The Shatzkin Files


Marketing the author properly is a challenge for the book publishing business


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A few years ago, trying to explain the difference between how books had weathered digital change compared to other media, I formulated the paradigm of the “unit of appreciation” and the “unit of sale”. The music business was roiled when the unit of appreciation (the song) became available unbundled from the prevailing unit of sale (the album). Newspapers and magazines presented individual articles that were appreciated within a total aggregated package that were the unit of sale. The ability of consumers to purchase only what they most appreciated shattered the business models built on bundling things together.

The bundling was acceptable to consumers when it was a requirement for delivery (I can’t just drop the baseball scores on your lawn; I need to deliver a whole newspaper) but often rejected when the individual content components were available on their own. (And, of course, it was even more damaging to the established media when units of appreciation like box scores became free!)

This played out in a more complicated way in the book business. For novels and narrative non-fiction, where the unit of sale equaled the unit of appreciation, simple ebooks have worked. That’s been great for publishers, since the ebooks — even at lower retail prices — deliver them margins comparable to, or even better than, what they got from print books.

But there is a big challenge related to this paradigm that the industry hasn’t really tackled yet. The “unit of appreciation” for many books is the author. And the “unit of appreciation” is also the “unit of marketing” and therein lies the problem. Because the industry hasn’t figured out how to bring publishers and authors together around how to maximize the value of the author brand.

Marketing requires investment. For an author, that means a web site that delivers a checklist of functionality and appropriate social media presences, as well as what any competent publisher would do to make the individual book titles discoverable.

But authors inherently do not want publishers to “control” their personal brand, particularly when so many of them have more than one publisher or self-published material in addition to what they’ve sold rights to. And publishers don’t want to invest in marketing that sells books they don’t get revenue from or to build up an author name that could be in some other house’s catalog a year or two from now.

The net result is an industry hodge-podge. Many authors have fragmented web presences, with pages on publisher sites, sites of their own, and Google Plus and Amazon author pages that are imperfectly managed (or not filled in at all), even though they are actually critically important to the success of a book.

This is a problem that has no single or simple answer.

Where the solution must start is with authors (which also means agents, but also means all writers with by-lines, whether they’re now writing books or not) recognizing that the author brand is a proprietary asset that, if properly nurtured, can grow in value over time. The value is reflected in email subscribers (to newsletters or notifications or whatever an author cares to offer that fans will sign up for), social media followings, and web site traffic. When it becomes large enough, the following becomes monetizable.

In our Logical Marketing work, we have encountered one literary agent who was focused on this. “I’m not concerned with title metadata,” s/he said. “That’s the publisher’s job. I want my authors to become list-gathering machines.” So we looked at three of the agency’s authors’ websites and made recommendations specifically addressing how to gather names. The agent is in a position to urge the authors to take the right follow-up actions.

But we’ve also found flaws in the web presences of authors that publishers asked us to evaluate. When that happens, we — actually they — often hit a brick wall. The marketing people don’t have access to the authors; those are relationships handled by the editors, often through agents. Editors don’t have the same understanding of web site flaws that marketers do, even after we explain them, and the agent-author relationships have other elements that are more important to the editor to manage. It is difficult for a publisher, with whom an author signed so they would market the book, to spell out a list of tasks the author should do to market their books (or themselves). It opens what can be a difficult conversation about who should do what and who should pay for what.

In another case, we worked with a publisher that has a celebrity author (in a how-to field) who has split his publishing between our niche-publisher client and a Big Five house. The author’s own web site is a critical part of the marketing mix and it promotes the books from both publishers. When we evaluated the author’s web presence, we suggested a range of improvements that suggested a rebuilt site was required. When the small publisher and author went looking for a developer, they were hit with an estimate of $60,000 to build what they wanted. In the meantime, we have found the resources necessary to do the site for a fraction of that cost, but it still isn’t free. Who should pay for it? That remains a question.

As it happens, the author rebuilt the site for something more than we’d have charged but less than the extortionate $60,000 price. It looks fine. But it is an SEO disaster. He isn’t registering for the most fundamental search terms relating to his books and expertise. The optimization is SO bad that his link traffic is exceeding his search traffic. So he’s got something that looks good to him but isn’t adding commercial value.

In fact, we have often seen stunningly bad author websites in our reviews, even for very high-profile and successful authors who have spent real money building their sites. Lots of video and flash may make something an author finds eye-catching, but it doesn’t help them get discovered or engage their fans.

