The growing (but still tiny) group of very successful self-published authors and those who believe that they are a harbinger of the future have a big stake in the notion that “social network marketing” will replace the “legacy” techniques established over many decades and still employed by many houses. In fact, the houses themselves are increasingly committed to the various avenues that, unlike the megaphones they have historically relied upon, are available to the authors directly without their help.
But for the self-published authors, they’re the whole ball of wax. And when it is argued that self-publishing is the better course for authors, two assumptions seem to become tacit: 1) that the print-in-store sale doesn’t matter and 2) that if the marketing to be done is mainly in social networks, the publisher can’t or doesn’t add much value.
Since both the self-published community and the established author community lack any really useful data on the rates of success of any one marketing technique versus another or what an author’s chances of success are publishing on their own or with a publisher, we have a battle of anecdata.
It grew hotter this past week with the publication in the Guardian of an articulate and snarky attack on the idea that an author can Twitter and Facebook her way to success and an equally articulate (and snarky) response from a defender of the new way.
The debate around whether author efforts with social media provide an adequate substitute for the marketing done over the years by publishers (a big component of which, of course, is exposure of the printed book in brick bookstores and we all know that’s declining even though it is still more than half the sale for most books) is really a proxy for a larger question: does the publisher add value commensurate with their share of revenues? Some bloggers frame the question artfully but one is too-often left with the feeling that they feel think the author and reader really don’t need much help from anybody else.
I’m pretty sure that’s rarely true.
How effectively social network marketing can replace display in stores and reviews in newspapers is an open question that won’t really be answered for a long time. The social networks are growing and there are already more possible outlets to work (Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, YouTube, Pinterest, GoodReads, and the comments section of every relevant blog are just the starting point) than most authors would have time to handle effectively (even assuming they have the skills and interest).
It’s going to take technology and scale to do this effectively. For example. , Hachette announced last week a new tool called “Chapter Share” to enable easy posting of a chunk of a book on Facebook. They’ve chosen to make the capability available to other publishers as a SaaS (software as a service) offering. Some publishers will have it; some won’t. Authors will be hard-pressed to do something like this on their own (unless Hachette decides to enable them).
And with the number of influential blogs and sites and apps where relevant posts or author appearances could find a useful audience rising every day, it is hard to imagine one author alone possibly staying on top of all the possibilities that are important for them and their book.
So, long story short, we don’t know how effective social network marketing can be yet. And we can be pretty sure that nobody has all the answers about how to use it best. (Even if they did, the answers would be different six months from now.) But however things change, I’ll bet there will be a role for a publisher — an aggregator looking across the work of many authors — to be helpful with all the marketing, including the social network marketing. Managing metadata properly and search engine optimization, critical to online sales, are much more likely to be done well by a publisher than by an author.
All the big publishers are regularly really working on figuring out how to be helpful with systems and tools and collecting names to email and have been for a while.
And the print-in-store piece does still matter.
Without denigrating self-publishing as a serious alternative for many people, I think the odds are that most authors will be better off with publishers than without them for a long time to come.