The author background check: Cautionary notes

We were hunkered down debating whether to make an offer on a self-help book written by a seemingly well-qualified psychologist.

Then one of our dogged marketing assistants dashed in, shouting “WAIT!”

She tossed us a bunch of comments she’d unearthed from an obscure online forum: jaw-dropping, scathing assessments from former patients about the author’s failures as a therapist.  Whoa. We took a big pause — and ultimately dropped the project.

Don’t let this happen to you!

Searching with a fine-toothed comb

A little-known aspect of making a book deal these days is how a publisher’s editors, marketing and sales people verify an author’s platform and reputation.  We search for anything that might compromise our investment of time, passion, energy and money. Privacy’s not what it used to be, as we all know.

If your proposal or manuscript has reached the point of serious consideration, expect careful behind-the-scenes scrutiny of everything you’ve presented about your life and work.

If this is your first book deal

Publishers like nothing better than discovering and signing up the next big thing, the unknown writer with a great first book that promises to lead to many more. Before taking such a risk, however, careful due diligence is now standard operating procedure.

Here are some of the sources publishers check routinely these days, before signing up a new author:

.

Sources publishers check

Google

Reports may emerge from the archives of deep cyberspace, providing an impression of your life and work.  Comments and other snippets can bubble up from blogs, forums and social networking sites.

YouTube

We want to know how an author will handle media appearances, and YouTube is a great source of home videos, local public events, or regional cable media that let us see how the writer looks and sounds.

If you’ve appeared on any local or national media, those clips become “audition” tapes scrutinized by publicists whose job it will be to get you on these shows again, and others. A less-than-stellar performance can reveal areas for future media coaching or occasionally the verdict that you have a “face made for radio.”

Academic Institutions

We confirm academic and professional credits so any discrepancies in dates and titles can be straightened out.

Author Blogs

Authors these days have websites and blogs, understanding the importance of social networking and online marketing. We’re always happy to see that, but we also study these pages carefully to see how well they’re maintained, how frequently those posts appear and how many comments they attract.

Nielsens BookScan

We automatically check Nielsen’s BookScan to shed the harsh light of reality on any claims of recent “bestsellers.” Nielsen’s BookScan is the industry standard report of actual cash register sales and captures approximately 70% of retail and online sales, so we’re able to calculate actual sales from their figures.  For more information you might want to check out this post, Author alert: What you don’t know about BookScan can hurt you

Reviews

If you’re previously published, we’re very interested in book reviews that may have appeared in the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, or elsewhere in the professional press.  Of course, reviews mean that your work has been vulnerable to capricious literary opinion. We also consider Amazon reader comments, taking into account that they’re a mixed bag of quirky and inconsistent personal opinion.

.

Tips for authors

• Be accurate about your achievements

We’ll want to confirm that you really were the first or second author on that professional paper or journal article you mentioned. And did your brilliant op-ed column appear in a major newspaper – or was it printed only in the local shopping throwaway? It’s best to be scrupulously straight with us.

• Preempt any weak sales numbers

If your most recent BookScan numbers were weak, send royalty statements with your proposal, showing sales figures based on history prior to the advent of BookScan, including specialty stores, back of the room (during lectures, workshops or trainings,) or high discount bulk sales that wouldn’t appear on BookScan’s cash register reports.  Again, my best advice is written up here: Author alert: What you don’t know about BookScan can hurt you

• Anticipate any embarrassing online disclosures

Google yourself and see what pops up. Prepare explanations for anything that could possibly make us squirm. Get anything that’s really wrong or misleading taken down if you possibly can. If competitors are posting crazy stuff about you, or it’s a case of same-name mistaken identity, be sure to mention this in your proposal. Youthful indiscretions are also understood. We just don’t want to feel an author or agent is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.   

The author of the book we rejected could have alerted us that disgruntled patients who’d expected a quick cure had written snarky things about her online. Given that information, we might not have felt she was insincere or hiding things about her clinical performance, leaving us to wonder what else might turn up.

• Make your own new audition tape

Smart authors are submitting home videos demonstrating their sincere passion and expertise. Assuming you can look natural and speak persuasively without a script, such an effort can trump any less attractive random links or YouTube videos.

• Ask for an in-person meeting

If you can meet the editor, marketing and sales people in their offices or elsewhere, with or without an agent, jump on it. An honest and sincere conversation can go a long way toward persuading publishers to make the large financial and personal investment in publishing your book.  If you’re not able to come in person, ask for a telephone conference call. It’s something most publishers will welcome, once you’re on their radar screen for potential acquisition.

