What to expect from your publisher’s marketing and publicity teams

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If you signed a deal with a publisher — traditional or hybrid — they probably made you promises about all the great work their marketing teams can do for you. But the rosy picture you have in your mind about their book publicity probably doesn’t match what they actually can do. Less than half of the business authors I surveyed felt their publishers’ publicity efforts were worthwhile.

Here’s what you can expect — and can’t expect — from marketing at your publisher. This advice is focused on business book authors, but much of it applies to any sort of book.

You’re not special

Publishers do all sorts of incredible marketing work for a few “big” authors they work with. These are the authors who have one or more of these qualities:

  • A proven record of multiple big bestsellers (think Daniel Pink or Tony Robbins).
  • Highly visible and famous (presidential candidates, cable news personalities, actors in hit TV series).
  • Received an advance of at least $350,000.

This is almost certainly not you. Even if you give 50 speeches a year, wrote one previous bestselling book, got a $150,000 advance, or are the CEO of Fortune 100 company, you’re likely not in this tier of authors.

If you are in this tier, congratulations: you’re going to get lots of attention from the publishers’ best publicity and marketing teams. For the rest of us, it’s time to calibrate our expectations.

Marketing versus publicity

Most authors imagine that “marketing” means activities you do to sell books. But this is not how the way your publisher thinks of “marketing.” Remember, the customer of the publisher is not the reader, it is the bookstore.

As a result, when publishers talk about “marketing,” they mean “outreach to bookstores.” Large publishers have bookstore marketing teams; smaller ones have likely retained a team of reps that works for several publishers at once. That team calls on retailers’ buyers to talk about the book and attempt to generate bookstore orders. Traditional marketing buyers will recognize this as “push” marketing.

For business books, the main retailer that matters is Amazon. It’s great that your publisher is calling on Amazon, but be aware that Barnes & Noble rarely stocks new business books unless the author is already well-known. Think about it: the last time you decided on a business book to buy, was it because you picked it up at a bookstore, or because you heard about it somewhere and ordered it online?

What about Hudson News and other airport and train station bookstores? They have limited shelf space and all the business books on their shelves are paid placements. Unless you are in the top tier of authors, your publisher is unlikely to pay to place your book in these stores. If you are working with a hybrid publisher like Amplify or Greenleaf, you can pay them to have your book stocked in airport stores. Authors tell me that placement in these stores can often generate leads for speeches, but tends not to pay off in actual book sales.

The placement on tables and endcaps in Barnes & Noble is also usually a paid placement.

While your publisher may add incremental value by paying for ads on Amazon, by itself, that won’t propel your book very far.

Your publisher’s publicity team has a limited span of attention

Your publisher has publicists. They do outreach to press, podcasts, book reviewers, and so on. You might think of this as marketing, but to the publisher, it is “publicity.”

The challenge here has little to do with the talent of the publicity staff at your publisher. The challenge is that that team is probably promoting ten to 40 books a year. Your book is in competition for their attention with all those other books.

You’ll likely have a strategy discussion with them in the weeks leading up to the book’s publication date. But don’t expect grand strategic plans here. It is most efficient for them to use similar outreach that they do for all the other books, and unless you give them a compelling reason to vary from that playbook, that’s what they’ll do.

When the book is published, they’ll send it to all the usual newspaper and magazine book reviewers, along with a memo about what makes it great. Regrettably, there are fewer and fewer of such reviewers, and they tend to get hundreds of books a year. If you’re lucky or have written about a hot topic, you’ll get a review somewhere. (My previous book was reviewed in Toronto Globe & Mail, which liked it, and Harper’s Magazine, which panned it.)

Your publisher’s publicists will also pursue opportunities for bylined articles and excerpts. Again, there are many, many authors chasing all of those opportunities, and the publicists can only reach so many in the time they have. My book was excerpted in The New York Observer and I published a bylined article in The Daily Beast — the publisher’s publicists generated both of those opportunities.

Publishers may also undertake activities like creating graphics with quotes from the book that you can use for decorating your website and promoting on social media. But unless you’re very lucky, they won’t get you “Good Morning America,” they won’t get Oprah to review your book, and they won’t line up speeches for you.

