Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Myth That Publishers Don't Promote Any More

(I'm going to recycle one of my recent comments here: sorry for the rehash, but it's an important issue and one which is much misunderstood.)

Following my post Questions About Self-Publishing, a reader commented, "Another big myth is if an author sells his/her book to a publisher then the publisher will do all the promotion. This rarely happens."

He was almost right, but not quite. And that "not quite" makes a big difference.

Publishers don't allocate over-large promotional budgets to every single book that they publish; nor do they arrange book launches or signing tours for everyone. However, they do include every title that they publish in their catalogue, and it's this catalogue that their distributors' sales teams use as a sales tool when they visit bookshops.

Those sales teams visit every single bookshop in the country, as often as they can, to discuss new releases and hot titles. This is what gets books into bookshops; and consequently, books into people's homes.

Publishers also routinely send out advance review copies of every single title that they publish, to every appropriate publication that they can find, and to carefully-selected bookshops all over the country. Depending on the title they might send out 50 ARCs, or perhaps a few hundred: but this is something that very few self-publishers can afford to do, or have the mailing list and contacts to do effectively. And it's this that generates the most effective reviews, and gets booksellers motivated to promote certain books.

Even though publishers don't heavily promote every title, they are very effective at selling books. While it's true that publishers don't automatically spend big money promoting every single book that they publish, they do an awful lot to get them into bookshops: because bookshops are where most people buy their books, and where most books are sold.


Sally Zigmond said...

I've worked in several bookshops and have heard publishers' sales reps at work pushing their new titles to the relevant book buyers. It's amazing to listen to. They know everything about the books they're selling and work incredibly hard, believe me. They are pushy in the nicest possible way and are very persistent in extolling the merits of each title. It takes a particular kind of talent to sell and few writers have it and as Jane says, could never begin to cover the whole country. That's why it's always best to aim for a traditional publisher than go it alone.

And slick glossy catalogues of new titles with large colour photos of the front covers is what book shops demand from publishers. It's what sells the book to them as much as the contents. Even more, sometimes.

Brian Clegg said...

I agree absolutely with what you say, Jane. I think the reason writers sometimes get the wrong impression is partly because just a few books get a huge amount of publicity (posters on railway stations, for instance, and high profile launches), where their books don't.

Another problem is that some authors don't understand just how small bookshops are, set against the number of books in print. The majority of books probably never make the bookshop at all, and those that do rarely last more than a few weeks. Because of that, there's an incorrect impression that 'they' aren't doing anything.

Jane Smith said...

Thanks for the compliments, both.

Most of the promotion that publishers do is invisible, because it's to bookshops. Which is where most books get sold from, after all. Despite what some vanity publishers tell you.

Marian Perera said...

I've read too many posts from vanity-printed authors who have exhausted both their local markets and themselves and aren't sure what more they have to do to get their books carried nationwide. Or from self-published authors who believe that, by cutting out the middleman (the publisher), their profits will be higher.

But the successful promotion of books within the framework of commercial publishing is a partnership. The publisher can't do what the author does (make a personal impact on readers, for instance) and the author can't do what the publisher does (get a salesforce out to stores).

It's a damaging myth and I'm glad you've addressed it in an informative and concise post.

Nicola Slade said...

Both my publishers sent me a questionnaire for publicity purposes in which I was required to give the names and addresses of local bookshops, local papers, television, radio, etc. Also names of anyone famous I might know who would review the books for a cover 'puff',plus any blogs I thought would review the books. The publishers did their best and I got on with the local publicity campaign, ending up with a regular slot on local radio to report on my progress as a published author.

However, even reputable 'proper' publishers have trouble getting their books into the major bookselling chains, so I imagine a self-published author is at a huge disadvantage there.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. It's very true that much of what a publisher does is invisible to most authors (and certainly invisible to most authors' non-book-trade friends and relations who keep asking about the launch). I've eavesdropped on reps and it is impressive. It's also true that a publicist can work their tail off for a book, and just, somehow, it doesn't take off, or another similar book is one jump ahead all the time, or whatever. That's not the publicist's fault - it just looks like it is.