• Get your metrics in order

We’re dubious when an author tells us, “My site gets 5 million hits a month.”  Publishers use many resources for digital intelligence to verify and analyze website traffic.  Services like Quantcast provide us with snapshots of daily, weekly and monthly traffic, as well as demographics like age, education and income levels of site visitors. So do your best to provide accurate, verifiable data for your website or blog.

Use this knowledge to your advantage

Authors, please share your own experiences and tips with fellow writers. I’ll watch for any questions I can answer.


The author background check: Cautionary notes

We were hunkered down debating whether to make an offer on a self-help book from a seemingly well-qualified psychologist. Then one of our dogged marketing assistants dashed in and shouted WAIT! Out of breath, she tossed us a bunch of comments shed unearthed from an obscure online forum: jaw-dropping, scathing assessments from former patients about the authors failures as a therapist. Whoa. We took a big pause — and ultimately dropped the project.

Dont let this happen to you.

Searching with a fine-toothed comb

A little-known aspect of making a book deal these days is how a publishers editors, marketing and sales people verify an authors platform and reputation. We search with a fine-toothed comb for anything that might compromise our investment of time, passion, energy and money.

If your proposal or manuscript has reached the point of serious consideration, expect careful behind-the-scenes scrutiny of everything youve presented about your life and work.

This means that crucial data will be actively searched out online and off. Privacys not what it used to be, as we all know.

If this is your first book deal

Publishers like nothing better than discovering and signing up the next big thing, the unknown writer with a great first book that promises to lead to many more. Before taking such a risk, however, careful due diligence is now standard operating procedure.

Here are some of the sources publishers check routinely these days, before signing up a new author:

Google

Reports may emerge from the archives of deep cyberspace, providing an impression of your past life and work. Comments and other snippets can bubble up from blogs, forums and social networking sites.

YouTube

We want to know how an author will handle media appearances, and YouTube is a great source of home videos, local public events, or regional cable media that let us see how the writer looks and sounds in unguarded moments.

If youve appeared on any local or national media, those clips become audition tapes scrutinized by publicists whose job it will be to get you on these shows again, and others. A less-than-stellar performance can reveal areas for future media coaching or occasionally the verdict that you have a face made for radio.

Academic Institutions

We confirm academic and professional credits so any discrepancies in dates and titles can be straightened out.

Author Blogs

Authors these days have websites and blogs, understanding the importance of social networking and online marketing. Were always happy to see that, but we also study these pages carefully to see how well theyre maintained, how frequently those posts appear and how many comments they attract.

Nielsens BookScan

We automatically check Nielsens BookScan to shed the harsh light of reality on any claims of recent “bestsellers.” Nielsens BookScan is the industry standard report of actual cash register sales and captures approximately 70% of retail and online sales, so were able to calculate actual sales from their figures. You might want to check out this post

Reviews

If youre previously published, were very interested in book reviews that may have appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, or elsewhere in the professional press. Of course, reviews mean that your work has been vulnerable to capricious literary opinion. We also consider Amazon reader comments, taking into account that theyre a mixed bag of quirky and inconsistent personal opinion.

All writers, published or not, should consider the following tips:

Be accurate about your education and professional achievements

Dont exaggerate. Wed want to confirm that you really were the first or second author on that professional paper or journal article you mentioned. And did your brilliant op-ed column appear in a major newspaper or was it printed only in the local shopping throwaway? Its best to be scrupulously straight with us.

Preempt any weak sales numbers

If your most recent BookScan appearances were weak, send royalty statements with your proposal, showing higher figures based on history prior to the advent of BookScan, including specialty stores, back of the room (during lectures, workshops or trainings,) or high discount bulk sales that wouldnt appear on BookScans cash register reports.

Anticipate any embarrassing online disclosures

Google yourself. See what pops up. Prepare explanations for anything that could possibly make us squirm. Get anything that’s really wrong or misleading taken down if you possibly can. If competitors are posting crazy stuff about you, or its a case of same-name mistaken identity, be sure to mention this in your proposal. Youthful indiscretions are also understood. We just dont want to feel an author or agent is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

The author of the book we rejected could have alerted us that disgruntled patients whod expected a quick cure had written snarky things about her online. Given that information, we might not have felt she was insincere or hiding things about her clinical performance, leaving us to wonder what else might turn up.

Make your own new audition tape.

