Business Musings: Book Promotion 2020
They worked in Manhattan, which was too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. They didn’t make enough money to buy their own apartments downtown, but they’d never think of moving to Brooklyn or Queens or any of the outer boroughs. Mummy and Daddy had the money, boatloads of it in many cases, and Mummy and Daddy believed in appearances. So, if Second Son needed a place to live, well, then let’s just buy him something in the right neighborhood, so that he can live in relative comfort.
Second Son had use of the summer house upstate or in the Hamptons (before, y’know, it got discovered by [sniff] celebrities) and in due time, Second Son and the wife would move to Connecticut to raise the kids, commute into the City to do Important Work.
What Important Work? Publishing, of course. Perfect work for the Second Son or the Third Son or the Fourth. Perfect way to use that expensive education without really going into Trade or soiling the hands on something a little less…dignified.
Most of the people running publishing companies in those days were the children of old money who were not expected to make a profit at what they did. They were expected to do good work, to influence the culture, to put their minds and hearts behind good (or at least the right sort of) causes.
The people who started or ran the companies were, for the most part, male. All of them were white. And only a handful—the most innovative (and the most underrated)—were not from old money. Ian and Betty Ballantine, for instance, started Ballantine Books in their apartment in 1952, which was not the way most publishing houses started in those times. Ian and Betty were the anomalies.
The children of old money were not anomalies. Their influence pervades publishing even now, when all that remains of their companies are dusty old names that have long since been sold to corporations.
When I came into the business, though, handshake agreements were common, particularly with agents, who talked about things like “gentlemen’s agreements,” and “honor,” even though most of them had as much honor as any thief.
The publishers, though, the publishers truly were not interested in making a profit. They wanted enough money to keep their Manhattan offices, and to publish prestige products. They liked bestsellers, although they often manipulated the lists so that the worthy books could be considered bestsellers, and they really liked dominating the conversation around the entire country.
The books that made profits for the publishing houses—well, we don’t discuss those much. The “trashy” novels. Science fiction. Mystery. Romance. The [sniff] genre titles, they funded the literary titles, and made the prestige books possible.
But, long about sixty years ago, the culture was changing. The masses—always a problem when it came to prestige products—had a lot of disposable income, and wanted—not the most prestigious book—but something fun to read. Sure, they bought the prestige book, and displayed it on the coffee table so that their neighbors thought they were erudite, but the books they read lurked in the bedroom closet or the enclosed end table or the basement, and those had lurid covers and shocking subheadings.
The problem was that a lot of the racks around the nation that handled books wanted books to sell, not books to impress. The handful of bookstores weren’t enough to make the requisite amount of sales, so somehow, these publishers had to convince the department store book departments and the grocery stores and drug stores and the truck stops to take prestige books.
Truck stops never did, and neither did drug stores, but department stores…they could be lured by prestige. Just like university bookstores and libraries—with the right promotion.
What was the right promotion? Well, that was the question, wasn’t it, in a mass market world. How to make books that are good for you, or at least books written by the right sort (our kind of people) sell better than they naturally would.
The editors who actually believed in the product, and the sales force who were, in those days, an actual force, unique to the company, had the job of making those books profitable. And sometimes, that was impossible. The books were truly dull-as-dishwater dog turds.
But some were wonderful, if demanding. And a handful were shocking and fun and shed light on current cultural conditions. Many of them were about Our Sort, and were familiar in an East Coast sort of way. They peeled the curtain back on what Our Sort did behind closed doors, and that was almost as good as gossip.
Those books—and the “relevant” ones (many of which became truly great) like the Catch-22s and To Kill A Mockingbird and The Fire Next Time—those got the attention, not of the Second Sons, but of the friends they’d hired from those prestigious schools. Those books could change the culture, and many of them did.
But it took a concentrated—long term—effort, spread over months.
Around 1960 or so, that effort was mostly experimentation. A lot of things were tried, and a lot of things failed. But the successful things, well, some were done utilizing the Right People Who Had Jobs in the Right Places, things such as:
- Convincing that one reviewer to read the book and maybe, in exchange for a lovely lunch, write a slightly more positive review than usual.
- Planting interviews in the right magazines and newspapers, read by the right people
- Sending copies to the influential bookstores ahead of publication, so that the store owner felt involved in the process and might encourage the influential in the community (including the reviewer at the local paper) to cover the book.
