Gaming the Publishing Industry

From veteran author and writing coach Dave Farland:

I was at a writing conference last week and noticed that several times I passed groups of writers who were trying to figure out how to “Game the System.”

In case you didn’t know it, every distribution industry tries to set up roadblocks for creators so that they can’t bypass the system. For example, if you were to make a movie and try to go out and distribute it to movie theaters yourself, you’d find that the theaters have contracts with the major distributors that require them to not show your movie. The distributors want to make sure that the huge movies that they’ve invested in advertising are available at all of the usual outlets.

In publishing, we have two different distribution systems. The traditional publishing industry has its editors, and they have contracts with the bookstores and with the book distribution companies that are designed to keep you from selling your books at bookstores—and these contracts are very effective. If you’ve ever tried to start your own publishing company, you’ll see what I mean. Not only will distributors refuse to distribute your books, but I once struggled for days to get some television and radio companies to advertise a book—but they refused to work with anyone who wasn’t already a major publisher.

In traditional publishing, the publisher typically creates a “list” of books that they want to promote. The #1 book on the list gets most of the advertising dollars. This might include things like in-store displays, money for cooperative advertising so that the bookstores will place the book on certain shelves with the covers facing out, promotion on radio or television or in magazines or newspapers, and of course money to send the author out on a book tour. 

If you’re not #1 on your publisher’s list, you might not get any of these things. Instead, your book is simply put out there and left to sink or swim on its own merits. Your editor might not even send it out for reviews from critics.

And the publisher will actively stop you from doing too much. For example, let’s say that you don’t like the cover that your publisher gives you—either the picture or the typeface. What can you do? You can complain, and you might get some upgrades, but it is the job of the artistic director to make sure that the #1 book of the season gets the best cover and that each month when new books are shipped out, the monthly books look good, but not as good as the anticipated season hit. The reason for this is that the publisher doesn’t want to confuse the buyers. They don’t want a mediocre book to have a great cover.

So as an author, you may find yourself trying to figure out how to “game the system,” how to promote the book that your publisher won’t. In doing that, you might advertise on social media, send books out to book bloggers, set up your own book signings, create a “book bomb” in order to generate some excitement for your release, and so on.

All of that is fine, so long as you remember that the best advertisement for a book is to write another book. Your fans are always eager to see what you have next in the pipeline.

Indie publishers are often even more eager to game the system. In recent years, Amazon has been working to create a “system” that will reward good books with good reviews and promotion, but Indie authors always seem to be bent on destroying that system. I’ve seen them buy favorable reviews (spending as much as $10,000 on a package), creating sock-puppets so that they can go online and create their own favorable reviews while deriding their competition, and of course trading positive reviews with other authors. As a result of such activities—all of which are immoral and some of them even illegal, Amazon has purchased review sites and now blocks reviews that they believe are fake.

In fact, I’ve known several authors who find that if their book does too well, defies expectations that Amazon has set, then their books are simply delisted—taken off of the bestseller lists, and even taken off of Amazon’s sales site.

To be frank, we need our distributors to create a fair and honest system that rewards great work. 

How should we as authors handle this problem? I think that we need to promote ourselves in every way that we can, so long as it is honorable and honest. At the same time, put your emphasis where it belongs: On writing powerful works. If you do that, success will come eventually.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

PG seconds Dave’s warnings and advice.

Don’t be a sleazeball and don’t hire sleazeballs to help you with your book sales. Once in awhile a sleazeball scheme might seem to work or actually work . . . for a while.

When the scheme caves, guess who’s reputation is tarnished? It’s the author’s name. An author’s name is her/his brand. If you spent a lot of time building a readership and fans as Jane Writer and Jane Writer gets online or offline negative attention, all of Jane Writer’s books get tarnished.

Why, yes, you could continue with a pen name, but, guess what, nobody ever heard of Jane Author. You’re starting back at ground zero building a readership, getting reviews, etc., etc., etc.

The value of big commercial brands is calculated in billions of dollars.

Statista posted Most valuable brands worldwide in 2021.

Apple was #1. Amazon, Google and Microsoft followed right behind. Per Statista, “Apple” is worth over $250 billion.

In past lives, PG worked for a big advertising agency. During this period of time, he learned that the agency’s largest clients invariably had somebody who was, effectively, The Brand Czar.

The Brand Czar was in charge of making certain that the company’s brand was accurately depicted in everything the company did, said, wrote, published or broadcast.

One Brand Czar famously came into the main lobby of her company’s headquarters and saw a large banner on the lobby wall that Human Resources had put up to promote employee appreciation week or something like that.

The Brand Czar noted that the color of the company’s logo was not the right color (brands can include an associated color). The color wasn’t completely wrong, but it was not the the right shade.

The Czar ordered that a custodian immediately bring an extension ladder to the lobby. The Czar kicked off her high-heels, climbed up the ladder in her tailored suit and personally yanked the banner off the wall, nearly dropping it on the receptionist. The custodian was ordered to burn the banner and report back to the Czar in her office after the destruction was complete.

(PG doesn’t know where you burn a banner in a high-rise office building, but he expects that the custodial staff found a way.)

So, you want to be careful with your author brand. You may not have a militant Brand Czar working for you, but being militant about your personal brand is probably not a bad idea.

4 thoughts on “Gaming the Publishing Industry”

  1. ” trading positive reviews with other authors …. all of which are immoral and some of them even illegal”

    I’m reminded of Spy magazine’s feature, “Logrolling in Our Times,” in which famous authors traded favorable blurbs.

  2. “The traditional publishing industry has its editors, and they have contracts with the bookstores and with the book distribution companies that are designed to keep you from selling your books at bookstores—and these contracts are very effective. If you’ve ever tried to start your own publishing company, you’ll see what I mean. ”

    Bookstores had contracts with editors limiting what books they can sell?!? Do tell! All the juicy details, please!

    In the real world, new publishing companies start up all the time. If they are aiming for distribution in bricks-and-mortar stores they generally contract with an established outfit for this. My guess is that this guy tried to handle distribution himself, and was shocked that bookstores weren’t pounding down his door with orders for his timeless masterpiece.

  3. There are very, very few editors at commercial publishers who deal directly with bookstores or distributors, let alone have well-developed “contacts” with them. Most of those editors that do have the word “Executive” before their job title, or even the job title of “Publisher.”

    This is the cause of one of the primary problems with commercial publishing: The people who are actually contacting those with an ability to directly influence “showability” of books are not those who acquired, edited, or all too often have even read those books. It’s a serious problem. It’s not the one that Mr Farland is describing, which sounds like a small-press problem (where the same individual who is the editor is also the chief of sales, the director of marketing and publicity, and the janitor).

    • ‘Contracts’, not ‘contacts’. Sentence reparsed:

      ‘The traditional publishing industry has its editors. The traditional publishing industry also has contracts with the [chain] bookstores and the book distribution companies. These contracts are designed to keep you [who are not a traditional publisher] from selling your books at bookstores.’

      Every word of this is true, though the bit about the editors is a red herring.

      The big traditional publishers are not in the business of selling books. They are in the business of preventing other people from selling books, so that people who want books will have to go through them. Their principal function in the marketplace is to maintain their own oligopoly by restricting access to distribution.

      This is why they hate Amazon so much. Amazon are perfectly happy to distribute books from small presses and indie authors, and refuse to be restricted. And Amazon are far, far bigger than the entire tradpub industry, which therefore has no significant influence over their corporate policies.

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