Newsletter 27 September 2023: Publishers’ promotional prejudices; women’s advances retreat; Amazon’s crap limit

Week 11: publishers vs. authors on marketing; book advance gender differences; Scribe rises from the dead; plus 3 people to follow, 3 books to read, and the bullplug.

Your publisher focuses on bookstore marketing. That’s not what you need.

I’ve worked with dozens of traditionally published authors. Nearly all were disappointed in the work of their publisher.

To understand why publishers and their marketing efforts so frequently disappoint nonfiction authors, focus on where the money is coming from. The author focuses on their audience of readers. But the publisher gets its money from the channel: bookstores. As a result, a disproportionate amount of publisher attention goes to romancing the bookstore channel.

This is push marketing (stuffing the channel) vs. pull marketing (creating demand among buyers). For nonfiction books, pull is now far more important than push.

Jane Friedman’s Hot Sheet newsletter included this insightful set of comments from Peter Hildick-Smith, founder of Codex, a company that performs research for publishing industry players, on publishers’ myopia:

In trade publishing, the “customer” has historically been thought of as the major trade accounts. But in a market where now roughly 70 percent of book units are sold direct to the consumer through online channels, the individual book buyer is now the most important customer by far. This is a real sea change in the book market’s dynamics—and one that not only requires new ways of thinking about publishing priorities but new tools that help publishers understand this new customer better to become more effective at motivating the all-important “click” to browse and to hopefully buy. . . .

The market power shift from trade customer to book consumer has been gradual, over the last 10+ years, making it harder for many to notice the shift. But the more direct-to-consumer online sales have grown, heavily driven by Amazon, the smaller the impact of physical retail distribution and merchandising, the greater the importance of publishers’ direct dialog with the individual book buyer.

This dynamic is at play in publishing as a whole, but for business books and other prescriptive nonfiction, it’s in overdrive. Almost nobody goes to bookstores to buy a business book they hear about. Bookstores have noticed, and have shrunk their business book sections; new authors can hardly get on the shelves.

Your publisher will tell you they have two promotional activities: “marketing” and “publicity.” Marketing means “marketing to bookstores.” This is important for the publisher as a whole, since the bookstore is buying a lot of their titles. But for you, the author, it’s likely to be worthless. There are probably not going to be piles of your book at the front of the store, and your reader is not going to find out about it there.

What the author needs help with is publicity, speaking slots, social media, and getting names and emails of readers who care about their topic. The publisher’s publicity team is going to help you with publicity for about three weeks. They’re going to contact all the usual media people and send review copies to all the usual reviewers, most of whom will ignore you.

It’s not that the publisher’s publicists are incompetent: far from it. In my experience, they are hard-working creative publicity experts. But they have so many authors to serve with so little resource that their creativity is ground into the dust as they trudge from author to author and launch to launch.

This really ought to change, but it likely won’t. Four takeaways.

  1. Business publishers should shift budget from bookstore marketing to author-to-reader marketing. (I’m not holding my breath. But the first one to do that will create a powerful differentiation.)
  2. Authors should ignore most of publishers’ marketing promises. They always promise, they rarely deliver. Don’t pick a publisher based on their marketing promises. (One exception: Harvard Business Review Press has international reach and branded bookstore placement that its competitors don’t. But they don’t publish nearly as many books as they used to.)
  3. Consider a hybrid publisher. They’ll publish faster, and since you pay them, you’ll get better service.
  4. Regardless of how you plan to publish, take responsibility for your own direct-to-reader marketing. You should plan how you can own the channels and followers you create, because that’s an asset that will be valuable to you beyond a single book launch.

News for authors and others who think

Do women get lower advance from publishers than men? Based on a survey of 78 traditionally published nonfiction authors, it sure looks that way.

To rein in AI-generated titles, Amazon will restrict self-published authors to publishing at most three books per day. What a joke. Anyone publishing more than one book a month is a crap-slinger.

Eric Jorgensen is taking over as the new CEO of Scribe Media. I’ll withhold my applause until I see how the self-publishing company digs its way out of from dozens of half-finished, half-paid-for, aborted book projects left over from its previous implosion.

Three people to follow

Melanie Deziel, cofounder of Creator Kitchen and generally super-smart cookie.

Augie Ray, Gartner customer experience analyst and freelance disseminator of COVID concerns.

Todd Caponi, unparalleled sales insights wizard.

Three books to read

Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors: Covert Techniques for a Remarkable Practice by David C. Baker (Rockbench Publishing, 2022). How to create a consulting practice from your expertise.

Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion by Gabrielle Blair (Workman Publishing, 2022). Every pregnancy starts with a sperm. What if we invested more effort in regulating men’s responsibility?

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy (Penguin, 2018). Colo(u)ring outside the usual lines separating our national relationships with the mother tongue.


Take a look at my 2016 book Writing Without BullshitI keep hearing how companies are insisting that their writers follow these principles. Your life would be better if your organization did, too.

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