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How to de-risk book publishing

Finding indicators that reduce risk and improve the likelihood of success

The nature of book publishing is changing, in ways big and small. In fact, the very nature of what a book ‘is’ is shifting. But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about these past few days. No, my exploration today is about authors – and what the author of the future needs to do in order to be good partners with their publisher.

Wow, did I just say that? You bet I did. Partners. Because the nature of how books are conceived, written, and brought to market, is being dramatically re-invented.

The concept of de-risking comes from Venture Capital. VC’s look at new investments, and find themselves more inclined to write a check when they can de-risk an investment. Which is to say, find some indicators or elements that reduce the risk and improve the likelihood of success.

Historically, books weren’t published that way. Books were chosen on merit, or in some cases, an author’s previous track record. But risk analysis wasn’t artistic, and didn’t tend to lend itself toward the work of creative, idiosyncratic, often insular people known as authors.

Today – Social Media makes all those old world attributes charming, but antiquated. Authors are the spark-plugs of their ideas, both the makers of the books they write, and the conveners of conversations around their topic.

When I wrote my first book, the publisher asked me about my ‘platform’. I confess, I didn’t know that I had one. Of course I did. I was already a well-regarded blogger and organizer of tech events and conferences. I spoke, paneled, and had a growing profile in the thought leadership space.

But today, de-risking an investment in an author and a book means asking some new questions about how they can activate a readership, and move people from the sidelines and into the important space of paying customer. A book buyer is a rare and wonderful thing.

So, in looking to form a partnership with a writer, publishers need to look for writers who are both prolific and passionate. Voices that can break through the increasingly overwhelming noise, and attract attention that can be sustained and amplified.

For many writers, Social Media is thought of as chore, or a obligation. But for a new generation of authors – the book is the lynchpin to a conversation that crosses media boundaries. A successful book can have a life that begins in blog posts, grows to magazine articles – launches in print – and then is amplified and magnified via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and even sharing sites like Pinterest and FourSquare.

Simply put – in a world of way too much free content, asking someone to pay for content requires more than a nifty marketing campaign and a snazzy book jacket. It requires a promise. A promise that you’re joining an exclusive club that is ‘hosted’ by the author. This club promises deep knowledge, ongoing conversations, and shared information. The decision to buy a book now often comes after you’ve met the author, heard his or her public speaking, and read blog posts and tweets.

Social Media has turned book marketing upside down.

So, how can publishers ‘de-risk’ decisions about a book’s potential in the marketplace? Start with this 5 Point checklist.

  1. Twitter.
  2. Facebook.
  3. Paid Speaking (speaking agent)
  4. Moderating / Convening Conversations (Meetup)
  5. Blogging / Website

TWITTER. While it’s easy to disregard Twitter as a noisy world of too many, too short posts, Twitter followers are incredibly important. They reflect people who’ve ‘voted’ that your point of view is important. And, Twitter followers are your most likely form of re-broadcasters. They’re both fans and advocates. Building a Twitter following takes time, consistent nurturing, and effort. An author with a large Twitter following is more likely to sell books than one who’s opted out of this new communications format.

FACEBOOK. Yes, Facebook used to be a connecting point for friends and family. But today it’s more more than that. For writers who tend to want to use words with precision, the idea of having thousands of ‘friends’ seems disingenuous. Fair enough. But Facebook friends are engaged fans who want to engage and share. So an active Facebook community is good evidence that book sales will follow.

SPEAKING. In the old world of publishing, authors often swapped speaker’s fees for book sales – driving the always important best sellers list. But today, speaking is far more than a way to front load book sales. Speaking gigs generate blog posts, Instagram pictures, tweets, and buzz. People who connect with you while speaking will buy your book, and become your advocates. So authors with speaking agents, and a track record of successful public presentations, are doing more than a book tour, they’re selling memberships into a community of ideas – paid for with book sales.

CONVENING CONVERSATIONS. Paid speakers are always having to balance a speaker’s fee with a great venue or community opportunity. I organize the NY Video Meetup, the largest group of web video professionals in the world. I don’t make a dime, and it’s real work. Why do I do it? Because the topics of entrepreneurism, video, curation, and content, matter to me – and I enjoy leading the conversation in this community forum.

