The Shatzkin Files

Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses

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One of the things my father, Leonard Shatzkin, taught me when I was first learning about book publishing a half-century ago was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration”. What he meant by that is that what motivated somebody to start a book publisher was an idea about what to publish. That might be somebody who just believed in their own taste; it might be something like Bennett Cerf’s idea of a “Modern Library” of compendia organized by author; it might even be Sir Allen Lane’s insight that the public wanted cheaper paperback books. But Dad’s point was that publishing entrepreneurs were motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.

In fact, those other functions were just requirements to enable somebody to pursue their vision or their passion and their fortune through their judgment about what content or presentation form would gain commercial success.

My father’s seminal insight was that sales coverage really mattered. When he recommended, on the basis of careful analysis of the sales attributable to rep efforts, that Doubleday build a 35-rep force in 1955, publishers normally had fewer than a dozen “men” (as they were, and were called, back then) in the field. The quantum leap in relative sales coverage that Doubleday gained by such a dramatic sales force expansion established them as a power in publishing for decades to come.

Over the first couple of decades of my time in the business — the 1960s and 1970s — the sales department grew in importance and influence. It became clear that the tools for the sales department — primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a “title information sheet” that the sales reps used — were critical factors in a book’s success.

There was only very rarely a “marketing” department back then. There was a “publicity” function, aimed primarily at getting book reviews. There was often a “sales promotion” function, which prepared materials for sales reps, like catalogs. There might be an art department, which did the jackets. And there was probably an “advertising manager”, responsible for the very limited advertising budget spent by the house. Management of coop advertising, the ads usually placed locally by retail accounts that were partly supported by the publishers, was another function managed differently in different houses.

But the idea that all of this, and more, might be pulled together as something called “marketing” — which, depending on one’s point of view, was either also in charge of sales or alternatively, viewed as a function that existed in support of sales — didn’t really arise until the 1980s. Before that, the power of the editors was tempered a bit by the opinions and needs of the sales department, but marketing was a support function, not a driver.

In the past decade, things have really changed.

While it is probably still true that picking the “right books” is the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers, it is increasingly true that a house’s ability to get those books depends on their ability to market them. As the distribution network for print shrinks, the ebook distribution network tends to rely on pull at least as much as on push. The retailers of ebooks want every book they can get in their store — there is no “cost” of inventory like there is with physical — so the initiative to connect between publisher and retailer comes from both directions now. That means the large sales force as a differentiator in distribution clout is not nearly as powerful as it was. Being able to market books better is what a house increasingly finds itself compelled to claim it can do.

In the past, the large sales force and the core elements that they worked with — catalog, jacket, and consolidated and summarized title information — were how a house delivered sales to an author. Today the distinctions among houses on that basis are relatively trivial. But new techniques — managing the opportunities through social networks, using Google and other online ads, keeping books and authors optimized for search through the right metadata, expanding audiences through the analysis of the psychographics, demographics, and behavior of known fans and connections — are still evolving.

Not only are they not all “learned” yet, the environment in which digital marketing operates is still changing daily. What worked two years ago might not work now. What works now might not work a year from now. Facebook hardly mattered five years ago; Twitter hardly mattered two years ago. Pinterest matters for some books now but not for most. Publishers using their own proprietary databases of consumer names with ever-increasing knowledge of how to influence each individual in them are still rare but that will probably become a universal requirement.

So marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.

Fifty years ago, editors just picked the books and the sales department had to sell them. Thirty years ago, editors picked the books, but checked in with the sales departments about what they thought about them first. Ten years from now, marketing departments (or the marketing “function”) will be telling editors that the audiences the house can touch need or want a book on this subject or filling that need. Osprey and some other vertical publishers are already anticipating this notion by making editorial decisions in consultation with their online audiences.

Publishing houses went from being editorially-driven in my father’s prime to sales-driven in mine. Those that didn’t make that transition, expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.

