Book publishing has been trying to commit suicide for all the decades I've been writing, and now it's finally getting some traction on that project. Its latest folly is ironic: one of our most antitechnology businesses now places unrealistic hopes on technology as a savior, a textbook case of an American industry's unwillingness to make significant changes until one minute before doomsday. I don't expect more from publishing than stabs of experimentation until business gets much, much worse.
Meanwhile, like everyone else, I have a laundry list of changes that publishers might make in the interest of their survival. Some of my thoughts are obvious and universal: a massive scaling-down of the number of books published, more aggressive editing of what does get released, and a shattering of the template that says a new book must be bound between hard covers.
Better books are only part of the solution. Better marketing is just as important. For that reason, I believe publishers should immediately abandon their efforts at digital marketing and limit their publicity and marketing efforts to the traditional media that is their first and truest love.
Wait—isn't online marketing the future of book promotion? Absolutely. But publishers have had more than a decade to come to terms with what too many industry people still like to think of as “new media.” Instead of cultivating online book sites, publishers have focused on their own Web sites, as if readers care about imprints. Even now, their advice to writers doesn't go much beyond “You need a Web site.”
Online outreach to book blogs? Web ads targeted more precisely than Predator drones? Effective social networking? In each case, those campaigns would be better undertaken by experts.
I wish it were otherwise. But I have been editing a cultural concierge site called HeadButler.com for five years now, generally praising three books a week. Almost all are off-the-beaten-midlist titles; almost every review leads to more sales on the day of publication than any single seller on the planet can claim. I dutifully send sales reports and links to publicists and alert them that I'm also slapping my review up on Amazon. They thank me, then disappear. Rare is the publicist who writes me, as Gregory Henry of Harper Perennial did recently, to praise my review of Philip Roth's new novel and suggest I read a book from his house by a young novelist who's being compared to Roth. More and more, I'm hearing directly from writers.
That's just as well. Online book promotion requires more than a marketing assistant's willingness to drill down through 20 screens on Google. To be effective, it requires imagination, the out-of-the-box quality that in-the-box people like to think can be turned on at will. Not so.
Authors are beginning to grasp that the job description of “writer” has changed. Writers may be artists. They are also brands. And restless brands at that; it's the rare writer who stays with one publisher for the long haul. More typically, publishing contracts are for one or two books; in that truncated relationship, a publisher can only do so much for its writers. The heavy lifting of a career will fall to writers and their agents, or it just won't get done.
So unless they are geniuses—and recognized as such—writers who want attention for their work need to cultivate some 21st-century media skills. They should be camera-ready, because they'll want to make YouTube videos. They should know their way around social networking sites. They should have some experience with book clubs, and they should be willing to spend as much time there as they used to spend on book tours.
Who should finance these virtual media tours? My vote is for the publishers of books that stand a chance to succeed to attach $5,000 to $10,000 to the advance, money the writer can use only for digital marketing expenses and Web site enhancement. (Disclosure: I am a co-founder of an online book network with a marketing division; on occasion, I consult on its campaigns.)
To some, this shift in author/publisher responsibilities will seem horribly unfair to writers. But if the publishing industry continues on its current path—cutting 5% here, 10% there—it will face a reckoning far more draconian than anything I've suggested here.
The tools of a publishing renaissance are all around us; we use them every day, all day. It's just common sense to require publishers to choose their books wisely and edit them more diligently. It's equally sane to demand that writers take major responsibility for their careers. Neither news is hardly a tough love message.
|Jesse Kornbluth is the editor of HeadButler.com.|