The latest buzz word in the publishing industry is “discoverability.” Everyone’s worried about the “mountain of crap” that self publishing will (has?) brought into the industry—including self published authors.
Everyone ignores two important facts: one person’s crap is another person’s beloved book, and publishing has always produced books in great volume. The newly merged Penguin Random House (or Randy Penguin as one of my favorite PRH authors calls it) will publish 15,000 new titles in 2014, not counting everything in its backlist.
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Writers believe that if a writer wants a lot of readers to discover her work, she needs to be traditionally published.
In other words, traditional publishers are much, much better at helping the writer find an audience than the writer is herself.
That assumption was true, back in the olden days, y’know, about five years ago. Books got discovered through bookstores, and the only way to get a book in a bookstore was to go through a traditional publisher.
Then e-readers hit, along with the easy Amazon publishing platform, quickly mimicked by Barnes & Noble. Apple followed, and then Kobo, and now a book doesn’t have to be in paper at all in order to find readers. Nor does that book need to be in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Lots of writers are gaining a lot of readers without ever producing a paper book of their latest novel.
Still, a lot of writers, from old timers to beginners, say the reason that they want to stay with traditional publishing is discoverability. Writer after writer tells me that a traditional publisher will promote their books.
For some writers, particularly huge bestsellers, this is absolutely true. For others, particularly midlist writers, it isn’t true at all. And honestly, it’s always been that way.
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Traditional publishers are buying ebook-only contracts. I know a lot of writers who are taking those contracts, and expecting big publishing promotion, without ever asking themselves how that promotion will occur.
In fact, even writers who take print-only deals believe that traditional publishers will do a lot of advertising for their work. And by that, most writers mean actual ads. In magazines. Online. In newspapers.
These writers believe firmly that they will benefit from an ad campaign without a contractual guarantee to it. They believe it will come with the territory.
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Not every book by every writer gets an actual ad. In fact, most never get advertised in print or online publications.
However, writers who say that the traditional publisher will advertise their books are correct. The traditional publisher will do a few things that will raise a book’s visibility—if and only if that book is published in print format.
Print books will appear in a seasonal catalogue that booksellers will look at. That’s advertising, folks. The print book might—and I stress might—get sent out for reviews. Reviews are advertising, folks.
The reviews won’t get readers to pick up the books as much as they’ll getbooksellers to pick up the books. And booksellers, to a store, buy print books, not ebooks. (Which is why publishers only advertise print books in the industry bible, Publisher’s Weekly.)
A lucky few print books will get single-page display ads in magazines and newspapers. But I can guarantee this: unless you’re an author who has already hit a major bestseller list and/or your book is the most important book being published by that traditional publishing house’s imprint and/or you got paid an advance of $50,000 or more (in small genres like sf or westerns) or $100,000 or more (in larger genres like romance and mystery), your book will not get a single title ad. It won’t happen.
In other words, from the moment the publisher offers you a book deal, you can have a pretty good guess as to what kind of advertising budget your book will receive. Most five-figure advances won’t get any advertising, unless your book is the third book of a three-book contract, and the previous two books did waaaay better than expected.
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If a writer is going to a traditional publisher for discoverability only, then the writer needs a few guarantees before signing her contract.
First, she better get a mid-five figure advance or higher on that book. Any less, and she won’t get the kind of discoverability she wants.
Second, her book better come out in a print edition. Otherwise she’s better off publishing the book herself.
Third, (and least likely), she needs a guarantee of certain levels of promotion in that contract. Without it, the publisher could spend $50,000 on that book’s advance, release the book in paper, and still not do the kind of basic promotion a book needs. No reviews, no catalogue copy, nothing.
Because no traditional publishing contract that I have ever seen for a writer who is not a bestseller guarantees that the publisher has to do anything except “publish” the book. And the definitions of what “publish” means are changing. In one contract that I saw recently, the definition of “publish” was that the publisher had to make certain the book was available for sale on the publisher’s website and nothing else.
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Because traditional publishers had a stranglehold on the market, they used to have a lot of power in getting books discovered. As Shatzkin said, that world no longer exists.
But the myth does.