The latest buzz word in the publishing industry is “discoverability.” Everyone’s worried about the “mountain of crap” that self publishing will (has?) brought into the industry—including self published authors.
Everyone ignores two important facts: one person’s crap is another person’s beloved book, and publishing has always produced books in great volume. The newly merged Penguin Random House (or Randy Penguin as one of my favorite PRH authors calls it) will publish 15,000 new titles in 2014, not counting everything in its backlist.
I’ll be dealing with discoverability for the next few weeks (unless some publishing news appears in the holiday season that I simply can’t ignore). And I’m going to begin with the default position that most writers have:
Writers believe that if a writer wants a lot of readers to discover her work, she needs to be traditionally published.
In other words, traditional publishers are much, much better at helping the writer find an audience than the writer is herself.
That assumption was true, back in the olden days, y’know, about five years ago. Books got discovered through bookstores, and the only way to get a book in a bookstore was to go through a traditional publisher.
Then e-readers hit, along with the easy Amazon publishing platform, quickly mimicked by Barnes & Noble. Apple followed, and then Kobo, and now a book doesn’t have to be in paper at all in order to find readers. Nor does that book need to be in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Lots of writers are gaining a lot of readers without ever producing a paper book of their latest novel.
Still, a lot of writers, from old timers to beginners, say the reason that they want to stay with traditional publishing is discoverability. Writer after writer tells me that a traditional publisher will promote their books.
For some writers, particularly huge bestsellers, this is absolutely true. For others, particularly midlist writers, it isn’t true at all. And honestly, it’s always been that way.
But it’s getting even more dicey now.
Traditional publishers are buying ebook-only contracts. I know a lot of writers who are taking those contracts, and expecting big publishing promotion, without ever asking themselves how that promotion will occur.
In fact, even writers who take print-only deals believe that traditional publishers will do a lot of advertising for their work. And by that, most writers mean actual ads. In magazines. Online. In newspapers.
These writers believe firmly that they will benefit from an ad campaign without a contractual guarantee to it. They believe it will come with the territory.
We all know why the only author whose books we see advertised on television these days is James Patterson. We all know that national television advertising is expensive. Writers don’t expect television advertising for their books.
But they expect print advertising, and even that expectation is wrong.
Let’s look at actual advertising for a moment before we get to the other ways that traditional publishers actually advertise books.
Take a look at the ads from a recent issue of RT Book Reviews. RT Book Reviews is not an industry bible, like Publisher’s Weekly is.RT is a magazine that’s dedicated to readers. It got its start about thirty years ago as a mimeographed sheet put out for romance readers, back when romance was considered the lowest, most disreputable genre (besides actual porn novels). No reputable publication—from newspapers to magazines—would ever advertise, let alone review, a romance novel. Most romance writers used pen names, so that they wouldn’t have to admit that they wrote “that crap.” (I love how definitions of crap change from generation to generation. Think about that when you worry about “mountains of crap” that the industry is publishing.)
RT started to give romance readers a community, and it evolved into a glossy magazine with tens of thousands of subscribers, and a huge ad revenue stream. It exists to inform readers of entertaining reads in all genres. Not the latest literary novel or the novel most likely to impress your friends, but the novel most likely to help you while away a few hours on a particularly difficult day.
Publishers have figured out that the popularity of RT translates into book sales, so those publishers advertise, often with more than one ad in each issue.
So, a quick examination of the display ads in RT which show book covers by more than one author generally include a phrase at the bottom of the ad which goes like this:
And Don’t Forget Our Ebook Imprint Really Cool Books Featuring These Titles!
A handful of book covers run along the bottom with very little to say what the book is about or why I should download it today! like the ad urges me to do.
Because so many authors I know are taking those ebook-only contracts, I was paying attention to the ebook-only promotion. And discovering this: those ebooks are getting a weird kind of also-ran promotion. It’s almost like face-out windowing in a closed bookstore. You see the book in the window, but you can’t touch the book or even look at the back cover. Because the shop door is locked.
Windowing—the practice of putting a book on a real brick-and-mortar bookshelf—works because the reader can pick up that copy, read the back cover, and decide to buy.
To buy these ebooks, advertised as also-rans in RT, the reader would have to haul out her e-reader then and there, or remember the title of the book, or the author’s name. If she did all those things then maybe, just maybe, she might buy the book.
But that seems like a lot of work for the potential reader, doesn’t it? Would you do it? I don’t think I ever have.
If you want to see what I mean and you’re a subscriber to RT Book Reviews, check out page 23 of the November issue. There’s usually an ad like this in every issue, always from a major publisher. In this particular ad, the paper titles get a quote from an RT review, and the ebook titles are shown by the cover only.
I’m pointing this out, not because I think RT ads are bad—I don’t. I think they help sales with the right project, when that project is available and done in the right way. Obviously traditional publishers believe RT ads help sales as well, because as I looked online for the ad that I was thinking of, I noted how many traditional publishers put money into RT every single issue.
