Note: This interview was originally part of a bonus teleseminar for Lisa Tener’s Bring Your Book to Life Program. There was so much valuable information, that we have broken it down into a two-part series.
Lisa: Before I ever met Mike Larsen, he had a profound influence on my life. Without his book, How to Write a Book Proposal, I never would have gotten published! Literary agent Rita Rosenkranz first turned me on to his book and I have since used Mike’s format since with all my clients, many of whom have gotten five- and six-figure book deals with major publishers.
Mike: Thank you very much for inviting me, Lisa.
Lisa: We had many people from class send in questions, but perhaps we can start with your statement that “Now is the best time ever to be a writer.” Can you say a bit more about that?
Mike: Today, there’s no such thing as an unpublished author. All you need to get published is manuscript. You can get published for free with print-on-demand publishers. So getting published is just a question of when, who, and how.
There used to be six big publishers telling us what to read. That’s no longer the case. If everybody you know tells everybody on Facebook that you have to read a book, and this process is repeated, a book will go viral and become a bestseller, regardless of who publishes it or how. America’s is becoming a bottom-up culture. Great news for writers! It’s the best time to be a writer but there is a yin and yang aspect to the process.
Lisa: What’s the yin?
Mike: The yin is the creative aspect.
Lisa: And the yang?
Mike: Communication. Yang is being out in the world; it’s promoting your book; it’s building the visibility and communities that will help you. It’s everything you have to do apart from writing your book. And today, writers have to be authors and merchants. They have to be able to sell as well as to write. So, as in your personal life, balancing yin and yang is important.
Lisa: Can you share some of your points from the handout you sent: “The 10 Keys to Becoming a Successful Writer Faster and More Easily Than Ever.”
Mike: The ten keys are passion, purpose, products, people/communities, platform/visibility, pre-promotion/test-marketing, promotion, people-planet-profit, professionalism, and perseverance. They are unified by three holy trinities: craft, communication, and sustainability. The holy trinity of craft is reading, writing and sharing.
Mike: Reading means becoming an expert on the kind of book you want to write, reading as many comparable books as possible. Reading has the additional advantage of helping you find models for your book and your career. It’s easier than ever to find out what’s going on; what writers are writing, how they’re writing, and how they’re making their books succeed. Using books you love and authors you admire as models will help you establish literary and publishing goals.
Lisa: And writing?
Mike: Writing is doing as many drafts as necessary to make sure every word is right, and your work has the impact you want it to have.
Lisa: Absolutely critical to success. And sharing?
Mike: Getting feedback from many knowledgeable readers; that’s important. You need to have a community of readers.
Lisa: So reading, writing, and sharing make up the holy trinity of craft. What’s the holy trinity of communication?
Mike: Three challenges that writers need to start meeting as soon as they start writing their book: building communities of people to help them; building their platform–their visibility; and pre-promotion–test-marketing their book as many ways as they can. Publishers test-market a book with the first printing.
Lisa: So, they don’t really get a sense of whether the book will do well in the marketplace except by publishing it?
Mike: Yes, and that’s one reason most books fail. But you can test-market your books before you publish—with a blog, talks, articles, audio, video; you can self-syndicate your articles online.
Lisa: What’s a platform?
Mike: A platform is continuing visibility—online and off—on the subject of your book, on the kind of book you’re writing, and with potential book buyers. A blog is the simplest way to do all three things simultaneously. Any way you make yourself visible on a continuing basis builds your platform.
Lisa: Yes, I heartily agree with you about blogging, which has been one of the most successful strategies for my clients in getting publishing deals. And community, that’s got to be huge—I think it’s more important than ever. What do you advise for building community?
Mike: First of all, communicate with readers to give you feedback on your work. A community of fans that know, like and trust you, because you serve them well will create a ready market for whatever you create, and there are more ways to make money from your books than ever.
Lisa: So what’s your advice to authors in developing these two holy trinities?
Mike: Use your models to help you set your literary and publishing goals; determine what you want to write, how you want to write it, and how you will promote it. You can change your goals when you wish. If you want to be a successful author, you have to take a long view. Don’t think about your career in terms of one book but ten or twenty, each better and more profitable than the previous one. The smaller the house you’ll be happy with, the less important platform and promotion are.
Lisa: People sent in questions about proposals. One of them was what are the top three things you’re looking for when you receive a proposal?
Mike: A salable idea conceptualized in a compelling title—something that has enduring value–a platform and promotion plan that prove that writers can make their book succeed. My focus is New York houses because that’s the only way I can hope to make a living. But writers have far more options than that.
Lisa: Another question someone sent in is what are the three biggest mistakes you find in proposals?
Mike: It’s not doing those two holy trinities. Not having read enough books. If you want to impress me with how professional you are, tell me how many books you read on your subject, how many drafts you have done on the proposal, and how many knowledgeable readers have given you feedback on it. That’s one way to impress agents and editors.
One of the fundamental things you have to do, if you want a New York house, is to maximize the value of your book before you sell it. And those are the three ways to do it: test marketing, and building your platform and communities of people to help you. Seth Godin, says the best time to start promoting a book is three years before it comes out because it may take that long to perfect your material and build your platform and your communities.
Lisa: Someone asked: when an author has limited resources, what suggestions do you have for a promotion plan?
Mike: Promotion isn’t about money; it’s about time and imagination. A blog, website, and social media may be enough to ensure your book’s success. It varies depending on the kind of book you have and whether, for example the subject lends itself to talks that you can be paid to do. You can go around the country and give talks and sell books. If, for example, your talk can be given a spiritual twist, there are four kinds of churches you can speak at: Unity, Unitarian – Universalist, Church of Religious Science, and Lutheran churches. They don’t pay for speakers, but they welcome authors and sell books or will let you sell them.
Student A: Thanks for being here, Mike. When you’re talking about selling your book even years before it gets printed, how do you protect your content, how do you protect the concept? Are we copyrighting? I didn’t see anything about that in your book.
Mike: Books have the protection of copyright when they take tangible form. You print something on your computer, it has the protection of copyright. When the book is published, the publisher will copyright it in your name. But until then, it’s copyrighted. When you start blogging a book there’s nothing to protect it online, you cannot protect the idea, you cannot protect the title until you can trademark it.
Student A: So do we print just at the bottom of our page or…
Mike: You don’t have to put anything. That looks like amateur night. Editors and publishers know that what they receive is copyrighted. Editors don’t steal writers’ work. They couldn’t do business if they did. Publishing is a small world and that would instantly come up. Their challenge is coping with all the books they get, not trying to steal books. It’s not a problem.
Student A: What about the concept?
Mike: You can’t protect an idea. If you got an idea for a book, you shouldn’t assume that you’re alone with it. The raw material for ideas is in the mediasphere. Do the book as quickly as you can without sacrificing quality or promotability.
Note: Read Part 2 of my interview with Michael Larsen to find out more about securing a literary agent and publisher, the ins and outs of publishing deals, developing a platform and more. And please share your comments or questions below!
Michael Larsen and his wife and partner Elizabeth Pomada worked in publishing in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1970 where they started Michael Larsen Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents two years later. They’ve sold hundreds of books to more than 100 publishers in print. Michael is the author of How to Write a Book Proposal, which has sold more than a hundred thousand copies. He also wrote How to Get a Literary Agent, now in its third edition, and he is co-author of the second edition of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling your Work. Elizabeth and Michael are co-directors of The San Francisco Writers Conference and the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference, which will take place October 12th.