The Shatzkin Files


When it comes to supporting authors in marketing efforts, no publisher has it right yet


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It is my firm conviction that the biggest shortcoming of traditional publishers these days is their failure to help authors help themselves with digital marketing. In my opening remarks at Digital Book World earlier this month, I said this:

At the very least, every house should do a “digital audit” for every author they sign that includes concrete suggestions for filling in gaps and improving discoverability and engagement. To my knowledge, not one does.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that there are people in big houses, even some who view things from a high perch, who emphatically don’t agree with me. One senior executive told me I was “completely wrong”, and said their editors were very much up to speed with what authors do on social media. Another, a publisher from a different house, asked me if I really believed “landing pages were important”. Of course, if you don’t see the pay-off from creating and managing landing pages on an author’s website (or the publisher’s own!), you might make the mistake of thinking a robust social media presence obviates the need for an author web site.

That is a mistake. And it is an increasingly common one.

Citing the expertise of editors as the lead claim for a house’s expertise is a tip-off. I have never seen the publishing house where editors were more expert in digital marketing than marketers are. Most author websites are sub-standard but most editors don’t have the knowledge to know that. And, on top of that, neither editors nor authors fully understand the different roles of websites and social media in the marketing effort for a book and author.

If the feedback from these two executives were exceptional or unusual, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But it is typical. And both of these houses are making substantial investments to upgrade their digital understanding and performance. They don’t have their heads in the sand.

It isn’t just my imagination that there is a disconnect between big publishers and their authors on the digital marketing front. This shortcoming is real and it is going to really hurt the big publishers, far beyond the sales they’re losing, if they don’t fix it.

I recently tested this idea with one of the most digitally-ept literary agents. I asked him whether he agreed that publishers are failing in this regard. He did. Completely.

If there’s a gap here, somebody is going to fill it. Just this week, the relatively-new Diversion Books announced a new initiative called Radius, a “full-service publishing services division” with distribution through their affiliation with Ingram. They are targeting “non-fiction authors with very specific and known audiences (consultants, experts in a field)” looking for help “with various aspects of the process–editorial, cover, production, marketing and publicity etc.”

In other words, they would like to partner with perhaps the most desirable category of non-fiction authors: those with a real marketing platform independent of any book publishing activities. Those authors often have pretty decent personal marketing already set up; if they don’t, they are delighted to have professional feedback about how to improve it. Radius will provide a powerful reason for those self-promoting authors to work with them rather than with an older and more established house.

It is worth noting that Diversion was founded by a literary agent, so it is highly sensitive to the author perspective. What they have built is essentially a customized front end to industrial-strength services provided by Ingram, with easy access even for individual authors through what is called Ingram Spark. Diversion is a new-era publisher. They created a service arm and community called EverAfter to serve romance authors; Radius will primarily serve non-fiction authors who have already built audiences. Undoubtedly, other entrepreneurs will build on-ramps to these Ingram capabilities for other segments of the author community.

Should publishers worry about this? Well, the ones who depend on authors can expect more and more services and fledgling publishers trying to make a more appealing offer to them. (And those that don’t depend on authors exist, but they are the exception, not the rule.)

The author platform question is further vexed by the way publishers are organized. Editors “own” the author and agent relationships. Marketers and/or sales departments “own” the marketing resources. To be good at their jobs, editors need to recognize commercial content, negotiate the many moving parts of a book deal, and help the author craft the most salable possible book. Knowing digital marketing or best practices for search engine optimization are not what editors are hired or trained for. Those are the bailiwick of marketers who are explicitly (in most houses) excluded from direct author contact.

Beyond that, there is the confusion in publishing houses, reflected in the question I got about landing pages, about what’s important and what’s not. I can’t tell how widespread this is, but I have heard too often for comfort that “author web sites are a waste of time”, that social is more important, and that working Facebook effectively obviates the need for a web presence.

In fact, “search” is still the single most important component of discovery and author web sites are crucial for Google to “know” who the author is and to have a contextual understanding of their expertise and their audience. Precisely how the web site provides value depends on the author. For a non-fiction author, it can establish topic authority. For a multiple-title fiction author, it can provide definitive information for the order of books in a series or for the back story on the author’s characters (whose names, of course, can be important search terms for the book).

But what is always true is that the web site is the one piece of digital real estate the author can actually own, which is not subject to some change in rules or process that will affect its discovery in search or the ability to use it for any purpose of the author’s choosing. Ideally, a publishing house will evaluate an author’s own web site as part of an overall digital audit and make constructive suggestions for improving it. If the author doesn’t have one, the house should provide a simple placeholder site that gives fans a place to land or link and can be the ultimate authority of facts about the author and the book.

