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Authority, platform - and wit

I don’t always talk enough about non-fiction, which is daft in a way, because plenty of you write it and I’ve always enjoyed doing so myself.

So this week: a few thoughts on non-fiction – which novelists should read as well, as there are some thoughts in here for you too. In particular, there’s are two basic motors at the heart of the acquisitions process which matter every bit as much to fiction as it does to non-fiction.

Those motors take the form of two questions that an editor has to be able to answer for every potential acquisition:

  1. Will readers like the book? That is: is the book any good, given its target market?
     
  2. Can we sell the book? It doesn’t really matter, in a way, how good a book is, if the publisher doesn’t have an effective way to sell it.

With fiction, a positive answer to the first question doesn’t necessarily mean that the second is taken care of. Ages ago, I remember helping an editorial client with a kids book that had bullying as a theme. As far as I was concerned, the manuscript’s obvious warmth and quality meant it would sell, and deserved to. And sure enough, the writer found an agent, only to be told that bullying was sooo last year, and the book couldn’t sell to retailers jaded by too many bullying-books in the last few seasons.

Likewise, a really strong answer to the second question can overcome some nerves on the first point. I know one writer whose book was pretty mediocre, but she had a great backstory that tied into the themes of the book. She was extremely capable on social media, on TV, with journalists and so on. And in the end, her brilliance at supporting the selling of the book drove that book high, high into the bestseller lists.

The looming importance of that second question – the “can we sell it?” one – is, for me, a massive reason why writers have to nail their elevator pitch before they start to write. Mess that up, and you may have a completely competent and well-written book … that no one will ever buy.

For non-fiction writers, the questions are the same, but the types of answer are different.

Take Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann – a book about the difference between our slow/reflective thinking and our fast/instinctive thinking. The topic is obviously interesting, but maybe a little niche. Suppose, for example, that you are a clinical psychologist of no particular note who just happens to be interested in these topics. And let’s say, you went ahead and wrote the exact book that Kahnemann wrote, but with the first-person stuff suitable modified.

Would a publisher have picked that book up? Well, maybe. It’s an interesting topic, for sure. But Kahnemann wasn’t just some random clinical psychologist. He invented the entire field of research. He won a Nobel Prize. He had a decades long partnership with Amos Tversky, who died before the book came out and in whose memory it’s written.

In other words, any publisher knew that they could essentially snap their fingers and get media attention from any outlet they wanted. The book still needed to be clear, not unreadable – you can’t sensibly drive people to buy a terrible book – but the basic sales job was going to be easy.

That’s one kind of answer you can have to the sales question: if you bring clear authority, many of the sales questions are just taken care of. Back in 2020, my sister masterminded the UK’s vaccine procurement programme, with stunning success. That’s clearly an interesting topic. She’s a clear authority. That book will get a ton of media coverage.

But authority isn’t the only kind of sales-power you can bring. The other one frequently mentioned is platform. When Pippa Middleton – Prince William’s newly minted sister-in-law – brought out a book called Celebrate, no one really thought that she brought any kind of ninja power to the business of planning parties. But who cared? She was hugely famous. She was gossip column gold. She got a huge advance for the book. (And, though UK sales were lacklustre, the book made a profit for the publisher before it was even published: overseas sales were that good.)

You don’t have to be near the British royal family to deliver platform. You can be big on social media, you can be a broadcaster – you can be an anything, so long as large numbers of people know your name. (And, by the way, the numbers in question need to be in six or seven digits. It just doesn’t really make a difference whether you have 100 Twitter followers or 10,000. Those numbers aren’t going to be enough to sway a publisher’s sales decision.)

Now all this can be slightly depressing to people who have managed to clatter their way through life without (a) picking up a Nobel Prize or (b) having a major royal for an in-law.

But, but, but …

It’s just not true that authority and platform are the only routes into effective non-fiction sales, just as you can sell a thriller without being an intelligence officer, or science fiction without being an astronaut.

The fact is that if you bring (A) a great elevator pitch and (B) a great writing style, then publishers will want the book. When I wrote This Little Britain, a popular history book, I brought absolutely nothing in terms of authority. I don’t even have a history degree. I wasn’t a member of any specialist historical societies. I didn’t bring a particular skill (like military architecture, say) to bear. I brought damn all by way of platform as well. On the two great axes and authority and platform, my score was exactly 0-0.

But who cared? I had a great idea. (Roughly: what are the ways in which British history has been exceptional – unlike the histories of its neighbours?) And I could write with humour and inclusiveness. People didn’t have to feel smart to read the book. They could treat it as a Christmas gift book with a bit more depth and interest.

And that was enough. It’s still enough in non-fiction. The same basic principle works in fiction too.

Nail the elevator pitch. Write well. And toss in a Nobel Prize, if you have one.

That’s it from me. Something REALLY GOOD is happening in May, but I can’t tell you about it, or the Special Ops team at Jericho Writers will have me killed in what looks like an ordinary road accident.

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