A very smart and purposeful young woman named Iris Blasi, then a recently-minted Princeton graduate, worked for me for a few years a decade ago. She left because she wanted to be an editor and she had a couple of stops doing that, briefly at Random House and then working for a friend named Philip Turner in an editorial division at Sterling. From there Iris developed digital marketing chops working for Hilsinger-Mendelson and Open Road. She’s just taken a job at Pegasus Books, a small publisher in Manhattan, heading up marketing but doubling as an acquiring editor. I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come. Congratulations to Pegasus and Iris for breaking ground where I think many will follow.

Many of the topics touched on in the post will be covered at the Marketing Conference on September 26, a co-production of Publishers Launch Conferences and Digital Book World, with the help and guidance of former Penguin and Random House digital marketer Peter McCarthy. We’ve got two bang-up panels to close with — one on the new requirement of collaboration between editorial and marketing within a house and then in turn between the house and the author, and the other on how digital marketing changes how we must view and manage staff time allocations, timing, and budgeting. These panels will frame conversations that will continue in this industry for a very long time to come as the transition this post sketches out becomes tangible.

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  • philipturner

    Nice to be mentioned in the same blog post as Iris Blasi, erstwhile colleague from 2007-09, and Mike’s dad, Leonard, who in his 1982 book IN COLD TYPE: Overcoming the Book Crisis (repub’d by the idea Logical Company) reported on an innovative buying method my bookstore, Undercover Books, had installed in consultation with Mike and Len. Coming from bookselling as I did before becoming an acquiring editor, I always tried to anticipate the marketing opportunities for a book before signing it up, or even better, tried to find titles that offered built-in marketing opportunities, waiting to be pounced upon once the book was in-house. I was by no means alone among editors thinking like this, though the houses I worked at rarely had any coherent way of inculcating this (book)world view among its editorial staff, and no systematic way to take advantage of it. With this in mind, during a panel with acquiring editors from major houses at DBW last winter I asked the group how their editorial meetings or acquisitions process had changed with the advent and growth of ebooks–had they, for instance, discovered new audiences or markets that could be more readily reached with a digital original; because of a self-published book, had they learned about a new audience for which they could begin to develop a new list or program; had they found new ways of testing or pre-marketing books because of digital publishing? I wasn’t trying to play “stump the panel,” but having been an independent editor for nearly 5 years, I was curious how the editorial process had since changed inside of houses. I know I would have relished the more direct access to audiences that the digital transformation seems to me to augur. I was surprised then when a lengthy silence and seeming incomprehension followed my question. Hesitantly, I got an answer best paraphrased as, “No, our acquisitions process hasn’t changed because of ebooks.” I wanted to jump up and down and ask how this could possibly be but I let the moment pass. I found myself wondering how such a big shift could occur in the ways books are offered to the reading public without it also providing new ways to develop and acquire the editorial product.

    • Interesting and relevant anecdote, Philip. I wonder if the same editors would say the same thing this year. I guess the place to file this is under “how hard it is to teach old dogs new tricks”.


    • Peter Turner

      My experience as a bookseller was incredibly important to my role as a book editor. That’s why II always tell people who aspire to be in publishing to first go get a job at a bookstore.

      • I am going to assume, despite no supporting evidence here so far, that this good advice applies also to people whose last name is *not* Turner!


      • Peter Turner


  • Peter Turner

    Great post, Mike. (I say that not just because I agree with you completely!) As you say, “Those publishers that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.” I think the fundamental question is publishers, in their current form, can accomplish this goal in a cost effective way in the digital age given the landscape online.

    • Peter, I think they *can*, which is the belief behind the conference Pete McCarthy and I have put together under the Publishers Launch and DBW banners for September 26. Whether they *will* is another question, and I think it is very hard. The silos within houses will need to be broken down. It’s a tough challenge.


      • Peter Turner

        I might add that the silos *between* publishers will also have to be broken down for the marketing piece to be optimally effective.

      • Sometimes that will be optimal. Sometimes it won’t matter much. But authors can’t break that down without a publisher, so it is not a distinction making the same sort of difference.


  • Cynthia Dadson

    While marketing has become increasingly important for publishers to survive, the same transition from editorial-driven to marketing-driven acquisition has resulted in authors becoming nothing more than “content providers” and increasingly unhappy in their relationships with their publishers. This has been part of the impetus behind the number of small boutique publishers who have popped up recently. While the small publishers will never be able to compete with the big guys’ marketing departments, they can focus on the original purpose of publishing: finding and supporting great authors and books that might have otherwise been overlooked.

