A major difference between book publishing today and book publishing 25 years ago is the practical power of the author brand in marketing. Multi-book authors can not only build their own followings in ways that can be usefully exploited, they now have an unprecedented capability to help each other.
Of course, they can do that best if they’re “organized” in some way. But both of the most obvious potential organizers who deal with many authors — the publishers and the agents — have commercial and structural impediments to being as helpful as they could be, or as authors need them to be, at either of the new needs: helping authors be better marketers of themselves or getting them to act in a coordinated way to help each other.
Building an individual author’s digital marketing footprint is an important component of career development. And, in fact, the foundation of the author’s “brand” footprint has strong influence on the success of the title marketing publishers would see as their principal objective.
But the publisher has a book-by-book relationship, not an assured ongoing relationship, with authors so investing for a longer-term gain is not structurally encouraged. And agents live with pretty strict ethics rules limiting their compensation to a share of the author contracts they negotiate, so they also have a structural impediment against investing money and time in the author’s general welfare beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent.
Of course, Hollywood has a dual artist-support system. Agents get the deals; managers handle the careers. Most authors couldn’t possibly afford the substantial cut a Hollywood manager takes, and it is questionable whether it would be a wise investment of cash for those that could afford to spend it.
When you discuss author marketing with literary agents you find that many of them already think of themselves as career consultants for their authors. Many of them build it into their own job description. But, frankly, the skill and expertise agents have to advise on financial management or digital marketing is highly variable. There could be even less consistency to what agents know about digital marketing than there is across publishers.
One agent, expressing what I think is appropriate humility, said she thought of herself as a “coach” for authors on career and digital marketing matters, not a “manager”. It seems likely to me that most agents with a multitude of clients will have some that know much more about digital marketing than they do!
Once they are capable at a basic level, being organized into mutually supportive groups, where they use their audience reach to help each other, is an idea that makes sense for authors. No author can “monopolize” a reader’s time. Most authors struggle to write as much as one book a year. Most of their readers need lots of authors to feed their reading habit. So even the most directly “competitive” authors can happily “share” their audiences. And readers would inherently “trust” a reading recommendation from an author they like.
But organizing authors to help each other in this way is also touchy for both agents and publishers. For agents, there are two obvious problems. One is that the best marketing partners for any particular author might be represented by a different agency. That makes things complicated. But the other is that the agent’s “job” is to get an author deals. Getting authors engaged in a perhaps-complex marketing consortium requires another level of understanding and persuasion that agents could rightly see as a distraction to what pays the bills: developing proposals and getting offers from publishers. From a publisher’s perspective, organizing the house’s writers and having them communicate directly is a bit like asking big-company management to organize the union. There might be good arguments to do it but for many it would provoke a visceral negative reaction.
One consultant I spoke with in the course of writing this piece made a long list of concerns publishers would have about what authors encouraged to trade war stories might talk about, including contract terms and how much attention they were getting for their marketing efforts. But, of course, the authors’ agents already know these things.
Everybody in the business recognizes that the author “platform” is more important than it has ever been before. Publishers are investing more and more in the talent and tools to do digital marketing at scale and they inevitably see ways that collaborating with the author, or building on whatever foundation the author may already have, is essential. Publishers specialize in title marketing, but the author brand is a key component of their ability to push the title. If it’s good, they’ve got a springboard. If it isn’t, they’ve got an albatross.
In addition, publishers went through a scary period a few years ago (with the fear from that time at least temporarily in abeyance) when it seemed that digital-first publishing would give big authors the capability to reach their audiences and make their money without a publisher’s help. So publishers have been thinking for a while now about how the marketing interaction can both yield greater sales for everybody and be an author retention tool.
The interaction between the author brand and the title positioning will suddenly be much clearer to everybody pretty soon. OptiQly, the company (that I helped found) which is building tools based on the vision of publishing’s most brilliant digital marketer, Peter McCarthy, will deliver its service to the industry in the next couple of months. OptiQly calculates a “score” for the “brand” (usually the author) and a separate one for the “product” (which is the book itself). As OptiQly gets integrated into most publishers’ workflows, which I expect will have transpired before this time next year, all publishers will see how much the digital footprint each author delivers is helping them. Or holding their efforts back.
