As an agent, it struck me recently that I am more and more in the position of teacher/explainer than shaper of proposals and seller of manuscripts—all because of the weird new vocabulary of publishing. It used to be when you took on a client, you would discuss things like possible publishers, the themes of the book, the arc of the story and possible desirable dates for publication. Now, my first conversation with a potential client usually begins: “What is your platform?” And the answer usually is: “What’s that?” Or maybe, if the writer is more savvy, she says she has a website or speaks to local groups or is a good public speaker.
That’s when the explanations begin. “Well, a ‘platform’ is more than that.” And I then try to describe how the writer has to become a minor celebrity with, ideally, thousands of “followers.” And what’s a follower? Someone who’s a fan of the author and with whom the author has a “conversation” (that’s what author/fan communication is now called) on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or wherever and who will want to buy the author’s books. Bottom line: The author today has to deliver the publisher a ready-made audience of followers who will buy his or her book. (Ironically, it used to be that a book was a platform the author could use to springboard into being seen as an expert—and maybe, with a little luck, go on to fame and fortune. Now, it’s just the reverse. Without a platform, there generally is no book!)
I find myself having to explain, over and over, the all-important quality of discoverability, which will make your book jump out from the crowd, and without which it will languish and die, unseen and unheard of. Then there’s the vaguely mystical term “metadata”—the words that describe the physical book, including price, category, publisher and, it seems, much else, judging from the really expensive day courses available that supposedly will let you in on its secrets. (I’m not convinced.) And then there are the all-important “keywords”: the words people are likely to use to search for a title and that are a key to—you guessed it—discoverability!
There’s “BookScan” to explain—the all-powerful Nielsen tracking of cash-register sales of books, since about 2006, that publishers, rightly or wrongly, rely on totally. There’s “longtail” for a book that will backlist well; there’s the new category of “New Adult” used for books that reach the 18-to-24-or-so reader.
And when do I break the news that a writer is now a “content provider”?
When I asked my agent colleagues for their favorite (or most hated) new weird words of publishing for this column, there were some I hadn’t even heard of, like “p-book”—a book made with, of all things, paper! Or “listicle,” when a reviewer doesn’t assess the book but boils it down to seven bullet points.
I bet there are many more. I’d love to hear from anyone else reading this for more weird words of publishing. Who knows? We may even wind up with a book! And followers! And discoverability!
(Many thanks to all those who contributed ideas to this column: Roger Williams, Sheree Bykofsky, Janet Rosen, Denise Marcil, Anne Marie O’Farrell, Stephany Evans and Dan Bial.)
Regina Ryan founded her eponymous literary agency some 37 years ago. Prior to that, she was editor in chief of Macmillan Adult Books, the first woman ever to hold that position in a major hardcover publishing house. Before that, she was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf.