4 Lessons for Authors on the Current State of Publishing

Porter Anderson Digital Book World

Digital Book World main stage / photo by Porter Anderson

Last week I was at Digital Book World, reporting on industry discussions of current marketing practices and emerging business trends for The Hot Sheet. I also moderated a panel on how indie authors and traditional publishers are finding common ground and collaborating.

Here are some of my high-level takeaways for authors from my two days at the conference.

1. An author’s online presence is more critical than ever to long-term marketing strategy.

Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin opened the conference by discussing what he thinks is the greatest challenge right now in the publishing industry. He said that authors have long been recognized as the consumer-facing brand that most matters (to publishers and readers), and that today every author can build some kind of digital presence. However, he said, while a few authors do that very well, most do it badly.

Shatzkin said the biggest failure of traditional publishers to date is the lack of programmatic help for authors in building their digital footprint.

At the very least, he said every house should do a digital audit for every author they contract, which includes concrete suggestions for improving online engagement. To his knowledge, no publisher does, but he thinks it should be every house’s top marketing priority.

Later on, Rand Fishkin of Moz offered some of the most actionable content of the entire event, focused on how authors (or publishers) could improve that digital footprint. (Review his full presentation here.) Two of the big highlights of his talk and Q&A session:

  • Make sure your website is accessible, mobile-friendly and optimized for search. Fishkin said that using WordPress is a great shortcut to ensure your site is following best practices related to SEO. He encouraged authors and publishers to consistently link to a book landing page (on the author website) rather than to Amazon, to help ensure the author website and book landing page owned by the author will turn up as the first search result. Fishkin believes it’s better to control the message and capture that visitor/reader before sending them onto Amazon.
  • Do not split up your content website and promotional websites. For authors, this means don’t split up your author website and your author blog (don’t house them separately) or create separate websites that serve only to promote or sell your books. Authors should integrate all content, whether promotional or not, under a single online umbrella, usually a website built on the author name. Fishkin says it increases the probability of your site ranking number one for important search terms, such as your name, book titles, and keywords related to your work. Also, if you want, buy a domain that closely matches your book title, and have it redirect to your main author site (or possibly create a microsite).

2. Be reluctant to trust mainstream media headlines when it comes to publishing sales and trends.

Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch, arguably the foremost expert in reading the tea leaves of publishing industry data, offered an overview of what we know and how we know it when it comes to print and ebook sales.

He listed the biggest misleading conclusions appearing in news headlines—conclusions that consistently misinterpret the sales data.

  1. Print is back!
  2. E-books are dead!
  3. Bookstores are back!
  4. Amazon’s publishing division failed!
  5. If only we could count self-publishing, ebooks are booming!

What every author should know about the current industry data:

  • The flattening of ebook sales started happening back in 2013. Plus, some of the ebook decline we’re seeing may be attributable to rapidly falling Nook sales.
  • Adult ebook sales have been relatively stable; the big decline is in children’s/YA ebook sales due to the lack of a big franchise hit in 2015.
  • A big question is whether customers may be transitioning from ebook purchases to audiobook purchases—some of the most dramatic industry growth is happening in digital audio.
  • Recent print sales gains can be accounted for by coloring books.

To understand the full picture of industry sales requires triangulation of multiple data sources and an understanding of what sales those sources account for (and how the accounting has changed over the years). No single source offers a complete picture, and historical comparisons are difficult. One thing is for sure, however: most mainstream outlets, such as the New York Times, misunderstand the data and apply misleading headlines.

3. Learn to find your readers, go where they go, and speak their language.

Industry marketing expert Peter McCarthy and Rand Fishkin both discussed how to find your readers online and reach them directly. McCarthy described it as picking up “the lingua franca of the customer” with a variety of tools and techniques. He demonstrated how he rapidly tests out phrases to learn and access “adjacencies”—the key concepts, active people, and communities whose interests are aligned with themes, topics, or points from your work. (View or download McCarthy’s 109 slides, featuring step-by-step information.)

