrative nonfiction.
Meredith: How do you know when a creative partnership is going to fly? What seals the deal for you—with an author and, then, the publisher for that author?
ANITA: As you might know, I’ve only recently become an agent. I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, and for the past ten years or so, I’ve also worked as an editor/book doctor. Thanks to my editing background, I can usually quickly tell if something has that special spark, even if the work isn’t submission-ready. What seals the deal? What depends. Before I’d read half the manuscript written by one of my children’s book authors, I knew I had to sign her. Had to. I was laughing out loud, while furiously turning pages to see what happened next to characters who, although part of a fantasy world, became very real to this reader, very quickly.
The flip side of that is I was expecting to reject a memoir writer because her proposal was weighed down with so much extraneous material, I couldn’t see where she was going, and imagined that her manuscript text would show the same problems. Boy, was I wrong. When I got to her sample chapters, not only could I not put it down, I found myself completely caught up in the story and the vivid writing. I thought of it all the next day. So now, we’re working to make her overview and the rest of the proposal as compelling as her manuscript pages.
Meredith: I ask this every chance I get, as I continually sort out what “Platform” means to me. It used to really confuse (and intimidate) me. I’ve begun to view platform as a series of interconnected relationships that mutually serve the parties involved—so as a writer (me) it’s about building relationships I care about. Tell us about an agent’s view of platform—more specifically, your view.
ANITA: My definition: your platform is simply your built-in audience, the people who, when they learn your book is available, will be interested in reading it. How you get that built-in audience varies. We all know that writing an extremely popular blog, or being the lead investigator on a breakthrough medical study about something everyone wants to know (the best way to quickly lose weight, for example), gives you a built-in audience. If you’ve won a Pulitzer, a Polk, or other prestigious award (one of my authors has won both), you’ll attract interest from people who may have never heard your name but know the name Pulitzer. If you appear regularly as an expert on radio or TV, you have a built-in audience. If you have a huge fan base on Facebook, that, too, might be a built-in audience.
The publisher hopes that this built-in audience will translate to a large enough group of book buyers to justify the investment in publishing the author’s book. For the reasons above, here’s what is NOT your platform: a blog you plan to start the moment a publisher offers you a contract (nor does this sort of plan belong in your marketing section – start the blog or website before you write the proposal). But remember: there are almost as many blogs as there are people on the web. Anyone can start a blog; how many regular readers does yours already have? And how does it relate to your book?
Meredith: It seems appropriate to ask: has platform become an overused/abused term? Is it something that has always been around or is it indeed something new?
ANITA: If platform is confusing to authors, then it’s a problematic term. So, forget the term. When you pitch your proposal to an agent, point to your built-in audience, those people who will want to read what you have written, precisely because you have written it. Remember that proposals are sales documents. Anything in yours that isn’t working for you may be working against you. Your goal is to show that a sufficient number of people want and are likely to buy your book— not the book of some other author with a similar idea.
Meredith: How much should an author expect of his or her agent? Is there a point between strictly contract negotiation and uber hand-holding? You know, between the two extremes?
ANITA: The author should expect the agent to be wholly committed to finding the best home possible for her work, at the best terms, to answer questions quickly, and to be available to communicate about all matters of importance. Because I’m a relatively new agent, and I’m extremely selective about the work I represent, my clients get a great deal of attention. But if I’m spending all my time hand-holding, I’m spending less time finding the perfect house for someone’s book. I prefer to spend the time with my clients brainstorming about how we can make a manuscript or a proposal irresistible.
Meredith: When you take on a client, does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what editors and publisher would? Do you think about a client’s media appeal? How well they can sell themselves?
ANITA: As I focus primarily on fiction and narrative nonfiction, I must first find the work compelling, because these categories require a great deal more work on the agent’s part than prescriptive works, and take longer to sell. You’re not just pitching a book idea by an expert with a “platform” (that word again), where writing ability isn’t an issue because a co-author can be brought onto the project. With fiction, for example, you’re pitching a work by a writer who must be able to sweep you into a story, get you to believe in and care about the characters, and who can sustain reader involvement for 300, 400, 500 pages. The work will almost always need some tweaking, after which the agent must reread those 300, 400, 500 pages, perhaps make further suggestions, and read again. If the agent isn’t in love, it isn’t worth the work involved.
But immediately after falling in love, you have to remember that you’re not a part of the eventual marriage; you’re the matchmaker. So you have to think about whether there is a market for this work at this time, which editors might fall in love as you have, and how you’re going to assure those editors that the investment in this book will likely pay them dividends. Whether media appeal is part of what makes the book a good investment depends on the type of book.
Anita added this: “I’m not the right agent for most prescriptive, self-help, etc, information-only books, unless they’re amazingly insightful, unique, fill an unfulflled need, etc., are probably not going to do as well as narrative from now on, because info is all over the web. But a story is something people will still want to curl up with—and pay for—whether on paper on an e-reader. Click the following links to learn more about Anita and the clients she’s seeking and The Salkind Literary Agency.