    And, yes, I do represent one of those boutique houses (Pixel Hall Press), and I’m finding it a very rewarding experience. I’m surrounded by others who love books and still are working at being savvy about marketing.

    • I have no doubt you have experience that leads you to what you say, but I don’t think it is universal. In fact, some say the opposite: that publishers are becoming increasingly dependent on authors to do the marketing of their books. In fact, we have a panel at our conference with an agent, an editor, an in-house marketer, and a freelance marketer specifically on the topic of the new higher level of cooperation necessary between house and author for effective marketing these days. You may have that belief, but you’d be mistaken thinking that big houses aren’t aware of the need for it.


  • JohnBlinker

    Hi Mike, I recently came across a good example of a very non-traditional ‘publisher’ that illustrates both your previous points about non-traditional ‘publishers’ and your present point about the importance of a sales platform. It is They give away a free mapping app for mobile devices. It is free because they want market reach. The company’s income comes content providers. Most of them are mapping agencies but they are encouraging guide book publishers to sell their content on Viewranger. If, for example, you produce a guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can self-publish on Viewranger much as you would on Amazon – and users can find all the points of interest you describe on a tablet or smartphone or GPS device. See Anyone who has lugged a a few Lonely Planet guides around the world will understand the value of this approach.

  • Great post, as always, Mike. Here’s the issue with the shift to a marketing focus, though. Marketing doesn’t work anymore. We stopped listening to marketers:

    Whom do we trust more? Other readers. Friends, family, peers. We trust those we *don’t* know over traditional marketers. The trick is how to harness the influence and trust capital that other readers have:

    The power is shifting to authors now. Finally. They are still going to need help, which translates into an opportunity to re-imagine roles. But those roles should support the author’s efforts; shouting louder on their behalf isn’t going to cut it. There’s too much noise out there, and we stopped listening already.

    • Peter Turner

      I hope Mike doesn’t mind me jumping in here. Michael, while I definitely get your point, I think what folks in publishing are (or should be) looking for are effecient ways to let others market their books by sharing content, for example. Marketers are always looking for more authentic ways of contenting their stuff to people who want it–because that works. Traditional trade publishers–having never really been in the business of direct marketing to consumers–are playing catchup.

      • Totally agree, Peter. A lot of catch-up to be played, but it’s not too late, by any means.

        It’s not about “letting,” it’s about empowering. I contend that AUTHORS are the brand, not the publisher. Publishers need to embrace that—readers want real connections. With an author, a real person—not with an entity.

        Anything that publishers can do to support THAT will accelerate the “catch-up” process, IMO.

      • Authors are *often *the brand, but not always. Particularly in genres, publishers or imprints can be very powerful. And in some situations, series are important. It is important to remember the generalization that there is great danger in generalization.


      • No doubt, Mike. But many, many authors are victims of generalization when publishers act on behalf of the LIST and not the individual author. It’s the hazard of scale, and hard to avoid, I’ll admit.

        Peter McCarthy’s post from last month on your blog covered some great ways to embrace the diversity of book publishing’s offerings. This will evolve—it has to.

      • McCarthy is amazing. That’s why I’m partnering with him on the conference and on this kind of work.

      • You are too, Mike. You two are going to be a powerful combination.

      • Kind of you to say that. Appreciated.


  • Speaking of the marketing dept. running the show at a book publisher, can I assume that publishers these days automatically gravitate toward authors who have an established online presence — that they prefer those who already have a website/blog, a Twitter and Facebook account, and ideally an opt-in mailing list?

