Who sells your book: Changes in traditional marketing

The idea that your publisher will handle your marketing is a pernicious and antiquated myth that can lead authors to believe there is a fundamental difference in the way a traditionally published author and an indie author should approach their marketing. But is it true? No!

When it comes to marketing a book, there is no difference in approach. Authors must take charge of their own book’s marketing, regardless of how that book gets published. I am going to try to debunk some of this my publisher will market my book belief, because authors who count on their publisher to handle the marketing for them will ultimately be disappointed and see their business suffer.

Disclaimer #1: Before I go further this is not an attack on traditional publishing. I believe that traditional publishing offers tremendous value to authors and is an entirely valid course to chart. I do however believe that in the area of marketing, misinformation is being allowed to persist for the benefit of the publisher and at the expense of the author.

In general, I think this myth persists because publishers are invested in preserving the illusion that their marketing power is invaluable. The perceived value of "having our whole marketing department behind you" is a powerful lure to potential authors. A publisher will happily point to one of their books that sold well and claim that it was due to their marketing efforts, avoiding mentioning all the dozens or hundreds of books they published that were not hits. This has the effect of leading an author to think that the publisher can do the same thing for their book, possibly leading them to sign with them over someone else.

Once an author is acquired, the marketing department gives the publisher leverage in determining the ultimate shape a book takes. The publisher will make many decisions about their book, including title, cover, genre positioning, and a release date. In conversations with authors, a version of the phrase “marketing through X was better” seems to be the backstop that publishers turn to when justifying their choices. Since so many authors are loath to touch marketing, it should be no surprise that this seems to work like magic.

The soothing comfort of believing your publishers are masters of marketing is seductive. It feels good to believe it. I get it. “Marketing” is an amorphous field seemingly more like fortune telling than science. I strongly suspect that if a psychologist ever studied it, they would find that the personality traits that motivate people to be authors are in direct conflict with those that create good marketers. A cruel irony, but hundreds of authors have learned to work through it. So can you. 

It is now time to take a moment to debunk the modern role of publishers in book marketing. I am not foolish enough to argue that publishers were not, once upon a time, essential to the marketing of books. Evidence now suggests that is no longer the case.

20 years ago "book marketing" referred to a handful of activities that your average author was excluded from due to expense, expertise and gate kept social connections.

  • Hiring artist to create covers
  • Creating sales packets and printing advanced copies
  • Convincing influential authors to read the book and send a cover quote
  • Getting reviewed by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a couple other genre specific publications.
  • Placement on displays at a handful of important conventions, like BEA, ALA, and TXLA to build name recognition and buzz.
  • Scheduling meetings with the alarmingly small number of book buyers whose name you would never have heard let alone their mailing addresses but the publishers were able to send sales packets to.
  • Renting preferred placement at the front of the store or on an endcap, if the publisher was particularly confident in a book. 
  • Purchasing of ads in magazines and newspapers, businesses that conveniently were also based in NYC.
  • Securing international publishing deals through their connections with foreign publishers and through promotional efforts at places like the Frankfurt Book Fair.

There were a couple other actions like inclusion in school book fairs or book clubs that could really help books in specific genres but the above list

Those are not necessarily easy to do, but the real barrier to authors was that some were prohibitively expensive and the rest were controlled by a small group of people in a geographically limited area.

What is is like today? Hiring your own cover artists and designers over the internet is incredibly easy. These days author to author connection is preferred to having a third party broker quotes. The importance of professional reviews continues to diminish as consumer and influencer reviews are more trusted. Anyone can create a sales packet and send a pdf. The age of the uber gatekeeper book buyer seems over as every bookstore is proud of their ability to order you any book you want.

I will admit to being uncertain of the value of a presence at the large conventions, and brokering preferred placement in bookstores is still the purview of publishers, but more than half of all books are sold online where endcap placement doesn’t matter at all. Print ads are far less effective and more expensive than online ads and international rights are something that an increasing number of authors manage for themselves. 

Disclaimer #2: I mentioned previously that it was not my intention to dismiss traditional publishers. Then I dismantled their marketing value. That does not mean that I think traditional publishers are without value. I just don’t think they have much marketing value. Advances are a tremendous perk. Their editorial expertise is fantastic, and at no expense to the author. The assumption of printing and bookkeeping costs is enough to make it an attractive relationship, and the value of their social capital, though diminished, is still very helpful in things like rights negotiations.

Second disclaimer out of the way, there is another budgetary reality at play that authors should be aware of.

Publishers have limited marketing budgets. They invested most of that in books they believe will be hits. You know the sort of books I mean. Celebrity autobiographies, youtube personality cookbooks, an eighth book in a successful series. A guideline that I have heard from multiple sources, is that if you are given a high six figure to seven figure deal you are going to get serious marketing backing because your publisher can’t afford for you to fail. Everyone else splits the remaining budget.

Concerning the disposition of that remaining budget, publishers roll the dice on a huge number of debut authors a year. Doing a little bar mat mathematics: in an average year, across all their imprints, the larger publishers are putting two to five hundred debut authors out a year. They understand most of those books will lose money and hope a few are hits but they have no idea which books will succeed. They send all those books to the marketing department and say, “Do what you can”. Their marketing department is full of passionate book lovers who want to help authors succeed; they just don't have much in the way of resources.

That was me when I started in publishing, I met and worked with amazing creators who I didn’t have that conversation with and even when I did try it didn’t work. The guilt associated with that failure is a hard and odd thing to live with. Telling a creator that the only way you can help them is by convincing them they have to help themselves stills feels like a failure.

Another thing you will notice if you stick around book marketing for any length of time is that those departments have incredibly high turnover.

Art marketing is an amorphous field at the best of times. I hope that I have cast some light into why assuming that a traditional publisher will bear that heavy weight of selling a book is foolish. The starting point for marketing your book is of course identifying and finding your readers which we have talked about a lot already so take a peak at this article about reader profiles.

Stay healthy good writing and good outreach!

Never miss a post.

Want to know whenever we post new content on the BetaBooks Blog? Enter your email address to get our posts via email.
(We typically post a few times a month, we'll never send more than one notification per day, and you can opt-out any time.)