BLOGGING. I used to have a blog and a website. I still do, but most of my writing is for others. I’m a regular contributor to Forbes.com, FastCompany, HuffingtonPost, TribecaFutureOfFilm, and Mashable. Yes, I’d like to have that traffic on my blog. But I’ve come to realize being a spark-plug and conversation starter is often better accomplished on other blogs with existing readers and traffic.

It used to be that having conversations with readers came after publication. But today – a book is the outcome of thought leadership, blogging, and conversational leadership. It is the deep, valuable synthesis of a thought leader’s vision and understanding. It’s paid media, and as such – needs to provide something that free media doesn’t.

So – if you want to know if an author can sell books, search Twitter. It’s a good place to start.

Steven Rosenbaum is an Author,  Founder,  and Public Speaker.  His book ‘Curation Nation‘ was published in 2011 by McGrawHill Business.  He is currently writing ‘Adventures in the Cloud Economy’, an exploration of how new technology platforms are providing entrepreneurs with flexible and cost effective building blocks for the new digital economy.  Rosenbaum was named NYC’s first Entrepreneur at Large,  and blogs and speaks regularly about digital overload,  emerging video form-factors,  and curation.  You can follow him on twitter @Magnify

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Comments: 18

  1. This sounds a lot like what Mike Masnick over at techdirt.com has been advocating for years. 

  2. I agree with the notion of “finding indicators that reduce risk and improve the likelihood of success.” However, I disagree — passionately — with the indicators that you’ve written up here, and in fact believe that these indicators INCREASE risk in many cases.

    You wrote: “an author with a large twitter following is more likely to sell books…” and I would love to see hard evidence on this one. There are anecdotes, sure, with popular authors who THEN write a book and there’s certainly a correlation. But we all sold books *before* there was a Twitter.

    The notion that a book’s success is driven by an author’s social media popularity/follower counts is so pervasive and disturbing to me that it is precisely why I quit Twitter… just to make a point (if for nobody other than myself). And did my book sales decline? No, of course not. Because my book sales were never based on anything I did *other than the way I designed and created the book*.

    Way too many authors are told that the very reason they SHOULD write a book is for the social and professional credibility… To be the one who literally “wrote the book” on topic X. This creates a conflict of interest, because what’s good for the writer’s credibility may be exactly wrong for the reader’s ability to use the book. Nowhere is this more true than for technical books, where the typical complaint most people have about them is that the book proves how smart the author is, but doesn’t help the reader get there. “Clear only if known” syndrome.

    Now we have both authors and publishers practically demanding the author have a “platform”. Yet there is at least plenty of anecdotal evidence of social media super stars whose books never came close to earning out their advance, meanwhile near-recluse authors (myself included) continue to have bestsellers. The math does not work, I think, because even if you have, say, a BIG Twitter following of 5,000 legit, actual, “fans”, and even if through some statistically absurd event all 5,000 of those followers bought the book, that isn’t even likely to earn out most modest advances. And we already know that simply having a lot of fans and followers really doesn’t count for much when it comes to actually PAYING for the book. The book still has to *work* for the reader.

    Yes it is true that an author with a following has a head start and getting a few people to realize the book is good, and then talk about it. But that can be done JUST as easily *without* the author’s social media influence. All it takes is a couple of credible people saying, “hey, this book worked for me. I learned from it. It makes sense now. I can do this now.” and most readers could probably not care less who actually wrote it. Because we (authors) aren’t nearly as important to the reader as we’d like to believe, or as publishers (who want/expect us to have a platform) need to believe.

    All of it is a huge distraction from what really matters. From what has always mattered. Did it actually help the reader do more, be more, accomplish more — in a way that is substantially better than other books in the category? That is the one attribute that virtually guarantees success, and is robust. That said, if a group of books on a category have no clear distinguishing benefits — if they are all perceived by readers and potential readers as roughly similar — then THIS is where all those OTHER things make a difference. Out-friending or out-trending the competition can certainly be a strategy, but it is an exhausting and fragile strategy that leads to the author-platform arms race. And NONE of this really leads to substantially better books.

