Why Don’t Publishers Market ALL of Their Books?

Jane FriedmanBy Jane Friedman, Publisher & Editorial Director, Writer’s Digest

Over on my Facebook page, I shared a quote from David Ogilvy:

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.

Publishing falls into the modern world of business, and it’s always benefiting through and from creative original thinkers (one hopes).

The mediocre writer who can sell is usually more successful than the talented writer who cannot. Aside from all other hard truths about publishing, this is the one that many writers find most difficult to accept.

While I was at AWP, I heard a small press advise the audience: “Writers should stay in a room and write.”

Clapping erupted.

Writers certainly can stay in their room and write if they want to remain in obscurity. That aside, the thoughtful writer does wonder: Why don’t publishers market and promote their own books? Wouldn’t they benefit from it? Wouldn’t it make sense? Aren’t THEY supposed to be the experts here?

All points well taken.

Here are a few reasons why publishers don’t market and promote all of the books on their list:

  1. They don’t have enough money, time, or staff.
  2. They have no means of directly reaching the target readership to let people know a book of interest is available.
  3. They can’t measure the impact of their efforts, thus resources get pulled away from marketing.
  4. They hope the book finds its audience by simply being available and in stores. (Publishers are excellent at physical and retail distribution.)
  5. Did I mention they don’t have enough money, time, or staff?

Now, you would probably advise: That means publishers should publish less. I agree!

But are you, as a writer, ready for even HIGHER rejection rates?

Publishers are known for putting most of their efforts behind A-list authors, or behind authors who receive a very large advance, or behind the book that receives the best response/commitment from the chain booksellers.

Every other title gets the “standard” treatment, and who knows what THAT is, since it’s changing daily given the transformation of media and bookselling — advertising is often ineffective, reviews and awards don’t ensure sales, press releases are unopened, tours/signings aren’t attended, etc.

What still sells books?

That’s the nut everyone is trying to crack. Ideas:

  • Authors who already have established followings and can reach their readers directly.
  • E-mail promotions to a very targeted list (either a list that the author has cultivated or that the publisher is lucky enough to have).
  • National media coverage or appearances on TV/radio/magazines, sometimes newspapers (tougher and tougher to secure as media outlets consolidate, disappear, and carry less authority).
  • Word of mouth resulting from readers who LOVE the book. (Great content, great quality.)

Everyone in publishing acknowledges the system is not ideal. It is in fact broken, especially when everyone widely admits that 70% of books don’t earn out their advance.

And now with publishers facing a digital transformation that will disrupt the business model even further, we’re seeing experimentation and suggestions of what the future might be like.

Predictions from others

  1. Publishers will only be able to attract solid authors by contractually committing to a certain level of marketing.
  2. Publishers will attract solid authors with profit sharing deals, to incentivize both sides to market and promote. See this report on the 2010 Digital Book World Conference panel, “Back-Loaded Book Deals.”
  3. Publishers will become niche-focused so they can more successfully direct market to specific communities. See this post from Mike Shatzkin that explains.
  4. Publishers will draw down their lists (already happening) and only publish books they can fully market. (See HarperStudio as one example, sadly now defunct, as well as TWELVE.)
  5. Publishers of all sizes will make better use of their author bases and community power to cross market and promote for like gain. See Hay House as an example.

What do you see happening? Or what marketing efforts HAVE paid off for you or your publisher?

This article was originally published on the There Are No Rules blog, and has been reprinted with Ms. Friedman’s permission.

Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer’s Digest brand community, where she oversees Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series.

4 thoughts on “Why Don’t Publishers Market ALL of Their Books?

  1. simply scott

    As you state, it’s all about business. It used to be all about books. Even the New York Times Best Seller List is not about books anymore. It’s about business. There seems to be no official book rating based on anything other than income. Shame. I’d rather get more rejection letters than write something that’s lousy.

  2. Scott Nicholson

    As a traditionally published author who recently released a couple of books on my own, I realize the only thing the publisher can really do much better than me is to get the books into stores (and add a little cache because it’s “really published”). Other than that, I am spending the same amount of energy writing and promoting as I was before. Except now I don’t have a publisher to blame for my troubles!

    The other reality is that it is hard to sell a book…not a book to a publisher, but a book to a reader.

    Scott Nicholson
    Haunted Computer Books

  3. b00k1

    Most of the issues affecting publishers affected the music companies some years ago. Both made and make the same mistakes:
    – hyping the top 40 only
    – marketing the top 40 only
    – creating dozens of top 40 copycats
    – doing special deals with supermarket or major chains, and on the top 40 only
    – excluding and marginalizing indie shops

    So we watch Barnes & Noble etc follow Tower Records etc into serious decline.

    But most musicians now make better money than before, even though the music labels make less. Four reasons:
    – touring and live shows
    – Apple iPod and iTunes (now largest digital music retail channel on Earth)
    – merchandise
    – the three above all benefitting hugely from MySpace, online radio (Last.FM, Pandora) and podcast exposure

    Right now there is an obvious answer for authors:
    – Apple iPad and iBooks

    Publishers AND agents may be diminishing or dying, but books won’t. Which means authors who grab hold of the new digital options will survive the best.

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