What OptiQly does is unique and McCarthy explained it. “We are looking at ecommerce product detail pages and funnel signals that indicate what is happening in relation to those pages. And we’re scoring that funnel against dozens of signals and rolling them into meaningful buckets of insights and activities. What is unique is what we score — the title and author. It will undoubtedly remind people of other SaaS tools that employ “scores”. In fact it already has! After all, it is SaaS with scoring. But that scoring is aimed at the things that matter to authors, agents, publishers, and others in the industry.”
As things stand, with each major house doing hundreds, if not thousands, of new titles a year, scattered over many thousands of authors and hundreds of agents and imprints (and title marketing in almost all houses is captained at the imprint level), it is pretty hard for any one person to see what I was trying to find out when I started working on this piece. Which publishers are doing this work well with and for authors, and who’s doing it badly? What are the best practices? And is any publisher able to gain competitive advantage by working with authors more effectively in the new paradigm?
It occurred to me that perhaps a bunch of agents perhaps collectively could provide those answers.
One agent who is a longtime friend took the question to a monthly lunch she has with a number of other agents. The opinion came back that I should talk to Julie Trelstad, who just left her position as the internal digital marketing guru at Writers House, one of the biggest and most powerful literary agencies in the business, to set up her own consultancy to “provide help and support to authors through coaching and small-group masterminds”.
What is this “masterminds” thing, I asked? She said, “a mastermind is a group of equals who help each other achieve a goal. So, for instance, I have a group of YA authors who are publishing their first and second books. I’m leading a group with coaching through a series of platform-building exercises once a week (via an online meeting) but the ultimate goal is that they become a support system for each other.”
Oh, it is authors organized into a group to help each other.
Fortunately, I’ve known Trelstad for well over a decade, during which time she’s been at Wiley, Sterling, and run her own fledgling publishing enterprise before the last few years with Writers House. She was willing to share some of her insights with me.
She was able to give me a more fleshed-out picture of today’s reality. I wouldn’t say I got the answers I was looking for, but her experience and thoughts certainly point to things — two of them that qualify as screaming red alarms — all publishers and agents need to be aware of.
From her Writers House experience, Trelstad reckons that the majority of authors who have published at least one book have a website of their own, of which more than half were either DIY and don’t look particularly professional, or they overspent by hiring a web agency that may have created a beautiful, but not necessarily a particularly effective site. Authors are spending money in this direction because they have been told it is important.
She figures that many writers spend a lot of time working Facebook and social media more broadly (different authors’ audiences hang out in different places). Blogging has become less common. But, unfortunately, what Trelstad sees is that the efforts are largely unstrategic and unproductive. And the “coaching” they get is not often very helpful.
One adjustment the big houses have made is to enable meetings between marketers and agents. This has become more common as the marketing staffs have grown more sophisticated about digital, as have authors, often leaving editors in the difficult position of carrying messages back and forth between them. Setting up direct meetings for authors with marketing staff has become more common. But, from Trelstad’s perspective, this isn’t usually a particularly productive answer.
From her experience, the marketing people are too busy to want to do these meetings. And, she points out, frequently so are the agents. As Trelstad sees it, most of the marketing plans presented in those meetings look the same; they’re generic. And the meetings often leave all parties either disappointed or overwhelmed.
She finds she can get useful help from the houses in the form of “digital assets” for marketing. The publishers have creative and production resources and they like the idea of controlling the look of what the author will put out there. Trelstad sees Facebook advertising ($5 a day is the budget she mentioned) as an initiative that often is productive (AFTER an author’s first book that has had marketplace impact, not before) for the one goal an author should always have top of mind: building their mailing list. Getting a banner from a publisher that looks sharp and professional is a real advantage to everybody and is usually pretty effortless. (It will be interesting to see if Trelstad finds it harder to secure this kind of help from a big house if she’s not working with a Writers House-represented author. She reports that so far that has not been a problem, but getting digital assets from smaller less-resourced houses is sometimes a challenge.)
Do publishers give authors direction? Trelstad says they do, but most of the time the advice is, like the marketing plans, too generic to be really helpful. They’ll tell you Facebook works best if you post twice a week, Twitter if you post six times a day, Instagram every day. All that may be true, But that’s not enough advice. What should you post about? What appeals or calls to action should you make? What should the timing be? These are things that vary with the book and the author, so the value of generic advice is limited.