- Sending the author to universities, to talk to professors and other influencers (although that term wasn’t used then).
- Sending the author, and copies of the book, to the influential bookstores. Initially, the authors gave lectures there as well, but most authors are dull as dishwater even when someone poured a lot of liquor into them, so the talks evolved into signings only, and more than one per day.
Add to that, a combination of mailings and ads in the right magazines and perhaps a discussion on the Today Show or one of the many talk shows that proliferated the Big Three TV channels—provided the author was presentable and witty and could hold their own (which few could), and that was usually enough to convince a department store book buyer to put a few copies up front to prove that the department store had cache.
Those kinds of promotions remained pretty much the same through the latter half of the 20th century. Oh, there were modifications, mostly thanks to the romance writers who had to do their own publicity because the “smut” that they wrote, while profitable, wasn’t something Our Sort read.
But for the most part, the book publicity you still see today started around 1955 or so, and changed only as book buying changed. The sales force went away—why have a sales force when all you had to do was sell to the single buyer for the nationwide chain? And then the right magazines became shadows of themselves, the struggling newspapers cut their book sections, and the author tour became a way to get bookstores around the country to order enough copies of the book to get on the New York Times list.
But that was that.
Ads on television, still in its infancy in 1960, didn’t really work, especially with Our Sort, because television by its very nature appealed to the masses. Jaqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, revolutionized book publicity, but it was commonly accepted that she wrote trash, and the techniques she used were unique to her.
(They weren’t. They were the same techniques most companies used at the time to sell any brand name item. Techniques all snubbed by traditional publishers at the time because of the whiff of the masses…snubbed until they actually needed those techniques to get their books on the shelves.)
Book publishing rolled in a few more techniques—the book fairs, like the LA Book Fair and a few other “accepted” methods of promotion—but for the most part, until January 2020, the promotion done for books by traditional publishers was the same kind of promotion done by traditional publishers 60 years ago.
Back then, those techniques were filled with innovation—how do we get the attention of the Right People? Oh, maybe this will work! Let’s try it!
Only now, the Right People don’t control the media. Corporations do. And there’s too many diverse voices and too many influencers not under the control of Our Sort.
The right magazines are gone. The newspaper book sections are gone or styled back to one review.
But that doesn’t matter. The booksellers…they’re Our Sort. They will come through. We can market to them, support them against the Big Evil Amazon, and our books will sell enough to make a decent profit, enough to keep our little division of our books in the black.
Let the authors handle the online promotion. We’ll set up a book tour, and maybe some direct-to-bookstore marketing, and all will be well.
But problems lurked on the horizon.
Bookstores were struggling. Big or little, it doesn’t matter. Barnes & Noble, the last big store, was being mismanaged into oblivion. The little stores were hanging on by finding their niche, but that niche wasn’t always The Right Book. Some of the most successful stores were genre—mystery, science fiction, and quite often, romance.
Even so, they weren’t making a big profit, and it had become a sad ironic joke in the industry that book buyers would use the stores to pick up a book, maybe read the opening, and then order the ebook online. Or the hardcover from Amazon, where the price was half of what the bookstore was doing.
Still, the book tours continued and the promotion wheel geared up, and writers occasionally appeared on the Today show (but not on Ellen or any of the talk shows, which were more focused on performing than ever).
The numbers to get to the bestseller lists were a shadow of their former selves, and everyone was ignoring the elephant in the room—no, not Amazon, but the ebook, which traditional publishing kept overpricing so they could sell their hardcovers. (Even though they mostly destroyed the format that readers preferred—the mass market.)
Everything proceeded as it had before. Writers sold to traditional publishers to get their marketing expertise, not realizing that the expertise they were giving up most of their rights for was the expertise of people in their eighties and nineties, people who were either kicked out of the industry or who retired from it decades ago.
Book promotion by traditional publishers in 2019 looked like book promotion by traditional publishers in 1999 which looked like book promotion in 1979 which looked like book promotion in 1959. There was no innovation, because the traditional publishers kept denying they needed to innovate. That whiff of the mass market, of the snobbish gentlemen who didn’t need to make a profit, remained.
And indie—or self-published writers—some figured out new ways to promote, but so many did the same thing their colleagues in traditional publishing did. They ached for book tours, but they couldn’t do that with ebooks so they did blog tours. They tried to get advertising in the right publications, only to find that was so expensive and not worth the time.
