Jane Friedman

3 Things Your Traditional Publisher Is Unlikely to Do

Years ago, when I still worked for a traditional publisher, I wrote a blog post about the No. 1 disappointment of all published authors: the lack of marketing support from their publisher. This was back when social media was still a fringe pastime, limited mostly to MySpace. So if your publisher wasn’t investing in marketing or publicity, you probably had few available tools to market and publicize your work outside your community—unless you had funds to hire a publicist or a national platform of some kind.

Today, some form of online marketing by both author and publisher is essential for all titles, and while traditional forms of marketing and publicity are still key—everyone wants a mix of online and offline exposure to maximize word of mouth—publishers’ launch efforts may be focused primarily or entirely on online channels. It tends to be more efficient, targeted, and cost effective.

Yet authors still have very traditional ideas of what their publisher ought to do to demonstrate support for their book, even though where and how books get sold has changed dramatically in the last decade. Here are three things that you may want or expect your publisher to do—but are very unlikely to happen.

1. Send you on a national book tour

This is probably the biggest author disappointment by far, judging from the message boards and discussion groups where I see new authors unleashing their anxieties and questions.

Here’s why publishers won’t send you on a tour: book events are among the least cost-effective ways to sell books. You may get very low turnout at multiple venues and sell not more than a handful of copies at each event.

The big reason to tour across many cities is usually to secure media coverage and reach the many more people who don’t attend the event—the more times and more places that people hear about your book, the better. Unfortunately, as most of us are too well aware, local media isn’t what it used to be and the opportunities for book coverage have diminished, which further deteriorates the value of touring.

That said, events help authors network and build relationships with booksellers that pay off over the long term. But the benefit is rarely tied to selling books in the short term unless you have a marquee name that can draw a crowd.

All this isn’t to say a publisher won’t assist or support you in setting up local or regional events, or even with more extended efforts that you wish to plan. But don’t expect them to set up or fund a multi-city tour to places where no turnout is guaranteed. It risks everyone’s time and resources.

If you do want to pursue events on your own, be aware that they’re more effective if they go beyond just a reading, and go beyond just bookstores. Think about all the organizations, businesses, and schools that might benefit from a visit or workshop; think about the places that might pay you to visit and speak. Also consider if there are other authors you can partner with—this almost always increases the reach of the event and the size of the audience.

2. Invest in your book as much as their lead authors for the season

It’s very easy for authors to fall into the comparison trap. You look at the other books releasing from your publisher or imprint during the same timeframe as yours, and you see more time and attention devoted to them. Why aren’t you getting the same treatment?

Publishers divide their list into A titles, B titles, and so on. Some titles (especially those where the authors received six-figure advances) are likely to get the most support, attention, and investment. These are the A titles, and they appear at the front of the publisher’s catalog with full-page or full-spread treatment.

If you’re not an A title, then you receive some kind of standard or baseline treatment that all authors receive, with the publisher ready to respond if there’s a quick win somewhere: a starred review, a celebrity mention, some kind of uptick in attention that can be capitalized on.

Anything but an A-list title isn’t likely to receive major or national advertising or a huge publicity push to major media outlets. However, the “standard” attention your book receives isn’t exactly worthless. It likely still involves creating advance review copies of your book, sending it out to important review and media outlets, offering giveaways or doing targeted advertising, and so on. It’s just not going to be the sales and marketing focus of the publisher unless it picks up momentum in some way or gains enthusiasm in the marketplace.

Which brings us to the most important thing that you can do as an author: Figure out as far in advance as possible what your publisher’s plans are for your book—but not in a confrontational way. Proactively let them know at least six to nine months prior to your publication date what you plan to do to support your book. They can then suggest ways to support and expand on what you’re doing, and fill in the gaps where you don’t have as much marketing or publicity strength. The more you see it as a team effort, where you both take initiative, the better off you’ll be in the end.

Furthermore, you want your publisher to know what you’ll do to support your book before they start pitching their major accounts, such as Barnes & Noble. Bookstore and wholesaler orders are placed before the book releases, and those orders are affected by the marketing and publicity plan the publisher presents and commits to. Your efforts are part of that plan and can’t very well make a difference if your publisher doesn’t know about them. Don’t wait until the weeks before launch to figure out your plan; by then, most of your publisher’s marketing and publicity plans—the ones with the most potential to affect bookstore orders and national promotion and placement—are concluded.

3. Market and publicize your work after the initial launch period has passed

Once you’re aware that your publisher’s most important efforts and planning happen before the book is released, it starts to makes more sense (maybe!) why their post-launch activities may be minimal. The plan that was decided upon months ago has already been set in motion, so it’s mainly about coordinating, following up, and building on any momentum that has been created.

Unfortunately, the large majority of book launches involve some sales, some reviews, but nothing outstanding that would motivate the publisher to invest more resource. For authors who haven’t prepared or thought about the launch, this is when panic sets in, especially if they expected more from the publisher. While publishers do a lot of marketing and publicity work to the industry itself (booksellers, wholesalers, libraries, reviewers, media), this work tends to be invisible to the author. For better or worse, these industry-facing activities may not produce the sales everyone wants, or they may not meaningfully affect how many readers hear about the book.

Each publisher and imprint is different in terms of its strength and ability to reach readers directly, but it’s almost always done through online channels (Goodreads, social media, advertising on literary blogs and newsletters, and so on). But few publishers will continue to put forth such efforts beyond a three-month window after the publication date; they’re doing their best to support initial sales through stores and create a positive track record. Then they have to move on to the next season of titles.

Authors can and should continue to reach readers directly the months (and years) after publication through whatever means they have available to them—whether online or offline. More than half of any book’s sales is likely to be through Amazon, and continued sales over the long term is affected by one’s rating and reviews there. Try to worry less about how much your book continues to remain stocked in a Barnes & Noble or nationally, and focus more on ways to perennially get attention and word of mouth for your book to the audiences most likely to buy it.

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