What Publishers Do That Authors Can’t

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

How many times have we heard the question: Why should I go with a traditional publisher? They just ask me to do all the heavy lifting with the marketing anyway. New light was shed on that issue for me when I recently attended a writers conference. I moderated a conversation with two publishing house representatives in which I posed that very question to them.

Here are a couple of items they mentioned that were news to me and might be to you as well. Did you know…

  • One publishing house invites buyers from box stores, Barnes and Noble, and Books-a-Million to attend the publisher’s sales meetings. The buyers are introduced to the new titles by editors and marketing folks at the same time the sales reps learn about the product. That creates great synergy, with key individuals in the publishing house hearing the buyers’ responses and the buyers having the benefit of the editors’ and marketing personnels’ enthusiasm for a title as well as for the author. If a series is in the mix, the editor can talk up how the future titles will build off of the current offering.
  • Another publisher sees its marketing job as finding new readers for an author; the author’s job is to care for everyone who already has discovered the writer. That sort of task distribution helps both the publishing house and the author to understand what each should be doing. And each party can present ideas on how the other could maximize efforts. It’s a give-and-take relationship, but certain duties (e.g., connecting via Facebook, Twitter and blogging) fall on the author’s shoulders while other duties (e.g., creating blog tours, arranging interviews, making book trailers, sending out sales reps) fall to the publisher.
  • Using sales representatives as more than order takers is a key component for one of these publishing houses. The head of sales believes taking orders needs to be as streamlined as possible so the rep is freed up to be a creative community builder. That means the reps are blogging, speaking at corporations, even setting up retreats where readers can pay to join a group. And what the reps are saying through these venues isn’t being “channeled”‘ through them from headquarters; the salespeople’s content isn’t being monitored from on high. The reps are engaging not just with book buyers but also with book readers–and working to build enthusiasm for books via word-of-mouth. Who would have thought!?

These examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The conversation at the writers conference that day made me realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did about what’s going on at publishing houses. It was a pleasant surprise.

Now, I’m not sugar-coating the publishing situation. Some publishers are snoozing at their desks when it comes to marketing while others have put every author in their lineup in a box that says, “Your books will never sell more than                      copies; so we’ll put                    -copies worth of marketing effort behind your titles.” Yup, that definitely happens. Over and over and over again. That’s when gaining momentum really does fall on the author’s shoulders, and that’s a tough position to be in.

But today I want to present the sunny side of the picture–the side that shows some publishers being innovative and thoughtful about how to help you to grow your readership.

Now, you tell me. What about this blog post encourages you? What discourages? What else do you wish publishers would do?

Kindle FireKindle Fire Giveaway!

We want to encourage our readers to subscribe to our blog so that it comes to you automatically every time we post. Subscribe in the month of April, via RSS or email, and you’ll be entered in our drawing for a Kindle Fire! Click here for details.

43 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. Joanne Sher says:

    Absolutely fascinating – I definitely found this encouraging. It’s not ALL the author, it seems, for marketing. Thanks, Janet!

  2. I like finding sunshine. That is always encouraging.

  3. Mary Curry says:

    Good morning, Janet. Thank you for starting off the week with such a positive blog.

    Most of what you wrote encourages me, but I liked this in particular.

    “The reps are engaging not just with book buyers but also with book readers–and working to build enthusiasm for books via word-of-mouth.”

    It has to be a good thing to focus on the readers, right?

    I guess the only part that discourages me is hat it sounds sort of hit-or-miss depending on the publisher. But then maybe they learned something from listening to each other too.

  4. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I’ll file this post under “You just never know.”
    And I’ll keep doing my part as a writer, continue to be thankful for my incredible agent, while I appreciate my publisher taking me on as a debut novelist. My goal: to develop a long term relationship with my publisher. With that in mind, I can’t let momentary disappoints determine my actions/reactions.

  5. Susan Craig says:

    It’s great to hear this, but how does a neophyte tell the helpful publishers from the snoozers… or is that the agent’s job?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Your agent certainly can apply more pressure on your publisher than you can. But, if you don’t have an agent, asking to see the publisher’s marketing plan is a good place to start. The problem is, an agent can tell if anything additional is being done for you as opposed to just having a template marketing plan. It’s harder for an author to grasp what’s basic and what’s extra. But, if you know what the publisher is doing, you can see where you need to fill in with your own efforts.