    I blame publishers for a lot of this, but it’s also clear that an author with a big social media presence that also has a bestselling book will often assume causation over correlation. Whenever this comes up, I just start asking people about some of the books they have, especially the ones they love, and whether they also follow that author on Twitter. Looking down the longest-running tech bestsellers — including my own — I see quite a number of people (including my co-authors as well) that have little or no Twitter presence, little or no “platform”. And when anyone mentions that I don’t need one NOW because people already know about my books, I remind them that when my books first came out, nobody knew anything about me, and in fact, most readers of my books still don’t. And it doesn’t matter, because I don’t matter to my readers. The ONLY thing that matters is what has always been true for books and most products: what happens when the clicking/swiping/page-turning is over.

    I agree on one key area of your post: that social media DOES matter, deeply, in the success of books today. But it is not author-to-reader or author-to-potential-reader. It is reader-to-reader. It has never been easier for THEM to talk to one another. For them to recommend a book. For them to casually, effortlessly mention the book that made a difference for them. THIS is a dream come true for authors today. But the question we authors must ask ourselves is NOT “how can I get more followers, fans, likes?” but rather, “what can I enable that might help my READER talk to his fans and followers?” or even better, “What can I do to help my READER get more fans, followers, likes?” what can I enable that makes my reader more capable, more interesting, more confident, etc. at whatever it is he bought my book to accomplish?

    Focusing on the author platform puts the focus on what the author does, says, IS when all that matters is what the reader does, says, IS. Forgetting that is (in my opinion) a major part of why SO many technical books never earn outs despite being technically high quality books. They beautifully, skillfully showcase the technology and the author’s command of that technology, including every subtle, tricky, hidden corner case… when what their readers may have needed was opening the door to a new way of thinking about this technology, and a memorable, usable way of beginning to actually do something with it.

    Sorry for the rant, but as I said, I quit my Twitter account with 18,000 *real* followers (as I followed less than 1,000) JUST to make a statement about how UNimportant the author platform really is, and to emphasize how much it is about the READER platform.

    •  Sierra – appreciate the long and thoughtful response.

      But,  here’s what happened next.  I said, ok – i want to see what she’s written.  Google results:  #1 is a Facebook account with little information (your profile headshot has your face cut off).  #2 a Pinterest link with 0 pins,  0 posts and 0 boards.  Empty.  #3 is you commenting on a blog post.  Then,  off to Amazon to find your books.  Nothing – zero – zilch.

      So,  I get opting out of Twitter (actually I dont)  but you’ve got no way for a reader who might be a book buyer to find your work.  That’s crazy.

      In terms of your 18,000 Twitter followers.  How ’bout this – send them to ME @Magnify. I’ll follow them, respond to DM’s,  engage in a conversation.  Promise.  Don’t let all the social media juice go to waste.

      • I went on Google, typed in :”Kathy Sierra” and immediately found links to a whole host of books, including the Headfirst series that she created for O’Reilly. I went to Amazon and typed in “Kathy Sierra” and was immediately brought to her author page:


        I don’t think you’re doing the search right.

      • “you’ve got no way for a reader who might be a book buyer to find your work. That’s crazy.”

        With respect, the idea that there’s no way for people to find my work is irrelevant. As I said, it is not ABOUT *my* work. It is about what THEY need/want to be able to do. And for that, there are fabulous, wonderful, near-perfect ways accessible to anyone: an amazon search for *the topic*, sort by bestseller or most popular, etc. THAT is what matters. Nobody should be buying a book because *I* wrote it and they are interested in *my* work. They should be buying the best book for their current needs.

        The other place people can go to find the book they need is — the best place of all — the online communities for that particular topic. User groups, discussion groups, Q and A sites, etc. This is where social media shines as well for both authors and readers… A potential reader can ask the group, “hey, I really want to find a book that does…” and at that point, it really is a meritocracy. Not on the Best Book or Best Author wins, but a meritocracy on the Book That Helped Readers way.

