If This Is What Big Publishers Call Promotion, No Wonder They're In Trouble

from the take-the-money-and-run-(your-own-business) dept

Uber-successful blogger Penelope Trunk took the long route to self-publishing, beginning as a blogger before being picked up by an unnamed major publisher before making the decision to self-publish (and cashing a large advance check along the way). As more and more authors have discovered, the advantages of self-publishing (control of their work; more profit) are increasingly outweighing the disadvantages (handling your own promotion; sourcing your own editing, etc.).

In a blog post on July 9th, Trunk announced she had a new book coming out, a situation not remarkable in itself (bloggers crank out books all the time). However, two years ago, Trunk had sold this same book to a major publisher, and that’s where her trouble began:

So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher. But you will not at the end of this post.

Now, we’ve all heard how major publishers can be annoying to deal with. Between pushing back release dates, locking up parts of writers’ catalogues, lacing e-books with DRM and other such dickery, major publishers have earned just about as much respect (around these parts, anyway) as the major labels and major studios. While many authors have become successful within the system, the evidence points to the sad fact that the “system” is sorely in need of drastic change. Sadder still is the fact that there seems to be no rush to meet that need.

Trunk’s experience with the major publisher didn’t take a turn for the worse until the discussion of promotion began. What follows are some of the most unintentionally hilarious “promotion” ideas I’ve ever heard bandied about by people specifically tasked with the job of promotion:

To be clear, I wrote my book, and they paid me my advance, in full. Three months before the publication date, the PR department called me up to “coordinate our efforts.” But really, their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They had no idea. Seriously.

Well, that’s just terrible. A PR department, whose very existence is predicated on public relations, drawing a blank when asked directly what they, as employees of the power major publisher, were going to do. And then, they had “ideas” — the kind of ideas that are fully deserving of the quotation marks around the word:

They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups.”

I assumed I was misunderstanding. I said, “You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Those newsgroups? USENET?”


“Who is part of newsgroups anymore?”

“We actually have really good lists because we have been working with them for so long.”

“People in newsgroups buy books? You are marketing my book through newsgroups?”

There’s nothing like holding a conversation in 2012 with someone who still thinks it’s two decades earlier, especially if this is the first idea that comes to mind with all the other social media options available. Maybe if Trunk’s book was targeted towards the interests of newsgroups or had sprung from there, this might make sense. (And it might even give the PR team a bit of street cred, if they did still hold some sort of grassroots power in 20-year old newsgroups.) But this sounds more like a case of blowing the dust off the floppy and running a copy of “The List” off on the nearest dot matrix, rather than a savvy move based on years of carefully cultivating an online following.

There’s more:

At the next phone call, I asked again about how they were going to publicize my book. I told them that I’m happy to do it on my blog, but I already know I can sell tons of books by writing about my book on my blog. So they need to tell me how they are going to sell tons of books.


“What? Where are you selling books on LinkedIn?”

“One of the things we do is build buzz on our fan page.”

I went ballistic. There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.

Something that the major publishers seem to have in common with other artistic venues saddled with the word “major” is the fact that these entities tend to greatly overvalue their brand and undervalue the artists signed to it. Major studios still seem to believe that people give a single damn what studio produced their favorite movie, failing to realize that people are drawn to movies for the actors, directors, writers, stories, explosions, etc. — anything but the studio itself. No one not employed by the studios themselves walks around talking up the latest “Sony Pictures Studio” film. The same goes for the recording industry. While certain labels have gained (and sometimes lost) cachet over the years based on their stable of artists, it’s still about the artists. People may love Sub Pop, but if Sub Pop began cranking out albums by just anybody, it would swiftly lose its respectability. Obviously, the same goes for major publishers, who somehow believe that readers care whether it’s Random House or Harper-Collins that just put out a book by their favorite author.

Oh. Yeah. There’s more. Trunk was asked to meet one more time with the publicity team. This culminated in a long Powerpoint presentation where Trunk learned all she wanted to know about major publishers — none of it good. Here’s what she learned:

  • Print publishers have no idea who is buying their books.

Amazon knows their customers. Publishers don’t. Amazon won’t give them the information and what little the publishers can draw together demographically comes from brick-and-mortar sales. This is a handicap, to be sure, but the publisher Trunk dealt with compounded this problem by performing impossible mathematics:

When I pointed this out to my publisher, they told me that for my book, they expected to sell more than 50% of the books in independent bookstores. And then they showed me slides on how they market to people offline. They did not realize that I ran an independent bookstore while I was growing up. It was the family business. I ran numbers for them to show them that if they sold 50% of the sales they estimated for my book, they would single-handedly change the metrics of independent booksellers. That’s how preposterous their estimates were.