They tried to get reviews and learned that reviews, even in the right places, didn’t sell books.
So they innovated, but didn’t talk much about their innovations, except for a few writers who often turned from writing books to promoting the books they had already written.
Yes, book promotion in 2019 was a mess, no matter what category the writer fell into—traditional or indie (self) published.
And then…the virus.
The bookstores are closed as I write this. Most don’t want to open yet because part of book buying, even now, is book browsing, spending a lot of time in the store (usually a small space) touching the product. Many stores have laid off most of their employees. A handful of stores remain in business because they have adequate online sales, but most are in serious trouble.
Writers and readers love the idea of a bookstore, but they don’t go into bookstores very often anymore. Now, they order their books online. Where they get their online books depends on their politics and beliefs. If they hate Amazon, they go to places like Powell’s Books. If they hold no political beliefs about bookselling or simply are unaware of the controversy over book buying on the internet, they buy from Amazon.
Book sales are up during the pandemic—a lot for juvenile literature (and teaching tools), a little bit for hardcover books, and a lot in ebooks. (If you don’t look at traditional publishing’s ebooks. Because traditional publishers priced their ebooks out of the market. Most readers won’t spend $15 for an ebook; study after study shows that.)
The spring book tours were canceled. The TV and radio appearances, canceled. The remaining newspapers have lost most of their advertising revenue because the businesses that buy ads—retailers, restaurants, entertainment—were closed too, so why spend ad dollars?
What got cut again from newspapers? Why, the book sections and the entertainment sections and anything that wasn’t essential.
Colleges are closed. Auditoriums and theaters are closed. Book fairs were canceled for the foreseeable future.
And yet, books are still appearing. Only without any publicity at all, except the occasional article talking about books still appearing during the pandemic. Most of the articles come from interviews with the writers themselves who are shell-shocked.
They had gone to traditional publishers for the book tour, and the ads, and the prestige talks at universities, and none of that is happening. No one knows—and most people don’t care—that the latest novel by Such N So has just appeared.
Traditional book promotion has completely imploded, along with everything else.
Because traditional book promotion was a waste of time for everyone. It didn’t help the bookstores. It cost them money and usually gave them inventory they couldn’t ship back to the publisher for full credit because the books had been defaced—I mean signed—by the author. (Yes, that was intentional by the publisher; that’s how you force a bookstore into not being able to use the returns policy.)
Traditional book promotion didn’t help the writer. Book tours exhausted them and made that second book (or the next book) harder to write because a) the expectations actually had a face and b) the writer usually spent a lot of time traveling and not getting any benefit from it, so they were dealing with internal disappointment.
It didn’t really help the publisher either, except to make some copies of books non-returnable, and maybe get the book on a list. But the cost of the tour or the promotion rarely equaled the income from the book, and usually—unless there was creative accounting—prevented the book from showing a profit.
Traditional book promotion needed to stop.
And now it will.
But what will take its place? I don’t know. Online promotion does work, but no one has done truly innovative work in that area since about 2016. My book Discoverability is still (sadly) up-to-date on many of the techniques.
Indie writers learned that the best promotion they could do was write the next book and let their slowly growing fan base learn about it.
I’m sure there are lovely innovative ways to promote a book in 2020—or rather, 2021. But we haven’t hit on them yet, because everyone was wrapped up in the old ways of doing things.
Let’s use the opportunity provided by this disaster to think outside the box. I’ve been saying that for years, and have waited for some innovators to come up with something that isn’t unique to them, something that will work for all of us.
I haven’t seen much in the past few years.
But with the death of the old ways, which all of us—I don’t care what generation we’re from—were formed in, maybe we can move forward, figure out how let readers know about our work without taking too much time from that work.
Book promotion is dead.
Long live book promotion.
Let’s just figure out how to do it the modern way—just like our forebearers did…sixty years ago.
I’ve talked about promotion for years on this site. Some things I’ve seen have looked promising, and some were that week’s trend. I’m hoping we will see some interesting and positive changes in the next few years. I’m opening that people will create opportunities from this crisis.
I’ll be blogging about that and a lot of the other changes in the next six months. If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Book Promotion 2020,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2020 by Kristine K. Rusch