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 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), 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