Home » Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Big Publishing, Mike Shatzkin, Social Media » Authors need help with their digital presence that they still are not getting

Authors need help with their digital presence that they still are not getting

13 April 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

A major difference between book publishing today and book publishing 25 years ago is the practical power of the author brand in marketing. Multi-book authors can not only build their own followings in ways that can be usefully exploited, they now have an unprecedented capability to help each other.

Of course, they can do that best if they’re “organized” in some way. But both of the most obvious potential organizers who deal with many authors — the publishers and the agents — have commercial and structural impediments to being as helpful as they could be, or as authors need them to be, at either of the new needs: helping authors be better marketers of themselves or getting them to act in a coordinated way to help each other.

Building an individual author’s digital marketing footprint is an important component of career development. And, in fact, the foundation of the author’s “brand” footprint has strong influence on the success of the title marketing publishers would see as their principal objective.

But the publisher has a book-by-book relationship, not an assured ongoing relationship, with authors so investing for a longer-term gain is not structurally encouraged. And agents live with pretty strict ethics rules limiting their compensation to a share of the author contracts they negotiate, so they also have a structural impediment against investing money and time in the author’s general welfare beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent.

. . . .

When you discuss author marketing with literary agents you find that many of them already think of themselves as career consultants for their authors. Many of them build it into their own job description. But, frankly, the skill and expertise agents have to advise on financial management or digital marketing is highly variable. There could be even less consistency to what agents know about digital marketing than there is across publishers.

One agent, expressing what I think is appropriate humility, said she thought of herself as a “coach” for authors on career and digital marketing matters, not a “manager”. It seems likely to me that most agents with a multitude of clients will have some that know much more about digital marketing than they do!

. . . .

But organizing authors to help each other in this way is also touchy for both agents and publishers. For agents, there are two obvious problems. One is that the best marketing partners for any particular author might be represented by a different agency. That makes things complicated. But the other is that the agent’s “job” is to get an author deals. Getting authors engaged in a perhaps-complex marketing consortium requires another level of understanding and persuasion that agents could rightly see as a distraction to what pays the bills: developing proposals and getting offers from publishers. From a publisher’s perspective, organizing the house’s writers and having them communicate directly is a bit like asking big-company management to organize the union. There might be good arguments to do it but for many it would provoke a visceral negative reaction.

One consultant I spoke with in the course of writing this piece made a long list of concerns publishers would have about what authors encouraged to trade war stories might talk about, including contract terms and how much attention they were getting for their marketing efforts. But, of course, the authors’ agents already know these things.

. . . .

Trelstad made clear that authors are talking to each other about marketing and organizing themselves to help each other. With modern digital tools, this is easy. It is also very hard to track. There is one effort that has gotten some notoriety called the Tall Poppies, a collection of writers organized and spearheaded by author Ann Garvin. Their mission statement explains that “Tall Poppy Writers is a community of writing professionals committed to growing relationships, promoting the work of its members, and connecting authors with each other and with readers. By sharing information and supporting one another’s work, we strive to stand out in the literary marketplace and to help our members do the same.”

According to Trelstad (who is herself a “Tall Poppy member”), this kind of collaboration among authors is becoming increasingly common under the radar, like with her “masterminds” groups. It makes sense. The Trump and Sanders supporters didn’t need the party apparatus to get themselves together in common cause. Using the same tools and techniques, authors can also unite in their own interest without needing a publisher or agent to facilitate it for them. And apparently they are.

. . . .

So authors talking to authors is a development we may as an industry not be as aware of as we should be.

. . . .

When I asked Trelstad if any publisher seemed to be getting this right, she said, without hesitation, “Amazon. They are very good at communicating with their authors. They help overcome fear and uncertainty. And they automatically give authors and editors a voice in their covers.”

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG should be smarter by now, but he continues to be constantly surprised by how clueless the pillars of traditional publishing are about what’s happening outside their small circle.

Authors are talking to each other!

Authors are helping each other!

Authors are creating websites and blogs – sometimes all by themselves! In every one-stoplight town in America, there are people who know how to build websites and blogs who are happy to be hired by authors who don’t want to do the work themselves.

And then there’s that internet thing that lets an author in Boston hire a digital designer in Anchorage to create the author’s online presence and promotion materials that an internet marketing consultant in Dallas uses to run the author’s book promotions all over the world.

The idea that authors talking to each other, sharing inside information in the process, will only happen if publishers or agents organize such gatherings is truly bizarre. Publishers and agents would be out of business without their suppliers – authors – yet they have huge gaps in their knowledge about what authors have been routinely doing for years – getting together electronically to talk shop, share information about royalties, advances, which marketing techniques work and which don’t, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, Amazon is different. Amazon is a well-managed, highly-efficient 21st century organization. Amazon is obsessively customer-focused and Amazon’s publishing arms – KDP and Amazon Publishing – view authors and readers as their customers.

As many regular TPV visitors know, one of Mrs. PG’s books was selected for publishing via Kindle Scout. For someone who had a lot of books traditionally published, the Amazon Publishing experience is extraordinary. Information is shared, emails are answered, the publisher treats the author like an intelligent human being who wants the same thing the publisher does – a high-quality book. Mrs. PG’s book is likely to be published and selling sooner than a New York publisher could manage to email her a publishing contract.

Also, Amazon knows more about selling books than any publisher and any conventional bookstore because, unlike the English majors running big publishing, Amazon understands the value of data and employs a whole lot of people who are extremely talented at mining big data for its secrets. In Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders, referenced in an earlier post, he talks about how much of what happens behind the scenes on Amazon’s websites relies on cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques.

Speaking of data, PG’s impression is that, when Data Guy speaks to a large gathering of traditional publishing folk, 99.9% of the analytical brain power in the room is up on the podium talking and running the PowerPoint presentation.

Meanwhile 99% of the audience really needs a stiff drink because Data Guy is showing them reams of information about their own industry that they didn’t know before the PowerPoint started.




Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Big Publishing, Mike Shatzkin, Social Media

31 Comments to “Authors need help with their digital presence that they still are not getting”

  1. Deities Mike, where to start …

    “Authors need help with their digital presence that they still are not getting”

    And unless they are the .0001 percenters they won’t be getting any help on that front from a trad-pub — they’ll have to do it themselves (so why give trad-pub a cut of any profits?)

    “And agents live with pretty strict ethics rules limiting their compensation to a share of the author contracts they negotiate, so they also have a structural impediment against investing money and time in the author’s general welfare beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent.”

    I’d question that ‘strict ethics rules’ bit from some I’ve seen, but “beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent” seems to be the ‘only’ thing they try to do (though if the publisher tells them ‘this or nothing’ then it seems that most of those agents will try to convince the writer that that ‘this’ is better than nothing or trying elsewhere because that agent wants whatever they can get.) As above, if they aren’t really helpful and on ‘your’ side, why give them a cut?

    Please Mike, climb out of your cave and get an internet connection that will let you see things less than ten years old. (It’s like his only internet connection routes through the ‘way back machine’.)

    • I know of agents who provide and are compensated for services beyond obtaining a publishing contract for an author.

      Since agents aren’t licensed (like manicurists are), I’m not sure who would enforce any ethics rules if they exist.

      • Agreed, PG, but we’ve seen stories on very pages of some agents that were the worst thing that could happen to a writer.

      • I still don’t understand how agents can negotiate legal contracts without a license. They should have to prove they understand law and contracts before they do so.That doesn’t per se requre a law degree, but one would think it would require some sort of IP law certification.

  2. Let me provide the basic template for a Shatzkin thought piece.

    1. Writers need middlemen.

    2. Middlemen aren’t doing a good job and should try harder. In fact, lots of middlemen argue that other middlemen are completely clueless and doing a lousy job in the middle.

    3. Middlemen should talk to other middlemen about what to do in the middle with writers. Until then, writers are out of luck.

    Now, simply pick a term, like “branding” or “digital technology” or “sales metrics” and you’re good to go.

    Just one more thing: never question #1.

