Why Don't Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?

Over on my Facebook page, I
shared a quote from David Ogilvy:

the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original
thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be
expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a
good salesman.

Publishing falls into the modern
world of business, and it’s always benefiting through and from creative
original thinkers (one hopes).

The mediocre writer who can sell
is usually more successful than the talented writer who cannot.

from all other hard truths about publishing, this is the one that many
writers find most difficult to accept. While I was at AWP,
I heard a small press advise the audience: “Writers should stay in a
room in write.” Clapping erupted.

Writers certainly can stay in
their room and write if they want to remain in obscurity. That aside,
the thoughtful writer does wonder: Why don’t publishers market and
promote their own books? Wouldn’t they benefit from it? Wouldn’t it make
sense? Aren’t THEY supposed to be the experts here? All points well

Here are a few reasons why publishers don’t market and
promote all of the books on their list:

  1. They don’t have
    enough money, time, or staff.
  2. They have no means of directly
    reaching the target readership to let people know a book of interest is
  3. They can’t measure the impact of their efforts, thus
    resources get pulled away from marketing.
  4. They hope the book
    finds its audience by simply being available and in stores. (Publishers
    are excellent at physical and retail distribution.)
  5. Did I
    mention they don’t have enough money, time, or staff? Now, you would
    probably advise: That means publishers should publish less. I agree! But
    are you, as a writer, ready for even HIGHER rejection rates?

are known for putting most of their efforts behind A-list authors, or
behind authors who receive a very large advance, or behind the book that
receives the best response/commitment from the chain booksellers.

other title gets the “standard” treatment, and who knows what THAT is, since it’s changing daily given the transformation of media and bookselling
(advertising is often ineffective, reviews and awards don’t ensure
sales, press releases are unopened, tours/signings aren’t attended,

What still sells books? That’s the nut everyone is
trying to crack. Ideas:

  • Authors who already have established
    followings and can reach their readers directly.
  • E-mail
    promotions to a very targeted list (either a list that the author has
    cultivated or that the publisher is lucky enough to have).
  • National
    media coverage or appearances on TV/radio/magazines, sometimes
    newspapers (tougher and tougher to secure as media outlets consolidate,
    disappear, and carry less authority).
  • Word of mouth resulting from readers who LOVE the book. (Great content, great quality.)

in publishing acknowledges the system is not ideal. It is in fact
broken, especially when everyone widely admits that 70%
of books don’t earn out their advance.

And now with
publishers facing a digital transformation that will disrupt the
business model even further, we’re seeing experimentation and
suggestions of what the future might be like.

Predictions from

  1. Publishers will only be able to attract solid
    authors by contractually committing to a certain level of marketing.
  2. Publishers
    will attract solid authors with profit sharing deals, to incentivize
    both sides to market and promote. See this report on a Digital Book
    World panel, “Back-Loaded
    Book Deals.”
  3. Publishers will become niche-focused so
    they can more successfully direct market to specific communities. See
    this post from Mike Shatzkin that explains.
  4. Publishers
    will draw down their lists (already happening) and only publish books
    they can fully market. (See HarperStudio as one example,
    sadly now defunct, as well as Karp’s
  5. Publishers of all sizes will make better use of
    their author bases and community power to cross market and promote for
    like gain. See Hay House as an example.

do you see happening? Or what marketing efforts HAVE paid off for you
or your publisher?

Also: Here’s
a book that helps you be an empowered author no matter how your
publisher markets and promotes your work.

credit: Troy Holden

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20 thoughts on “Why Don't Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?

  1. Siddhartha

    @Kendra, sorry it took me so long to get back to this.

    I appreciate your clarification on UPS (shipper vs. distributor). You’re right, or course. I thought I was tying in the two parts of distribution, the shipping and bookseller relationships, in the next paragraph but it was not that clear.

    While I believe you that distribution IS a big deal, as you said it is becoming less so. The further point I was making is, even while it’s a big deal, it’s only available to authors who are going to sell a lot of books anyway. Publishers can’t (and wouldn’t) strongarm a retail outlet into taking a bunch of books from an unknown author thus somehow catapulting them into success.

