are fiction writers screwed?



I was talking to a nonfiction writer who scored a major book deal with a Big Six traditional publisher. She said the same thing I’ve heard from other writers and agents: “It’s all about platform now. Publishers are only interested if you have a platform.”

She added, “Fiction writers are screwed.”

Which echoed something a successful New York agent said to me a month or so ago: “I don’t even know how you could launch a fiction writer now.”

So maybe it’s up to fiction writers (and other creatives) to launch themselves.

To, you know, get all entrepreneurial and shit.

Seth Godin refers to “author enterprises”:

Authors of the future are small enterprises, just one person or perhaps two or three. But they include fan engagement specialists, licensors, new media development managers, public speakers, endorsement and bizdev VPs, and more.
No one has your back.
Sad but true. The author of today (and tomorrow) is either going to build and maintain and work with his tribe or someone is going to take it away.

We could bitch and complain about this, of course – and we do – but hey, it’s not like it’s ever been easy to succeed as a writer.

It just means that it’s a different game now, with different challenges.

Used to be that the biggest challenge facing a writer (at least initially) was getting good and savvy enough to get published.

Now it’s about getting good and savvy enough to break through obscurity and get an audience (and create enough “light and heat”, as one ex-agent put it, to attract a traditional publisher, if you decide to go that route).

This involves marketing. Or unmarketing. Or content marketing. Whatever you want to call it. Enough to make a writer’s blood run cold – after all, we hate this stuff.

We also tend to think we’re above it.

But I was at a conference this weekend

(see, here’s a picture of me at the conference)

where I heard Marie Forleo give this definition of marketing – or rather, good marketing:

Making an emotional connection with the people whom you’re meant to serve.

Maybe we can modify that a bit:

Making an emotional connection with those people formerly known as your audience whom you’re meant to serve both as a writer and a storyteller.

So are any of us above doing that?

Does thinking about ‘platform’ and ‘marketing’ in those kinds of terms change your sense of them at all?

Only connect.

Online and off.

And maybe we’re not so screwed after all.

I’m off to work on my fiction.

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Oct 26, 2011

15 comments · Add Yours

I’m currently taking a course on marketing for writers, and I have really mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I like connecting to like-minded people and being out there is a big part of that. On the other hand, at some point my mind melts down when I feel that anything worthwhile I wanted to say is being drowned out by key words, sensational headlines, and trying to find good content to share. Plus it can be hard to find a balance between time spent building a platform and time spent creating fiction.

I don’t think fiction writers are screwed, though. We just have a lot to figure out.


My first thought when I read this was that to make an emotional connection it would need to be a personal connection and when I consider the handful of fans I have that was most definitely the case. The catch is that no one has the time to connect at that level with dozens let alone hundreds or even thousands of people but it can be done and frequently with only words but most effectively with words and music. Singers make emotional connections instantly with whoever hear them. That audience could be a couple of dozen in a pub of a couple of million on the right radio show. As always the trick is to find out where people are looking, get in their way and do something to keep their attention. Trying to distract them, to get them to look away from whatever nice shiny thing has them captivated is a lot harder. Am I saying we all need to become singer-songwriters to promote our novels? No, but I do know one girl in Greece who has done just that, released a CD to coincide with the publication of her début novel and more power to her if she’s successful with that approach.


@Jim Murdoch No, it doesn’t have to be a personal connection. It has to have emotional resonance. Think of all the books and movies and songs that reach you emotionally even though you have no connection at all with the artist. It’s a one-to-many communication but no less powerful for that.

Remember we’re talking about *marketing* — creating content that draws people in (that serves them in some way, creates value for them) — and comes from a genuine place, says something about who you are + what you believe.


@Amy I don’t think we’re screwed either — not if we’re willing to adapt and experiment.

Key words, catchy headlines — these are just new skills (SEO, copywriting) that you’re adding to your skillset. What and how you use them to express is up to you — and what’s effective is when you have some meaning or passion or key theme to communicate. That’s what people connect to — not what you do but what you stand for (as Simon Sinek puts it) — the only thing is, you have to know what you stand for.


Cool thoughts.

I wouldn’t want a traditional agent getting my back, if they’re so behind the times and lazy enough to think that you cannot launch a fiction writer. Have people stopped reading? Are they no longer interested in compelling storytelling? Of course not. It’s just these people in the publishing world are looking at their own business challenges rather than the facts.

