Clearing the Waters: Marketing with Traditional Publishers vs. Digital Self-Publishing

I was reading an interview of a digitally self-published author the other day when I ran across a line about marketing that sounded an awful lot like something I’d heard before:

Two key factors made me decide to self publish. One was realizing that even with a traditional publishing contract, I would have to market my books myself. Marketing is the one thing I don’t enjoy about being a writer, and if traditional publishing could no longer offer that to new authors, what was the point?

I’ve heard that claim before, but this time it struck a chord with me.  But it wasn’t the chord that was meant to be struck.

Well yes, I thought, it would make sense to digitally self-publish if you were going to have to do all the work of marketing yourself.  Except, my thought continued, that’s not true in the least

What I realized, as I read this statement, was that while it sounded true and it jives with the rumors that swirl around the internet and are continually propagated by various self-publishing cheerleaders, the claim that traditionally published authors have to do all their own marketing is based at least in part on a fundamental misapprehension of what “marketing” is.  If you’re a writer who’s trying to decide whether to digitally self-publish or to pursue traditional publication, and you’re leaning toward the former because you think you’d have to market the book yourself anyway, whether you published traditionally or otherwise, so why not cut out the hassle of the middle man – please disabuse yourself of that notion.  This isn’t an anti-self-publishing screed.  There are a lot of good, solid, logical and economically- or artistically-self-interested reasons to go with self-publication over traditional publication.  But the idea that traditional publishers will not do any marketing on your behalf is not one of them.  And I can say this, yes, without even ever having been traditionally published.

I’ve pointed out before, here on my blog, that I’m fortunate enough to be possessed of a fairly decent education with regards to Business, and as part of that education I’ve become fairly well-acquainted with the specifics of Marketing.  I recently wrote about the subject of author self-branding, for instance, for those who might be interested.  My qualifications on the subject, again: I started with a Bachelor’s degree in Business which included a small number of classes on Marketing fundamentals and International Marketing.  More recently, I completed an MBA from a nationally ranked institution (not Harvard or Wharton or Stanford level, but not too far down the rankings from them), wherein I focused my studies in two main areas, one of which was Marketing. 

Okay, so my credentials are out of the way.  Why then, is it wrong to say that traditionally published authors have to do it all their own Marketing?  What can you expect a traditional publisher to do for you, marketing-wise?  Read on, ye weary and wary writers, and let’s talk about a little something that keeps writers up at night, in a cold sweat.

The key misapprehension in the idea that “traditionally published authors have to do all their own marketing” is a false equation of “Marketing” with “Advertising” (or in Marketing lingo: “Promotions”).  This is the first lesson on day one of Marketing 101: Marketing Advertising.  Well, if Marketing isn’t Advertising, then what is Marketing?  I mean, get to the point already!

The most common formulation of the world of Marketing breaks it down into activities that fall into one of four categorical areas, traditionally called “The Four-Ps of Marketing“, and these are: “Product”, “Price”, “Place”, and “Promotion”.  I’ll go into further detail on what each of these means, but basically Marketing is about meeting a specific customer’s needs, and to do so successfully you have to have a product that meets those needs available in a place convenient to that customer at a price that customer can afford – and the customer needs to have some level of awareness of each of those factors (i.e. that the product meets there needs, where to get the product, and how much it will cost) in order for this connection to be made and a sale to succeed.

Truth-be-told, this isn’t rocket science.  It just takes understanding your customer.  So… what are those “Four-Ps”, and which of them is a traditionally published author responsible for?

Product:  You might think that the traditionally published author is wholly responsible for this first and most-important P… but you’d be wrong.  The author is responsible for the single most significant individual contribution to this aspect of Marketing: the text of the book itself.  But there are a number of other contributors: the Editing, Copy-editing, Type-setting, Cover Art, Art Direction, Interior Art, and of course Printing, along with others I’m too inexperienced to remember to point out.  The author may have some input into each of these aspects, but collectively all of these non-writing inputs are the Publisher’s responsibility.  Some writers prefer to have more input on these activities.  And that’s great.  But they’re not the writer’s job.  Self-published authors, of course: all of these are your responsibility.  You may like that.  And that’s great.  Or it may be a whole lot of extra work you’d rather not worry about.  That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.  For those that would prefer to have this control, self-publication is a great option.  For those for whom this extra non-writing work is a hassle, be aware of this before you choose to self-publish.