    I think this is what first time authors are hoping will happen by landing a large publisher.

    While publishers have these relationships they don’t really work for the new guy. They take already successful authors and generate more sales by placing their work in a convenient public location.

    I really appreciate your insight on this issue.

  2. dana

    Thanks for the article, Jane! She certainly writes with the idea that the goal of the writer is to please the audience. Okay, I’ll admit it–I write to please myself LOL.

    One of the reasons I started writing was that I couldn’t figure out how some writers do what they do. How do they write those descriptions, those characters, those stories? I couldn’t do that, I would sit down to write and could not write anything near what my favorite writers could… not even close. Why can’t I do that? How do I do that? It’s a pleasurable challenge, right? It is a pleasurable challenge. Even more pleasurable when you make a few small "victories" and you feel like you’ve grown or come close to that vision of what good writing is.

    I’m not trying to say that this is a superior goal. What I am trying to say is that there a lot of people like me out there, but there are no blogs to feed our souls ! (I like blogs because I can sneak a peek at work, which I can’t do with magazines or books). I know this particular blog is more geared toward the business side of publishing, and I’m glad it’s here.

    I do business for a living. I write because I am an artist. I am not interested in mixing the two. Business has its pleasures to be sure, but so does art.

    A painter friend of mine says the goal of his paintings is to re-create, in paint and canvas, the visions he has seen in his mind. That’s all. He isn’t particularly interested in the audience, he has much less control over the paintings once they are finished. I have a couple of them, not because he painted something I was looking for or that he thought would please me, but because he painted something that pleased himself and it’s utterly fascinating and beautiful. (Not to say that a person can attract a traditional publisher by writing something utterly fascinating and beautiful, certainly that is not the approach if publication is the goal…)

    Selling books is a fine goal, but there are other goals for art making. It is disappointing that even some of the blogs that have good discussion of artistry (writers unboxed for example) inevitably stick in some qualifier like "…and that’s what editors and agents are looking for." Argh!

    Cognitive psychologists have studied writing processes. They discovered that different functions of the mind consume resources. The imagination is limited.

    Laura Miller says all novelists want readers. And it seems that the goal of a lot of writers is to have many readers. The thing that is rarely discussed in the how-to-write blogosphere is that there are tons of different reasons to write, and the goal of the writing has a big affect on how the imagination functions.

    As an artist, a person may want to work the imagination in a different way, just to see what kinds of different results they might get. So they might change the goal of a piece of writing just as an experiment. Instead of trying to write something that appeals to a large audience or an agent or an editor, they might make up a new goal–they might try to manifest a vision or master a form.

    When a person lets go of the goal of having a lot of readers, they may, in turn, free the imagination to work in a different way. I’m not saying any one goal is any better than the other. What I am saying is that I wish there was, like, one freakin’ blog that was well done with this message:

    It’s okay to not seek approval from audience, editors, or agents. There are many, many good reasons to create art. One element of the blog could be about just that, an exploration of the different reasons people have expressed for creating art, then applying those reasons to the art of writing.


  3. Jane Friedman

    @Dana – You may want to check out a new column by Laura Miller in Salon. She’s now tackling writing advice, and so far it feels thoughtful? http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/04/21/mary_sue

    @Kendra – Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments! I couldn’t agree more when you say that you’ve never seen anything sell books faster than a solid mailing list and direct e-mail campaigns. It works exceptionally well for F+W Media. So far.

    @Siddhartha – Everything David R. says is an accurate reflection of publishers’ beliefs (from small to large), and illustrates why I was compelled to write this post. Distribution is still a big area of power/control for all publishers – that combined with the financial investment they put into print runs and sales into bricks-and-mortar stores. Some futuristic thinking on this issue is here:


  4. dana

    Thanks, Kendra. Thanks for hearing me 🙂
    I like to try and post for those of us who aren’t particularly interested in the business side of publishing. In fairness, this blog post was titled and tagged to be about the business of publishing, so I knew what I was in for when I started reading it LOL.

