• Christelle Lujan
  • How the Old School Book Industry Is Holding Back Marketing Innovation
How the Old School Book Industry Is Holding Back Marketing Innovation

The publishing industry has gotten a major makeover (or makeunder depending on who you ask) in recent years. Self-publishing rattled the traditional industry and new companies have emerged to completely reinvent how books are produced, distributed and purchased. There is no denying that change has come and come quickly for us all.

That being said, there are still deeply rooted traditions that are wrapped around every facet of publishing. Some of them are good; others have severely stunted authors and industry professionals.


One of the areas where tradition is doing the most damage is in marketing.


Katy Waldman of Slate, captured this most directly in her recent article “It’s Time to Stop Praising Authors for Being ‘Good at the Internet.’


In truth though, it’s time to stop acting like authors have reached the pinnacle of book marketing success. We are damaging ourselves in two major ways: 1) we are discouraging those who are interested in marketing by telling them you can’t do better than what’s being done and 2) we are making greatness in publishing seem unattainable by misattributing marketing success.


The lack of clarity and over-dishing of praise tends to deflate how much potential still exists and how much more needs to be done before we can really stake our claim in book marketing success. Authors should feel inspired and driven to take the world of Internet marketing and apply it to their books, but instead they feel limited and uncertain about how success is obtained and how better results can be driven.


A few residual industry mentalities are keeping marketing from taking bigger steps within the book world.


We Undervalue Online Presence


Despite the fact that most authors have a website and perhaps some social media presence, the vast majority tend to be minimally involved or interested in online activities. Even the top authors of the year selling thousands of books are “barely there” online.


Because the traditional publishing industry used to live and die by what the New York Times printed and how a national book tour performed, we assume those same metrics are still the peak measurement of success.


The truth is, your book has infinitely more opportunities to succeed online than it does in the physical world. Don’t get me wrong, we all love O Magazine and bow to the idea of being a part of the Oprah elite, but a few solid pieces of coverage on high-trafficked websites can reach just as many if not more people as a perishable piece of print coverage.


And while a book tour stop at a local store can be a great way to connect with readers face to face, the number of people you can pack in a bookstore versus the number of people you can reach personally via social media or an enewseltter, doesn’t even compare.


Yes, there is still plenty of value in print and in-person interactions, but ignoring the sheer volume of opportunity online is not helping us grow. Equal importance needs to be placed in online strategy as it is in offline tactics so that authors have a chance to truly thrive in today’s market.


We Don’t Consider Ourselves Business Owners


Because in the traditional model publishing houses were the business entity and authors were the creative little elves that kept the workshop producing, we haven’t embraced who authors truly are in today’s landscape.


As an author you’re an entrepreneur. You’re a small business owner. You’re an inventor of a product no one has ever heard about. And thus, you have to be a CEO, a marketing expert, a sales associate and the financial backing to your own business.


But most publishers and fellow authors won’t tell you that. The role of an author is primarily considered a writing job and little more. This of course is a huge aspect of your career, but far from the only requirement to be successful. 


There are plenty of companies willing to lend a hand to help you build your business, but there has to be recognition within the industry first that being an author is the equivalent of starting and maintaining a small business. 


We Haven’t Become Trade Experts


In once upon a time land, publishers paid authors an advance for their work and took the reigns getting the book distributed, covered and sold. There are still pieces of that model that exist, but the vast options that are available in publishing nowadays has muddied who does what and why we need particular tactics and who is responsible for completing the work.


Now that authors are no longer just the creative entity of the equation, there is a need for them to be become industry experts like never before. Authors hoping to become a bestseller, have to know how that happens and understand what their publisher offers (or doesn’t offer) to help get them there. Authors hoping to build a platform of avid and anxious readers need to be constantly in the loop on new marketing trends and effective tools for reaching readers.


There are absolutely companies that can help with that (full disclosure I work for one such company). But even when hiring a third party for help, you need to be aggressive about what it is you are hoping to accomplish, how that plays out in the market and what can realistically be achieved with any given campaign. Demand that a company you are shopping helps you understand the results of what you are paying for. Knowing the questions that should be asked up front comes with infusing yourself into the industry.


The old days of publishing are definitely gone and in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. We have to let some of the old ideals die out too though so that today’s amazing authors have a chance to rise up above the noise and enjoy success. If we have dropped the traditions of publishing, we have to drop the old-school mentality too so we can hit new heights.

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  • Linda Kass

    You are right, Christelle! Now it is learn as we go, so we need to help one another. Thanks again for raising this issue. 

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    We are in the midst of a brave new publishing world. I wonder where it will take us.


  • Christelle Lujan

    Absolutely Linda! There is an overwhelming number of options out there which is where so much of the fear comes from. Do I choose Facebook, should I be on Instragram, how can a newsletter help and how do I get people to sign up for it? All of these questions can really make things difficult for authors. I think first and foremost, you have to decide how many hours a week you can give to marketing. Understand that there will likely be a heavy time dedication to get things off the ground, but realistically, that can be done in a month or two, especially if you hire some help. Once you know how much time you can give to marketing the next step is researching the most effective methods for your platform. If you are a YA author, Instagram can be more valuable than Twitter. If you are really looking to boost sales and pre-orders, a focused enewsletter strategy could be the most important aspect. 

    A big part of the problem for authors is that there just aren't enough resources out there to help them decide which path to take. As an industry, we all have to work together to share information that will help authors make these decisions. Thanks for sharing your feelings, you are in the majority with how you feel about this!

  • Linda Kass

    Thanks for this post, Christelle. I imagine many authors, speaking for myself, get overwhelmed by this brave new world of online marketing. And, they fear the social media world will take over their lives, including their writing lives. Managing these necessary efforts, and choosing which online opportunities will offer the best "bang for the buck," are key, right?