        One reason I feel strongly about this approach: the series I created (including my own four books in it) has now sold over two million print copies. That does not include all the digital sales, where it is also the bestselling series. And I have another book by a previous publisher that is still a bestseller. At last check, Amazon’s computers and technology bestseller list tracks the number of days a book has been on the bestseller list. The # 1 and # 2 books on that list (more than 2,000 days on the bestseller list) were from my series, both books that I co-authored… And with co-authors who had even less of a “platform” than I did.

        I take this very seriously, as my entire income is derived from books — through royalties on my own, as well as from the series, but also through helping edit other books. And the author’s desire to write the book most likely to reflect well on the author is by far the cause of most of the problems in a book. Not in terms of evaluating the book on its merits, but when evaluating it in terms of potential sales. No book will be successful unless it is the book written to make the READER be/look good. And the book that does this better than other competing books… Doesn’t need an author platform.

        If I were to write my next book under a pseudonym (as I use on Facebook), AND it is the book that actually works for the readers, it might take slightly longer to start selling than if I used my real name, but it would ultimately make zero difference. I don’t know how many ways I can say this, but it is and never will be about me. Authors and publishers who continue to believe this are inadvertently promoting an idea that often leads to worse, not better book sales because it emphasizes that which is least helpful or important to readers.

        I do agree that authors who are able to fully engage with their readers is a big benefit to readers who are already fans of the book. But that’s a completely different story. If someone tells you they are not going to buy a book because the author doesn’t “engage on social media” , either the book was ABOUT social media (the one topic where it makes sense), or the book had no discernible competitive advantages (so they picked one based on the author platform), or they’re just not being truthful.

        I invite everyone to, again, take a hard look at their own bookshelf — at the books they most use and love — and consider whether the author’s decision to stop tweeting would diminish your view of the book. Or for that matter, ANY product. Most of the tools I love the most — the ones you’d have to tear from my hands — did not have a Pinterest strategy. And that is all a book is… a tool. It will live or die on its usefulness, period.

        The best design approach for a book is to think of it as a UI — not that it HAS a UI, but that it IS a UI. An interface into an experience that we have designed. A context in which the user/reader goals can be achieved in the way that best respects their needs. And as every UI designer knows, in most cases the BEST UI is the one that simply vanishes into the background. That is how I think of myself as both an author and, at times, a keynote speaker. I am just a UI, and best when I vanish into the background.

    • I have a few observations to add here. 

      I appreciate Kathy raising the level of the discussion here. Authors receive so many mixed signals about the nature of the publishing industry these days that it’s confounding to many of them, veteran and new. Where I think many of us individuals engaged in the conversation falter is two-fold: 1) we accept, uncritically, claims that “platforms matter” and “social media is king for authors” on one hand and 2) we assume that our experience, whether in line with #1 or against it, is evidence enough to apply to all authors.I think one of Kathy’s point is this: Don’t accept outrightly that an author, veteran or aspiring, has to play the social media game to get their books in the hands of readers.

      Kathy adds great value to this conversation by re-directing authors’ attention to readers’ experience. This emphasis applies not only to authors of technical writing books (Sierra’s forte and niche) but also to authors of creative nonfiction and fiction. Even novelists such as Barbara Kingsolver craft to design reader experiences. 

      What Kathy argues for is what I would argue for: books that matter. Writers of all ilks need to be sure they’re clear about why they’re writing – and the direction toward self-promotion, brand recognition, etc. does indeed contribute to conventional publishing’s ultimate demise.

      Philosophically, I completely agree with Kathy that a book should be about the valuable content and not about the author. The majority of books on my shelves, right behind my chair, are by authors few people have heard of.

      But I also know that now when I buy a trade nonfiction book (not a technical book) I check out authors’ creds in addition to readers’ reviews – and once I feel a kinship with an author, I will continue to buy that author’s new books until I’m disappointed.

      Steve is right to point out that, once authors do that, authors must consider formats to engage their readers. Really, both aspiring authors and even established mid-list authors whom I know and work with every day still think they can write really good books that matter and that’s all they must do to get their books in the hands of authors. 

