Chip MacGregor

November 30, 2011

Aren't they supposed to market my book for me?


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.


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  • In marketing sometimes it’s not anymore about being right but it’s more about being fair.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for the great insights. I’m about 8 months into promoting my first book and everything you say here rings true with my experience. I’ve had a very supportive publisher but I’ve still had to work hard to get the word out. A friend told me I should think of marketing the book as a part-time job for the entire year after a book comes out. I’ve also learned that the skills required to promote the book on radio shows, at live events, and on social media are very different from the skills required to be a good writer and editor. Balancing the introverted task of writing with the extroverted tasks of marketing is a real challenge.

  • Mike says:

    Which I guess brings me to my inquiry. Just what does a publisher do for an author in today’s market?
    With authors basically being in charge of their own marketing. With the availability of Amazon, Apple, Fictionwise, Feedbooks, Smashwords, and others for distribution. With freelance editors and artist.
    What does a modern publisher do for the money the get from the writer’s work?

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Without question, Chip, you have been one of the most straightforward people in this business, pulling no punches and helping us learn the “real deal.” To me, it’s just like life—it’s too short and precious to not know the truth, period.
    And I agree with Bonnie Calhoun; there should be a course, and as I said in the previous thread, the marketing dept. at a publisher to have a “kit” of sorts, and people to help guide them through the marketing process so they can be as effective as possible, as quickly and easily as possible.

  • Chip says:

    There’s always an exception, Shephanie. Are there authors who do zero marketing and have their books go crazy? Of course. It’s why people who want to self-publish their novel always want to talk about THE SHACK — the fact that it was the 1-in-a-million exception doesn’t matter to them. But you’re on track with your last thought: word of mouth is the BEST way to spread enthusiasm for your book.

  • There should be a course for new authors when they join an agency, and this advice would be #1 in the course!
    Welcome back Chip. I really missed not having your run-down on the products at ICRS this year 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing again! Granted she’s an exception, but Lilian Jackson Braun (Cat Who… cozy mysteries) was a technophobe– no Web site and she used a typewriter. She stopped writing for 18 years- see why here: She responded to my fan letter to say her publisher never sent her on tours but she went to a couple of cat shows now and then. How do we explain her best-selling success? I know I heard about her books from a friend, so word of mouth works. Also she won critical acclaim for her first books from the NY Times. Should winning awards be a marketing focus?

  • Stevie Rey says:

    Chip, I’m probably the rare author that enjoys marketing as much as writing. That being said building a platform has been long and slow. Here’s how I survive without getting discouraged. I simply developed the mindset that this is a lifelong project. So, now I don’t expect perfect results today, tomorrow, or in five years. I’m in for the long haul. As long as it takes.
    Peace y’all!

  • Beth K. Vogt says:

    Always appreciate your insights, Chip. You know the business — and you always challenge me to make sure I know the business too. And to be a responsible writer — and a marketing-savvy one.

  • Chip says:

    What gets a novel into the 20% of books making money? The same things as a nonfiction book: a great story, superb writing, effective marketing, a publishing house that believes in the book and gets behind it, an author who works it hard, and maybe a bit of dumb luck.

  • Good thoughts. The best advice on marriage is that each partner should assume 100 percent of the work rather than going 50/50. It takes each person’s all to make a partnership work.

  • Glad to have you blogging again! As always, I appreciate your sound advice.

  • Chip!! So excited to have you back! I’m the odd author who loves marketing — and my publisher seems to love that part of my personality. I’ve spent the last three years building a platform — albeit still small, it’s a platform — and we’ll see how it goes when the book launches in two weeks!

  • Cara Putman says:

    Great to have you back, Chip. Now to find the book I write that will make a publisher as excited as The Notebook did…

  • Ane Mulligan says:

    That’s why I’ve always pushed writers who aren’t published yet to build their platforms NOW! Not only does it put in increase your sphere of influence, but it trains you for marketing. I do a blog in a town online newspaper and it’s now syndicated all over my area. When it comes time to market a book, you can bet I’ll use that one.

  • Deb Kinnard says:

    Point taken about O’Reilly and Handler — but these aren’t novelists. What gets a novel into the 20% category? Superb storytelling, yes, but what pushes a novel or a novel series over that line in the Christian fic market?

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