I think, though, it's genuinely difficult for authors to know:

1) What's standard practice and any author can expect it from a)a small indie publisher and b)a mainstream corporate publisher, and what to do if they don't seem to be doing it.

2) What is the publisher doing that bit more: stuff we can hope for, perhaps suggest would be effective, but not sulk if we don't get because they can't do it for everyone.

3) What to be absolutely bowled over and grateful for. Specially as the book trade is a hyperbolic world, and everybody's thrilled about everything if they possibly can be.

4) And what, as you say, is best done by authors - small stuff, local stuff, personal stuff. Sure, you have a mini-site on the publisher's website, but that's not the same as your own site, your own blog, a contact form, and some form of nice hand-out for whenever what you write comes up. I found myself pushing my little card with the cover of A Secret Alchemy under the cashier's window at the bank the other day, after we got chatting about what I did...

And, yes, while we don't have to be crawlingly grateful to be published - they wouldn't if they didn't think we'd make money for them - we do also have to admit that this is business, and be realistic about how it works, and who can afford the time and the money to do what.

Anonymous said...

I think that the service offered by publishers is patchy at best. Two books I wrote that attracted big advances were hardly pushed by the publishers at all, and I came to have a very cynical view of the talents of marketing and sales people. Even though I had to do all the legwork, very few seemed to have any idea what my books were about, and had not taken time to read even the blurb (which I provided).

Only one, small-press publisher I've had made any effort at all. The effort they made was spectacular - arranging dates for me to speak, all over the country, and linking me up with a PR company that supported these dates with occasional local radio and newspaper coverage. Still didn't get the bums on seats, though, and didn't sell many copies. From this I have the impression that I might just as well have marketed and sold my books myself.

You also seem to hold great store by bookshops. With few exceptions, bookshops have central buying policies and local managers have very little influence on what gets stocked - to say that you are a 'local author' gets you nowhere. And major chains charge fortunes for books to be stocked prominently, in displays or in the window. It's a real scam, actually.

Therefore I would turn your myth on its head. I think it really is a myth that publishers work hard on behalf of their authors. Really, I don't think many of them give a damn.

Jane Smith said...

Emma, there's a very useful book by Alison Baverstock called something like, "How To Market Your Own Book", which discusses the answers to your questions. It's very direct and well-written, and well worth buying: Alison appears on the BBC Breakfast show a lot these days, talking about all sorts of things which don't necessarily connect with her books but is, I hope, a nice litte earner for her.

Ernest, I'm planning a few posts about bookselling and bookshops, so I'll hope to discuss that with you properly another time. You're right, though: chains are difficult to crack, and with the independent shops closing at a rate of knots it's getting harder and harder to promote some titles.

(Meanwhile, if anyone's anywhere near Shropshire, do visit Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock: I love that shop. There's a link on my front page. They run wonderful promotions and book groups there, and have coffee and cake on Saturday mornings.)

Anonymous said...

... and I'd recommend Joseph's Bookshop in Golder's Green! A shop that succeeds because the shop owns the cafe next door and puts on literary events (I know this because I have spoken there).

I'd like to raise an other thing with you - whether the marketing and advertising of books really makes much sense. I have been selling my lulu title By The Sea for about a month, and have notched up 16 copies, mainly through my blogs and facebook.

Yesterday I got a statement from my agent about Jacob's Ladder a title for which I got a £17,500 advance, and was published with Fourth Estate in the UK (marketing effort almost zero) and Norton in the US (who did a bit better). This title got a super review in the New York Times.

Well, in the period October '07 thru March '08 it sold .... wait for it ... I hope you're sitting down ... 58 copies.

Sure, the title came out in '04, and perhaops it sold better then. I shall try to dig out some old statements, and if I find any, I shall let you know.

The point is, I think, that publishing by the conventional route need not sell you many more books than the do-it-yourself method. In which case, how do you sell a book? I think the kind of farmer's-market direct-to-reader method offered by POD is not to be sniffed at.