      Where Kathy falters, I think, is in assuming that her own example and success translates to all other authors (i.e., that because she had the luxury of closing her Twitter account, etc. and still met with great success, that her situation is an example for other authors.

      Kathy’s Headstart series met with huge success, I believe, in “another era” of publishing, starting in the early and mid-2000s. It feels absurd for me to write that “2005” or even “2008” were another era of publishing, I know.

      Kathy’s books – and, yes, her platform – also gained traction before 2007 in part because of her engaging in conversations and speaking at large conferences and writing a fantastic blog.She built what in those days would have been considered an impressive platform, and her books’ success came in part because of that.

      All up to 2007.

      Before the recession.

      Before Jeff Zebos and Seth Godin and others further disrupted traditional publishing. Technology (and Jeff Zebos) has disrupted the publishing industry during the past five years just as it did the music industry and just as it is doing to high education.

      Susan Kavin offers the most thorough dissection I’ve read in some time: http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/reports_of_publishings_death_are_exaggerated_20121207/It’s naive to assume one extreme or the other: 1) Platform is everything (which my agent still tells me) and 2) Platform does not matter.

      Perhaps, we could wish that platform should not matter, but that is another argument entirely. 

      A reframe is to say that both aspiring authors and mid-list authors who want to build audiences would be wise to 1) first pursue mastery of their craft in a way that engage, captivates, and serves their readers (what Sierra and Kawasaki call “enchantment” and what I would call “wonder”), 2) be informed about the Big 6-4-2’s disruptions as well as about the many alternatives to the Big 6-4-2, 3) make intelligent, authentic decisions not based on fantasies of getting rich or becoming famous as an author.

      I hope this perspective adds value to the conversation. I respect both Mr. Rosenbaum’s and Ms. Sierra’s perspectives.

  3. Just wanted to add, Steven, that my view is not a popular one, and I’m certain far more people would agree with you than me on this. Mine is a fringe view, especially these days. But I think now more than ever it really matters for publishers and authors to shift perspective, and I think this author-platform view is heading in the wrong direction. ANYTHING author-centric (or publisher-centric) is less likely to be truly, deeply reader/user-centric.

  4. As usual, what is said here only partly applies to scholarly publishing, which is inherently risky and often needs to be subsidized because the market alone cannot support it.  That’s the nature of the enterprise and it inevitably affects how decisions are made–and risk is only one, and not necessarily a predominant, factor.

  5. The most overlooked aspect of publishing today is the actual act of publishing. Instead of focusing on producing the best product and delivering relevant and useful content (as eluded to by Kathy Sierra) publishers are worried about market exposure and the author’s platform. This results in inferior products both in content and style. 
    Books should not be the result of blogging, etc., but the beginning of blogging and conversation. This is where books have always excelled. They are conversation starters, a reference point for discussion. Instead, the publishing industry has reduced the book to a transcript of online conversations, hot topics in the media and trending discussions.
    But you’re right about books having to provide something free media doesn’t and by trying to de-risk publishers are failing to provide something worth paying for.

  6. I think many publishers use a following on social media as an indicator to get books sold. I could easily make an amazing following on Facebook, Twitter, etc. for $50 of fake people. I think worrying about false followers is a worry as well.

  7. Yes, platform is important. But for all practical purposes, a *new* author just starting out is going to get lost in the noise. There’s only one platform that matters for newcomers – Amazon Kindle. If you aren’t there and you aren’t ranking there, you don’t exist. Twitter, Facebook, Google SEO are a waste of time – there’s too much competition for attention and they’re indirect. Amazon Kindle is *direct* – you write, edit, publish and sell directly to the customer.

  8. My one cent: Like too many blog articles of late, this sticks in one’s craw because it overgeneralizes a vastly diverse industry. Its truth or falsity depends on the type of author you are. Take 3 bestselling (intentionally broad) genres:

    1. Fiction (inventive storytelling, genre-fodder, etc.);
    2. Memoir (likely-ghostwritten celebrity autobiography, my-worst-years tales, etc.);
    3. Ideas/instruction (future success, technical how-to, “self-improvement,” etc.).

    Now I’ll rewrite this article from each perspective.