  • Print publishers have no idea how to market online.

Without access to online data or the interest in using what they do have, publishers fly blind, relying on what used to work to continue working, including such Pleistocene-era tactics as “TV spots and back-of-book blurbs.” They also seem blasé about actually connecting with their readers, something that is proven to leave you on the outside in a digital, connected world.

Print publishers have been too arrogant to learn how to run a grassroots, metrics-based publicity campaign online. They cannot tell which of their online efforts works and which doesn’t because they can’t track sales. They don’t know how many people they reach.

  • The profit margins in mainstream publishing are so low they are almost nonexistent.

This remains a problem when your flagship product is a physical item with limited distribution points and the associated costs of printing, distributing, warehousing, remainders, etc. Digital products carry none of these costs, allowing authors (and publishers) to make more per book even at a fraction of the price. How bad are the margins? Consider this factoid:

The most breathtaking example, I think, of how terrible margins are, is that if I sell my own book with a link to my publisher, I make a little less than $1 per book. If I sell Guy Kawasaki’s book  on Amazon, I get a little more than $1 per book in their affiliate program. So it’s more profitable to me to use my blog to sell someone else’s book than to sell the book I published with a mainstream publisher.

No matter how much you might believe in the power of a major publisher, it’s got to knock a little wind out of your sails to realize that authors can make more selling other people’s books through the much-hated Amazon. Whatever power remains in old school publishing is swiftly being undercut by their inability to move forward at the pace of their market.

This whole debacle culminated with the PR peacemaker threatening to dump Trunk’s book if she didn’t play nice with the clueless promotional team. So much for calling her bluff.

I said, “Great. Because I think you are incompetent. And also, you have already paid me. It’s a great deal for me.”

Trunk went off, did six months of research on the ebook industry, and took her book to Hyperink, an independent publisher which specializes in helping bloggers convert their blogging into books. Click through for her whole post, which contains some more devastating insights into the publishing industry as well as a rundown on the “New Rules of Book Publishing.”

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “If This Is What Big Publishers Call Promotion, No Wonder They're In Trouble”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
sehlat (profile) says:

The Most Important Line In This Post

Amazon knows their customers. Publishers don’t. Amazon won’t give them the information and what little the publishers can draw together demographically comes from brick-and-mortar sales.

This really should come as no surprise, given the way they’ve bullied online distributors and committed felony price fixing, but it spells doom for the publishers. If you don’t know your customers, you have no clue as to what the heck they want.

gorehound (profile) says:

Re: The Most Important Line In This Post

I will have nothing to do with any of the Big Content at all.I am perfectly content with finding and buying Local & INDIE Art.I look forward to the demise of the RIAA, MPAA, and the large Corporate Type Book Companies.
I do own a lot of books and they are mostly small press.I own a huge collection which is the result of buying & keeping books since the early 1970’s.I have around 1500 books and vintage pulp magazines.Mostly bought used older vintage type stuff.
Last 25 years or so I have mainly bought only the Small Press Stuff that is new.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The Most Important Line In This Post

See, I don’t avoid big content because… big content avoids me.

After the past few years I looked at what I do for entertainment anymore and it has all gone indie with no conscious effort of my own.

Sure I go out and watch Batman, and the Avengers, certainly Big Content productions I’m sure… but my hard earned dollars and free time is spent with small time independent stuff because it’s either more relevant or just better produced sometimes. Typically being the more relevant part though.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, I’ll echo what’s said above – those are really the exceptions to that rule. Pixar, for example, doesn’t just mean a publisher, it’s the creative team involved. Audiences don’t give a crap if the Pixar movie was distributed under the Pixar, Disney banner or something else, they go to see the film “authored” by Pixar.

The point being raised is more like, say, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Magic Mike. All of these films have been very successful, but I doubt that the average person on the street could tell you who released them, and few would be aware that the latter two were in fact released by the same studio. If Warner Brothers depends on people coming to them instead of looking for the movie, they’d be doomed.

This is what applies to books. The average reader doesn’t know or care who published the new John Grisham, Stephen King or 50 Shades Of Grey book. They don’t care who has the rights to the new Star Wars novel or supernatural romance. They just want the book. The fact that some publishers seem to think that people both know and care just goes to show how disconnected they really are.