Traditional publishers put advertising money into many magazines. From Entertainment Weekly to Esquire to Vanity Fair, publishers spend a small fortune on book ads. Those slick glossy magazines do not have an authors-only rate the way that RT does. (RT is author-friendly, and long before e-publishing and indie publishing became a big deal, it offered ad rates for authors whose publishers refused to put any support behind a book at all. Which was, by the way, and is what publishers do for most titles by most authors.)
The other thing to note about RT publisher ads, however, is that most of them focus on a single title. In that November issue, Kensington bought four ads for single titles, and ran them on separate pages. Harlequin had two single-author ads, Avon had one, Penguin had three. The thing that marked a difference in the November issue was that it was one of the Christmas ad issues, so some of the publishers did group ads of Christmas-themed books.
Why is this important?
Because writers see these ads and expect the publisher to buy ads like that for their books. Not every book by every writer gets an actual ad. In fact, most never get advertised in print or online publications.
However, writers who say that the traditional publisher will advertise their books are correct. The traditional publisher will do a few things that will raise a book’s visibility—if and only if that book is published in print format.
Print books will appear in a seasonal catalogue that booksellers will look at. That’s advertising, folks. The print book might—and I stress might—get sent out for reviews. Reviews are advertising, folks.
The reviews won’t get readers to pick up the books as much as they’ll get booksellers to pick up the books. And booksellers, to a store, buy print books, not ebooks. (Which is why publishers only advertise print books in the industry bible, Publisher’s Weekly.)
A lucky few print books will get single-page display ads in magazines and newspapers. But I can guarantee this: unless you’re an author who has already hit a major bestseller list and/or your book is the most important book being published by that traditional publishing house’s imprint and/or you got paid an advance of $50,000 or more (in small genres like sf or westerns) or $100,000 or more (in larger genres like romance and mystery), your book will not get a single title ad. It won’t happen.
In other words, from the moment the publisher offers you a book deal, you can have a pretty good guess as to what kind of advertising budget your book will receive. Most five-figure advances won’t get any advertising, unless your book is the third book of a three-book contract, and the previous two books did waaaay better than expected.
Chances are, however, that even if that little miracle happened, you’re not going get your full page ad.
Ad placement also matters. By that, I mean, where the book gets advertised.
For example, only the really big titles—the ones that will sell millions—get advertised in Entertainment Weekly. Why? Simple. A four-color full page Entertainment Weekly ad costs $189,400. And that’s for one ad that is in the magazine for only one week.
Think it through, folks. If your publisher buys your novel for a $5,000 advance, they’re not going to spend nearly $200,000 to advertise your book. You’ll note, if you read EW like I do, that very few books get the full-color one-page treatment. Most books get a one-third page full-color ad, which is still mind-bogglingly expensive at $85,300 for one placement. One placement.
Contrast that with a one-time full-page full-color ad in RT, and you’ll find something a bit more affordable. A one-time full-page full-color ad there costs $3,800. That $3,800 will keep the book in front of potential readers for one month instead of one week.
That’s a considerable savings. But it’s still almost the cost of that $5,000 advance, and not likely to happen for a mid-list book.
The RT ad is targeted to heavy readers, but it also goes before significantly fewer eyeballs. The most recent listing for subscribers to RT that I could find with a quick web search showed 150,000 subscribers (2004). I’m sure that number is larger now, with the magazine’s web presence, but I can’t imagine it being much more than 200,000.
By contrast, Entertainment Weekly’s subscription base was nearly 1.8 million as of 2012. An EW ad will reach 9 times the number of readers—also focused on entertainment, I might ad—than an RT ad.
Even cheaper are the in-genre ads for a publication like Locus Magazine (for science fiction) whose most expensive ad is $1050 for a one-time placement, in a magazine that comes out every month. Locus has fewer subscribers than RT by a long ways. It currently lists a 6,000 copy subscription base, and somehow takes that to mean 18,000 people read the magazine. The rule of thumb when I was editing for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was that two people read each copy of the magazine, but Locus claims three. I sincerely doubt that.
Sure, a publisher might spend that $1050 to advertise the latest book in a growing series, but that ad will be viewed by a few thousand readers instead of a couple million. (And that’s still one-fifth of that mid list advance.)
Suddenly, the print/online ads seem less likely for a traditional published book, don’t they?
Here’s something else to remember: It’s not that hard for an indie author to reach 6,000 readers, through Amazon or Good Reads or a dozen other venues, which traditional publishers badmouth or ignore.
Then there’s the expectation side of advertising. Book publishers know that book ads are informational only. The ads do not increase sales at all.
The publishers buy the ads to inform the consumer that a new book is out. The consumer must see references to that new book several times before the book ever makes an impact on a consumer’s consciousness.
Now, remember, there are a bunch of different ways for the consumer to see an ad for the book. The ad might be in multiple media (not just EW, but Vanity Fair, for example, or The New York Times). The book might get reviewed and remember, that review is…drum roll…an ad. The consumer might see the book up front in a bookstore. Or the consumer might see the book cover on the home page for Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Those spots are also paid advertising, by the way. Ain’t no way an indie published book would show up there without someone ponying up a great deal of cash.
