Industry Focus: How do Publishers use the Internet to Find Talent?


Jane Tingle looks at some of the ways publishers and agents are using the internet to find new talent

An emphasis on ‘online platforms’ appears to be a growing trend in publishing. When I carried out a market analysis during my MA at Falmouth, several sources reported growth in new non-fiction food authors coming from platforms such as blogs, rather than the usual celebrity chefs or experts. ‘Celebrity’ bloggers such as Jack Monroe seem to have come from nowhere to be published in books, newspapers and magazines, as well as appearing on television and radio.

But just how important is it to have an online platform as an emerging non-fiction writer? And what does ‘online platform’ mean? What are agents and publishers really looking for when they investigate a potential author’s online platform? And is it possible to have a publishing deal land in your lap just from building an online presence around your writing?

Jane Friedman, US editor, publisher and professor defines what editors and agents typically mean by platform in its widest sense as, ‘Visibility, authority and proven reach.’ Visibility means ‘Who knows you? Who is aware of your work? Where does your work appear? And how many people see it?’ Authority is about ‘What’s your credibility? What are your credentials?’ Proven reach is about showing ‘Where you make an impact and proof of engagement. This could be quantitative evidence (e.g. size of your email newsletter list, website traffic) or qualitative evidence (high-profile reviews, testimonials from A-listers in your genre).’

For Carly Watters, it’s about ‘A quantifiable audience i.e. X-number subscribers to a e-newsletter etc.’ This is confirmed by literary agent Andrew Lownie who says that, ‘The marketing section in my requested proposal format requires measurable data on website hits, circulation figures, Twitter followers.’ It reflects the fact that publishing decisions are generally marketing rather than editorially led these days.

Alex Christofi, a literary agent at Conville and Walsh, summed it up for me as, ‘Social media helps, but it’s not a substitute for good writing, however if an idea is well done and the author also has a hundred thousand fans, then that’s attractive to publishers.’

Another interesting question is to what extent a social media presence alone is likely to attract literary agents or publishers? Is it really possible to write a good blog and then sit back and wait for the publishing deals to start pouring in? I spoke to published bloggers Kerstin Rogers, who blogs as MS Marmite Lover and Helen Graves, who is known for her Food Stories blog. ‘I found a publisher through someone who had noticed my blog. So, without the blog they wouldn’t have been interested,’ said Kerstin.

Helen admitted that, ‘I’ve been approached by a publisher to write all three of my books. One day the publisher just emailed me out of the blue having seen my blog. It was obviously helpful, as that was the reason I got published in the first place.’ Interestingly and despite what the agents above say – when I asked Helen if they were also interested in how many followers or how many hits she was getting on her blog. She replied, ‘No, they never asked for any stats.’

Jennifer Barclay, previously Commissioning Editor at Summersdale has said that, ‘We do look for authors. Social media websites (Twitter, Facebook etc.) have revolutionised the way we find and connect with authors - it’s really useful being able to get a sense of an author so instantaneously if they have an online presence.’ Here, Barclay hints at another reason why agents and publishers use online platforms, which is summed up rather bluntly by author Anne R. Allen:

‘Guess what the #1 thing an agent, editor or reviewer wants to find out when they Google you? Whether you’re a pain the butt. Seriously. They aren’t all that interested in how many Tweets, blog followers, LinkedIn contacts, Google Plus circles, or Facebook friends or likes you have.’

In an email conversation with Blake Friedmann literary agent Juliet Pickering, she revealed that, ‘If I’ve found someone interesting-looking via an article, googling them to find their website, blog or Twitter page can help us reinforce our opinions of their potential as an author (or, in some cases, warn us away from them.)’ Juliet also confirmed that platform doesn’t always have to mean ‘online’ and provided an interesting insight into how agents look for new authors:

‘If I am pursuing an idea I will often start by reading an article in a newspaper, magazine or blog. For example, I found Emer O’Toole from her piece in Vagenda; I’d been looking for a smart, funny and accessible feminist writer, and she perfectly fit the bill. Starting with Vagenda, Emer’s piece spread around the internet and she became an occasional contributor on similar issues for the Guardian. What sold her book to her publisher (Orion) wasn’t only the current taste for smart, funny feminists, but a strong idea, brilliant and assured writing, and an author that could have a long and successful career ahead of her.’

For emerging non-fiction writers, platform of some kind is vital. This doesn’t have to mean an online presence but realistically, for those of us who aren’t visible in the media, online is the place where we can start to build credibility and visibility. But above all, it’s about professionalism, the quality of the writing and the idea. Juliet Pickering sums this up as ‘social media is not essential by any means. But we have to start with a book or an idea that is well-written and convincing and take it from there.’ Similarly, Alex Christofi says, ‘Publishing as an industry is difficult, but not complicated. We are really only looking for two things: is it good (i.e. does it achieve what it has set out to achieve?) And if so, can you reasonably expect strangers to pay money for it?’

Jane Tingle grew up on a farm, but is currently living in London with her partner and two children. Her ‘day job’ is working as a freelance writer, specialising in proposal-writing for the voluntary sector. Other than writing and researching, Jane has a passion for cheese! She even calls herself somewhat of a turophile, and still runs the blog (dedicated to cheese) that she started while studying at Falmouth University.