Who’s Responsible for Book Marketing?
Reading this headline, you’ve probably come up with a pretty good answer already. I know I did when I saw people arguing about it. Book marketing seems like one of those clean-cut responsibilities.
As a publishing professional, my answer has two words: the publisher. Turns out some other people would like to disagree with me, especially in this day and age.
You can call me a traditionalist for my view. It’s certainly true that in days of yore, book marketing almost always fell to the publisher. In most cases, you didn’t have much of an option. Self-publishing wasn’t really a choice for most people, so you had to go through the gatekeepers.
Unless, of course, you had money. In that case, you could self-publish. In those situations, you probably had the means and money to market your book as well. That’s still one of the big reasons I’d argue the task of marketing falls squarely on the shoulders of the publisher: money.
Most authors do not have the money to launch slick campaigns. Most of them aren’t marketers by trade either. When the publisher starts asking authors to pay for website builds, social media marketing campaigns, or even digital ads, we have a problem.
Why is this a problem? It’s the publisher’s job! Why is it the publisher’s job? Because it’s one of the reasons authors hook up with publishers in the first place. Publishers have in-house experts. They might have a whole marketing team. Most publishers have more financial resources than individual authors. They have access to markets, and they know their way around the business.
Some people would argue my view is outdated. Some people think publishing—particularly traditional publishing—is a sinking ship. The model no longer works. The time of gatekeepers is passing, and power is moving into authors’ hands.
This is increasingly true. Social media allows anyone to run a marketing campaign for relatively little cost. A website can be quick and easy to set up, and you don’t need to spend a lot on it. If you do things right, you can build a community of loyal readers and market to them for almost nothing. Easy-peasy, right?
There’s a strong argument for author-based marketing, I’ll give you that. Authors are often also readers themselves, and they know where to find their readers. Publishers may have industry contacts. They might be able to go through the “legitimate” or “traditional” channels, but they’re not the ones reading bad fanfic or hanging out in online communities dedicated to a particular romance subgenre. Publishers may not even be aware of the most niche of markets.
That’s where the usefulness of author marketing stops. While loyal fans are better than consumers being lured in by slick book trailers and other marketing gimmicks, the fact remains: Most authors have no idea how to market, no idea what to spend money on and what not to, and relatively little idea of how to grow their audience or even reach their readers.
Furthermore, authors may not have time to dedicate to marketing the same way a publisher’s marketing manager or marketing team can. I mean, that’s the marketing department’s job. Why is it being pitched back on the poor author?
Publishers Shirking Duties
We can see the move to “author-based marketing” as another way publishers are failing authors. Traditional publishing has tight budgets. I’m not going to lie about that. Publishers are always looking for ways to trim budgets, to do things for less. Can we skimp on copy editing? Maybe we don’t need to pay the proofreader. What’s a marketing budget? Won’t this thing just sell itself?
Smaller publishers have it even tougher, for sure. They may not have as much reach or a robust list. They may be publishing to a niche market, which limits their audience and their customer base. But asking the author to foot the bill for marketing activities is nothing short of making the publisher a vanity press operation.
Think about it. If a publisher asks an author to pay for marketing, are they any better than the plethora of Amazon-like services out there? Is the author actually publisher-backed or are they simply another indie author buying services piecemeal off a service provider? If I can go to Amazon and purchase the same services, we have a problem.
We have a very big problem if I have to foot the bill for things like marketing and editing while my publisher gets the glory of stamping their logo on my book, displaying it on their website, and paying me less than ten per cent of profits as “royalties.”
I’m getting a better deal out of Amazon, guys.
A Joint Venture?
All this said, there’s nothing wrong with publishers asking authors to pitch in with marketing. Authors are often very eager to promote their books! After all, selling books is in the author’s interest too. Asking for author input or participation isn’t strictly verboten.
At one publisher I worked for, we’d routinely ask authors to submit a blog post on a subject relevant to their upcoming book. We’d publish it on or near the book’s release date. Authors were usually great advocates on social media, pushing their book, excitedly announcing it to their followers, or sharing posts from the publisher’s blog about their book.
We also leveraged authors at conferences and trade shows, so long as the author was already attending. If they were doing a speaking engagement, the publisher’s social media channels would hype it. All this is very easy to do and costs very little.
Things changed when it came to promotional materials, adverts, flyers, pamphlets, and speaking tours. The marketing manager would organize book tours and book signings. She’d work with book store owners and conference organizers. She’d also work with pre-existing author commitments to create additional opportunities for book promotion.
Promotional materials were paid for by the publisher in full: posters, pamphlets, comics, magnets, bookmarks, bags, you name it. The publisher’s marketing budget paid for the design and production of these materials. The only time an author paid for these sorts of things was when the publisher’s budget wouldn’t allow for it and the author was quite insistent they had to have it.
What’s the difference? Author initiative. If your publisher says, “We have no budget for printing promotional bookmarks for your book,” you can decide to take it on! What shouldn’t happen is the publisher saying, “Hey, we’d love to promote your book, but we have no money, so if you spot us a few hundred bucks, we’ll print some bookmarks.”
What’s the Difference?
I already indicated there’s a difference between a publisher saying, “If you’d like to do X, then by all means, but we’re not paying,” and a publisher straight-up asking an author to foot the bill. In the cases where the author decided to do something beyond the publisher’s budget, the marketing manager would supply materials (often the book’s cover), and the author was allowed to do (somewhat) as they pleased with it. They could select a designer or work on it themselves. The author could send it to the printer of their choice. They could also decide not to bother!
I have a problem where publishers act like it’s the author’s absolute duty to pay for marketing. It’s one thing if the author decides to do something beyond a publisher’s budget. It’s another thing for a publisher to coerce the author into paying for any and all marketing.
The Author as Publisher
When publishers start asking authors to pay for services such as marketing or editing, we come back to an issue many are wrestling with now: the author-as-publisher.
On the indie scene, it isn’t uncommon to see authors acting as publishers. They do everything. If you sign a contract with a publisher, you expect them to do something more for you—whether it’s cover design, marketing, and/or editing. Publishers should cover most, if not all, of these services. If they don’t, are you really working with a publisher or a vanity press operation?
Even bigger houses are adopting some more of the vanity press-style operations, wherein authors can select to purchase additional services or “upgrade” what they get in the “basic” publishing package. This diminishes the role of the publishers. They become a vendor, a service provider.
So why do they get to take part of your royalties? Okay, fine, Amazon still swipes part of my royalties for my sales. But authors using KDP can receive up to 70 per cent of their royalties. Under most traditional publishing contracts, you’d be lucky to see 8 per cent.
If your publisher is asking you to pay for the services they’re supposed to offer, if your publisher is asking you to play publisher yourself, why are they taking the biggest cut of your royalties? As I said, you’d get a better deal going with Amazon.
There’s nothing wrong with authors and publishers levying their networks and pooling their resources to meet the common aim of selling more books. There is a problem when a publisher does nothing more than act as a vanity press and steals large chunks of profits from authors.
So, whose responsibility is book marketing, really? The publisher’s, by and large. Sorry, publishers. If you want to stay relevant to the game, you have to offer authors something worth having.