Marketing for the Long Haul: The Shifting Ground of Book PR in 2014

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

When it comes to book publicity and promotion, the predominant strategy has always been, for better or worse, “big splash out of the gate.” The resulting typical PR time frame for most books hovers in the two- to three-month range for titles that show signs of catching on with readers; even less for books that don’t show immediate signs of life.

That culture of immediacy in book PR is a holdover from a previous era when front-of-store displays at physical book retailers included a time stamp, similar to screens in movie theaters, where it’s imperative to maximize the short period of sunshine, before being pushed out of the theater by newer and shinier movies in the queue. But in a book discovery world where less physical browsing occurs, the shorter publicity time frame is becoming an actual impediment to success for many books, books that often take much longer to find their way into readers hands or devices–sometimes months or years after publicity efforts were put to bed.

Certainly, “Brand New” is still a vital element of book marketing. But for the vast majority of authors, nowhere near as so to a book’s success as in previous bookselling eras.

i-love-lucy-chocolate-factory-sceneOf course, most publishers simply aren’t structured to provide the time and support necessary to fully grow an author’s profile over the duration of the lengthy process of book discovery. In book publicity, the sheer number of new books in the pipeline brings to mind the iconic candy factory scene from I Love Lucy, where the fast-moving conveyer creates comedy chaos for the overwhelmed Lucy and Ethel.

That’s certainly not to point blame at the PR teams. On the contrary, everyone in the book industry has seen amazing examples of the power of publicity; of word-of-mouth breakthroughs orchestrated over many months by savvy publicists plying their carefully cultivated back channels of influencers and difference makers. When it works, a successful book breakthrough is a beautiful thing—and frequently a feat barely recognized by anyone outside of the publicity side of the company: ‘Twas the elves, magically connecting reader and book while we all slept. Sigh.

So let’s be clear: Blessed are the publicity makers.

But the reality is that the long-tail marketing needs of writers remains an unsolved publishing issue, and one that confounds writers as much as anyone. Sam Missingham, current head of events at HarperCollins Publishers in the UK and a co-founder of Futurebook explained the author paradox in a post last year. According to the Futurebook Digital Census study, almost half of the traditional authors surveyed considered switching to self-publishing, expressing concerns with the marketing and pricing strategies for their book. Conversely, 43% of self-published authors expressed a desire for a traditional publishing deal, citing a desire for the marketing support that a traditional publisher can provide. In other words, the very same issue authors were most dissatisfied with in their traditional publishing relationship.

This “grass is always greener” scenario suggests something else, of course—-that most authors have unrealistic expectations when it comes to the time frame required for effective publicity and to make meaningful connections with readers.

Part of that issue stems from the incredible growth of the self publishing industry. According to a new report from Bowker, the number of self-published titles in 2012 jumped to more than 391,000, up 59 percent over 2011 and 422 percent over 2007. Of the report and the emerging self-pub community, Beat Barblan, Bowker Director of Identifier Services explained: “The most successful self-publishers don’t view themselves as writers only, but as business owners. They invest in their businesses, hiring experts to fill skill gaps and that’s building a thriving new service infrastructure in publishing.”

True enough (including, full disclosure, my own company, Astral Road Media), though we appear to still be somewhere in middle of the learning chute when it comes to addressing the new realities of book promotion. Authors and publishers are still readjusting expectations in a digital era where “what’s your platform” has become a question of vital importance, and the “marathon, not a sprint” mantra is still looked upon as an abject alibi, rather than a legitimate marketing strategy.

Shifting the PR Timetable

For many new authors in the digital era, there’s an opportunity to redefine marketing success, building into the strategy the longer-term goals that comprise making connections, building trust and support, and creating a network of true fans–not simply a number of followers. Smart author and publisher marketers know this means starting to build audiences well before a book even finds its way to market, and long after a book is released.

In her article for the Virginia Quarterly Review covering a panel of the effect of self publishing at the Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC Conference, Jane Friedman quoted self-publishing bestseller Hugh Howey, who pointed out that his own breakout didn’t happen until his eighth book. “We don’t appreciate yet the long tail of self-publishing, ” Howey said. “Your books are available forever. They have the same visibility forever…It’s a marathon. Things go viral over time.”

A longer-term promotional strategy opens up additional possibilities for authors, as well. In the interview below from Digital Book World 2013 Conference, Dan Blank founder of We Grow Media, discusses the shift in thinking comes with longer-term planning.

“I am always looking at the qualitative differences, not just the quantitative. People too often are looking at social media, saying, how do I get more followers, how do I get more people to like my Facebook page. They are skipping the fact that often that data point is really ineffective of anyone buying your book or really becoming a fan.“

In addition, Blank said, many authors and publishers haven’t done due diligence on those that may be interested to read their book.

“I am convinced that most people, whether it’s a brand or an individual, do very little research to really understand their audience,” he said. “They like it to be as broad as possible instead of narrowing it down. So I always ask authors, “who’s your audience?” and I get these vague answers back…And it really illustrates to me that they haven’t done the research to find out who specifically their audience.”

Regardless of the traditional vs. self-publishing question, 2014 will likely see more publishers capitalizing on the opportunity to engage more deeply with their audiences, expanding efforts to build online communities of interest for their readers featuring their own authors. More authors, meanwhile, will hopefully recognize the value of true fans, and the importance of forging meaningful connections with the right people to rise above the “look at me” new release noise.

Said Blank, “When you talk about more people trying to get attention, you have to think about who specifically do you want to reach, how are you doing that in a way that is more meaningful and more genuine than anyone else, because the more people who are screaming for attention, that gives you an opportunity to be the person they can trust that they feel they can connect with and they resonates with them.”

11 thoughts on “Marketing for the Long Haul: The Shifting Ground of Book PR in 2014

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  4. Bob Mayer

    Solid advice and something I’m taking to heart for 2014 with a shift in focus to those readers who have already read my books and liked them to build a core around which to attract more readers.

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  9. Meg

    Honestly, I think the real problem is that we (authors) keep hearing the same vague, general advice over and over, and no one ever gets down to real specifics that are of any use, even over the long haul. For instance, most marketing books seem to assume that you’ve already got at least a small audience and want to expand that audience using the audience you’ve already got. What no one seems to cover is how to get your *first* audience of readers who don’t know you personally.

    As for identifying a potential audience, I can do all the ideal reader exercises in the world and then try to find out where they hang out, but either divining one’s ideal reader is much harder than it’s made out to be, or finding out where they hang out is, too. Or both. I suspect both.

    I’m determined to make this work regardless, but I would give my eyeteeth for specific advice that actually makes sense to me.

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