Perhaps there will never be an “industry answer” to maximizing the marketing clout of our core “unit of appreciation”: the author. But we know that every author who has more than one published piece (book or article) on the Web under their name and who has the intention of publishing more should have the following built into a web presence they control and manage:

* a list of all their books making clear the chronological order of publication (organized by series, if applicable)
* a landing page for each book with cover, description, publisher information (including link to publisher book page), reviews, excerpts, and easy to find retail links for different formats, channels, and territories
* a clear and easy way for readers and fans to send an email and get a response
* a clear and easy way for readers and fans to sign up for email notifications
* a clear and easy way for readers and fans to connect and share via social media
* a calendar that shows any public appearances
* links to articles about or references to the author

They must have an active and up-to-date Amazon author page and Google Plus page; that’s critical for SEO. Twitter and Facebook promotional activity might be optional, none of the rest of this is if an author is serious about pursuing a commercially successful career.

And every publisher and agent should be urging authors to see these minimum requirements as absolutely necessary, offering advice, help, and financial support whenever possible. Authors should be wary of publishers who want to “own” the author’s web presence but they should expect publishers to be wary of any author who doesn’t nurture their own.

My marketing whiz partner Pete McCarthy’s recommendation is that the authors own their websites but that the publisher run a parent Google Analytics account across author sites. That would enable them to monitor across authors, use tools like Moz to improve search (that would be beyond most authors’ abilities to manage and understand), and provide real support to authors optimizing their own web presence. This kind of collaboration is particularly appealing because it is reversible; the author can at any point install their own Google Analytics and remove the site from the publisher’s visibility. What this takes is for a publisher to set up the “parent” Google Analytics account and make a clear offer to authors of the support they can provide. As far as we know, only Penguin Random House — using an analytics tool called Omniture subsequently acquired by Adobe — offers this capability. Pete set it up a few years ago when he was there. As far we know, nobody else has done so.

This solution allows authors to own their own sites and email lists — ownership of email lists is a massively underdiscussed point between authors and publishers — but for publishers to have a sense of what’s going on. That means they can make recommendations about marketing, employing what is usually (and should just about always be) their superior marketing knowledge on behalf of the shared objective of selling more books.

We still haven’t made the switchover from Feedburner, our frustrating email non-delivery service. If you didn’t see the post before last about how a Google-Ingram combination could create a meaningful challenger to Amazon (and I think that’s the only way one can happen — or at least I haven’t thought of another), you should take a look.

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  • William Ash

    So, if the author is giving the publisher access to their web site, is the publisher going to reciprocate at some level, like giving the author access to sales data ( and in real time) ? Perhaps the author can sell the publisher their site information? If the author is going to bear the burden of the site, then why not profit with the results?

    It would also seem for a savvy author to put data sharing clauses in contracts. I think authors would want to limit access to publisher for only titles related to that publisher. The idea of author controlling their data is excellent. This could be great tool for getting publishers to share theirs. Although, a really savvy author could simply take this to really control their sales and careers. Amazon and Google understand the power of keeping their data to themselves, so why not authors? Who better to control the brand than who the brand represents?

    Mike very interesting post. Lots to think about.

    • As far as I know, no big publishers are reluctant to share sales data with authors. The issues are around the logistics of doing that, not around willingness. Both authors and publishers are collecting names that they should selectively share with each other. I think this overall subject is one that will get a lot of attention in the next couple of years. And you’re right that Amazon and Google hold data close, but they are in the data business. It’s a bit different with authors and publishers, although no doubt the ability to email people (what Godin calls “permission”) is of great value and should be managed carefully.
      ]

  • Mike, great points. The author herd is moving and the slower and less agile will get left behind without people like you to guide the way.

    One thing you left out for SEO, and I lecture on this, is site/blog content.

    Without new author/book relevant content/posts, which flow out on a weekly/monthly basis, sites stagnate and SEO droops. For other #harshtruths see: 4 Harsh Truths That Will Help You Sell More Books: http://buff.ly/WdXwQp

    Apologies for the link bait. If you want a summary version of the linked post here it is:

    1) You have to work at seducing people.

    2) You’re either a bitter writer or a motivated writer.

    3) If you think you’re not good enough, change your thinking.

    4) If you think you’re a writer, go ahead, write us something.

    The post also has a diagram with suggestions for those stumped as to what type of content authors can create on their own sites.

    • Yes, adding content is really important and I’d always encourage it. But I still place it with social media participation: one half-step down from the anchor site requirements I enumerated.

  • Toni Sciarra Poynter

    Excellent article. Have shared.