  6. This is heartening and important. Did publishers used to be the major marketers, right? I hope the industry shifts [back] into this direction in a very big way. I have worked my butt of marketing, but it takes more than an individual. I take the clout of a publishing house, to really make it work. That’s my hope the next time around!!! Thank you, Janet.

    • Oops.
      Scratch “did”.
      Butt off.
      It takes.

      That’s what I get for posting in a state of fatigue. 🙂

      • Janet Grant says:

        When I first started working in publishing several decades ago, it never occurred to the publisher that the author would do any more than book signings, readings and interviews–all arranged by the publisher. Then along came social media, and the publisher decided the author should bear most of the weight of publicizing the book. Fortunately, many publishers are beginning to realize it really should be a team effort. Not all publishers, but many.

  7. Elissa says:

    I like the idea of the marketing being clearly divided, with authors focused on current readers. It’s like Joanne said above; it’s nice that it doesn’t ALL fall on the authors.

    But this overall question reminds me of the tendency nearly everyone has of thinking other people’s jobs must be “easier” than their own jobs. When you don’t actually know what someone does all day, it’s hard to picture them doing very much. And, Lord knows, a writer’s job is a piece of cake, right?

    Publishing is changing, and those changes may well eliminate some of the traditional jobs in publishing. Still, I’m willing to bet most of those jobs will simply change with the times rather than die out, and that publishers of some sort will be around for a good while longer.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Oh, yes, publishers will continue for as far down the road as I can see. They might look very different from how they do today, but authors came to rely on publishers for a reason, and Amanda Hocking is the poster child for why publishers exist. Playing the part of publisher is very tiring for an author who just wants to write.

  8. Hi Janet,

    I have confession. I self-published. My first book was one of those “hard to categorize” books and I was having a difficult time getting anyone to consider it for publishing. I got “swayed” by the push of self-publishing (more money per book, “online book stores are as good as on land”, “you have to do all your own marketing anyway”, etc.) and went for it.

    Since then, I’ve tried a thousand things to build a platform, market my book, get my name out there, and every day it seems that there are a thousand more “must-do’s to sell your book” and I feel like I’m sinking.

    1. I don’t know anyone in the business.
    2. I have to learn everything from scratch.
    3. I am not computer-savvy.
    4. Real bookstores don’t want to carry self-published books unless I have a platform.
    5. I don’t have a competitive platform.
    6. My platform building has been trial and error from the very beginning because I don’t know how to build a platform well.
    7. There are more reasons but I only have so much time.

    One book distribution center for a nationwide church bookstore accepted my book to review based on my Pastor’s recommendation but when they saw that it was self-published, returned it to me because they had a policy that they did not carry self-published books in their bookstores.

    All the things you wrote about above, I’ve been unable to do for myself.

    Guess what else I’ve been unable to do a whole lot of? WRITING!

    I’m going traditional from here on out because I want someone on my team who knows what they’re doing and who can help me figure out what I’m supposed to do. I’m absolutely fearless when it comes to learning and working hard, but I am tired of spinning my wheels on things that end up being unnecessary or a complete waste of precious time and energy.


    • Janet Grant says:

      Becky, thanks for being vulnerable enough to explain how self-pubbing has gone for you. I’m so sorry it’s been seriously tough.
      One of the great things about agents is that they won’t let you try to write a book that straddles categories or genres; we’ve seen how, regardless how great the book is, it’s unlikely to find a home. But a different focus on that topic could land it soundly in a clear category.

    • Susan Craig says:

      Becky, I can relate…don’t know anything much about platform building, but Robert Lee Brewer at MyNameIsNotBob is doing a wonderful job of helping writers with that. He has an April platform building challenge. I’ve learned a ton from his posts. This is not a scam or something that costs you money…just good advice from a WritersDigest editor.
      I feel so much less clueless than before!

      • Janet,

        Thanks for the encouragement. Looking at my reply made me sound a bit down in the mouth but I’m not really. I’m one of those “make a mistake but only once” kind of girls and I have learned a GREAT amount from my self-publishing experience… one thing being how VALUABLE it is to have good people on your team who know what they’re doing! I just wanted people to see the REAL-LIFE struggles of someone who’s tried this in case they’re considering it. Not to say that their experience will be the same, just a different perspective than what the self-pub companies are pushing.I know there are some great success stories out there so for those of you who are self-pubbing (is that a word?) I say go for it and be proud!

