Non-fiction writers today are facing barriers to publication at traditional Christian publishers they are mostly unaware of. Most writers live under the impression that if they write well, have a relevant topic, and promise to promote their book, they ought to be published. Not so today. They are shocked when meeting editors at a writers’ conference or contacting an agent turns into a quiz on whether they have a nationally recognizable name, usually called a national platform.
What gives? Since when does platform trump content in the Christian publishing world? And what can non-fiction writers do to avoid the label “not visible enough”?
The simple answer to what has happened is distribution. Once upon a time this country had about 7500 Christian book outlets, a majority of them Mom and Pop operations. They loved books and were keenly interested in new books that tackled issues of the day. Publishers promoted all their new books to them—and the most likely to sell well got decent advertising budgets. Today there are approximately one-third as many Christian book outlets, including some fine independent ones. Dominating the market, however, are the chain retail stores, no longer described as “bookstores” because in a digital age they have to sell a wide variety of products. Instead of visiting the chain’s individual stores and presenting new books, publisher sales reps need sell their books to only one book buyer, who determines what will be sold in their retail stores. And their focus is bestselling authors and new authors with a nationally recognizable name.
So where do today’s publishers go to expand their market? They approach what are called the “big box stores,” whose buyers are also focused on bestsellers. In addition, they usually sell maybe half of the inventory they order, returning the rest. That’s why even well-known writers see returns of thousands of copies cutting into their sales numbers at royalty reporting time.
So what kind of platform gets an editor’s attention? Traditionally it meant speaking to large audiences across the country, having their own radio or TV program, or being pastors of a megachurch. While those are still very important to publishers, they have begun to focus on a writer’s social network responses. In fact, editors are reporting that before they read the first chapter they might check if the author has a blog getting active responses, a Facebook site with thousands of “Friends.” They’ll look at Twitter activity involving the author, maybe Goodreads action. Promises to start a website, start writing a blog, etc. will not satisfy an editor—they want authors already well-established on the Internet before they submit a proposal because they’ll have to prove the author’s social networking outreach to the marketing people.
What can an author do beyond an Internet presence to win favor with the editors and marketing department (who are the real decision-makers at today’s Christian publishers)? Focus on providing what I call “added value.” For my take on added value, read my article “The Tipping Point in Getting a Contract”.