A mini-scandal lit up Twitter last month when the Cut featured a tell-all essay by 27-year-old writer Natalie Beach. In the piece, Beach exposes her seven-year relationship with her friend Caroline Calloway, who scored an agent and a reputed $375,000 book deal for her memoir. Beach, who ghostwrote the book, says her former bestie bought Instagram followers after being told by literary professionals that “no one would buy a memoir from a girl with no claim to fame and no fan base.”
Platform has always been key when putting together a nonfiction book proposal. But back in the not-so-very-distant past—a mere dozen years ago!—publishers were throwing six figures and two-book deals at anyone who had a half-decent story and a clip in the local newspaper. These days, a huge following on social media, particularly Instagram, is a must for a book deal.
The moment agents or editors hear an author has a small following or no following, it’s over. Yes, there are exceptions. Still, worthy authors are overlooked every day—in favor of a young woman with a photo of macarons that went viral? Now her friend the ghostwriter has CAA shopping rights to her story? Which era is crazier?
The Kardashian/Jenner sisters have 500 million followers. So how come fewer than 500,000 viewers (18–49) tuned in to the latest episode of their show? Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies sold fewer than 40,000 copies, according to BookScan—yet she remains a powerful influencer. When are publishers going to concede that number of followers (fake or not) is only one key to book sales?
Naturally, some influencers produce books that are megabestsellers (usually with a lot of help). That is because they deserve a wide audience for whatever message they are sending. Ariana Grande, who has one of the biggest social media followings in the world, should get a huge deal... because she’s an incredible singer with a fantastic story to tell—not because of her follower count!
Recently, at a trendy store in Los Angeles, I attended a well-publicized book signing by the latest Bachelorette contestant (1.2 million followers). She breezed in late and sold 10 books. So how about it, agents and editors? I know a lot of fascinating people with stories to share—well-written ones, too. They just don’t have a lot of Instagram followers. Want to see?
I worked at several major publishing houses before going freelance. These days I am on the outside looking in, but there’s one thing I know for sure: no one knows what will be a hit (or a miss). No one. Ever. If there was a surefire formula, we’d all follow it.
Remember when reality show stars were the influencers of the day? We were swept away. We became reactive. We sat at editorial meetings scratching our heads, figuring if Donald Trump deemed this 20-something “the best” and a “winner,” surely a book deal is in order. (Oh, the irony.)
This latest story about two millennial influencers and their book deal reminds me of that hype. Except now I’m overprotective. Some wanna-be authors are using the acquisitions process to snow us, to dupe us, to basically make a mockery out of what publishing stands for—content. Is this what they mean by influence?
I was a journalism major who turned to trade nonfiction acquisitions and then became a writer because I want to support and shepherd those who have something valuable to say, a discovery to teach, or a perspective to share. With yet another news story about an author imposter—whoops, I mean influencer—my ideals were given a giant middle finger.
With followers prompting publishers to green-light book proposals, it is no wonder that such people are led to believe that the “gatekeepers” place value on image more than content. Do we come off Insta-desperate?
Yes, a marketing infrastructure must be in place (platform). But can we not make hashtag tedium the default setting? This plays right into the belief—unfounded—that followers equal sales. And I believe the wrong message is perpetuated by the size of these advances. Offers so obscenely huge act as billboards for style over substance, as if to say, “We pay a lot for very little word count.”
Consider asking, “What kind of message do we send by acquiring this title at this time for this amount of money?” Only then can the publishing industry lead by example the true nature of influence.—Michele Matrisciani
Julie McCarron has collaborated on more than two dozen books and has four New York Times bestsellers to her credit. She lives in Los Angeles and specializes in celebrity memoirs. Michele Matrisciani is an editorial specialist at Bookchic and the coauthor of Whole: How I Filled the Fragments of My Life with Forgiveness, Hope, Strength, and Creativity.