  3. [A]gents live with pretty strict ethics rules limiting their compensation to a share of the author contracts they negotiate, so they also have a structural impediment against investing money and time in the author’s general welfare beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent.

    Agents receive a percentage of all earnings for a given book. If an agent invests in some marketing that doubles the sales of a book, that’s double the earnings to take a percentage of. Mr Shatzkin’s reasoning that agents have a structural impediment against investing money and time beyond negotiating the advance only holds if one assumes the book will not earn out and the advance are the only earnings the author will see for the book.

    • Of course, if the book is published by the Price-Fix Five, it is generally safe to assume that it will not earn out and the advance will be the only earnings the author ever sees. Even if the publisher’s accounting is honest (ha!), that title will in all probability be pulped and forgotten by the time any actual marketing efforts can take effect.

      I have read hair-raising stories of books that sold out their initial print run – and then promptly went out of print because nobody at the publishing house could be bothered to order another print run. They were all too busy pushing out the next list. If a book isn’t expected from the beginning to be a perennial seller and require reprinting, it’s very unlikely to be reprinted no matter how great the demand.

      Of course, ebooks have changed the nature of the problem somewhat. Now, the ebook will be offered at a punitive price, not because the publisher wants to sell it (heavens no!), but because having it listed in a catalogue somewhere or other will prevent the author from reverting the rights.

      Faced with such ways of doing business, there are really only two things an agent can do: (1) roll over and play ball with the publishers, and do nothing for the alleged clients beyond the bare minimum required by contract law, or (2) quit the business and take a relatively honest job as a mugger or second-story man.

      • …as a mugger or second-story man.

        Any time someone can work “second-story man” into a comment, it makes the entire post better. And it was already good.

      • No competent agent (mine, for example) or author will allow a reversion clause that allows ebooks or printed books produced with POD technology to be used to determine if the book is in print.

        • Oh, really? PG and others have been reporting for years that publishers are routinely refusing to revert rights because a book with only an ebook or POD edition is deemed to be ‘in print’. Tell me what your ‘competent agent’ does about that.

        • I agree. “In Print” should mean ONLY that books have been printed and are being printed. If they are not printed for X period of time at a minimum print run of Y, they are to be considered out of print. All those author guilds and associations should demand that.

  4. I included Mike’s piece in my morning link post – but I linked to the comments where he was flayed alive.

  5. Sigh. I don’t know how anyone can think that Mike knows anything that he’s talking about, I really don’t.

    But that’s me.

    • It’s all a matter of where he’s coming from and the assumptions he’s working with. He really knows a lot about how things *used* to be.
      And he’s really trying to figure out the new normal.

      He’s just a bit behind the curve in accepting out that neither agents nor traditional publishers are essential. Until he does, his attempts to find justifications for their continued existence will be off the mark.

  6. In 1998–1998!!!–at the RWA national conference, the romantic suspense chapter set up a ‘university’ for suspense authors, exchanging information, calling in forensic experts to give us all information to make our books better. We’ve been linking up, exchanging information, encouragement, data, for a long long time. And completely independently from publishers. Ten years before indie publishing began. How is this something Shatzkin doesn’t know?

    • Did it happen in NYC?
      If not, it didn’t happen. 😉

    • I am not involved in writing or publishing, but from seeing some interviews from authors I like I got the impression that many participated in authors groups to improve their writing and their business well before ebooks.

      oh well… if the industry was not organizing it I guess it didnt really exist.

  7. Um … we’ve been connecting writers and readers of science fiction/fantasy on the chronicles forums for nearly two decades. 🙂

  8. I don’t think we’re Mike’s core audience. He’s writing as an ‘industry professional’ to an narrow audience of other industry professionals. In other words, the people he’s speaking to are in NY publishing, and to them this sort of extremely-behind-the-times report is NEWS.

    It’s also worth pointing out that if you read the comments on the OP site, Mike doesn’t think full self-publishing success stories are real. Any success story he hears about is either an aberration that can’t happen now, or the result of someone beginning as a trad pub and shifting. It’s like he absorbed the information in the AE report, accepted it, and then worked out a rationalization that allows him to continue to see the world the same way as before.

