“Publishers don’t sell books. Authors sell books.”
I was with a group of editors last week. Roy Carlisle, who has been an editor at HarperSanFrancisco (now HarperOne), Crossroad and his own imprint, was making a presentation and was getting just slightly off topic. But he was passionate nonetheless. “An author has got to have a platform. That’s what has been true in New York for the last five or ten years. It’s what every editor there knows.”
Publishers don’t sell books? How do they stay in business?
Of course, he was (and New York editors are) exaggerating to make a point. His point was that the world of publishing has experienced a tremendous shift. Twenty-five years ago about 40,000 new books were published each year in North America. Today it is about 180,000 new books each year. With that kind of flood of books it is extremely difficult for any one book to get a hearing. To do so a book needs a special edge, something going for it that will help it stand out. What has proven to be the most commonly effective “special something” over the last decade? The author.
Is the author a well-known public figure? Does the author have a previous book that sold well? Is the author on TV and radio? Does the author speak to audiences often? Any of these and much more can be what is known as the author’s platform, a place to stand above the crowd, to get noticed and to be heard. As I’ve written before, publishers are experts at getting books into the system, into the hands of reviewers, into retail outlets and so forth. But more and more it is the author who pulls those books through the system into the hands of individual readers. Authors are often the expert on who the audience is for their books and they are often the experts on how to reach that audience.
Aren’t there exceptions? Don’t some books appear at the top of the charts out of the blue by an unknown author? Yes, these sleepers still awaken. These exceptions, however, prove the rule.
The lesson for authors? Build a platform.
The lesson for publishers? Find authors with platforms or (in the case of excellent books whose authors have no platform) help authors build platforms.