    If you’re in #1, stay off Twitter and Facebook. Your time is better spent in the world you are inventing on the page. Twitter will take a ton of your time. Facebook, blogging, and coordinating speaking engagements will, too. None will matter one bit if your work isn’t good. Focus on your work.

    If you’re in #2, Twitter/Facebook followers are just numeric evidence of a larger truth: that you’re famous and get media coverage already. You should promote your book on Twitter/Facebook, but your agent/manager will also be promoting it a hundred other ways, and store placement (online or physical) and old-school publicity will, same as ever, be your biggest sales drivers.

    But if you’re in #3 (squarely Mr. Rosenbaum’s realm), you know you have to hustle to prove your expertise. So you need to aggressively self-promote on Twitter and Facebook, you need to land speaking engagements, get on conference panels, stack up affiliations, become known as an “idea generator” for your field by always staying in the conversation. That is your job; writing books (being “in publishing”) isn’t. The nice thing is, your books will come easily, because you’ll just be regurgitating things you’ve already said, thought, and heard while being in this hyperactive environment 24/7. This is why Rosenbaum thinks that “a book is the outcome of thought leadership,” etc. Try saying that about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

    Rosenbaum is right. Only problem is, he’s right only about the very specific piece of the publishing industry he’s in (one that most people don’t think of when they think of “the publishing industry”).

    • Hogwash! Writing / editing / publishing / marketing / sales aren’t “genre-specific” at all. The rules of the game are the same – know who your audience is, know who the competition is, know that it’s a numbers game and that if you aren’t on the front page in a search, you don’t exist. And until you close a win-win sale, you don’t get paid.

      Regardless of genre, you have to write well, you have to write quickly and you have to write a lot. And you have to hustle and self-promote and prospect and qualify and ask for the sale. Even Seth Godin and Andrew Sullivan *still* have to hustle, unless they want to retire. And everybody has to put in their 10,000 hours of focused practice on their craft.

      • Ed, “numbers game”? “Win-win sale”? Your first paragraph makes you sound like you’re trading stocks or something.

        “You have to write well.” –Agreed.
        “You have to write quickly/a lot.” –Let’s see how many random bestselling authors I can name that prove that statement dead wrong: Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Fiction). Rebecca Skloot (Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Biography). Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit, Business). Tina Fey (Bossypants, Celeb Memoir). George Saunders (Tenth of December, Short Story Fiction). I actually kept thinking of fiction/novels, but wanted to show that no genre *requires* this mad, plugged-in self-promotion. (Yes, we all know it can help; that’s not the issue.)

        A very quick search of your name pulls up your heavily-used Twitter account, which tells me you’re that type of guy, as are Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Godin and Mr. Sullivan. That’s fine. But just because the internet is abuzz with blog posts saying all “authors of the future” need to do what you do, doesn’t mean any authors do. It just means that you guys are competing for who can write the most blog posts using each other’s buzzwords to force-predict the future.

  9. I know I’m late to the party here, but I appreciate this article. I did a podcast on this a couple month ago, from an editor’s perspective. It’s called The Gatekeeper is Guessing, and it’s about using a peer network to reduce the upfront risk most editors face: http://soundcloud.com/mboezi/gatekeeper. Thank you again for your insight!

  10. You hit the nail on the head, Steven. There are dozens of tight groups of writers on Twitter who have figured it out (and those just beginning simply ask for guidance from others in their circles). I’ve become friends/mentor (or editor, consultant, agent) to many of these writers who are saturating all Social Media.
    Many of their manuscripts (or files in epub) aren’t edited & polished enough before publishing/distribution so they eagerly jump the gun & regret it later. And while thousands have become successful in self publishing across every genre & hundreds become best sellers, doing only ebooks leaves them wanting more of something they can’t find nor explain.
    In traditional publishing, we get to that culminating moment when a box of printed books arrives, it’s opened & you have a bound copy in your hands smelling of fresh ink on crisp, clean paper. That’s the missing piece to complete their accomplishment. And that’s the piece that generates time & expense, the piece that’s turned the process digitally upside down… and sadly what separates a writer from an author.

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