Smart authors are submitting home videos demonstrating their sincere passion and expertise on their subjects. Assuming you can look natural and speak persuasively without a script, such an effort can trump any less attractive random links or YouTube videos.

Ask for an in-person meeting

If you can meet the editor, marketing and sales people in their offices or elsewhere, with or without an agent, jump on it. An honest and sincere conversation can go a long way toward persuading publishers to make the large financial and personal investment in publishing your book. If youre not able to come in person, ask for a telephone conference call. Its something most publishers will welcome, once youre on their radar screen for potential acquisition.

Get your metrics in order

Were dubious when an author tells us, My site gets five million hits a month. Publishers have lots of resources for digital intelligence to verify and analyze website traffic. Services like Quantcast provide us with snapshots of daily, weekly and monthly traffic, as well as demographics like age, education and income levels of site visitors. So do your best to provide accurate, verifiable data for your website or blog.

Use this knowledge to your advantage

Authors, please share your own experiences and tips with fellow writers. Ill watch for any questions I can answer.

13 Responses to The author background check: Cautionary notes

  1. Matthew Temple

    Here’s better advice: just live your life right, live your life correctly, and don’t worry about what you say or is said about you. The latter is always true, and impossible to hide. The former is what you can really do something about. What we need to do in life is not control our image…it’s *live right*.

  2. Matthew Frise

    Mr. Temple: I’m sure Mr.Rinzler would agree that one should live correctly. As an editor he is giving practical advice, not moral advice (certainly a good thing to give as well, but not something we usually turn to editors for). I welcome it.

  3. April Brown

    There are over 5,000 people with my name in this country. A Google search shows everything from a respectable auction house owner, writers, teachers, and convicted criminals. While my name is an extreme example – use caution with Google, do a name search to see how many people actually have that name, and determine if the information listed on Google is really about, of from the person you are checking up on, and not someone else entirely.

  4. Mike Schnabel

    I can see where this is extremely important with regard to self-help and nonfiction works, however, many of our greatest purveyors of fiction have not been, shall we say, pillars of moral and ethical behavior. And to complicate things, many have been rewarded for behaving badly and proving that it is possible to live outside the rules most people have to observe.

    Some aspects of our self-presentation are certainly important (BookScan info. website hits, etc.). After all a publisher needs to know if a prospective author is effectively marketing themselves, not to mention how honest that author is, but if everybody needed a lily-white image to get published, we would now be deprived of some of our greatest authors. I’m curious as to how this info is processed with regard to fictions writers and if that differs from how it is looked at with regard to non-fiction and self-help authors?

  5. PacRim Jim

    Unfortunately, there are only two people in the U.S. with my real name—and I’m one of them.
    I guess I can either keep my mouth shut or keep my mouth shut.

  6. Jessie Mac

    Really appreciate the post, Alan. My name is quite popular too so I can understand how April feels. Like Mike, I would like to know if it’s the same with fiction writers, especially if the writer is also an actor but using a stage name. I don’t have YouTube as Jessie Mac but I have a showreel as Maye Choo. Would the acting side play a part or not?

  7. Inspirational fodder for the creative mind « Right The Writer

    [...] The author background check: Cautionary notes – This is article contains common sense advice that can not be reiterated enough for job seekers, professionals, authors and anyone else who counts on their reputation to make a living.  Sure the Internet gives us the sense of anonymity, but we are not really anonymous, especially when we post something that has our likeness or name on it.  I remember a conversation I had with someone who wondered why I did not comment on controversial posts that they had made, to which I replied, “I have clients and potential clients that can find me on the ‘Net.  I comment on that, they disagree with what I said, and I have a lot of explaining to do.” [...]

  8. Alan Rinzler

    April,

    Yours is probably an extreme example but good advice nevertheless. Publishers need all authors — not only those with common names — to be clear early in any proposal or manuscript cover letter, about who they are and who they are not. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Mike,

    Many fiction writers rely on personal publicity in today’s market, and do need to appear presentable, interesting, engaging, and authentic, however idiosyncratic they may be otherwise.

    Bad behavior is no longer so popular these days! In my experience, novelists get no more leeway than anyone else when publishers consider their ability to self-market.

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    [...] reading this post by editor Alan Rinzler about how carefully editors and publishers research an author they’re [...]

  11. Book Publishers

    In light of ‘a million little pieces’ and the freyman debarcle on oprah I think more and more publishers are now doing checks even at the agent level, there was another too with riverside not so long ago.

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    [...] The author background check: Cautionary notes: http://shar.es/mB6EI [...]

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