    At any writing group I’ve been to, there are a couple people who have a published book or are well on their way to publishing–they have publishing as a goal, they are into the how-to-publish literature, they are building their platform, etc.

    However, there are many many people who like to write but don’t really have any plans to publish, or they have extremely vague plans just because there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to write. I believe the online writing community lets these people down. There aren’t very many online resources on the ART of writing; all the online communities, at the end of the day, ultimately establish publishing as the goal of writing. If a person was looking to establish a unique blog about writing, they might try to make one based on the pleasures of writing, the art, the various purposes of creating art, specific techniques. This is a major gap in the blogosphere. I would like to see a blog that eschews any talk of business. A voice for those who like to write strictly for pleasure. We are out here in great numbers, it’s just there is no rallying point for us, so we end up whining at the business blogs, wishing some of the energy that goes into thinking about publishing would go into thinking about art.

  5. Kendra Bonnett

    Dana, I don’t think there is anything wrong with your approach. If you get all the satisfaction you want from the creation…etc. then go for it. Ultimately, it’s about what makes you happy. But many others are facing the vagaries of the publishing world and the frustrations attendant with breaking through. Those are the writers I’m talking to when I say you should be prepared to market and sell your own work. But I find nothing wrong with a person who is happily creating and enjoying the reactions of individuals who receive/read her work. Go for it. It’s your art…express!

  6. Theresa Milstein

    You make it sound like the publishers throw darts in the dark. Not uplifting.

    I think about this with books like The Help. How did that catch on? Did the publishing company promote it like Twilight had been promoted or did word of mouth do it? She’s one of those few new author success stories.

    Now that I know what a platform is and that I need one, I’ll keep building it and hope it helps when I get that book contract someday. I hope.

  7. dana

    I am unsure of the preoccupation with selling.

    –The mediocre writer who can sell is usually more successful than the talented writer who cannot.–

    I hope the mention of "success" in this post refers to success in business, not success in writing.

    To me, success in writing is a feeling.

    I market my work by going to workshop groups and the occasional public reading. I post some work at a favorite online location.

    I do not publish books, and I am not paid money. My work is my words and the return is the joy of creation, the feeling of receiving, the feeling of metaphor, the documentation, the manipulation of the self and the self’s surroundings, the feeling of imagination, energy.

  8. Kendra Bonnett

    Jane, you have opened a real can of worms with this post…and it’s the most emotional collection of worms I’ve had the pleasure to read in a while. So many good points here. So many issues that require attention and discussion. As someone who has been a writer (8 books), an editor (books as well as editor of two magazines), a marketing executive and even a small publisher, I can see, and have been on, so many sides of this issue.

    A note to Siddhartha: UPS is not a distributor; it’s a shipper. There is a difference between physically shipping and having the connections with bookstores and various retail outlets. Distribution IS a very big deal although technology is changing that.

    There are some very successful publishers that are also marketers. One of the best is Nightingale Conant. They specialize in business and personal development/success. They have a very clearly delineated market, and it works. I know of several trade associations that publish newsletters, magazines and books in their field and do very well at it.

    I suspect that some small publishers that specialize in say spiritual/New Age books could offer marketing services that would help both the publisher and the author.

    Traditionally we have had this notion of the author/monk who writes cloistered away in a garret or, today, more likely a spare bedroom. We’re introverts. We’re true to our art. Etc. Etc. We’ll just dream and write…and stuff pages under the door as quickly as they exit our HP printers. It’s up to the rest of the world to figure out what to do with our work.

    In point of fact, it rarely works this way (never say never). The truth is, the author should be out among his/her people every day…communicating, putting forth ideas, building a following. It’s called platform building, and we can do it without leaving the garret (or bedroom).

    The computer and the Internet arrived just in time to fill the gap that publishers can no longer afford to fill. I saw a statistic (I think marketer Seth Godin used it in one of his posts a couple weeks back) that paper, ink, distribution, labor, administration account for 95 percent of a publisher’s costs. That leaves a measly 5 percent for authors, editors and marketing.