  • Good article, Mike (coming from one who has built many author sites), but you may be interested to know that Google dropped the Google Authorship criteria, thus no need for the Google+ page. Here’s one of the articles: http://searchengineland.com/goodbye-google-authorship-201975

    • What Pete tells me is that it is a bit of an over-interpretation of Google’s abandonment of “Author”. The Google Plus presence still helps Google with organic search results so it still matters. As he put it to me: “authorship
      as a functionality is deprecated but the underlying reality remains: Google+ still very important for authors.” So I’ll “see” your link to SearchEngineLand and “raise” you one: http://searchengineland.com/google-authorship-dead-author-rank-202254 This piece is by Danny Sullivan.

      • To the extent that your google profile is the same thing as your google + profile, yes, but authorship is not the same thing. None of it is a big deal, I just wouldn’t list it as a must-have for authors, particularly since a well made site with good content and metadata (open graph, etc) will do much more

  • Having tried other blog sites like WordPress and ProPublica, I used to list everything with Google but since it was embroiled in an illegal book scanning suit there was no point in adding my books to the mix. I have built my own site from scratch because I can. In order to reach more readers, I have chosen to concentrate my base on my own site. I also use a Facebook and Twitter. I promote my Facebook page to Facebook (in other words, I don’t put link buttons on my site) because Facebook users are not likely to migrate, and neither are Twitter people. I post links to my site but whether or not a reader decides to buy from me depends on the reader. Google and Ingram will never merge because they are competitors. I use Outlook to receive emails and I get plenty of those, but they are mostly SPAM or newsletters from other sites. I use various shopping networks to post ads. Thus far, I have a perfectly operational site but few if any responses. The reason is that readers don’t want to spend any money; they expect the material to be free or as close to free as they can get it. Working with Amazon is a total failure, because of Amazon’s stupidity. So the rules of engagement have changed. And as the old adage says, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” These are the obstacles to success, not the methods you use.

    • I find this a bit incoherent so I’m not sure what to answer. Only this: Google and Ingram are not competitors in any way that is significant to their core businesses. Google doesn’t distribute printed books and Ingram doesn’t do search. And I never suggested they merge: only that they collaborate. You’re right; they won’t merge.

      If you get few if any responses to your site and you don’t want to work through Amazon and you apparently also don’t know much about Ingram or Google, I’m not quite sure how you ever sell anything!

  • EricWelch

    It becomes even crazier when you consider that author pages exist at other sites. As a reader, for example, I never have sought out an author’s web site, but I do look at the author pages on Goodreads and Amazon and that’s where I find their other titles, information about them, etc. I’ve communicated with authors that way on numerous occasions. And those are free to create, but I suspect they aren’t considered by the marketing folks. Facebook and Twitter are basically useless although they might appeal to the younger set. My kids are abandoning Facebook for other things.

    • I find the remark about Facebook very interesting. It seemed to me that building up your friends network was an arduous task people wouldn’t want to repeat. I guess young people have the time to do it over and over again if necessary.

      • EricWelch

        I have 7 children. All over 30 now. Not one of my 5 sons posts to Facebook any more. Their wives do occasionally, but it’s usually pictures of children and limited to a small circle of friends. My daughters post videos to Youtube and them sometimes link through Facebook, There are so many other avenues for linking with friends that they can be more selective. This is totally anecdotal and one should not draw any conclusions from it.

        Again, as a reader, (rarely referred to in discussions about publishers, authors, and Amazon — I read and review an average of 130 books a year) there are only two things that interest me about an author: 1. his/her other titles if I like him/her and 2. biographical information for non-fiction authors. Goodreads and Wikipedia suffice, a web search if detailed info is required. The idea that anyone would spend $60,000 on a website (how many books would you have to spend to recoup that?) is like flushing money down the toilet.

      • Definitely agree about the $60,000 web site. It’s crazy. Thanks for the insight about your kids. I have 10 nieces and nephews, 8 of them between 20 and 30 and I have NOT seen the same effect. As for your habits and interests as a reader. I only caution that it is dangerous to generalize from limited data, even if all of it is your own (and therefore accurate!)

      • EricWelch

        You are absolutely correct aggregate data is critical.

  • Elliot1234

    While the auhtor is doing all this marketing work, what marketing work is the publisher doing? Where can we see it?

    • Sorry, I’m just not going down that rabbit hole. The piece has a focus; that ain’t it.

      • Elliot1234

        After Alioce built her beautiful web sites, the White Rabbit said, “Look, look! Look what I have done for you! You need me now more than ever!”