        And Susan,

        YES! I actually signed up for Bob’s challenge but it wasn’t until after I’d taken on 2 other April challenges! So I’m saving up his emails in a BOB CHALLENGE folder for May. I’m going to give myself a May Make-over!

        God bless!

  9. Jessi Gage says:

    This post was encouraging. Thank you, Janet. And thank you for asking that question at a con.

    Becky Doughty’s (commenter) story was just heartbreaking. All those reasons she listed are reasons I politely said thanks but no thanks to all my well meaning friends who encouraged me to self-publish. I too wrote a few books that some industry folks seemed to like but didn’t know how to market so ultimately passed on. I considered self-publishing and started reading a 1000+ page monster on how to market my books and immediately knew that I’d rather be writing.

    I was fortunate to find a home for one of my “tough-sell” novels with Lyrical Press, a small press that employs a goddess of an editor who decided to give me my first chance (Thank you again, Piper!).

    I am thrilled to not only have the opportunity to sit back and watch my publisher do all those things that I can’t do but to be actively told to get back to writing so I can develop a fan base and keep them happy. I do lots of self-promotion (Twitter, FB, blogging, etc.) but it is just that, promotion. Lyrical will be doing the marketing, which includes those items you describe here.

    That said, I am all for rooting for the self-published author. There IS a market for your books. I’ve read many wonderful indie titles. But if you’re getting feedback that your work is good but not super marketable, that might not be a green light to self-publish…because those industry folks really DO know what is marketable. No, they are not infallible, but chances are if they’re passing it’s because they are fairly certain your book isn’t going to bring in huge profits. So where does that leave you? Maybe your next step should be to self publish and market yourself. But maybe your next step could be to query small publishers where sometimes the quieter voices get a say and have a chance to find a broader audience than if the author has to do all the marketing themselves.

    Caveat: There are exceptions to every rule. I know there are many instances of big publishers who have missed the boat on an author who turned out to be HUGE. And that could be you! It really could. I’m just saying, it’s good to listen to the advice the pros are giving you. It’s good to write more books. It’s good to keep learning and growing as a writer. And it’s not a sin NOT to self-publish if you’re just not comfortable with being solely responsible for marketing yourself.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Jessi, for your insights. You’re so right that a smaller publisher might be quite attracted to a strong voice or to a manuscript that reaches a tinier but clearly-defined audience. If no traditional publisher is willing to take a chance on you, just understand that self-pubbing will be really risky for you and unlikely to be the perfect answer.
      Yes, there are exceptions to every rule (such as The Shack, which was rejected by a bazillion publishers before it was self-pubbed), but a writer needs to understand self-publishing isn’t a cake-walk to success.

  10. I also find this post very encouraging. As Christian writers it is easy to think, “Well, God has given me the talent to write and a message to share, so I shouldn’t have to worry about the results.” But the disciples also had a message, and they had to work pretty darn hard to reach their audience. Reading the posts on this web site has woken me up to the hard work that comes AFTER writing. Whether going with a traditonal agent/publisher or going it alone, the hard work doesn’t end with the completed manuscript.

  11. Bonnie Way says:

    That is encouraging news. I definitely think that book publishing needs to be a partnership. Authors can’t just write the book and then sit back anymore, but publishers also can’t just print the book and then sit back and let the author take it from there. Both have expertise and stuff to bring to the table all the way through the whole process, so it’s great to see how that can work together, as you outline here. And as you say, good news in today’s publishing world is always great to hear. 🙂

  12. My day job is in real estate marketing, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s never one thing. Marketing takes a combination of efforts and touch points. It’s encouraging to hear how many publishers are still committed to doing what they can in terms of marketing.

  13. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m excited to hear that publishing houses are being so creative. Another reason to look for an agent–she’s more likely to be aware of which houses are getting creative and which are asleep at the wheel.

    (Your mention of an iceberg made me laugh given the date!)

  14. I’ve never considered self-publishing, but I’ve had many friends and family members suggest it. I was happy to read this post as yet another confirmation that seeking traditional publishing is the way to go for me. I love the idea of a team effort and people who know the business inside and out showing me the best use of my time and talent. Thank you!

  15. Sundi Jo says:

    Great post! Though it’s definitely not all the publisher’s job to do marketing, I think it can be easy for authors to forget they have to market their book too. If I sit back and just expect the publisher to do all the work, I will be upset with the results. We, as authors, MUST do our parts.