Rick says:

Sensationalist by not saying who?

Penelope Trunk: Slave to Happiness…New American Dream, Que Publishing.

“I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher.”

Come on, it took about 20 seconds to figure it out with Google. And Que is not a major publisher. Que’s website is promoting “Learn OS X Mountain Lion”, hardly a mainstream publisher.

Unless she means the parent of Que, Pearson.

Claire Ryan (user link) says:

Are you surprised?

I know I’m not. This is pretty much par for the course, for the big publishers.

You’re talking about a number of companies that have spent the best part of a hundred years or more selling to a particular market: bookstores. Their whole focus has been on selling paper books into businesses who then sell them to readers. Now they’re being asked to sell to readers directly – and it’s largely thrown them for a loop, because while they were trying to avoid getting into the whole messy digital thing, Amazon did exactly that and whipped the whole market out from under them.

They haven’t a clue how to deal with that. They know how to sell to stores and to book critics. Tor and Baen know their stuff, but the rest of the big publishers wouldn’t know an online marketing campaign if it jumped up and bit them in the face. Authors do their own online marketing – they have to, because (excluding Tor and Baen, like I said) there is no way for them to connect to an online reading audience through their publisher.

The publisher is not the brand. The publisher is the manufacturer and delivery service, at best. The author is the brand who makes use of them. No small wonder then, that bestselling authors (Barry Eisler, for example) just walk away when the deal isn’t good enough, and take their brand recognition with them.

You think the music industry had it bad… The big publishers make them look clued-in in comparison. They have literally nothing to offer a new author bar some vague sense of legitimacy that’s meaningless when it comes to sales, and they seem completely intent on keeping it that way – right up to the point where they go out of business.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Are you surprised?

as a very, very small addendum, In my opinion it is Possible but not likely for a publisher to be a brand.

The example that comes to mind is Baen Books. Over many years, and with the additional good will of the sane and awesome digital sales, I have come to view Baen as a reliable source. If their editors liked it, I will like it (usually) and I can use that to help my search for new content.

But on the whole the publisher usually gets lost, muddled inside the B&N/amazon/used transaction. They come to the forefront when they do something negative, undermining any attempt to get ahead.

Anonymous Coward says:

The odd thing, surely is, that the future for publishing houses will have to be as some kind of badge of quality.
With it being so easy to self publish, the biggest problem the consumer has is having half a clue as to whether this interesting sounding title and summary is potentially worth a punt or some badly spelled, grammatically challenged, appallingly punctuated garbage.
Even at free, the supply of titles is so large that one has a certain resistance to anything other than a recommendation from someone whose opinion you respect. If publishing houses can raise their profile where at least one can feel that titles carrying their imprint will mean something to the public, then there will be a future for them.

Anonymous Coward With A Unique Writing Style says:

Re: Re:

There you have it if your only intent is to try and paint the author in a bad light.

However that’s not all there is. Besides, isn’t that how advances work? You get money ahead of time for services that will be rendered later?

Except in this case, those services, for lack of a better word, sucked. As in “who the heck hired whoever she was talking to to be the person or persons responsible for promoting authors and their works? whoever that person is and the ones doing the ‘promoting’ should be fired, stat!”

I bet you’re one of those ACs who comes into the articles about non-payment on royalties and artists having to sue the labels to get their dues that then turns around and says, “Well they signed the contract! They’re own fault this happened so bully to them!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“There you have it if your only intent is to try and paint the author in a bad light.”

No, actually I was thinking that the author might have wanted to check the company out a bit and get an idea how things were going to work BEFORE they took the money.

Basically, the author signed a contract without any idea what they were getting, and now they bitch about it. How special.

Anonymous Coward With A Unique Writing Style says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I hate using the phrase “they’re only human” but the author is only human. Do you check out every single person you do business with or associate with?

Heck, I’m a pretty cautious person but I don’t even do that all the time.

And it falls back to my how many artists have signed contracts with people who later reneged on the contracts or not completed their contractual duties? I gave an example of labels not paying royalties. Now think about that for a moment. These are huge labels. Not paying royalties to huge artists.

So what chance does an author as small as her stand? Things happen. Some people and/or their services aren’t up to snuff. She found this out after the fact. Some blame can lie with her obviously, but suffice it to say “newsgroups”, really? The company seems to be rather behind the times.

And the author has a right to bitch about the contract. Especially since she’s the one doing the writing and the people who were, you know, supposed to promote her work are doing so in a lackluster (and rather ancient) way.