    All of this, along with all the excellent points you have made, Jane, and everyone else who has commented, helps to illustrate why publishing is in so much trouble in 2010. Traditional models don’t work well. I mean take the fact that book stores can return the product in any condition. This is a carryover from the Great Depression when it was the only way publishers could get bookstores to accept inventory.

    We’re going to see a lot of change in the next few years. Traditional publishing will take an ever-farther-back seat to focused, small publishers; ebook distributors (Apple, Kindle and others); and savvy authors who are willing to start building their platform and readership at the same time they are writing.

    A couple more thoughts, and then I have to stop procrastinating and get back to work:

    1-I read a lot of business books, particularly on sales and marketing. For a long time, I felt I was NOT a salesperson. The truth is, everyone who works is a salesperson. The receptionist, the accountant, the CEO, the manufacturer and, yes, even the writer. We all sell our companies and products/services every day by how we interact with customers, prospects, readers and the general public. We are the face of our products and services. If we take this to heart, it’s not such a big leap for a writer to actively sell his/her books. And frankly, I’ve never seen anything sell books faster (for the person who is neither famous or notorious or an A-list novelist) than a solid mailing list and some good email direct mail campaigns.

    2-Publishers today function much like the factory that builds iPods, toasters and every other consumer product. Just as the factory builds other people’s inventions, publishers build other people’s intellectual property. That makes publishing in the 21st century a much less romantic and cerebral/intellectual business than it was even 40 or 50 years ago. I used to think being a publisher was about as romantic a career as I could imagine.

    Publishing, I suspect, is in laboring through a process every bit as painful as the transition to offshore factories and outsourcing. Just what it’s going to look like is still being determined. Will it just be a collection of bits and bytes zoomed out to Kindles and iPads around the world? Will Apple, Amazon and even Lulu become the world’s biggest publishers and bookstores in one convenient package? It’s interesting to watch. But in the meantime, I think authors should read a few marketing and sales books.

    Thanks for this excellent post, Jane.

  9. Collin Kelley

    AWP is full of writers who tell fellow writers to stay in their rooms and write because lifting a finger to promote their own work is still viewed in many sectors as crass and beneath them. Wake up, writers. If you aren’t going to promote your own work, who will? Obviously the publisher who commented above isn’t going to help you unless you come with Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer-type following. It’s no wonder that authors who "get it" are turning to self-publishing.

  10. Siddhartha Herdegen


    All I can say is, Wow! That is the most absurd defense of publishers I’ve ever heard.

    I’m not even in the business and I can see how ridiculous that is. If I’m off base here you’re welcome to straighten me out, but this is how I break it down:

    A book is comprised of about five tasks:
    1. Writing the book
    2. Editing/fact checking the book
    3. Printing the book
    4. Marketing the book
    5. Distributing the book

    Freelance editors and self-printing houses are plentiful and competitively priced. I don’t know the figures but the technology is widely available so I’d imagine an author could get a book printed for about the same cost as a publisher.

    In a competitive market freelance editors will charge the same to the author as they would charge to the publisher so there’s no cost savings there.

    So we’re left with marketing and distributing of which you claim publishers are only responsible for distributing.

    Guess what, UPS does distribution pretty well.

    The only advantage a publisher has is in established relationships with brick and mortar book stores, but even there the book will never get placed unless there is HIGH DEMAND generated by the marketing efforts of the author.

    So your ONLY value added is that in the event an author does a good enough job writing and marketing a book, you’ll allow him or her to use your relationship with booksellers to place books?

    How much do you charge for this service?

    I’m guessing too much.

  11. David Rozansky, Flying Pen Press

    I am the owner of a small publishing house, and I would like to add three more points to your list of why publishers don’t seem to market books.

    1. Publishers See Intellectual Property as the Marketing

    Publishers don’t sell novels or books, they sell half a ream of paper sandwiched inside a piece of cardboard. This product has little value unless something is printed on it.

