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Book Publicity and Marketing: How Soon was Yesterday?

kevin.jpgI spoke to a touring author last week who repeated this phrase about 9 times over a one hour coffee date. 

“Everything’s changed.”

  • She wasn’t talking about digital pricing, vanishing review coverage, closing independent bookstores or KindlePadNookKobos (KPNK’s) although I’m sure they had crossed her mind plenty. No, this afternoon she was a single-minded author/chief salesperson with a book to promote and a long road ahead staring immovably back at her. 

The “everything” therefore pressed up against her nose like store window. Around the publication of her last novel….

  • There was still some debate over how much promotion authors did on their own vs. fulfilling marketing obligations set up by their publisher. That authors must promote, often on their own, is now an accepted reality.
  • Authors promoted their books as long as their publicist worked on them, typically 3 months, longer if the book is a knockout success. Now, the time authors devote to book promotion, again often on their own, has increased dramatically. A year spent on events, conferences and festivals and maintaining a social media presence is no longer madly obsessive, but professionally responsible.
  • Authors still wrestled over whether they should be using social media tools or not. Now authors debate not “whether” but “which.” Is Twitter or Facebook or Blip.tv better for my promotional efforts? The answer is no longer “should I even bother?” 
  • Marketing efforts were largely geared at review coverage or a guest spot in major media outlets. Those still matter but smaller media covering books has increased dramatically. The ubiquity of book-minded blogs, online radio stations, videocasts, and avid twitterers means an author can feel at once empowered (“There’s always something I could be doing for my book!”) and demoralized (“I will never be able to do enough.”) 

Given that list, I figured it had been a solid 10 years since my author friend’s last book. It had been 4. Her last novel hit shelves in 2006. 

With book marketing, everything has changed. We are now in the uncomfortable middle of not knowing what will work or what that even means. Does a successful marketing campaign mean increased sales (an effort that’s “working” in the traditional sense) or does that ignore the intangible equity produced by social media and an author’s raised profile? If an author has 50,000 twitter followers but can only sell 400 books, does that mean a) it’s a lousy book b) the author is compelling but obnoxious c) those 50,000 followers mean nothing or d) publishers need to rethink their business model and value proposition if they can’t convert someone who follows an author into someone who reads them? 

We don’t know. An Uncomfortable Middle needs then to be a time of great fear leading to passionate experimentation. The genetically-quotable Clay Shirky put it best when he said “Nothing will work. Everything might.” 

The “everything” Mr. Shirky refers to is a lot of little experiments which when tossed together may result in gumbo instead of sludge.

Is there a “what do to?” during the Uncomfortable Middle other than wait the experiments out? I’ve taken note of the following adjustments we as an industry can make right now.

  • Education. Authors recognize they must promote their books themselves but don’t know how or even where to begin. This means first a culture of openness and honesty must develop between publishers and authors, guided by a clarity of whom is responsible for what class of marketing efforts. Second, if publishers must spend limited time and resources on promoting a particular title, they owe it to the author to educate or at least pair them with the proper tools and materials on how to market for themselves.
  • Conversation.  Smaller homegrown media makers enjoy hearing from authors, particularly in conversation with the author as fellow lover of literature and not simply a salesperson with soap flakes to push. Speaking personally and all other things being equal, I am more likely to recommend or buy the book of an author I find friendly and engaging on Twitter, in my favorite podcast, or at an informal live event. I am much less likely to do the same if I find the author wooden, standoffish, or seemingly uninterested in their readers attentions expect at high-priced, ticketed on-stage interviews. 

That doesn’t mean that every author can or will be a sparkling conversationalist. But it is incumbent upon those that are to participate in the conversation; those that are less so to get over their shyness and simply be kind, generous people to their readers; and their publishers to loop proper reader/author interaction, in both real world and online setting, into the pre-pub process.

  • Retention. We live in a loud, crowded world. It is far too easy for an author and their book to get lost if success depends too heavily on a single kind of media effort, on too limited a geographic reach, on too little time to get traction, on too much time spent in promoting to readers instead of in conversation with them. A hybrid model–live events, a social media presence, traditional media and conference appearances, publisher support–that empowers author to continue on after the traditional publicity window has closed seems the only logical way forward. 

Does that mean that publishers and authors will be working twice as hard to get half as much? Most likely. But we also need a larger definition of “much.” If all marketing efforts–from lead title down to self-published author–are ultimately and only measured by sales, then we are tacitly saying that in fact nothing has changed, which we know isn’t true. Naturally we shouldn’t market books for our health. But perhaps there is another way to win, to have sales generate from deepening relationships with readers and books and authors a more consistent presence in the entertainment fabric of our lives. That’s an “everything’s changed” worth trying for.

About Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is an author, journalist, speaker and entrepreneur. He’s the editor of the anthology Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, June 2005), which was a San Francisco Chronicle notable book of 2005. His writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The LA Times, Fast Company, and on National Public Radio.
In 2007, Kevin Smokler founded with Chris Anderson (editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine) BookTour.com, a complete set of online tools to help authors promote their books at a reasonable price, and the world’s largest online directory of author and literary events. Kevin now serves as the company’s CEO, regularly speaking at publishing industry conferences and book festivals throughout North America. In April of 2008, Amazon purchased a minority stake in BookTour.com.

Comments: 18

  1. Brilliant, Kevin. I’ve heard authors say they are “too busy” to deal with fan mail. That is the gold to me–sales are secondary. In the digital age, I have a much more intimate connection with my reader. We are creating a shared experience. I value the relationship more than the “sale.”

    Also, I see little the publisher can add in an e-book era unless they learn relationship building–it’s not just customer lists and demographic targets anymore, it’s people.

    Scott Nicholson

  2. I totally agree.

    To help those who want to pick up where their publishers leave off, I teach a book publicity e-course for authors (http://bit.ly/dlcZwh). It helps them understand the tools and tactics and how to use them, then decide which ones will help them reach the people they wrote the book for. In a nutshell, authors learn how to become their own book publicists.

    I would love to partner with a publisher to create a publisher-branded version of the course so that they can do exactly what you’ve proposed — educating their authors on what’s involved with long-term promotion and how to do it. Got any ideas about who might be open to this?

    Thanks for a great post.

    Sandra Beckwith

  3. Scott, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Sandra, I don’t have a particular publisher in mind but the need to educate authors on such things will only become more pressing and since I don’t see publishers devoting increased staff time to such a thing, I think the need for your service will become apparent quite soon.

  4. Great piece!

    I noticed vast differences on an even narrower timeline, between my two books (one published Jan 2007, the next July 2009). Big dropping off in the number of print publications that published reviews. Explosion of new possibilities on Twitter, Facebook, other networks. The end result, as you say: more work, more time, but also even wider opportunities for actual exchange of ideas with actual readers — which is kind of the point of it all (aside from, er, selling books).

  5. How many publishers have a formal training program to teach writers how to be ‘authors’? Not a single one that I am aware of. The medium has changed, but ten years ago I would get promises of publicity support from Random House for a bestselling series, that always came to naught. Today, at least, publishers are saying authors have to do the work.

    I started my Warrior Writer program to train writers to be authors using my 20 years experience in publishing with over 45 books published. I combined it with my experience in the Green Berets as far as setting goals and executing plans. I still get blank looks when I approach agents and editors with the program, suggesting it would be worthwhile for their clients and authors. One editor told me they don’t hire authors, they contract for manuscripts. Technically correct, but then send the 1099 to the manuscript and ask it to do its own marketing.

    It’s not just about about developing a marketing plan. It’s about figuring out content first. We just published a book, We Are Not Alone: The Writers’ Guide to Social Media and the first half of the book is about knowing what your goals are and preparing your content before you even step foot on twitter, facebook, et al. I still see so many authors wasting time and money and doing such small, easily correctable things wrong.

    For 20 years I’ve been preaching the following:
    An author must promote and market.
    An author can’t promote and market.
    But you must.
    But you can’t.
    But you must.
    But you can’t.
    But you must.

    Because if you don’t do it, no one else will do it for you.

  6. Hey Kevin, this is great. As someone who is getting ready to do 63 book events in every U.S. state and Canadian province over the next few months, I certainly agree that authors need to take responsibility for their own success.

    To the point that “publishers need to educate authors” — because everything is changing, I’m not so sure that publishers always know what is best either. I see the teaching moments coming from people like you, as well as other authors who have taken unconventional steps to ensure their books are successful.

    I hope it’s not too pretentious to say that some authors could teach publishers a thing or two about marketing, especially with new media. So in short, we all need to learn, and the first step is to actually want to learn.

    Thanks again for raising these great questions.

  7. One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make is that they have this attitude that publicity is “not their job”. Unfortunately, this attitude has a way of show up online when these authors try and use social media halfheartedly. As much as I love publishing houses and their employees, here’s a little word to all you authors out there: your publisher’s not going to do sh*t for you.

    While unfortunate, it’s the truth. And this isn’t the publisher’s fault! With the economy in bad shape and the interwebs making it harder and harder to sell books, their staff is spread incredibly thin. So if you want to make sure you actually sell your book, take some of the easy marketing into your own hands. Get on Twitter. Hire a consultant (me!) and have them help you find that community of readers who’s going to fall in love with your book. Create a Facebook fan page and spread the word. But don’t sit at your desk whining that it’s not your responsibility. The incredible power of social media is that you don’t need to be a marketing expert, you just need to have a passion for your book, be willing to learn the basics and have fun with it!

