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Forget Everything You've Heard About Book Publishing

Most people have a vision of publishing that ceased to exist years ago: writers of yore traipsing bookstore to bookstore across America to offer readings and scrawl inscriptions to the handful of strangers who bothered to show up. It sounds so quaint. Alas, today's publishers have little patience for such low-yield marketing efforts. [Viral Loop Chronicles Part 1]

Part 1: Today's Author, Yesterday's Business

book it

Forget everything you've heard about book publishing.

For instance, recently at a party to celebrate the publication of my latest book, a number of people asked, "Is your publisher sending you on a tour to promote your book?"

Dicl;dsCKWDfce9qdck. Sorry, I was laughing so hard recounting this story that I hit my head on my keyboard.

These friends/colleagues/acquaintances/random people I met were inquiring about Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. It tells the stories of the fastest growing companies in history—Skype, Hotmail, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and many more, all of which grew virally. By amassing such huge numbers of users without spending a dime on marketing, they were able to create multimillion and in some cases billion-dollar businesses practically overnight. They did it by creating a product that its users spread for them. In other words, to use it, they had to spread it. Never before in human history has it been possible to create this much wealth, this fast, and starting with so little. I'd like to think Viral Loop is partially inspirational. If they can create billion-dollar companies from scratch, why can't you? (Read an excerpt here and here.)

Most people have a vision of publishing that ceased to exist years ago: writers of yore traipsing bookstore to bookstore across America to offer readings and scrawl inscriptions to the handful of strangers who bothered to show up. It sounds so quaint. Alas, today's publishers have little patience for such low-yield marketing efforts. Building a writer's career isn't part of the equation. It's all about the bottom line. If legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who patiently guided some of our nation's greatest writers (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe) were alive today, he'd probably be working in public relations.

Publishers don't pump serious marketing money into a book unless they know it's a hit, even after coughing up a six-figure advance. They don't commit to ad budgets in contract negotiations and are loath to spend a dime on authors' Web sites, travel, or any other expenses. That's because so few of the books they publish actually "earn out," that is, sell enough copies so that the author's advance is covered by his or her sales. A book that sells enough copies to justify an author's advance is about as common as a kind or thoughtful anonymous comment on Gawker.

There's an old saying in publishing: Your agent hasn't done his job if you earn back your advance. But, you might ask, how can a book be a hit if your publisher doesn't get behind it?

Therein lies the mystery of marketing a book at a time the old rules don't apply. As a former book editor of mine explained, publishers follow the broadcast TV model. You schedule a show for primetime and see if it develops an audience. If it does, you throw your weight behind it. If it doesn't you pull the plug. Book publishing is a "hits" business, with a tiny fraction of huge sellers—thank you Dan Brown, Malcolm Gladwell, and soon, Sarah Palin—carrying the rest of us losers. Publishers don't care about dropping money on 99 books if the 100th is a Tipping Point or Freakonomics. This also characterizes the music business and we can see how well that turned out, but I digress.

Instead of a publisher building your career, you're on your own. And if you talk to editors you'll get an earful. They wonder why authors don't take a percentage of their advance to pay for their own marketing. Why should the publisher have to do it all? They paid you for the work, didn't they? For too long authors have acted like crybabies, waiting for publishers to be like, well, publishers used to be. That was a long time ago, when editors used to, well, edit, but much of that responsibility has been passed on to literary agents.

I'm not kvetching, mind you. I can honestly say that Hyperion, which released Viral Loop, is the best publisher I've worked with. But there is nothing sexy about an author selling a book. It isn't about cocktail parties, readings, and witty repartee at the Algonquin Hotel. Nowadays it's about press coverage, social media, Facebook and Twitter, iPhone apps, virality, and the hope that if you hang on long enough and convince enough people to buy and read your book, they will market it for you.

How? Because if they like it—really like it—they will, without prompting, enthusiastically recommend your book to a friend, and so on, and so on (like the old "psst" shampoo commercial). It's word-of-mouth, the gold standard of marketing, because a recommendation to buy comes from a trusted source like a friend or family member. This is how publishing has always worked, of course. It's just the journey there that's become particularly treacherous.

The hardest part for most authors is to create that initial large installed base of readers. Some like Gary Vaynerchuk, who dictated Crush It: Why Now Is The Time to Cash In On Your Passion, are, as Gary Vee would put it, "crushing it!" Most, however, fail.

I'll explore all of this and more in upcoming posts of the VIRAL LOOP CHRONICLES on Fast Company.

Adam L. Penenberg is author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. A journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Penenberg is a contributing writer to Fast Company.

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