Trelstad makes clear that there are “wonderful exceptions”. The publishers’ marketing departments do come up with creative and interesting ways to promote books. But these are almost always related to a book launch, and not the ongoing marketing. And, by Trelstad’s lights, sometimes the cool ideas they come up with might make an author happy, but have no impact on sales.
One of the questions called by the digital transformation is the timing of marketing efforts. It was once a sign of professionalism to be disciplined about withholding any marketing unless books were in the stores and ready to be bought. That meant both “don’t start too soon”, driving interest before books were available, and “be restrained about pushing an old book with a new publicity break” because most books have disappeared from store shelves a few months after they are published.
Modern realities change that at both ends. “Pre-orders” online have become an important tool to drive a big first week’s sale, and a big first week’s sale can be critical if the book might make a bestseller list. And since more than half of book sales are now online, being restrained about backlist marketing no longer makes any sense. (We noted this change was imminent about five years ago.)
The value of marketing for “pre-orders” is greatest for the biggest books that might make the bestseller list but perhaps of limited value otherwise. Today’s consumer wants to be able to buy what they hear about right now. Trelstad’s partly tongue-in-cheek response to “when should the author’s marketing start” is “the moment the publisher’s stops”, which is soon after publication for just about all books.
But it is not hard to find agents who want the author building their digital footprint aggressively from the first moment they know they’re going to write a book. One said to me that an author should start marketing “years before” the book comes out. That agent says “the author should be building audience on Facebook and Twitter and perhaps Instagram. Also, the author should be collecting email addresses of his/her readers/fans using Mail Chimp or Campaign Monitor. The author should have at least bare bones website through which to collect these email addresses. Just last week Carol Fitzgerald (NB: one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in the industry about author marketing) was saying that an author’s newsletter (or perhaps email blast) to all the email addresses collected is one of the most effective marketing tools there is.”
It would seem to me that this advice is more likely to be productive for a non-fiction author who is a topic expert than for others. But it is all about building that author brand from which so much else follows.
Do publishers build websites for authors? Trelstad says they’ll do it for the biggest ones, but she thinks letting a publisher build an author website is a bad idea. As she put it, “authors need to drive and manage their sites”. The biggest mistake authors frequently make is thinking a website is something you “set and forget”. That doesn’t add much value; a website needs to be a living thing.
I would be remiss here not to cite digital marketing guru Seth Godin, who has been making the case for at least two decades that “permissions” (to send people email) are the most important asset for online marketing. One agent who also does marketing coaching told me that she encourages all her clients to read his book “The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Website Better” (published in 2001!!) to gain critical core knowledge.
This all points to an opportunity publishers are missing. Having a staff that can do little things for authors could be really valuable. (This particular suggestion has been made here before.) Setting up a blog an author could then use themselves could take somebody young and cheap with the right skills an hour or two, or less. Even creating a pretty full-functioned website would take much less than a day. Mapping out a customized digital campaign for an author or teaching techniques and providing some tools for building mailing lists could also be done at trivial expense. All these things are much cheaper to deliver than a newspaper ad or a bookstore appearance.
So it would seem that publishers would be well-advised to develop an Author Care function that is primarily about marketing collaboration and that is staffed separately from today’s editors and marketers, who have plenty to do and plenty of responsibilities that are not consistent with the mission of helping authors do marketing.
Trelstad thinks along the same lines. And though all the big publishers have been continuously making investments in modern marketing expertise, getting productive help down to the individual author and title level systematically has not happened in any big house in a way that is obvious to her or to any agents I’ve talked to.
For the big houses, of course, retention of successful authors is existential. They all know that and that fact, as much as the benefits of additional sales, probably drives a lot of the investment in marketers and marketing expertise that is already taking place.
But Trelstad put her finger on two developments that are big threats on the horizon that should encourage both publishers and agents to redouble their efforts and open up their thinking to new ways of doing things. And these two things I learned from Trelstad were new to me.
One expectation I’ve had that has never become manifest is a “United Artists” for authors. Although the original vision didn’t last long, UA was formed in 1919 by the biggest movie stars then alive: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Another example of artists joining to manage their own business, and one that has lasted a lot longer with its original vision, is Magnum Photos, formed in Paris by Cartier-Bresson and several other photographers.
