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

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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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6 Comments

  • Richard Geller

    "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."

    Dammit, I love the smell of nostalgia for a kinder, gentler world that never was first thing in the morning. Thanks, Adam; I can tell that I'm really going to enjoy the Viral Loop Chronicles.

    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Richard Geller

    "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."

    Dammit, I love the smell of nostalgia for a kinder, gentler world that never was first thing in the morning. Thanks, Adam; I can tell that I'm really going to enjoy the Viral Loop Chronicles.

    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Ed Loessi

    Adam,

    Thanks for such detail on how the publishing industry is working now. I am an advisory board member at a company called SmartSymbols www.smartsymbols.com and we have been working on enhancing the marketing of books and have found the whole process to be very interesting. In particular the relationships that Authors, Publishers, and Distributors share.

    In the end all 3 of these groups are trying reach and retain the readers. In the past all three of these groups produced lots of content that went along to market books and now there is a lot of content being produced by the readers themselves so it has really stirred up the whole activity of book marketing and promotion.

    You should check out an example of how we are aggregating all of information around a particular book for the purposes of promoting and marketing that book: http://bit.ly/3Wt0C9 this could be very useful for you as you build out the awareness of yourself and you current and future publications.

    Ed Loessi

    http://www.smartsymbols.com

  • Sue Rule

    One key point. Facebook, Twitter, etc. grow like topsy BECAUSE THEY’RE FREE!!!!

    If we gave away copies of our books, no doubt we could build up a good following.

    I think this article misses the point that the music industry is so capably demonstrating. The market is changing. It’s not about volume sales any more (if it ever was). It’s about niche marketing for niche sales of books with a particular appeal to a particular group of people: a whole sliding scale from memoirs published for family and friends to traditional best-sellers. “Success” is relative.

    People will buy what they want to buy. Modern technology makes publishing available to the world and his granny; the world and his granny are not all writers. But criticism should not be based on publishing method, “celebrity” authors, or amount of money thrown at a work of creative fiction; it should be based entirely on the worth of the book, the standard of writing demonstrated by the author, and the reader’s experience. Such critiques should be made available on a level playing field to the reading public to make up their own minds what they want to spend their hard earned cash on rather than being duped into believing a book is “better” because a publisher thinks they might sell large numbers of it. The tyranny of the mass market is over. Vive la difference!!

  • Norb Vonnegut

    Adam, great post. My first novel, Top Producer (about Wall Street shenanigans), debuted on September 15, and with slightly over a month of experience on "book tour" I can say you nailed it. Just this morning, another author and I were discussing over breakfast whether it is better to meet readers in person or through the blogosphere. Sign me up for at least one copy of your book. I guess that says it all. Best, Norb PS. Are blog readers more likely to buy a paper version or download through one of the reader services?