One could always say that many, perhaps most titles on lulu lack in quality. Well, perhaps. But one could say that for most books published conventionally, especially now (I heard a story that one literary author, Margaret Drabble, had been told by her publisher to 'dumb down'). In which case, I can see that conventional publishing offers less and less, while POD allows more and more, especially to established authors who already have a following.

Jane Smith said...

Ernest, as we've already discussed, the one crucial thing that self-publishers can't usually manage is to get their books into shops nationwide. For that you need a big, mainstream, commercial press, as many of the independent-but-good publishers don't have decent distribution, and so can't tap into the sales teams who get the books into shops. So, despite your apparently poor sales from a commercial publisher (which I'll get onto in a minute), I still maintain that in almost every case, books do better with mainstream publishers than when they're self-published.

I'd be interested to know what the sales were for Jacob's Ladder during its first month, six months and year of publication, though. With all due respect, I bet it did rather better than a similar self-published title would have done so (I'll not make a direct comparison to By The Sea, as I'm not sure they're of the same genre).

Finally: do you have a link to your favourite book seller in Golders Green? Because if so, I'd be happy to add them to my front page. I love independent booksellers and will give them all the plugs I can.

(You can thank me for allowing all your blatant plugs by continuing to read my blog and contribute to it. It's good to have someone so well-informed to argue with!)

Anonymous said...

Hah! One person's blatant plugging is another person's writing from the only experience that they know {REM: Write What You Know. END}

In any case, books won't sell if you tell nobody about them, right?

Sure, stimulated by this argument I'm going to see if I can dig out my old publishing statements, and, if you like, present them here as a talking point. Yes, I expect that Jacob's Ladder (a pop sci book) will have sold quite a few in its first few weeks, more than one could manage with POD. But that stands to reason. My point is that yes, of course, with the marketing and distribution offered by conventional publishing, you'd think that the effort they make would be rewarded with a whole lot more returns than they evidently are.

And I rarely, if ever, come across my own books in bookstores. Whenever I inquire of anyone, the responses I usually get (from publishers) is that book chains are very hard to crack, and will rarely take more than a couple of copies of anything, especially if it's on the backlist.

Joesph's bookstore's website is here
I'd recommend thatir eMailing list, showing all the interesting events they put on.

Anonymous said...

Jane, I've not actually read the Baverstock book, though I've heard her speak: but I wish I had when it was all new and strange, despite my having spent a few years in academic publishing in the dim and distant past, including reading The Bookseller. It doesn't help that so much advice to authors doesn't distinguish between fiction and non-fiction - sooooo much easier to get media interest for the latter. Kate Long (Bad Mothers Handbook, Queen Mum) and I have discussed writing The Newbie Author's Guide to Etiquette...

I'm a huge fan of indie booksellers - I'm blessed with five which I can walk to from home - but as Editorial Anonymous put it once, we have to realise that every inch of their shelves is real estate, and has to earn its keep with a book that will sell as soon as possible. I dropped into my nearest indie - Village Books in Dulwich - just before Super Thursday, and the owner was tearing her hair out to find space for all the new books. No doubt there were some older, slower sellers who were culled. Luckily for us, most indie booksellers are in it because they love books, and will extend an enormous amount of rope to a book they love, letting it inhabit the shelves for years, in a way which would make most retailing consultants and all supermarket managers stare and shake their heads...

The difficulty, always, with the self-published or small press book/author is a different facet of the same problem: visibility. If, as a publisher, you can't persuade the bookshops that a certain book will provide a respectable return on that real estate then it's very, very hard to gain that visibility. And if fiction and general non-fiction isn't visible, it doesn't sell. Amazon and others try very, very hard to find ways to recreate the experience of browsing in a bookshop (or even the book shelves of Tesco) but they haven't cracked it yet: picking up a book, holding it in your hand and dipping into a page or two is still the way a book sells. That, and having a knowledgeable, enthusiastic bookseller hand-sell it. Which is where the good indies are so brilliant, but they can't do it for a book that's not there to be hand-sold.