    We have a choice of what to print on that paper: Disney characters, naked women, sports statistics, recipes, educational math problems, Star Wars, sheet music, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, or maybe, just maybe, an original novel. Printing intellectual property on the paper is the marketing. If we know more readers will be drawn to a novel, for a greater profit than Disney characters, then we will go with the novel. Disney never asks "Why don’t you publishers of coloring books ever market Mickey Mouse for us?" Rather, we would expect Disney to market the intellectual property, the only reason we would care to publish Disney’s–or anyone else’s–intellectual property.

    We know that readers are attracted to a book because they follow either the author, the characters or the type of information given. To market the ream of paper, we license this type of intellectual property. Thus, the license itself is our "marketing." If an author without readers, popular characters or desired information comes to me with a manuscript, and then asks why I am not interested in marketing their name and their intellectual property, it is not only insulting, I feel the author has bilked me: I thought I had bought some valuable marketing when I licensed the work.

    Don’t come to publishers with the expectation that they will promote your work for you. Rather, come to them knowing they are looking to your work to make more money than Disney, Twain, Austen, Rachel Ray, Beethoven, George Lucas, Major League Baseball or bikini models can make for them. Market yourself to be valuable to publishers, or they will spend their valuable marketing budget elsewhere, to promote their half a ream of paper.

    2. Authors are Responsible for Attracting Readers

    To market a product, you have to identify your market and build a platform to reach that market. In the world of novels, that platform is best built through "word of mouth" marketing and attractive covers. Publishers do spend the money on attractive covers. But to build a WOW platform, a marketer has to build a list of interested customers.

    It is not possible to build such a list by advertising. Ads only work when the customers already expect the book, when the information in the book is highly sought after but rarely found, or the characters are hugely popular (remember Star Wars and Mickey Mouse). A novel, n matter how well written or exciting it is, cannot build a customer base through ads; it takes word of mouth by many people reading the book and recommending it, and that relies on having a core of loyal customers in the first place.

    Thus, it is very difficult to build a customer base for a novel. Publishers can do this, but keep in mind that building one list of customers requires an entire division of marketing professionals. No two authors share the same list of customers, so each author would require not just an ad campaign, which won’t work for new authors, but rather, an entire marketing division. No business can afford to set up a marketing division for each line of products, so either it sticks with a line of products for one list of customers (in the books trade, that would mean publishing only one author or having staff writers work for hire on similar topics), or produce things that already enjoy a list of customers.

    Publishers of novels turn to writers who have a list of customers in hand, or who, over a few books, will likely develop a list of customers. It is up to the author to develop a readership, a fanbase. When we know that advertising to that fanbase will result in better sales, we will advertise.

    When ads, book tours and massive ARC sampling will work, publishers will pay for them, because spending a buck to make two bucks is a no brainer. But spending a buck to make nothing because there are no interested customers is foolish by any standards of business. The interested customers must be in place before the marketing campaign can work.

    3. Authors are at the Center of the Word-of-Mouth Network

    Word of mouth is so essential to marketing novels that there is no substitute. No other form of marketing even compares. But word of mouth cannot be generated artificially from the outside. It must start from within, from people who truly love the book. Without that love of the book, there can be no word of mouth.

    Thus, it follows that the word of mouth campaign must start with the one person who loves the book more than anything else, and be perceived as such. Readers know that publishers have a profit motive, so they won’t trust the publisher’s opinion of the book, no matter how sincere.

    But no one loves the book more than the author, and readers trust the author to be honest about the book. That intense love of the book is the only impetus that can launch a word-of-mouth campaign, and nothing at all that the publisher can do will suffice. Without the author’s intense promotion of the book through networking or social marketing, there can be absolutely no word-of-mouth effect. Only the author can start the chain reaction.

    So, in all three points, marketing of a novel must rest with the author, at least until the list of customers is so strongly established that it is self-maintaining. And the work must be better than Mickey Mouse and R2D2, better than Mark Twain and Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Homer. The work I license to publish is the marketing. Writers should not insult my intelligence by asking me to do their marketing for them.

    –David A. Rozansky, Flying Pen Press

  12. Jane Friedman

    My thanks to everyone for such thoughtful responses.

    @Kirsten – Why do authors not earn out their advances? Usually because they are overpaid! I am serious.