Since the digital age began, I have been expecting a handful of major authors to form a publishing house. It has never happened. A few, notably Stephen King, did some experimentation (remember “Riding the Bullet”?) but true commercial use of independent publishing has not tempted the authors who have been working with established publishers to strike out on their own.
But Trelstad made clear that authors are talking to each other about marketing and organizing themselves to help each other. With modern digital tools, this is easy. It is also very hard to track. There is one effort that has gotten some notoriety called the Tall Poppies, a collection of writers organized and spearheaded by author Ann Garvin. Their mission statement explains that “Tall Poppy Writers is a community of writing professionals committed to growing relationships, promoting the work of its members, and connecting authors with each other and with readers. By sharing information and supporting one another’s work, we strive to stand out in the literary marketplace and to help our members do the same.”
According to Trelstad (who is herself a “Tall Poppy member”), this kind of collaboration among authors is becoming increasingly common under the radar, like with her “masterminds” groups. It makes sense. The Trump and Sanders supporters didn’t need the party apparatus to get themselves together in common cause. Using the same tools and techniques, authors can also unite in their own interest without needing a publisher or agent to facilitate it for them. And apparently they are.
But, of course, the same thing could be done, sponsored by a house, for the authors of a house. We’ve acknowledged the obvious reasons why houses instinctively don’t want to facilitate their authors talking to each other. It starts to smell like a union. But if it is going to happen anyway, might it not make sense for the publishing house to instigate it and, to some extent, manage and control it? It sure might look that way to some progressive executives. And from an author perspective, it is hard to see a downside. There is no rule that says an author is limited to one consortium. An aggressive self-promoting author would want to be part of any group that would be helpful.
So authors talking to authors is a development we may as an industry not be as aware of as we should be. The second development Julie pointed out was more of a surprise to me. But it shouldn’t have been.
When I asked Trelstad if any publisher seemed to be getting this right, she said, without hesitation, “Amazon. They are very good at communicating with their authors. They help overcome fear and uncertainty. And they automatically give authors and editors a voice in their covers.” (She credits some “small publishers” with having the same reputation with authors, but none that consistently sell books the way the big publishers and Amazon do.)
Amazon is a unique publisher because they control the ecosystem in which almost all their books are sold. The sales made outside Amazon’s ecosystem are, of course, the publishers’ value-added proposition. But the reality is that the sales outside Amazon are a shrinking percentage of the total. Amazon may have tried and failed once going after general trade books (rather than the genre publishing they’ve settled into, apparently quite successfully, over the past few years) but there is certainly no assurance they won’t resume at some point, perhaps when the bookstore program they’ve embarked on is more built out.
A former employee of Amazon now elsewhere in the publishing ecosystem (there are a growing number of those) tells me that Amazon saw the author relationship as a “white space” — a meaningful opportunity to provide something missing from the current ecosystem — when they were starting their publishing programs nearly a decade ago. They correctly identified this as an area publishers didn’t do particularly well (for so many years, they didn’t have to!) They saw an area where they could gain competitive advantage.
So they built their publishing operations with an extremely author-friendly strategy, quite aside from the advances and royalties, baked in. Several people I spoke with preparing this piece praised the tools and basic information Amazon provides for authors.
Big publishers and agents need to understand both what the Tall Poppies and Amazon are doing that authors find appealing and think about how to address those same needs. They can, and they’ll make more money if they do. But they’ll also build in some protection against a big Black Swan showing up when they won’t have time to react to prevent enormous damage.
It should be noted that there are a number of marketers and consultants who help authors build brands besides Julie Trelstad. Jane Friedman, Carol Fitzgerald, Teresa Hartnett, and Fahzia Burke leap to.mind. But none of them, as far as I know, are organizing authors the way Tall Poppies is. And they, like publishers and agents, have practical commercial constraints against making that their core business proposition.
One other important tool for authors marketing themselves, or in a collective, is the flexible and portable bookstore capability from Ingram’s Aer.io. This service isn’t about “brand-building”; it is about “making the transaction happen”.
It is ironic that the author brand is foundational — the success of all title marketing depends on it and all publishers depend on title marketing — but how the author brands are developed gets very little professional attention. And almost no systematic professional attention. Perhaps OptiQly will soon inspire publishers and agents to reconsider their tactics and investments in this aspect of the book marketing ecosystem if this post hasn’t gotten them to do it already!