Looking back at the Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, one thing is clear: people who traditionally publish do better income-wise than self-published authors.
“While some authors are doing better self-publishing than they could be through traditional publishing, our survey shows that the overall median income for self-published authors averages 50–58% less than for traditionally published ones.”
The question is, why does this disparity exist?
The simple answer is marketing. Traditional publishers have greater market reach. It’s also why traditionally published authors take a pittance of the royalties even though they do most of the work to produce a book. Such writers expect to make up their losses with higher-volume selling.
So, does marketing begin and end with publishers?
Over the last year, I’ve read many a blog post on the role authors themselves play in marketing. There’s a sameness to this content, and they’re almost all invariably written in a finger wagging tone. “Authors must market their own books!” So, who’s being admonished, you might ask. Well, it’s you, the author. The thesis is always: traditional publishing does very little marketing for its writers. “You have to stop being a precious wallflower and put yourself out there!”
But is this true? Thought of in another way, if the above premise is correct, then very successful authors must be masters of marketing and self-promotion.
Common points raised in such “how to market” articles include:
1: have your own website
2: be active on Facebook
3: tweet a little everyday
4: create a mailing list
But is this enough? While these things are essential for a self-published writer, are they necessary for a traditionally published one?
Thinking like a reader
I approached this question by considering how I find books to read.
First, I have to confess: I only read traditionally published books. The reason behind this is structural. About a decade ago, I received an e-reader as a gift, only that e-reader was a Nook. This has effectively cut me off from indie publishing, most of which occurs on the KDP platform. (While I don’t want to have two e-readers in my life, I’m currently saving up to buy a Kindle at some point. Until I do, my reading will be mostly restricted to traditionally published books.)
So, just how do I find books?
First off, unless I’m doing research for this blog, I almost never visit author websites, check out their Facebook pages, follow them on twitter, or sign-up for their mailing lists. The principal reason for this is that I find the content boring and I’m not a fan of getting mail. In my case, the role of author-centric marketing in my reading choices is limited.
Where I do find new books and new authors is the bookstore. Before the pandemic, weekly visits to my local Barnes and Nobles were common. I’d buy a cup of coffee and wander through the aisles, thinking about what to read next. Unfortunately, the pandemic has curtailed this activity. As a workaround, I’ve been using GoodReads, which allows you to scroll through new releases not only under the general category, fiction, but also by genre.
Besides this, I read professional reviews for fun, and I find a lot of new books through “book hauls” and “TBRs” featured on BookTube.
Therefore, if I make a representative case study for the average reader, none of my reading choices come from direct marketing from the writer him/herself.
So, who controls the means of marketing?
Well, publishing does, obviously. Most of these are structural.
The chief means of marketing is book availability in bookstores- something that is negotiated between booksellers and the publishing industry. In fact, all the lovely covers act as the book’s main advertising- not unlike a billboard, which is why cover art is so important.
Besides this fundamental form of marketing, publishing can do a lot of extras like arranging for someone to review your book. And while most publications say that they chose books independently of the publishing industry, I’ve never quite believed it. I’m sure at least some nudging is involved. The publishing industry also sends out copies for review to book influencers and for placement on BookTuber “book hauls”.
Another form of marketing is making a novel book club friendly by providing a reader discussion guide at the back of the book. A traditional publisher can also get a book placed in subscription services like Book of the Month. Once again, these are all structural forms of marketing that don’t require direct author participation.
Beyond that, there’s publicity: the flashy form of marketing. This is rarer and also in the hands of publishers.
One form of this is giving out enormous advances, which naturally raise interest in both reviewers and readers. They find themselves asking just what about that book deserves a $400,000 advance? Usually nothing, I suspect. It’s just publishers backing their horse. Tipping the scales.
Publishers can also arrange for you to appear in other media: radio, television, magazines. They might even foot the bill for a book tour or an appearance at one of the large Cons.
As you can see, not only is traditional publishing tied to marketing at its most basic level (physical books in stores), it also promotes and publicizes books (often in a genre appropriate fashion). But if this is the case, why do so many people say publishing does no marketing?
Big author marketing and little author marketing
I suspect this occurs because when people think of book marketing, they think only of media and event appearances. Sometimes, I even see people grumbling about this online: “I never got a book tour” is a big complaint. But I’d argue that this type of flashy marketing is really low impact for a consumer like me: one who doesn’t go to Cons or book signings or readings at the local bookstore. For the vast majority of readers, this is also out of reach due to finances or geography.
A spot in a magazine or a radio/TV appearance is a more democratic way of reaching a reader. But most of these spots are reserved for big name authors and only for a certain type of book.
So, what can a writer do as far as marketing and self-promotion?
The real question is what structural platforms are available. Well, there’s Twitter, Facebook, personal websites, etc. But don’t be surprised if this is not enough. And worse, don’t flog yourself because your presence on these platforms wasn’t sufficient to sell your book. It rarely ever is.
What maybe more impactful on marketing is writing a great book that readers want to read. After that, word of mouth will take care of the rest.
Let me know in the comments how you find new books to read.
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