  16. Very interesting post, Janet! This post is encouraging because I’ve heard it said over and over that for first-time authors, the burden of marketing is mostly on you. I’m still OK with helping to build a platform for myself through blogging and other social media venues, but it would be nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of and assure me I’m on the right path (once I’ve got an agent and a publisher, that is!).

  17. Jeanne says:

    Wow, I was excited to hear what some publishing houses are doing to make books successful. That encouraged me. I had no idea that was happening. I’ve heard much more the message that it’s up to the writer to get out there, make his/her presence known and do all their own marketing. If/When (being optimistic) I am in the place of having a book published, I will happily do whatever I need to do. It would be nice to be with a publisher who is also willing to do something to help books sell. Thanks for sharing this today!

  18. I’m like Jeanne–I think this news is exciting. It definitely makes a writer feel even more part of a team and that her publisher is on her side. It does make me wonder a minute, though. If an agent didn’t know these things, the publishers aren’t making this information too well-known. Isn’t that more harmful than good?

    Thanks for starting this week off with an encouraging post, Janet.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I’d say that publishers are unaware how bad their pr is, which is funny since they have an entire publicity department. They don’t realize they need to have a pr campaign with their authors, who in turn would tell their author friends, about what the publisher is doing to market books. I was pretty shocked, during the conversation I was monitoring, how little publishers even *think* to inform authors about.

  19. Ann Bracken says:

    This post actually reminded me of the best advice I got when I married: the 90:10 rule. If you think you’re doing 90% of the work in a relationship and your spouse is doing 10%, then you’re probably 50:50. If you think you’re doing half the work, you’re not doing enough. It makes sense that it would apply to all relationships, including publishing.

    I’m sure publishers are having the same growing pains adjusting to new technologies as we are, so it makes sense they ask us to pick up in those areas. The items you’ve listed, and Becky has mentioned (thanks for sharing Becky!), make me more determined to find someone who can help me out with the things I don’t know how to do.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ann, that’s a good point about the 90/10 rule. I had a psychologist tell me that we have no idea what it costs the other person in the relationship to give what he/she did. To us taking out the garbage or giving a little creative thought to a marketing campaign might not be that hard, but to the other party, it might take serious effort.

  20. David Todd says:

    You’re obviously right, Janet, that publishers still exist that provide many marketing services for writers. I hear enough anectodal evidence, though, from those who have been published many years, about how whatever the major (and some minor) publishers used to do in the way of marketing they no longer do that leads me to believe the type of publisher you write of is a vanishing breed. I suspect there’s not much of that iceberg below the surface.

    So for the unpublished writer contemplating self-publishing, the question is how many years of aggravation, of query silence, of sequential gatekeeper rejection are you willing to endure for that coveted shot at snagging one of the few publishers who do indeed market for you?

    • Janet Grant says:

      David, of course there are no guarantees that a traditional publisher will have an aggressive marketing campaign for each title published. But, every publisher does have sales reps, distribution to bookstores and box stores, and a marketing and publicity department. That’s more than any self-pubbed author brings to the table.
      Plus, the conference conversation I’m writing about consisted of an editor from one of the Bix Six publishers and an executive from a significant publisher. I was encouraged that both publishers are thinking creatively about how to sell books.

  21. Mira says:

    This is great news. I really like that some publishers are thinking this way! 🙂

  22. Peter DeHaan says:

    It is good to hear about what (some) publishers are doing for marketing books and promoting their authors. So often, all that is talked about is what they are not doing.

    My glass is half full, not half empty.

  23. This is great! Just another way that traditional publishers assist and benefit writers. It’s a good system.

  24. Karen says:

    To be a team player you need to communicate to boost the publisher’s efforts. I try to have a conference call with marketing before a book release. This includes discussions of the publisher printing bookmarks with my input on the content, articles I plan to submit and the possibility of the publisher doing an ad in the magazines that publish the articles (this has been very good-and I add to it with doing some articles in trade for ads so the publisher just needs to do the graphics. I’ve also had publishers create and send posters for book signings, set up guest blog spots, interviews, etc.. If I know I will be in an area with a TV show, my publisher has helped in getting me ones a guest. I also find that mentioned the publisher’s name helps me get other interviews and even speaking engagements because they have a recognizable name (brand).