  • Dear Mike,
    Thank you for an insightful post. As a new author, I need all the help I can get, and your post has proved very useful to me.
    I am in the process of publishing the first of a ten-books high fantasy epic titled “Epic of Ahiram”. As part of the digital marketing campaign for the first book, the “Age of the Seer,” my team has created a web-site on the squarespace platform. It is our first foray into the marketing process. We recognize the necessity of explaining what the epic is all about, and to some extent, allowing the readers to connect with the author, but I don’t think we have truly understood the importance of the author in the marketing campaign. Your post certainly opened my eyes.
    On http://www.epicofahiram.com/blog, I maintain an active blog. I wonder, is an active blog enough or does an author need to do more?
    Also, we have created a facebook, a google+ accounts, and are working on a twitter, instagram and good reads. There again, we are trying different avenues and learning as we go. One thing is clear though: breaking out of our immediate circle of friends is a lot harder than what we have anticipated!

    Recently, we have launched a kickstarted campaign and I must say, I was surprised by the reach that kickstarter has. Because of this campain–which ended-up being a staff pick and can be found at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1064216523/epic-of-ahiram-book-1-age-of-the-seer, I ended-up with an interview with Pam Kragen from the Union Tribune, a leading newspaper in the San Diego area.

    Having written all ten books over a period of fourteen years means that the investment we are doing right now will have long-term implications. We are (that is a team of 15 volunteers helping me publish this book) aware that a genuine marketing campaign takes time and requires patience, but your post brought some key elements to mind I was not necessarily paying attention to. Your comment about the centrality of the author is something that, usually, I would shy away from. After all, what I would love (as most authors, I am certain) to sit down and write and do nothing else 🙂

    I knew the author had to do some marketing but did not realize how important this work is until I read your post. What I struggle with is to figure out how a new (read unknown 🙂 ) author could market his books effectively. I suppose, humility is paramount but I confess, I have not yet found a good process that I am completely comfortable with.

    I will be reading more of your posts. This one was very helpful.
    I would love it if you could take a quick look at that kickstarter campaign (again at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1064216523/epic-of-ahiram-book-1-age-of-the-seer) and provide a quick feedback.

    • I congratulate you on your efforts so far. I’m not sure you need any marketing advice; you certainly knew how to turn this comments section into a commercial.

      But, seriously, I would say that you have to figure out who your audience is and what they’d want to hear from you and give it to them. Go where people who look like fans to you hang out and introduce yourself, make it as easy as possible to engage and spread the word. That and persistence is the core of the answer.

      • Apologies if it came across as a commercial. It is really hard for me to figure out how to say what I have been up to without, well, sounding like a commercial. I’ll keep working on it, though.

        You do express it in such simple terms! It may not seem like much, but to me, simple directives, help tremendously in this confusing world of marketing.
        I’ll keep reading your posts. Thank you for your advice. I truly appreciate it.

        I do hope _this_ reply is not sounding like a commercial!

      • For me! So it’s okay. As was it all. Thanks.

  • Frequency Design

    There was much table-thumping and shouting as I read this article. But unusually (for me) it was a resoundingly positive reaction to the issues tackled. In other words I couldn’t agree more.

    My personal opinion is that ultimately the author should have ownership of all online marketing and publicity that is attached to their name. The author is the brand and should treat themselves as such. Of course there is no clear guidance or accepted standard on how to deal with author marketing but as in most cases where there is a potential for profit – he who pays the piper calls the tune.

    I think where the publishing house can play a role is in supporting the author’s efforts not by directly financing them as that brings us back to the conflict of interest/profit scenario, but by providing guidance and resources to the author in best practice in marketing, social media and digital promotion.

    Publishers frequeently splash out major cash on short-lived title-based promotions, websites, book trailers and other single-use efforts that get peak traffic on publication day and then quickly fade into obscurity and redundancy. In my humble opinion this is a huge waste of resources in most cases – in mega-selling properties such as Harry Potter etc then this type of spend can be justified.

    The bulk of the publisher’s efforts and budget should be in developing and promoting their own sites and in so doing, feeding traffic out to all of their published author’s individual sites. The publisher’s site then acts as a filter and can effectively cross-promote authors across genres and interest groups. Each publisher would then devote a certain portion of their marketing/digital budget into providing the guidance and support for their author’s whether through their own in-house team or by using trusted external expertise in design, marketing, SEO etc.

    The author would then use this information to either build and manage their own online presence or to contract it out to a third party. The marketing role of the author will always be a one-to-many equation but

    Obviously the utopian scenario I’ve outlined above is far removed from the current situation but I think there is merit in this approach. The critical point of failure as with most things on the digital landscape is the human at the keyboard. Many a best-laid marketing plan has fallen foul of disinterest, lack of time and lack of knowledge so these publishing house initiatives for supporting the author would have to be ongoing and current as with all things online, the only constant is change.

    And I would LOVE to see the rationale for that 60K website! : )