Fishkin echoed this in his talk. He said that if you know a small handful of the right customers, you can figure out where they go on the web, and you can figure out who their influencers are. For example:
  • Identify just one person online who is the dream reader that you’d like to clone.
  • Stalk that one person everywhere—research their digital footprint to the point of exhaustion. What social networks are they active on? What are they doing there? What products, books, or services do they like or talk about? Who are they influenced by? Where else do they go on the web?
  • This will begin to give you an ideal reader profile and a snapshot of the community that you need to join and start conversations with.

Fishkin says you can also just find someone online who is clearly a fan of a particular genre—and has posted many reviews on Goodreads or Amazon—then study their profile info, see where else they are on the web, see who they follow, and what they share.

If you’re not into using digital tools to research this (in the way that McCarthy or Fishkin do), you can have conversations instead. You can talk to people in real life and gather the same information.

Once you do find your readers, you need to study how they talk about books, and learn how to exploit those adjacencies you’ve discovered. For example, if you’ve written a contemporary romance, you might uncover during your reader research that your target audience likely watches The Bachelor. That could inspire a range of marketing ideas, such as live-tweeting the show, writing recaps or commentary, creating a blog post titled “6 Books You Might Like If You Like The Bachelor,” and so on. The goal is to make sure you use language and comparisons that will appeal to the reader.

4. Pricing is the industry’s Achilles heel.

Based on data presented by Author Earnings Data Guy, it’s likely that traditional publishers are pricing their debut authors too high. In 2014, using daily Amazon ebook sales by price range, Author Earnings reported 22 percent of debut author unit sales coming from the Big Five publishers. In 2015, that number fell by half, to 11 percent. In 2016, in the first quarterly report, it fell to 9 percent.

Data Guy recommended that publishers give debut authors a different pricing structure so that they can find their audience, then graduate to higher price points.

Separately, in a panel about ebook pricing, a panel of publishers and retailers discussed ebook pricing experimentation. One panelist said, “If you’re not changing price, you’re learning nothing. Changing price is probably a good thing—you can always change it back.” Unfortunately, traditional publishers are largely not experimenting because they don’t have the resources in place to do so—no one on staff is looking for marketing opportunities related to pricing.

Nathan Maharaj of Kobo said, “Years ago, Mike Shatzkin wrote a blog post about how pricing optimization, the burden of setting the price—setting it right—is going to become a differentiating skill. The publishers who do it well are doing right by their authors.”

Other takeaways for authors

  • If you develop content to help launch a book (e.g., a guest post or a social media series), first ask: Who will amplify this content and why? Rand Fishkin said authors and publishers often fail to ask this question at the outset. But the answer can’t be vague, like, “Museum goers will love this.” It needs to be specific people or publications: “Museum curators Carolyn and Shelley will love this.” Fishkin hit home on the point that a lot of good content never gets seen because no one has thought through who will help it gain traction or how.
  • Rodale scored a big sales and marketing win by using a private Facebook group. For the marketing of Wheat Belly, a private Facebook group was created to offer support during the ten-day wheat and grain detox recommended by the book. The group started with 600 members and is now up to 3,500; it’s moderated by the author and his team. Rodale saw sales boosted across all channels as a result, and increased awareness of all franchise products. Related: See Kirsten Oliphant’s post about her own success using private Facebook groups.
  • Children still prefer print books: A recent research study showed that 70% of children said they prefer reading print to digital. (This was a theme throughout the day at Digital Book World; the kids’ sector is proud of “the persistence of print,” as one key publisher puts it.)

If you enjoyed this post, then you’d probably enjoy being a subscriber to The Hot Sheet, a newsletter I run in collaboration with Porter Anderson. Every two weeks, the newsletter reports on critical industry news and events, and it keeps you updated on business developments that matter to authors’ careers. Start a 30-day free trial to The Hot Sheet.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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