In the age of social networking, everyone is their own worst marketing nightmare.
—community manager and blogger, MontaVista, Embedded Linux Software & Development Tools

We have an extra Monday this month, which screws up my careful arrangement of monthly subject matter, so today we’ll look at an issue I don’t usually encourage aspiring writers to leap into too quickly: marketing.

Why do I usually leave this out?

Because there’s such overwhelming confusion these days about whether you’re aspiring writers or aspiring marketers, along with a whole lot of talk confabulating the two.

And no matter how loud the trumpets ring out, “You must market!” it does you no good—no good, friends—to learn how to market without a really good product to sell first.


Yep, first.

Don’t put the cart before the horse! Being a writer is a lifelong passion, not a paying career you jump into one year because it looks easier than getting out of your jammies and going to job interviews.

I know—a lot of you really hate it that I keep saying things like this. But I only say it because it’s true.

And, anyway, nearly everyone in publishing agrees these days: the era of sitting alone in a room focusing solely on the written page throughout your publishing life is over. (Except, bless her heart, Molly Friedrich, who told Jofie Ferrari-Adler in Poets & Writers the Internet is a problem because it makes writers think they should be marketing rather than writing.) Nowadays, the accepted wisdom goes, writers must also market.


I mean, what changed? It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the reason so many of us (laughably) assume writers want to write, not market, is that we grew up in a culture in which this was normal. When I was a young adult, a writer who barged into an agent’s life announcing, “This is how we should market my book,” would have gotten the response, “This had better be a book on marketing, bucko.”

I hope you can hear the cash registers ringing from here.

Because it’s all about money. And, unlike Hollywood, not much of that money ever makes it to the creators of the actual product. Where does it go? Let’s make up some numbers in the general vicinity of correct (keep in mind—I’m a writer because I like to make stuff up; but you’ll get the point, and if you don’t there are folks out there doing this math with real numbers):

100 books published by one publishing house sell once for $10 apiece wholesale
25% (a big ole backloaded percent) of it goes to each author = $2.50
15% of that goes to each agent = $.375, reducing the author’s take to $2.135
75% of it goes to the publisher = $7.5 x 100 books = $750


Let’s let those books sell 500 copies each, which is more or less nothing. No—let’s be kind. Let’s let them sell 2,000 copies each. Which, again, is more or less nothing. Two thousand complete strangers with names and lives, families and careers, hopes and dreams and heartbreak and sometimes flu or insomnia, willing to shell out for your precious words (imagine meeting and shaking hands with all 2,000 of them!), and they’re an almost meaningless drop in the bucket:

agent = $750
author = $4,250
publisher = $1,500,000

But what about advances? Oh, definitely, let’s do advances. Let’s give the authors $2,000 advances, a little more than the going bottom-of-the-barrel advance (which is rapidly sinking to $0), to balance out that backloaded royalty rate. We’ll even leave out the agents, to keep the math simple:

author = $2,000 + $2,250 more after the advance earns out = $4,250
publisher = -$2,000 apiece + $1,500,000 + $2,000 apiece more until the advance earns out = $1,500,000

Huh. No difference. What do you know.

Now, what does the agent have to do to make a living? Obviously, sign up lots and lots and lots of publishing authors.

What does the author have to do to make a living? Well, have a day job.

What about the publisher? Where does that nice, fat $1.5 mil go? Obviously, some of it goes to publishing the books, including returns, which are books that get published, distributed, and shipped only to be returned some months later ignobly shorn of their covers to indicate they’re destined for nowhere but the dump. Wasteful? Oh, yeah.

Some of the publisher’s money also goes to editing the books (yes, they all need editing). Some to acquiring the books, distributing them after they’re published, and other essential stuff required to run a publishing company, including overhead like warehouses, office space, desks, chairs (let them sit down), computers, travel expenses (the Frankfurt Book Fair isn’t actually held in New York), good stuff like that, most of which I’m forgetting. Some goes to marketers! I know—not for your book, but for somebody’s.

Some pays the CEOs. They do earn decent salaries. I’d like one of theirs.

And SOME goes to advances that never earn out.

Is that Dan Brown’s advance? J.K. Rowling’s? Mary Higgins Clark’s?

NO. Those people continue to get huge advances book after book after book because they earn out.

That’s probably, unfortunately, yours.

Now, granted, the current publishing system is absurdly complex and involves a certain amount of eye-popping waste, what with returns and advances that don’t earn out, not to mention the vast majority of books that are published and distributed without anything more than a dead chicken waved in the general direction of marketing them. (Publishers have meetings, you know, in which they decide which books to market and which not. I understand they hold them around craps tables in Atlantic City.)

It’s very much like my dad’s rather bitter reiteration of the sailor’s lament: “A sailboat is a hole in the water you pour money into.”

And it’s second, in my experience, only to the amazing waste of investment in the computer industry, in which a company like IBM actually assigns two completely different teams to developing the same product for several years to the tune of millions of dollars and then decides which one version to use and which version to simply throw out, cutting that whole team loose with a tiny little severance package. Yes, I’m speaking from experience. This kind of thing goes on all the time. (Although I believe IBM holds the title for that particular type of inanity.)

Was this publishing system designed by evil trolls? by lunatics? by the people who design income tax forms? (all the same people?)

Who can say? But what we do know is that when the economy gets bad—as it is right now—the purse strings tighten, and publishers start looking for ways to fix the system without actually changing anything that would require an entire overhaul (which none of their competitors will cooperate with). Jonathon Karp has started a publishing house that markets every single title they print. Wow! What an entrepreneur! You know how many books he publishes a year? Twelve.

The rest of them are doing things like trying to stop paying advances that never earn out, based on Bookscan‘s computerized data on authors’ previous sales. Minimize returns by exploring e-publication. And also, unfortunately, jettison some of that overhead in the form of, um, editing, acquisitions editors, indexers (those have been history for awhile). . .oh yes, and marketers.

Guess who winds up holding the ball?

You are one very bright audience, I must say.

See Phyllis Zimbler Miller’s Misconceptions and the Truth about Marketing on Twitter on Tony Eldridge’s site.

See Christina Katz’s Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. (Note—she does not say, “get known before you have anything to get known for”!)

See Alan Rinzler’s opinion on why and how videos help sell books.

And if you really want your head to explode, see Nielsen’s (Bookscan’s) page on consumerism. . .I’m sorry, I mean Consumer Insight. Dig those nice, shiny, professional marketing photos of potential consumers, hey, not reading. . .

2 thoughts on “Marketing

  1. Pharosian says:

    In your example of a 25/75 split where the author gets $5000 minus 15% to the agent, that would mean the publisher would get $15,000. Not $1.5 million as you stated.

  2. Victoria says:

    Yes, $15,000 apiece for 100 books, or $1.5 mil in total. The distinction, of course, being that it takes a single author at least a year to write a book, but publishers often publish far more than 100 books in that same period.

    But thanks for checking my math! Rachelle Gardner, in the link, does much more careful calculations based on much more realistic numbers.


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