Truly creative outreach requires a publicist to dedicate extra time and attention, and then persistently attempt to connect with media outlets over a period of months. Your publisher, almost certainly, does not have the staff to do that.

Things are going to get worse. I find it unlikely that the new private equity owners of Simon & Schuster, for example, will invest in beefing up publicity departments.

You can whine about this lack of attention all you want, but that’s unlikely to accomplish much except making the publicists mad; given the pressure they’re already under, there’s only so much they can do.

This is why most business authors do a lot of their own creative brainstorming about publicity and hire book publicity firms like Cave Henricks, Smith Publicity, Fortier, or Wesman PR. These are firms that will work with you on a strategy and maintain attention on your goals for a period of months or longer. As a result, they can often accomplish what your publisher can’t.

Reset your expectations

Whose fault is it that the publisher’s PR and marketing haven’t done the job you hoped they would?

It is yours.

You believed what you wanted to believe, which is that the optimistic talk by the publicity team would be translated into months of creative attention.

Reset your expectations. You must plan your own launch. The median published author in my survey spent $10,000 on promotion; one in six spent more than $50,000.

After spending all that time writing, failing to promote is a terrible mistake. Depending on your publisher’s marketing and publicity staff exclusively is nearly as bad. Promotion is your job. Consider the publisher your helper, not your primary publicist, and you’ll be on the right track.

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  1. Hi Josh – Absolutely agree your future success from writing a book is in your own marketing efforts.

    And start planning and executing EARLY alongside writing and research to punctuate and magnify your launch.

    As a personal example, I co-authored “The Gen Z Effect,” and marketing/publicity (done by us) started at contract signing.

    While we didn’t specifically use the PQRST method you talk about in your latest book, that’s essentially the framework we used.

    For a sense of the timeline, we signed the contract in December 2013, submitted the initial manuscript in March 2014, finalized the manuscript in April 2014, and launched the first week of November 2014.

    We were not idle on marketing during any of that time, especially not in the otherwise quiet months between final manuscript and the launch date.

    When we signed with the publisher, we began planting seeds with the 150+ people we ultimately interviewed to create a groundswell of support we could leverage pre-launch, at launch, and post-launch. Some software companies that had products/services relating to topics we covered were in that mix, and were happy to provide additional marketing firepower via quoted excerpts of their executives and business.

    Beyond marketing, leveraging branding:
    I built up word-of-mouth buzz by paying an artist to create customized avatar characters for every interviewee, and people who wrote book blurbs for us. They were stylized versions of their LinkedIn profile photos, in pure white, black and red. The avatars were eye-catching (standing out in social media feeds) and subtly reinforced the same brand colors and stylized look and feel as the book.

    We provided the avatars 1-2 months before launch to everyone we interviewed, even if their story did not make it into the book.

    Everyone was thrilled with the surprise digital gift (too bad Non-Fungible Tokens weren’t around at the time!), promptly used them on their social media accounts, talked about the book, and even nine years later, a dozen or so are still using the avatars.

    Some of the interviewees were podcasters or reporters, and engaging an audience was as top of mind for them as it was for us. Between the topics of the book, and the gift of a custom avatar, we had friendly press lined up and prepped well in the weeks leading up to launch and months afterward.

    While we spent some $1000 on google ads and Facebook/instagram ads, our marketing was primarily word of mouth. The artist’s work cost an additional $1000-$1250.

    Later on, in workshops based on the book, custom avatars were made for all attendees, and delivered as a surprise at the start of the workshop. From the avatars and the workshop material, every workshop created a burst of buzz, both within their organization, social media mentions, and telling friends and family.

    For us, marketing and publicity of the book itself was just one piece of the larger marketing strategy – getting enough attention to sell lots of books for the launch week, and also priming the pump for speaking engagements, consulting, and workshop opportunities.

    The fairly significant effort we put in on our own to make the book launch a success was dramatically magnified in the downstream revenue and ongoing attention we enjoyed.

    The publisher assisted a bit in publicity in the month prior to launch, but for relative contribution, I’d put it at 95% our efforts, 5% theirs.

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