It's tough getting your story out, especially when you're an author with something to say. The publishing industry, like a lot of media, is changing radically -- and writers have to find more ways to have their product stand out in a crowded field.
There's an advantage if you write commercial nonfiction, however, because agents can secure a contract before the book is written. In the case of my book, Big Sid's Vincati, my agent landed a publisher by circulating a 35-page PDF document -- consisting of a 15-page writing sample and a 20-page proposal. This format gives the commercial nonfiction writer more opportunities to test out the viability of a potential project before committing to an actual manuscript. It also creates more opportunity for the savvy book agent -- the type who can see a six-figure deal where no one else does, not even the writer.
After seeing a feature article in Cycle World about my dad, Big Sid -- and the one-of-a-kind bike he and I recently built, part British Vincent and part Italian Ducati -- Byrd Leavell of the Scott Waxman Agency called me. By the time I closed my cellphone on that conversation, he had me convinced that I had to go off and write Big Sid's Vincati, the story of that motorcycle -- and about a father and son who reconnect after years of estrangement.
"Now Get to Work"
Once he had my proposal in hand, Byrd went out and pitched it; describing my book as "Tuesdays with Morrie in a garage." Three days later, an editor at Penguin was congratulating me on my book deal -- heady stuff. And yet, when my memoir came out, it was greeted with the resounding silence that often descends over new books.
As I digested this turn of events, Byrd gave me the best advice any writer can get: "Consider yourself a self-published author with a warehouse full of books; now get to work."
When faced with this challenge, it's the author with the strong platform who will thrive. What do I mean by a "platform"? Well, think of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Think of all the ways these authors can draw attention to themselves and their works. At least that is how the traditional publisher thinks about it -- because they live or die depending on book sales. For the author, it's about all those other revenue streams that come from a successful platform.
It doesn't take much to realize that, despite those famous examples, it can be very difficult for the average novelist -- let alone the first-time fiction writer -- to build a successful platform. The best shot at success is to catch a ride on a preexisting, communal platform. You know what I mean: it's the pitch that goes, "if you liked X, you might like Y."
Going Beyond Your Story
In my case, as is often the case in nonfiction, I had much more than a story. I had an amazing motorcycle, arguably the most beautiful ever made. I had peripheral products: T-shirts, an earlier self-published coffee table book and the opportunity to secure more work building motorcycles. And most importantly, I had the good will of a community of generous souls -- motorcyclists.
I worked the phones. Soon I had a piece in The New York Times, penned by Stanley Fish (his wife rode back in the day). Another call netted me a 15-minute video of talk show host and motorcycle enthusiast Jay Leno riding the Vincati.
Equally important, I lined up a string of appearances at large motorcycle events, including the American Motorcyclist Association's Vintage Motorcycle Days, a three-day annual festival attended by up to 75,000 people. Few authors ever get to look up at a Jumbotron, like I did, and see their book in lights. But even more rewarding was watching the steady stream of people parade by the Vincati. Sure, we sold some copies of Big Sid's Vincati -- but we sold more T-shirts and plenty of copies of my coffee table book. And I secured more motorcycle work.
Growing Your Audience
So have I earned that coveted six-figure advance yet? No, but I have driven the book into a paperback edition and a reprint. And I am confident that eventually I will see additional royalty checks -- because I have a durable platform. I hear from fans every day on my Facebook page and the book's website, bigsid.com.
And that audience is growing. I just had a wonderful piece come out on Kentucky PBS and have another cued up on the Discovery Channel. There's even a third in the works -- part of a Hollywood-financed documentary on high-end, custom motorcycles.
What I've learned is an ambitious commercial nonfiction writer has more in common with a pop musician than a poet. In this age of Youtube, musicians have figured out you need to give your music away -- and make your money off of touring. I watched many, many motorcyclists drool over the Vincati and then walk away with a T-shirt -- but no book. In their minds they had just read my book without reading it -- but I believe they will eventually, one night, go out and pick up a copy.
Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches British Literature from Shakespeare to the Romantics. He is the author of Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature and Big Sid's Vincanti. Read his blog on Red Room.