They’re not interested in learning new things and growing, and *gasp* improving their businesses.


@Adam Casalino To be fair, I think the agent’s comment was more a reflection on just how broken the old-school industry has become. Borders and Barnes + Noble were the major players; they did the bulk of the book orders, especially as they killed off the indie bookstores, and (usually) determined the fate of the book (often before it even hit the shelves). With Borders gone and Barnes + Noble stocking up on toys, games, music in order to survive, sacrificing shelf space that used to belong to books, there’s this question of, how and where are print books going to get distributed? Airport bookstores and drugstores and general retailers like Walmart stock the established, bestselling writers, and not the first-timers, the unproven, or even the midlist. So what good is a print run of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand copies if they’re just going to sit in a warehouse somewhere?

The agent I quoted is actually highly innovative and his agency is adapting and experimenting with digital publishing, helping writers self-publish, educating them on platform and promotion, representing them for speaking engagements, etc. But as always it’s easier to promote and sell nonfiction. Also, building an online platform takes a very long time — Seth Godin gives it a minimum of three years — so any agent helping a writer do that likely isn’t (barring a fluke, runaway, black swan success) going to see real revenue for a long time, if ever. (On the other hand, if you’re a writer with a great manuscript who has already put in the work + time to establish a strong platform + readership, they’ll be turning cartwheels for you.)


I think the large majority of people have the definition of marketing completely wrong. They think of advertising and promotion as all there is to marketing. But that is not what it is. Marketing means selling to a specific market. You can’t be a successful author if you think that you are somehow magically going to strike a chord with thousands of other people without first understanding those people. In fiction writing, especially, this is a huge issue because people are so wrapped up in themselves as being “artists” and having “talent”. When in reality, they are so far from having any true success in the industry. These are the people who say “marketing is bad” or “writing is art”. What those people don’t understand is every artist who is famous or successful is one of two things 1: ridiculously talented and OCD about their craft and/or 2: socially/ politically relevant. One is very hard to achieve, but two anyone can do. And two is marketing.


After reading your post, I came across an article entitled “Why every MBA should read more literature” :-)


Look at Joe Konrath’s website. EBooks are what is hot – fiction writers are making good money. As long as you write a good story, u don’t need the Big 6 Publishers. Not nec.


Aha, I knew something sinister was going on, thanks for the post, LOL.

Life is too damn complicated, isn’t it?


I connect with the readers on my blog, not as good at doing on Twitter. I just don’t know what to say, but am trying. Also trying to reach out to more than writers/marketers/etc. My blog’s reach isn’t that far and wide yet, so when my first book is self-published in late winter, I’m not sure what to expect. I think the day will come when self-pub authors will create a co-op for marketing or some sort of organization that will have writer/members who will assist in marketing. I’d love to be able to hire someone to help me get it done. Between blogging and marketing, I have precious little time to write. I know th book is the most important part, but what good is a great book if no one can find it? Tough situation for all of us to be in. That’s why I think maybe you, Justine, should start a co-op for marketing indie pubbed authors!


Johnny B Truant and Johnathan Mead just did some interviews with Sean Platt, all about how to use the Kindle platform to launch your own self-published fiction. Sounds pretty exciting to me, actually. You can always mourn the old way when it stops working, or set out to find a new one. Seems to me that the latter is the better option. (And, ironically, as Sean points out in the interview, his “new way” of writing fiction was first pushed forward by Dickens, so it’s not really all that new.)


I own a publishing company out in California (, and I am thrilled with where the market has gone and the blooming eBook market for many, many reasons. I think if you look at the need for a platform, it’s not a bad thing at all. I just released California Girl Chronicles (Amazon on Nov. 10 and bookstores in Jan), and I am working on my heroine’s platform and started Brea’s blog ( I see it as another opportunity to develop her story outside of the books and build her following. If you love to write — and as a writer you should — then the platform-build process is yet another way to add something new too your tool bag.


great food for thought! thanks!


I’ll probably just end up outsourcing everything. Good thing I don’t have to bother with any of this stuff until I’m really ready to submit queries for submission. Right now I’m ~60% through a first draft, which is, I don’t know, about 0.0000000001% through my career. ;-)

Hopefully by the time I am ready, platforms will go the way of the eight-track players they used to be buried with. That and all those Lady Gaga albums that can go under along with disco, polyester suits, and pet rocks. ;-)


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