Adrian Zackheim, founder of Portfolio, Penguin’s prestigious business book list, knows a thing or two about acquiring and marketing business books. So when I spoke to him in The Extraordinary Business Book Club this week I asked what he looked for in an author. An existing platform – a strong social media following, highly ranked blog, YouTube channel, podcast or the like – is certainly one factor.
‘When we’re taking on an author who has never had a book published before, one of the indications that this is a person we should consider is the pre-existence of a significant platform… because that means that this person has already started to attract a community, and that that community can be built upon. It’s an obvious strategy for publishers to seek out people with pre-existing platforms and attempt to extend them.’
It’s not the only factor, of course. Zackheim describes the acquisition decision as a triangulation of three key elements – platform, sure, but also person and concept:
‘There is this calculation that one has to make about: where is that platform? How significant, how important is the platform, and how good is this person as a communicator? Then how significant are the ideas that are being developed here? You have to triangulate those three considerations in order to determine the prospects for an author, and obviously we’re wrong as often as we’re right.’
There’s a potential Catch-22 for publishers here, of course: if someone has a strong platform, they may be asking themselves if they need a traditional publisher at all.
And many authors, who see a book as a way of establishing a platform, certainly feel it’s a particularly vicious double bind: ‘You mean you won’t publish me until I’ve got a following? But I need the book to get a following!’
Zackheim’s logic is irrefutable, though. You may have needed a gatekeeper such as a publisher or broadcaster 10 years ago to get your ideas out and build some energy around them: now you have an embarrassment of channels and tools through which and with which to disseminate them. If you’re not using them, the inescapable conclusion is that something is lacking.
As Zackheim puts it:
‘Anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator, who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far?… Particularly if [they are] now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”’
The age-old dance between publisher and author, the delicate power balance played out in pitch and offer and negotiation, has evolved: while the principle remains the same – to communicate an important idea effectively to the people who need to hear it – today the publisher is just one of a number of partners on the floor.
What’s exciting about this of course is that the partners aren’t competing: if the publisher takes the time to understand what underpins the author’s platform and finds ways to support and build those channels, the reward is more attention for the idea and more sales of the book.
The art of acquisition – it gets more interesting by the day.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.