  • Caleb Mason (from Publerati)

    Mike: one of the key business lessons I learned from working with both entrepreneurs and established brands in several different industries is the important difference between evolutionary and revolutionary thinking. Evolutionary business can indeed do well from listening it its current customers and giving them what they say they want, tweaking what came before, but revolution comes from those who see something that customers do not yet know they need. The rewards in the latter will always far outweigh the former because of the headstart the revolutionaries get in not having any competition. There seems to be a human natural inclination to “want to be like someone or something else,” when in fact the innovators are all about being clearly different. However, when their businesses grow and they have to pass the torch to a “real CEO,” that is one of the most difficult phases of business development in my own experience. Gates and Ballmer. Jobs and Scully. This is why large companies need smaller detached R&D departments to make the next new thing, which ironically is really back to the way business was done in your father’s time, with its various positive attributes over simply being “customer driven.” I wish more publishers let the editors use their judgment without having sales and marketing have to weigh in all the time. Sometimes you have to believe in something and push it through. That is what I loved most about working in book publishing in the early 1980s, when that could still be done with some editorial freedom and many editors brought readers unexpected new works they were not asking for, and that went on to greater commercial and literary success than anyone envisioned. I suspect this still happens but is much more rare in the “marketing-driven era.”

    • Thank you for saying that. We can continue to pursue ever smaller slices of the same pie, or we can bake new pies. Those pies may not be immediately desirable, as the masses are largely duped into purchasing “goods” by said marketeers, but in time, I believe people will begin to forgo “goods” in favor of “betters.”

      Just about every market, in every industry, is changing. I think the pursuit of scale needs rethought. As it stands, it seems unsustainable; if not in terms of logistics, certainly in those of your-call-is-important customer service.

      Rather than attempt being all things to all people – or continued efforts to subconsciously trick them into thinking such – consider the one-in-a-million idea still appeals to upwards of 7,000 people.

      As a small, digital publisher approaching his 4th year doing it because people deserve better just about anything currently available (read: 100% commercial/ad-free), it’s nice to know what I’m doing could be considered revolutionary.


      • Caleb Mason (from Publerati)

        Nice to meet you Brian and congratulations on your business. It seems we are heading into a new economic time period where there will be even bigger mega conglomerates and then a new breed of micro businesses made possible by technology. Those in the middle could be most at risk as this plays out.

  • samantha

    i am a sales and marketing director at a small house and i spend a lot of time acquiring books, any good publisher knows that people in out in the field have a good sense of what will work.

    • Not sure *any *good publisher knows that. There is no history I’m aware of that major publishers have made acquiring editors out of sales reps. In 50 years in the business I can’t think of *one *off the top of my head.


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  • Mit Sandru

    When you operate in a quasi-monopolistic/cartel environment, the only
    sales needed is because of competition among the cartel members.
    Marketing is almost non-existent. At most, they can tell the editors to
    chose more “witches and wizards” stories when the Harry Potter dominated
    the market, or more vampire books when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was

    True marketing is to find a need, or anticipate a need and fulfill it
    with the product and the advertisement promoting it. Marketing is
    performed by all prosperous businesses, all the time. But how can Big
    Pub do this? They’ve never done it. Nor do they understand the business
    they’re in. Hint: not literature. Books fulfill an emotional need. I
    don’t think Big Pub know how to market an emotional need, although that
    was and is their business. And ours, Indie Pubs, too by the way.

    • Generalizations such as “books fill an emotional need” leave me cold. The challenge of marketing books is that every one is a new challenge of audience and motivation, some of which might fit that description. Most of them won’t.


  • Cynthia Dadson

    Mike, what you said in response is exactly my point. Authors are now content providers and marketers. Many, if not most publishers, have forgotten that authors are creators first and foremost. Those authors who aren’t good marketers, regardless of how good they are as authors, have a far harder time succeeding in this brave new world of ours, and publishers have far less time or support to offer them.

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  • pixiedust8

    I had four editors tell me they loved my novel but declined it because marketing told them they couldn’t sell it. So, basically, I wouldn’t say that it’s 10 years in the future that marketing is holding the cards.

    BTW, I’m a marketer in my day job. Ah, the irony!

    • Similar things to what you describe have happened for decades with the sales department holding the veto. The idea that editors would check in, or be forced to check in, with the people who will have the responsibility for converting their acquisitions into cash is not a new one. Two things have changed, or are changing. One is that it is the marketing department, not the sales department, being consulted. The other is that marketing will, through its connections, be coming up with the suggestions for what should be published, or even with relationships with the creators. And that will be true to an extent the sales departments of the past would never have dreamed.


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  • And so it should, Mike! Lots of savvy marketeers out there who understand how to build brand in this content driven world of ours.

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