2015/03/27

Brand vs. Platform

Legacy publishers now consider an author's platform to be the single most important criterion for deciding whether or not to offer a book contract. "Platform" is of course one of those nebulous terms that's mostly used to inflate the speaker's perceived importance, like "statistically significant" or "equality".

Jane Friedman at least attempts a definition and settles on, "the proven ability to reach a target audience with visibility and authority". But this slippery term evades even her canny grasp, as she writes that a platform isn't about social media or blogging; then advises authors to build their platforms by being active on social media and blogging.

It's no surprise that legacy publishers have latched onto platform as their prime metric of author success. After all, the steep decline in adult sci-fi and fantasy has happened on their watch. Despite its chameleon nature, platform essentially boils down to a system of communications channels. That the self-styled custodians of literature now value the medium over the content provides a handy diagnosis of the industry's ills.

The publishing establishment's myopic obsession with platform smacks of ideology and the quest for prestige; not sound business sense. Forbes offers convincing proof of this assessment. To many hardworking writers' dismay, the best way to land a book deal is to already be famous (a clear example of platform over content at work). But look at how often celebrities whose name recognition even best selling authors would kill for release books that tank.

If platform is a flawed predictor of author success, what's a better alternative? David Vinjamuri provides a compelling answer in the same Forbes article: brand. "Brand loyalty is important," he says, "because it has a direct impact on profitability."

What's "brand"? According to Joe Konrath, branding is associating name recognition with positive experience. Though he wields a formidable platform, he places it at the service of his brand.

The Codex Group backs up Vinjamuri's claims with data showing that readers will pay 66% more for books by their favorite authors compared to unknown quantities. Maintaining a successful career as an author requires building a loyal reader base who will show up each time you release a book. Having a big megaphone won't help if you keep writing books no one wants to read.

2015/03/04

Archaic Industries that Are Still in Business


The increasing speed of innovation was aptly summed up by John Lithgow's character from Interstellar: "...[I]t felt like they made something new everyday. Some gadget or idea. Like every day was Christmas."

The tireless march of progress has certainly endowed us with an abundance of technological goodies. It has also fostered a general tendency toward temporal bias--or chronological snobbery, if you prefer--the false assumption that whatever's newer is automatically better.

In the interest of showing that technological advancement is never as total as many believe, here are some examples of seemingly obsolete industries that are still alive and kicking.

Chimney Sweeps
Developments in heating systems, such as natural gas, electrical, and heating oil appliances, have actually made more work for modern chimney sweeps. These beloved fixtures of Dickensian yarns still ply their venerable trade armed with the classic chimney brush--plus vacuums and digital cameras. Not only can you still hire a professionally licensed sweep to clean your flue, he can also handle minor chimney repairs and tuckpointing.

Chimney sweeps boast a number of professional organizations, including the NCSG.

Horse Buggy Whip Manufacturers
A long-invoked byword for dead industries, applying the label "horse buggy whips" to everything from 8-track tapes to typewriters is actually a false analogy. Not because typewriters are still in production (they're not), but because carriage whips still are.

Westfield Whip is the last of 40 whip factories left in the "Whip City" of Westfield, Mass. The boom times are definitely over, but still, park carriage drivers, dressage riders, and traditionally minded hunters have to get their whips from somewhere.

Incandescent Light Bulbs
These little marvels are so taken for granted that people hardly ever stop to think that their basic design is over 130 years old. Exemplars of why newer isn't always better, incandescent bulbs are only now being forcibly phased out by government fiat. Apart from having an edge in energy efficiency, the compact fluorescent bulbs favored to replace them are inferior in numerous ways. Which is why the state needs legislative action to kill the incandescent bulb market.

Left to their own devices, old-style bulbs are still selling--for now.

Print Publishing
Rivaling light bulbs for ubiquity (and enjoying a comfy symbiotic relationship with them), printed books have been around since the 15th century. And that's just modern printing. The codex (a book made of individual pages bound between two covers) hails from Roman times.

Traditional publishers are making record profits. True, their unprecedented earnings are due in part to ebook sales, but in some sectors (like cookbooks), print is still outselling digital.

That's not to say that ebooks haven't seen explosive growth in the last few years. In genre fiction, reliable evidence suggests that digital books are already overtaking print versions. It seems safe to predict that, while they'll eventually achieve dominance, ebooks will never completely replace print codices.

Still, if any industry in this post could use some innovation, it's print publishers--especially in regard to the century-or-more-old boilerplate in their book contracts.