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