    Other than that, it might be that their books were returned to the publisher even after a successful initial sale. Why do returns happen? Because readers aren’t buying – which could be a problem of marketing, content, and/or no positive word of mouth.

    Also – David Rozansky posted a terrific response to this – encourage everyone to take a look.

  13. J. Nelson

    "Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman."

    Oh, can’t they? They then cannot be expected to recognize a good idea at all.

    The recent tidal wave of research on behavioral economics and decision theory demonstrates clearly that good ideas and successful spin have nothing to do with each other except by sheer accident.

    Management should "expect" better … of themselves. Take responsibility for your own decision process, or continue to watch your resources dwindle.

  14. Ryoma Collia-Suzuki

    Hello Jane,

    I just wanted to thank you for an excellent post. My wife is an author and I was very surprised when I discovered how much marketing and promotion an author needs to be involved in.

    To answer your questions, after I became heavily involved in writer’s communities to help understand how I could help my wife, my observation has been that many authors feel very alone in facing this task, even if they are able to discuss the issue with their peers.

    I see a lot of authors who are suddenly aware that they need to do a lot of marketing and promotion themselves but don’t know what to do about it. Some will get on with it, and although a very small percentage appear to stick with it, it appears to me that a majority find the task too daunting in the medium to long term.

    As for your question about what marketing efforts have worked, well, we engage in a huge variety of activities to provide as rounded a marketing and promotional campaign as possible. My wife’s titles include both scholarly works as well as novels so we’ve found that the approach to marketing and promoting these is almost a complete opposite.

    From a novelist’s perspective, I would suggest that a hands on, proactive approach is the most successful. We’ve shared our experiences in a number of blogs for the benefit of other authors and it’s been wonderful to see that the same approach that we’ve taken in the UK has also been successful for authors on book tours in the US. This has been both mutually educational and a pleasant surprise.

    I particularly appreciated your post because it will be of interest to other authors who I know. Thank you again.

  15. Dawn Carrington

    While the number one reason (publishers don’t have enough time, money, or staff) why publishers don’t market is valid, I’ve found there are many ways publishers can market that don’t have to break the bank.

    There are publishers that focus on their A-List writers, but smaller publishers don’t know when the authors they’ve published will become A-Listers, and it may even be on their watch. That’s why it’s important to find the time to market even if it’s just an hour a day or find someone who is willing to help with the marketing in exchange for free books or the learning experience.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Suzannah in that marketing is a wonderful opportunity to connect with your target audience, and that’s why it needs to be as important as the bookkeeping or editing.

    Dawn Carrington

  16. Suzannah

    I really don’t get the mentality behind seeing marketing as a bother. To me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with your target audience.

    Jennie Nash is doing a really cool blog tour next month to promote her new book, "The Threadbare Heart." It features a couple of contests designed especially for the type of audience who’ll be interested in reading her work. What an enjoyable way to attract readers and spread the word.

    I’m looking forward to the day when I can do something similar.

    Thanks for these insights!

  17. Don Linn

    Nice article Jane. Limited budgets and staff have certainly affected book marketing, forcing hard decisions on where those limited resources should be applied.

    Just one thought with regard to the question of "What still sells books?":

    At last year’s "Making Information Pay" BISG conference (this year’s is May 6 in New York (http://tinyurl.com/y2gwkf9), Mike Shatzkin presented good data showing the physical display is still the leading reason shoppers purchase books. While the shift from print to digital undoubtedly will have an effect (and while Amazon’s and other online booksellers’ algorithms sometimes make it difficult), this would suggest that along with whatever other tools marketers have at their disposal, spending coop money for front table and face-out store placement may be the best money we can spend.

  18. Kirsten Lesko

    This topic fascinates me. All my professional experience is in marketing so I don’t buck the idea to market. But,I’d MUCH rather focus on the writing. It is an extremely tough balance.

    The fact that 70% of debut authors don’t earn back their advance piques my curiosity. Are the 30% the ones who marketed properly? Or did their content carry them?

    I’m really interested to see how it all shakes out.


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