And only by controlling a web site can an author or publisher control the single most powerful tool there is to promote an author through search: landing pages. Best practice is to optimize a landing page on the author’s site for each of the most commonly-searched terms that could lead to real interest or the sale of a book. Anybody who really knows SEO knows that. That’s why the failure to grasp the significance of landing pages high up in a big publishing house is so disturbing.

It really is terrific that so many publishers these days have a high-level executive with the word “audience” in their title and job description. It is a sign of real progress that many of the big houses have invested in vertical sites to build audiences they can tap at any time.

But they’re still missing the most important boat. The real focus needs to be on marketing collaboration with authors and giving them the support they need to maximize their effectiveness. Doing that requires tackling a lot of tricky questions because authors own their names and careers and publishers, at best, have a long lease on one or more specific books they’ve written. But both book sales and author retention depend on publishers taking on this challenge as an essential component of their offering.

I did a post for BookMachine some months ago spelling out a strategy for authors who were marketing themselves.

Here’s a quick checklist of what a useful publisher audit of an author’s digital footprint might be looking for:

* A robust author website to anchor an author’s complete digital presence and act as the central hub and source of authoritative information on everything about the author, her books, her work, and life

* Complete author and book information at book cataloging and community sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, as well as at all online retailers (especially an Amazon Author Central page)

* Google+ to signal to Google who an author is, what she writes about, and all of the things connected to her

* The right social media mix, which can vary — and evolve — depending on the author, the type of books she writes, and the interests and demographics of her audiences

* Mechanisms to collect, manage, and effectively use email addresses

* Ongoing efforts to maintain accuracy and relevance across all of these

* Effective cross-promotion (across titles and authors)

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  • Roxie Munro

    Right on, Mike! Sharing…

  • :Donna Marie

    This is a fantastic article! Thank you, Roxie, for spreading the word, and thank you, Mike, for writing it! The question is—-HOW to change it!?

    • It will change bit by bit, publisher by publisher. Best practices develop and spread. This one is difficult because it is a moving target and it is cross-functional in the publishing house.

  • Eiry Rees Thomas

    In full agreement, and sharing. Thank you!

  • Theo Entrepreneur

    Great article. Social media is a small piece of the equation. Digital marketing (DM) touch points are complicated, but like direct marketing DM provides the data (feedback) from the key touch points in the communication and sales process. Key performance indicators can be monitored. As always, the challenge is the cost/benefit ratio. The publishers that can get it right stand to serve the authors and gain market share.

    • Thank you. Agreed that there is much beyond social media. What is tricky about social is that maximizing it depends heavily on author involvement and applying knowledge they might not have.

  • You say there’s no publisher doing this. We do at Kwill Books. We just opened, we’re a hybrid, which means authors pay upfront and take all royalties, but we operate as a publishing house with all PR personalized (unlike any other self-publishing company like Ingram) to the author’s need. including a website, all social media, and marketing on Amazon with SEO. Most publishers stop at the book release. Most don’t even understand keywords. This isn’t good enough. We realized that, and set up after years of working with indie authors at our editorial company Self-Publishing Review. So far we are helping a small roster of authors from edit to ranking on Amazon. Our CEO is a former senior SEO manager for a Google-owned company, and we’ve been applying those techniques. Our first author reached Top 5 in his category and is now moving with a website and trailer to expand his reach into expanded distribution and print. We do a free, personalized assessment before purchase very similar to your list here. We’re at http://www.kwillbooks.com

    • Obviously, one would need to know a lot more about how you manage distribution and what your charges are to assess how good your deal is, but if you really offer a “free” assessment such as what I’ve outlined here, people ought to be breaking your doors down to get it. Best of luck with your venture.

  • Mike, thanks for this great article. I couldn’t agree more with all that you say. Digital book marketing and author brand building is often a case of the blind leading the blind — authors don’t know what they need, and traditional publishers don’t know how to give it to them. Non-fiction authors who DO have strong online platforms really don’t need traditional publishers any more — a fact that will hit home with publishers as they find themselves increasingly irrelevant to the authors they most want to court; those who bring big audiences with them. Proactive, entrepreneurial authors will continue to seek and find service-based, digital-first publishing solutions that embrace and understand the online marketing landscape, like our hybrid publishing company LifeTree Media. Digital is not just the future anymore, it’s the present, and those who don’t get it will be left behind in the past.

    • Maggie, it sounds like your business is service-oriented publishing for authors who already have a platform. Like Radius, which I referred to in the post.

      • You’re right that authors with a existing platform are in the best possible position to make our model work for them – they get their book into stores and can still keep every penny from copies they sell direct to their audience. But we also work with authors who need help developing their platforms. In fact, that’s a growing part of our business as more and more authors begin to appreciate the need to develop their brand online.

        Unfortunately, not every author feels comfortable with or capable of the level of engagement and effort required on their part in order to really make it take off. So they’re on a learning curve too. They can hire smart counsel and strong creative, but they can’t just throw money at it and walk away. We are keen to see more authors make that mental shift.