411 for the 415

Dear Miss Snark,

I regularly contribute book reviews to several national newspapers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm wondering how I can use my platform as a freelance book critic to find an agent and get my first novel published. (1) If I were to add that I'm at work on my first novel into my tagline in the newspaper reviews, is that the sort of thing that an agent or editor would spot and possibly use to track me down if s/he liked my writing?(2) In a query letter, would putting my publishing credentials up front be a good idea?(3) Does a website that collects my reviews and advertises my novel help in any way?(4) Any other ways you can think to make the leap from sometime journalist to novelist?(5)

1. You don't need platform for a novel. You need to write well.

2. You can certainly add "unpublished novelist" to your tag line and I assure you it will make every author you review sneer at you.

Agents and editors hardly ever read book reviews except for ones about books we've sold. Publicists do, and authors sure do, but I don't. I read Michiko, and the other Times reviewers but that's it. I know who the reveiwers are at the various papers and I talk to some of them, but I don't trawl for clients on their pages.

A book review is not a publishing credential. You can certainly mention it but writing a cogent book review isn't much of an indicator for whether you can write a novel.

4. And you'll want to be REAL careful about publishing those reviews on your website. My guess is that they were created as a work for hire and belong to the Chron. And how do you advertise a novel you haven't written?? "watch this space??"...uh no.

5. Yea, the best way is to write a good novel.


Anonymous said...

Or you could post an ad under the Unpublished Novelists Seeking Agents section in the classifieds.

Anonymous said...

I've never understood this "platform" bleep the neos are spouting. First time someone said it to me I looked around for a train.

Some seem to think if they have a mailing list of 20 or more on their blog that it counts with the big kids. That's not a platform, either. I can name a buncha other things it is not, but there are space considerations to respect here.

Youngling, the only legit use for your reviews is to say in your cover letter "I've have SOLD xx-number of non-fiction pieces to fill-in-the-blank. If you must be detailed, list them on a second sheet, but chances are the reader will flip to your submission first.

And sold is the key word. Can you make money at this job?

The other biggie has been mentioned. Write well. Do that and who needs a freakin' platform?

Anonymous said...

Plus, aren't platforms only for non-fiction? Or am I behind on the new definitions?

Anonymous said...

From Publisher's Marketplace:

Fiction Debut: Actress Courtney Thorne-Smith's OUTSIDE IN, a comedic novel that captures the sparkling absurdities of life in LA and explores the less glamorous side of success in the entertainment world, to Ann Campbell at Broadway, for publication in September 2007, by Lydia Wills of Paradigm (world).

Now substitute "Jane Doe" for Miss Smith's name. Would the book have been published or did Miss Smith's background/platform/name recognition help her get the book to market?

Anonymous said...

Gosh, lots and lots of interesting stuff here from MS.

All the writer books out there tell you that you gotta have a web site. As a working writer who is trying to be a published novelist, I've got just one word for that: WHY? Most big-name novelists (and agents) have sucky websites (yes, MS is a raaaare exception). What's the appropriate kind of site for an unpublished novelist, anyway? Or for a published one, for that matter? As a place to tack up your reviews and gold stars?

Also very interested in the comment on platform. I've heard *many* agents say that if you don't (1) know them, (2) know one of their clients, or (3) have platform, you're not going to get their interest -- or have your novel published in the big league, no matter *how* good it's written.

I've also read interviews with these same agents (all big ones who get 6-fig advances regularly) who say that even stuff written as well as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and who knows who else just *wouldn't get published today* because that's not the kind of writing they're looking for -- no matter how good it might be.

MS seems to imply otherwise, that it doens't matter how unknown you are, so long as you're writing is great it'll find a home. I hope that's true. I'm still not sure myself.

Bella Stander said...

You can have "Robin Reviewer is at work on a novel" in the tagline of your review. It's done all the time, but it won't get your novel published any faster. Better to schmooze editors & agents at the reception after the Natl Book Critics Circle Awards in March.

Check your contract to see who has copyright to your reviews. If it's the publication, then you may not post them on your website w/o permission. I always inserted a sentence in my contracts stipulating that I could post reviews on my website 30 days after publication. Not a problem, even w/ the biggies, such as AOL/TimeWarmer.

Kim Rossi Stagliano said...

I attended the Backspace agenting forum last Fall and the agents did mention platform in general. They indicated that it's a requirement for non-fiction (platform = credibility/audience) and a growing plus for non-fiction. That's when I got out my saw and hammer and plywood and starting banging my thumb! "Must build platform......"
Who the heck knows!?

Anonymous said...

One might question the credibility of a critic who is using book reviews to build a "platform" for their own work (other than a collection of essays or other literary criticism).

Not that I would, mind you.

But for those who are both writers and critics (and in very fine company, I might add), keeping those hats separate would seem to be the appropriate thing to do.

Networking is over-rated when it is used as an excuse to neglect talent and discipline.

SusanH-B said...

Anonymous is right, book reviews that you write for profit -- meaning $$, not just the book -- are articles you've sold the same as if you'd written a piece about Miss Snark.

Re a novelist's use of a Web site, see phrynefisher.com. Note, however, that she has a series going.

Anonymous said...

Anon #4, I know it's easy to buy into the "publishing is a big conspiracy" myth, but don't do it! I'm an unpublished novelist who still has lots of hope. I read tons of author blogs, and many of them have a very similar publication story: "I wrote a novel, I queried agents, agents asked for partials, a couple asked for fulls, and one offered me a contract." A friend of mine just sold her first book a couple weeks ago. Her story was the same. She, like the others, was an untested unknown before she started querying agents. The system works. If you're a celebrity, you get to skip a few steps, but the door's still open for us unfamous schmoes, too.

Re: Conrad, Dickens, Twain not being published today... the market for new literary writers is a small one. The big houses will keep on publishing books by Updike, Roth, Ford, and Pynchon 'til they croak. And why not? The hook for the new Richard Ford book is little more than "This is the new Richard Ford book." The market only allows for one or two Marisha Pessls a year. If you write a literary novel, it better be a damn good one, and the emerging unfortunate truth is that you yourself had better have marketable looks and personality to accompany your literary debut.

(But even Marisha Pessl did things the usual way! She wrote her book, she researched agents, and she banked on her "dream agent" -- Jonathan Franzen's agent -- being able to represent her. Query letters went out, manuscripts were requested, etc.)

Re: author websites. I don't think your first one has to be professionally designed and splashy. It's not hard to buy a version of firstnamelastname.com and set up a Wordpress blog on your site. Have a photo of yourself, a bio page, a page of any professional credits you have, and some samples of your work. It shows potential agents and editors that you are willing to promote yourself and your writing, and that you're comfortable writing in a public forum.

Anonymous said...

For every celebrity roman a clef, there are dozens of new writers who no one knew beforehand. My friend and I are both unknown writers who got six figure debut deals last year. It happens. Those agents aren't looking for books like Mark Twain's because they HAVE them, and also because that's not the fashion in literary fiction at the moment. Just like whoever dressed Marie Antoinette was at one time the height of fashion, but might not get hired by Dolce.

And reviewing books is not a good way to get one's career off the ground. Talk about making enemies.