    • That’s cognitive dissidence.

      It’s even in the name of his blog when you look at his pun on “ideological” = “logical idea”.

      • Al the Great and Powerful

        Oh, bravo MKS, for “cognitive dissidence.” That is a nicely turned phrase. Do you really think he is that self aware, though? Is it conscious dissidence, or unwitting dissonance? Because he so often sounds completely unconscious of things. At least from out here in mid-Pacific, far from stately Gotham where the publishers dwell.

    • We call this “preaching to the choir.” Mike and his ilk exist in a rapidly thinning bubble, so they have a bubble mentality.

      As long ago as 2002 when my first novel came out, we authors were expected to “sell, sell, sell” (my publisher’s words, not mine)! Marketing was on us. Promo was on us. Granted, there were a couple of review sites to whom the publisher would send an e-ARC but if we wanted to do events, etc., it was all on the authors.

      And Mike is 100% dead wrong when he claims that so many agents are able to advise their client-authors regarding marketing. It wasn’t any ethical conundrum keeping them from doing — it was complete cluelessness about ways and means a book might garner increased sales.

      I would consult an agent about marketing or promo about as readily as I would consult my pet cat. I now tell aspiring writers in my market that agents are virtually useless unless (1) you accidentally sign with one who will work for YOU and not the publisher; (2) you already have an extremely lucrative deal on the table (and sometimes not then); or (3) you engage him/her for a single book project and then the deal ends by agreement.

  9. There won’t be any J.D. Salingers, Thomas Pynchons, Elena Ferrantes, or Don Delillos in the future. Those writers will get rejected because they don’t tweet or blog. According to this piece, writers will soon have social clout scores with which to size each other up. I understand that it’s just another metric, much like book sales and awards, but still.

    What happened to author mystique? Must we know everything about the authors we read? Once that information is out there, it can’t be taken back. Some writers would rather save all those personal details for their stories. Why put them on some ethically challenged billionaire’s website for free? At this rate, aspiring authors will have to send agents full frontal nude photos “for documentation” and “to show that they really want this.”

    What a sick, sad world traditional publishing has become. Okay, I’ll get off my own lawn now.

    • There absolutely will be plenty of J. D. Salingers in the future, specifically because they don’t need to submit and be rejected. They can simply self-publish and focus on their craft without any interference. This is the best time in history for a writer who has no real interest in sales or publicity or fame.

      But how will they become famous without a traditional publishing operation to promote them? Well, all they need is one enthusiastic fan to get the word out (using social media) if their work is truly that good. And yes, just like Salinger, the fact that they are reclusive and won’t promote themselves can actually become a marketing tool for others.

      There are probably plenty of classics being written right now and self-published (if not by the writer, by a friend) that will be discovered decades from now. And the mystery of why the writer wasn’t discovered, and how they shunned fame, will become part of their mystique.

      What is going to be hard is to pretend to want to be reclusive and not care about fame but secretly hoping to be really famous thanks to a traditional publishing company that will do all the work while you act like you’re not interested. That’s getting to be harder and harder.

      • Mackay, thank you for that thoughtful reply. It made my day.

        • Thanks!

          I always think about how much easier it would have been for Thelma Toole to have gotten her son’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” published. And given her persistence, how she might have worked to get it read using social media.

          Or even better, that perhaps John Kennedy Toole would have published it himself and lived longer.

  10. Al the Great and Powerful

    Great, another e-penis to wave around… I’ll be the quiet monkey in back, turned away. Or I’ll do like I did in the military, and swap in an inappropriate picture on my ID (I was Indiana Jones for six months, my friend was Arafat, with the kefiyah… nobody ever looked at the badges except to see we had them).

    Better yet, I’ll have a rotating ID picture for my documentation. That’s it, I’ll be Sandra Brown today, and James Patterson tomorrow, then Salman Rushdie, then Xaviera Hollander, then Snooki, then Chandler…

  11. Dude is so out of touch, even for NYC. It’s no wonder indies are eating the BPH’s lunch.

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