Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Publishing - A Funny Ol' Game

Danuta Kean is a journalist who specializes in writing about publishing and the arts; she also has a very good blog you can read here. I was somewhat randomly perusing her archive, which goes back to 1997, when I chanced upon an article from January 2002 from the Evening Standard under the headline – ‘Over publishing: So little time, so much to read’. It's fascinating.

Did you know that there are 126,000 books published every year? No wonder so few cut through to make it onto one or other of the bestseller lists. Danuta points out it's less surprising that some make it onto the lists because publishers indulge in what she refers to as "bungs" to booksellers, but not just any booksellers but the supermarkets and the main players like W.H. Smith. As Danuta says. "Publishers’ marketing budgets are skewed in favour of so-called "bungs" to book chains. When Asda demands as much as £25,000 and WH Smith £10,000 to put a title under its customers’ noses." Five years later and little has changed.

Her article opens with this. "Publishers will say anything to get an author between the sheets of their catalogues. But once the contract is signed, that seductive promise of a gold-plated publicity campaign all too often fades into thin air and the writer is lucky to receive a meagre handful of reviews before the edition is pulped." So why do people write books and how disappointed are they by what then happens?

It's a kind of Faustian pact. We all know how the game is played and we do our damndest to try and beat the system. Tactics vary from charm to pleading and from anger to despair as writers attempt to get their work marketed. I was speaking with a friend recently, a best selling author, who was in a state of despair about the lack of marketing for his book, despite the subject of his biography having a huge media profile. It's a syndrome that I've come to call 'two weeks in the sun' Many, but not all, books get that two weeks attention from the publisher's PR department and then they move onto the next thing, it's implicit in the process of publishing. He’d had his 2 weeks in the sun and everyone had moved right along.

Marketing books for many publishers is a process that is closer to selling than marketing. It is increasingly dependent on the power of the supermarkets to make or break a book. Saying that it implies an unfair process - not at all. The fact is that they have to sell volume to make money. Books, like CDs are part of the customer draw and like it or not it is here to stay. What we writers of non-blockbuster, TV tie in or those books with no guaranteed sale have to realise is that it’s all about DIY. Similarly publishers are facing up to the reality of life in a world where bookshops are on a steady decline. Who knows we may even lose one of the big chains before too long.

Writers have to find ways of marketing their own work. It’s no good just writing the damn things anymore. I’ve long argued that writers and publishers should stop pretending that any real marketing will go on for any but a few books. There should be a plan agreed, up front, of support for the writer’s to do their own marketing. This could be achieved in part through the supply of mailing lists, email lists, information and marketing templates to get we writers to do the job ourselves.

Fundamental to marketing is the need to not just recognise a demand for a product but to inform and make aware the market as to it’s availability and why it should be purchased. In the future this will increasingly be the task of authors and if we grasp it, it may help to put things back onto a slightly more even keel.

Danuta’s article goes onto explore other aspects of book marketing and selling and if the subject interest you I urge you to read it.


r morris said...

Brilliant post, Richard.
As a writer, I can relate to most of what you discuss.

I really like the idea of the publisher supplying marketing support in the form of mailling lists, etc. That would be a huge help.

Also, I've noticed that some online booksellers do a stellar job of cross-promoting books in similar genres. This has helped my own book immeasurably. Today, it was #1 on Amazon in aviation, even though on other booksellers, it is a good ways down the list. Why is this? Because of the cross-promotion.

Most writers just plod along because deep down, I think most of us do it because we HAVE to--it's in our blood and it makes us feel good. I do enjoy getting the royalty check, however.

Danuta said...

Thanks for the plug Richard. Coincidentally, I have just filed a big article to The Author on this very subject. It will be in the winter issue, out soon. If you can't get hold of that, I will place it on the site later this year.
I focus on branding. Most publishers haven't a clue when it comes to marketing. Nor for that matter do booksellers (well the chain and supermarket ones). But, I would argue, it isn't up to booksellers. They are interested in sales of stock, whatever it is, they just want to turn over a lot of cash per sq foot.
Publishers should be interested in profits. It is a subtle difference: one is about stock turn, the other about maximising profit from content, however that is supplied.

Richard Havers said...

Danuta, totally agree on the "it's not up to booksellers" point. The problem with publishers is the fact that they've kind of abrogated their responsibilities for marketing and tried to pass the buck (book??)

Ian Appleby said...

Richard, that's a really interesting take. Did you happen across Chris Bradley's thoughts on the same subject? He takes a rather different view, suggesting that what makes a good artist doesn't necessarily make a good marketer.

Richard Havers said...

Ian, thanks for the link, a really interesting post from Chris Bradley.

I think the one size fits all approach to much of what publishers deem to be marketing is at play in all this. I certainly don't think the internet is a panacea either. And I take Chris' point that the problems of a writer doing his own marketing is a clash of skills. However, the reality is that more and more publishers are going to do less and less for any but their top top authors and writers. It's a debate that needs to be aired more often and solutions will begin to surface.

Jim Murdoch said...

What amuses me is the fact that there's an ad for Frampton Come Alive on your website and yet you talk about writers having "two weeks in the sun" which is the case. What is it about books that give them such a perceived short self-life? Perhaps it's the sheer weight of new books queuing up to take their spaces on the shelves. It's all so X-Factor.

Enjoyed the article.

Richard Havers said...

Thanks Jim.

I think the conveyer belt process just overwhelms everyone involved in the whole affair. While its always been the case that publishing has operated somewhat like this, today the sheer volume of media clutter mitigates against books breaking through.

With the reducing sales of newspapers, even the old send out review copies is less effective.