After several sightings in various places from magazines to bookstore shelves, the consumer might (and I mean might) be convinced to buy a book she wouldn’t normally buy. If she’s a fan of the author, she’ll buy the book as soon as she finds out about it, or put that book in her wish list or on her to-be-purchased pile. But convincing readers to buy a book through an ad just isn’t possible. Readers must find other ways to connect with the book.
Usually that means picking the book up, holding it in their hands, and interacting with the book. Such interactions used to happen in bookstores. Now, often, they happen online. Which is why the “Look Inside This Book” feature is so very important to book sales.
Advertising specialists argue over how many ad views it takes to sell a product to a consumer. Specialists spend years and a mountain of money trying to figure out what the most effective advertising dollars are. The numbers vary, and they’re hard to measure. As I did a quick search, I found statistics that ran from 2% of all ad viewers (for something with a coupon) as a good return rate, to a low of .01% of all ad viewers for repeat advertising. In other words, the experts don’t have a clue either.
So think this through as a reader. Did you ever buy a book because you saw an ad that told you the book was out? Or did you buy it because you love the author’s work, and the ad was just the first place to inform you that the book was out? And how in the hell can anyone measure that?
And why, if book ads are informational, are publishers spending tens of thousands of dollars to advertise their books, especially if there’s no way to know how effective the ads are?
Because all advertising dollars in publishing are spent to educate the consumer that a book exists. Publishers do a full-court press on their biggest titles in the week of release so that consumers go out and buy that book immediately. The more places that mention the book in its week of release, the more chances a consumer has to see the magic number of mentions and then act on the purchase of the new book.
This is exceedingly important to traditional publishers because they measure everything by sales velocity—how many copies the book sells quickly. Why? So that the book will hit a bestseller list—which then gives the book more advertising. (And that advertising is free.)
Traditional publishers can spend upwards of half a million dollars advertising one special title in one week of its release. Of course, the author of that special title got a minimum of a mid-six-figure advance.
Writers who got a four-figure advance will never ever ever get that kind of advertising. And writers who sold their book to a traditional publisher for a percentage and no advance only to see the book come out in an ebook-only edition will be lucky to be displayed on the front page of the publisher’s ebook website for a week.
If a writer is going to a traditional publisher for discoverability only, then the writer needs a few guarantees before signing her contract.
First, she better get a mid-five figure advance or higher on that book. Any less, and she won’t get the kind of discoverability she wants.
Second, her book better come out in a print edition. Otherwise she’s better off publishing the book herself.
Third, (and least likely), she needs a guarantee of certain levels of promotion in that contract. Without it, the publisher could spend $50,000 on that book’s advance, release the book in paper, and still not do the kind of basic promotion a book needs. No reviews, no catalogue copy, nothing.
Because no traditional publishing contract that I have ever seen for a writer who is not a bestseller guarantees that the publisher has to do anything except “publish” the book. And the definitions of what “publish” means are changing. In one contract that I saw recently, the definition of “publish” was that the publisher had to make certain the book was available for sale on the publisher’s website and nothing else.
Earlier this week, Digital Book World published an interview with traditional publishing digital guru Mike Shatzkin.
As sales move online and concentrate at Amazon, a publisher can’t really make a huge difference in Amazon compared to what an author can do on their own. So, the publisher has to make a difference in a diminishing part of the market, which is everything else.
He wants traditional publishers to figure out how to have a presence in the market. Honestly, so do I. I’d love to see traditional publishers continue—with good author contracts and with an acknowledgement that they work in partnership with authors rather than believing that writers are necessary idiots.
I have an opinion on what will happen to traditional publishers in this area, and I’ll write about it eventually.
But the point that I want you to see from Shatzkin is this: he sees how unimportant traditional publishers are becoming to the very thing that writers used to need them for—selling books to readers.
Traditional publishers have their place. Right now, that place is producing blockbuster novels and getting them out to readers in a coordinated way.
Writers need to see that place for what it is, not for what it was. Writers need to protect themselves going forward, making certain that if they partner with a traditional publisher, then the publisher will actually work for them, rather than put them in a mill that churns out books to make the publisher’s bottom line possible.
Because traditional publishers had a stranglehold on the market, they used to have a lot of power in getting books discovered. As Shatzkin said, that world no longer exists.
But the myth does.
Going with a traditional publisher will not guarantee your book’s discovery. In fact, it might guarantee that your book gets forgotten, particularly if you do an ebook-only deal.
There are other, better ways to make sure your book gets discovered, and I’ll deal with one of them next week.
This industry used to be so stable that the idea of blogging about it weekly would have been almost impossible. The blogs would have repeated within two years.
Now, things are changing—sometimes daily—and what was true two years ago is no longer true. As long as this remains how publishing works, I’ll do my best to share my knowledge with you.
However, that sharing does take time away from my fiction writing, which is what I prefer to be doing. (Wouldn’t we all?) Your comments and emails keep me writing the weekly blog. So do your donations.
So, thank you all for returning. And thanks for the support.
And please, if you learn something or value the blog, leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Advertising, Print Editions, and Traditional Publishing (Discoverability Part One)” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this document.
Please use the contact form on this website to get in touch with me, and I’ll let you know how to send me the contract.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.