It’s kind of like I don’t know bitching about an author bitching on a website. How special.


Re: Re: Re: You don't choose the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper chooses you.

You make it sound like publishers line up to sell people’s work. An author might get 20 rejections before someone finally consents to publish their work.

It’s like with the mythical abusive music label contract.

They are the gatekeepers. You really don’t have much choice.

Although that’s changing.

Griffdog (profile) says:

good site, but...

I have to agree that Baen’s site is really good. You can see the books coming up for release in the coming months, and they have a nice “free library” of older books available in multiple digital formats. If you like their mainstream sci-fi and fantasy novels and series, then it’s a great place to keep in touch with what’s coming out soon.
But, having said all of that, I can only imagine that relatively few, die-hard fans of the genres actually visit the site. I wish the publishers would find more ways to connect directly to their reader/customers. Back in the days when my wall decorations were mostly posters, I would gladly have hung cover art from my favorite books along with the movie and rock star posters. But, no, these guys don’t even make decent images available for download so that I could print my own, much less buy one from them for a few bucks. Very sad.
Books, like music and movies, are often sold based on recommendations from friends. It’s amazing to me that even the big ones don’t generate the same kinds of marketing materials.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Older Stuff
16:10 David Braben, Once Angry At Used Games, Now A New Business Model Embracer (33)
18:40 Artists Embracing, Rather Than Fighting, BitTorrent Seeing Amazing Results (10)
15:41 Vodo's Big Brother Bundle Shows How Bundles Can Improve The 'Pay What You Want' Concept (12)
23:06 Price Elasticity Can Work: Dropping Ebook Price To $1 Catapulted Year-Old Book Onto NYT Best Seller List (58)
16:03 The Good And Bad In Chaotic eBook Pricing (35)
05:18 Game Creator Finds That Knockoffs Can't Match His Awesome Game (33)
23:09 The Value Of Kickstarter: Connecting With Fans On-The-Fly (18)
10:02 Massive Growth In Independent Musicians & Singers Over The Past Decade (101)
23:54 Cool New Platform For Supporting Artists: Patreon, From Jack Conte (23)
05:46 A New Hope: How Going Free To Play Brought Redemption To Star Wars MMO (48)
11:16 There Is No Logic To The Argument That Zach Braff Shouldn't Use Kickstarter (105)
06:00 When Startups Need More Lawyers Than Employees, The Patent System Isn't Working (55)
03:14 Hitchhiker's Fan-Site Started By Douglas Adams Shows Why Authors Shouldn't Panic Over Derivative Works (27)
09:21 Patents As Weapons: How 1-800-CONTACTS Is Using The Patent System To Kill An Innovative Startup (54)
07:19 How EA's 'Silent Treatment' Pushed The SimCity Story Into The Background (55)
13:30 Deftones Guitarist: People Who Download Our Music Are Fans, They're Welcome To Do So (29)
13:10 Macklemore Explains Why Not Being On A Label Helped Him Succeed (29)
03:45 Successful Self-Published Ebook Authors Sells Print & Movie Rights For $1 Million, But Keeps Digital Rights To Himself (43)
11:53 Musician Alex Day Explains How He Beat Justin Timberlake In The Charts Basically Just Via YouTube (52)
00:09 Publishers Show Yet Again How To Make Money By Reducing The Price To Zero (42)
20:13 Flattr Makes It Easier Than Ever To Support Content Creators Just By Favoriting Tweets (61)
16:03 Case Study: Band Embraces Grooveshark And Catapults Its Career (21)
19:39 Amanda Palmer On The True Nature Of Connecting With Fans: It's About Trust (131)
16:03 Kickstarter-Funded Movie Wins Oscar For Best Documentary (89)
13:41 It's Fine For The Rich & Famous To Use Kickstarter; Bjork's Project Failed Because It Was Lame (20)
17:34 Connecting With Fans In Unique Ways: Band Sets Up Treasure Hunt To Find Fan-Submitted Sounds In New Album (10)
07:27 Just As Many Musicians Say File Sharing Helps Them As Those Who Say It Hurts (131)
20:00 Skateboard Legend Stacy Peralta Demonstrates His Latest Trick: Cashing In By Going Direct-To-Fan (13)
23:58 Wallet Maker Shows Everyone How To Make Their Own Awesome Wallet (16)
11:27 $274 Million Raised Via Kickstarter In 2012 (8)
More arrow