  8. well, let’s see if this post is censored. or delayed for a month,
    which is tantamount to the same thing, wouldn’t you agree?

    so this is what “tools of change” has degenerated into, eh?,
    a blog on marketing… oh my, how the mighty have fallen…

    oh well, at least this particular entry got some comments.

    let’s see, we have some other marketeers coming here and
    “joining the conversation” (i.e., marketing _their_ services),
    and a few authors chiming in (“did i mention i have a book?”).


    boring boring boring boring boring boring boring.

    is it an iron-clad rule that the self-promoters must infect
    every little nook and cranny in _every_ corner of the web?

    your constant din and clatter will make everyone immune,
    as y’all become as tiresome as the drone of the vuvuzelas.


  9. Leaving aside bowerbirds cries from somewhere west of the 19th century…

    I think everyone’s comments are leading to a question no one in our industry has quite answered successfully. Whose responsibility is it? The authors? Their publisher? An Agent? A third-party tool provider like BookTour? We don’t have an answer right now which is why we’re lurching into this new reality like a blind ferret with a stubbed toe.

    I do know this though: Arguing over rightfully whom should be doing it will get us nowhere. So to publishers, authors and all of us who have a stake in the game, I think we need a firm shot of reality in the form of a lesson my mother taught me as a child. If you say it’s not your problem, you forfeit the right to complain when it doesn’t go your way.

  10. kevin said:
    > Whose responsibility is it?

    responsibility for what?


    or, if you prefer, making “customers” aware of the “product”?

    let me tell you exactly how that will happen, kevin.

    through collaborative filtering.

    that’s how people will separate the wheat from the chaff
    — their own personal wheat from the total global chaff —
    in _every_ realm of cyberspace content, not just books…

    that’s the kind of system that you marketeers cannot game,
    which is precisely why we humans out here will settle on it…
    we’re already tired of your spiel, and we’re just on the cusp of
    the huge expansion of content creation that will soon occur.

    and once we know for sure that we have a system which can
    and will deliver stuff to us that we enjoy, on an ongoing basis,
    marketing will become the kiss of death.

    after all, if we would really like your content, you wouldn’t
    have to market it to us, you’d just let the system deliver it.

    that will allow the relationship between artists and fans
    to develop in an honest natural way, rather than it being
    an exercise in hucksterism perpetuated against people.


  11. Bowerbird,

    “Marketing” as an entity is no more or less dangerous than “technology” or “capitalism.” It’s a tool used for good or used for evil. And while I too dream of the day that collaborative filtering steers us towards the arts and culture right for us without the need for marketing, the sad truth is that most cultural consumers are simply not as diligent about getting the culture that is “right” for them. They will choose between what “marketing” puts in front of their nose. And since that dynamic is not going to change anytime soon, those producing quality stuff need to know how to market. I wish they didn’t have to.

  12. kevin-

    i sense that you’re marketing yourself,
    under the guise of an inevitability, so
    i’ll be checking out of this dialog now.

    but, to you and all the other marketeers…

    “good luck cutting through the clutter.”


  13. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your great post!

    I just finished up an article for the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest on what successful (read: bestselling) novelists the likes of Meg Cabot and Scott Sigler are doing to promote their books today, which I think will be eye-opening for aspiring novelists.

    It’s well established that nonfiction authors must have their platform in place (to quote myself) before the book deal, but these days, advance platform development is no longer for nonfiction writers…and not only for new writers…it’s for all writers whether established or completely unknown.

    Consensus: staying in touch with readers makes us better writers. And knowing when to stop chatting online and get back to writing is the key to everything.

  14. I think one of the biggest differences is that publishers are being more upfront about it now. As noted in the responses here, they used to tell you what great things they were going to do to promote your book — and then do nothing. Now, they’re telling authors at the proposal stage that it’s up to them to make things happen. More & more publishers are requiring incredibly in-depth marketing plans in book proposals now, so those authors who say “it’s not my job” are finding out that not only do they have to DO it, they have to outline what they’re going to do before they can get a contract. So, yeah, it IS your job now.

    Sandra Beckwith

  15. Hi Kevin, it’s really a great post… great amount of information. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge… it can be of great help for newbies as well as experienced authors. Thanks again

  16. The information is accurate and timely. As the author of nine cookbooks (one of which I have just re-pubished myself), I realized early on that the author is in charge of promotion. It’s a challenge, but you get to meet people who really want to help you promote YOUR book. After electronics linkeages, I have found there is no better way to convince a bookstore to carry your book that through personal contact (either in person, or by phone). See you on the book signing tail, Facebook and Linked In!

    Kitty Morse Moroccan Cuisine

  17. Kevin, thanks for some useful tips. After all the authors’ goal is not only to get people to read their books but also buy them!