Publishers need to rethink their marketing deployments and tactics in the digital age to take advantage of their backlists
From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
Well-articulated complaints about the way traditional publishing compares to self-publishing have recently been posted by two accomplished authors, one who writes fiction and one who writes non-fiction.
These point to what most publishers really should already know. Some fundamental and time-honored truths about publishing need to be reexaminedas we continue the digital transition. And one of the things that really needs to change is the distinction between backlist and frontlist.
There is a real baked-in logic to how publishers see their responsibilities and effort allocation across their list. Books have always been launched like rockets. The publisher commits maximum firepower to getting them off the ground. Most crash to earth. Some go into orbit. The ones that go into orbit have “backlisted” and, like satellites, it takes no power or effort to keep them in orbit for a long time if the initial blast-off gets them there.
In fact, a virtuous characteristic publishers have always recognized about backlist stands in the way of developing the right 21st century approach: backlist books sell without the marketing effort that it takes to introduce a new book.
. . . .
My Logical Marketing partner, Pete McCarthy, who worked for both Penguin and Random House in his corporate career, points out that titles in the backlist make can make up more than half the profits for a Big Five house in a given year.
. . . .
Experienced publishers learned over the years that it didn’t matter what promotion you did for a book not fully distributed. If it wasn’t available in stores, promotion and advertising wouldn’t make it sell. Savvy publishers would ignore news breaks or marketing opportunities for books that had gone through their peak bookstore distribution cycle — which can be as short as a few months or even less if a book doesn’t gain initial traction — because chasing them was wasted effort.
None of this is true anymore. Any break can get around quickly, or even “go viral”. And there don’t need to be books in any stores for a break to move print and digital copies. For many categories of books, most copies are already bought online. It’s probably the case for the majority of titles published and it is true for periods of time for just about any title, particularly an older one past its bookstore peak that has a sudden moment of relevance or fame.
. . . .
The common experience of the two authors who have switched from traditionally published to self-published and written about it is that some marketing effort, including price-fiddling, applied to long-ago backlist can resuscitate a dormant book and that fact, combined with the higher share of revenues self-publishing brings, can make the effort of managing their own publishing business well worth the effort to them. Another component is that both authors want to work on making their books sell.
Of course, this constitutes a loss to the publishers whose initial efforts helped create both the product and the platform that the self-publisher and the self-publishing infrastructure (most prominently Amazon, but there are plenty of players there) then capitalizes on.
. . . .
There is a critical strategic question here that the industry has not resolved. Authors really need to control and manage their own personal web presences and decide on how to best leverage those presences — in conjunction with their publisher(s) or not. But managing a personal web presence is knowledge-, cost-, and labor-intensive and there is no great correlation between how well a person can write and how well they can manage their online opportunities. Still, an author can’t really totally entrust that work to any one publisher, because each is only really interested in the books they publish.
. . . .
[T]he fact is that it is easier to do intelligent and targeted marketing for a book that is a year old than for one that hasn’t been published yet.
But publishing organizations are not structured to take advantage of that fact. In the past ten years, the ratio of marketing personnel to sales personnel has changed in every house: more marketers and fewer sales people. But there has not been a comparable shift in marketing deployment between new titles and backlist. If publishers want to stop losing their most marketing-savvy multi-book authors to self-publishing, that’s something that urgently needs to change.
. . . .
Publishers need to recognize that if authors can sell their backlist more effectively than their publisher(s) did, the publisher was doing something wrong — or failing to do some things right. Authors are right to leave and take matters into their own hands when that happens. Publishers further need to recognize that the authors who can effectively market themselves are the very authors they most want, and that figuring out how to create an environment of collaborative synergy with them is what the successful publisher of ten years from now will have done.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to Terrence for the tip.
It’s painful to see an industry that has the well-being of so many talented authors under its control demonstrate that it is clueless about marketing books outside of traditional bookstores.
As PG has said before, he regards Mike’s thinking as representative of some of the ideas floating around the best minds in New York publishing. Unfortunately, calling the ideas discussed in this article Online Marketing 101 would be defamatory to Marketing 101.
Again, the thought that authors’ financial welfare is in the hands of such tradpub marketing morons is depressing.