Dana wrote to ask, "How much of marketing a book is the publisher's department, and how much is the author's responsibility? It seems like publishers used to do more marketing."
It's funny, but authors tend to think there was this perfect situation in days of yore, in which the hard-working writer turned in her manuscript, then sat back and watched the publisher market her book to the masses. Um… I've worked in publishing for a few decades now, and I don't know that scenario was ever true. In my view, the first part of the perfect marketing situation is this: The publisher likes the book, gets excited about it, and really markets it hard. I don't see that happen a lot — sometimes, but not a lot. I mean, I'll often see an editor get excited, and I often see hardworking publicists trying to make things happen, but to have the entire company get behind something is fairly rare. The publishing industry has become much more of a celebrity-driven/bestseller-driven industry than it used to be, and publishers spend the bulk of their marketing time working on books they know are going to be winners. Publishing is an 80/20 business (that is, 80% of the profits come from 20% of the books), so publishers tend to go the safe route, pushing the new book from last year's bestselling author, or focusing on the books by people with big author platforms. That's just good business, so that particular plan doesn't bother me one bit.
When Publishers Weekly did their year-end report on last year's nonfiction bestsellers, I found it fascinating that seven of their top fifteen authors have huge built-in marketing platforms. (That list included Bill O'Reilly, Chelsea Handler, and others who have TV shows or serve as television commentators.) That says something about the importance of an author having a platform. But don't miss the second part of what I consider the perfect situation: the author had to work to develop that platform. None of those people just woke up one day and found themselves hosting a TV show — they worked hard to get there. And that's what an author has to do in this era of media-driven publishing. So, in my way of thinking, the BEST thing a publisher can do is to acquire books they really believe in, insist the sales and marketing people read them (you'd be surprised at this), and decide to push hard on certain books. And the BEST thing you can do as as author is to politely say "thanks very much" for everything the publisher is doing, then go work as though all the marketing is your responsibility. Because, in my view, it all comes back to the author's work anyway.
Yes, there are cases where a publisher decides to market a book so hard that they push it onto the bestseller lists. I used to be a publisher for the old Time-Warner Book Group, and we did exactly that with a couple titles — Nick Spark's The Notebook and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. Neither author was well known, and with both books the publisher got the manuscript in early, had everybody read and get excited about them, created a lot of buzz, and determined to drive the books onto the bestseller lists. But that's rare. In fact, a publisher will only choose to do this process (it's called a "make-book") once or twice a year. And there's no guarantee it's going to work (we've all watched expensive ad campaigns flop). So the lesson is clear: Author, invest the time to build your platform. Take on the marketing of your books. Approach this as a business, educate yourself, and do the hard work to become known.