There’s of course, another side to Product worth considering… Most self-publishers only have digital versions of their products available, so their “product” lacks some of the qualities of a “tactile” experience (although they gain the qualities of a digital product).  Some are able to take advantage of POD.  But most POD books aren’t hardcover (I believe Hardcover POD is possible, though I can’t be sure, but is often prohibitively expensive).  In terms of the physical presentation, traditional publishers have the edge – and if what you want is a high-quality copy of your book that you can hold in your hands, traditional publishing is still the way to go.

Price: This one is easy, of course.  As a traditionally published author, you have no control over pricing.  Nada.  Zip. Zero.  None.  Again, some authors might prefer to set their own price.  But setting a price is a difficult proposition: there are a lot of factors that can and should affect a price, ranging from a customer’s willingness-to-pay (which requires a lot of difficult, data-driven market research) to production costs, variable costs, fixed costs, and profit targets.  An individual author doesn’t have the resources necessary to do this in a rigorous, data-driven manner – they’re just feeling their way through the market and trying different things to see what happens.  Large companies have whole teams dedicated to pricing.  Whether publishers are devoting any significant resources to this question I can’t say, and I figure that those writers who’d rather have control over this activity probably think the publishers aren’t doing a very good job of pricing.  But without a lot of resources that are, frankly, unavailable to those individual authors, they’re not likely to do a very good job of it, either.  If you’re planning on self-publishing your books, good luck in finding the “right” price.  You’ll need it.  If you’re planning to traditionally publish, I hope your publisher has good luck in finding the “right” price.  Unless they have a sizeable team devoted to pricing, and with the tight margins in the publishing industry I doubt it, they’ll need it.

Place: Place is the word used for where a product is available and where a customer can get it – in other words, it’s the distribution system – and Place is probably the most underappreciated of the functions of marketing, but it’s oh-so-important.  For traditional publishing, “Place” concerns the entire traditional distribution system that gets your book into bookstores like B&N and Books-A-Million (but no longer Borders), big box retailers like Wal-Mart, and especially the large (and apparently growing in the past couple years) network of indie booksellers (as well as, of course, into Amazon and other bookseller websites).  Place is what allows your book to have a widespread physical distribution, so people can walk into a bookstore and stand a decent chance of getting their hands on a real, mashed-up-piece-of-wood with your name and words on it.  And the author has to do nothing for all of this to work.  A lot of digital self-publishers severely underestimate the value of this function.  They’ve bought into the meme that the industry is shifting and changing, and that all-digital-books are the future.  (Ironically, I’ve seen quite a few digitally self-published authors who openly admit that they read mostly physical, traditionally published books.)  The fact is, while the rate of digital adoption is increasing, the majority of books bought and read are still traditionally published, physical books.  And the value of this marketing activity creates an enormous cachet for the traditionally published author. 

Like it or lump it, but there is still a stigma on digitally self-published authors marking them as of lower quality than traditionally published authors, or even traditionally published authors who’ve jumped ship and gone digital-indie.  These authors have, in the mind of large parts of the reading public, proven their value and created their own brand names, and the traditional publication process has played no small role in that proof.  Now, it’s not actually always true that self-published authors are of lower quality than traditionally published authors, and that perception and stigma is starting to change.  But it has not yet fully gone away, and digital self-publishers are still having to fight the battle to gain attention, rise above the dross, and prove themselves.  And, in the meantime, digitally self-published authors are extremely limited in the “Place” department, typically available in online stores like Amazon and and Smashwords in digital format only; or sometimes in POD format.  Some self-published authors have the wherewithal to hard-sell to their local indie bookstores and get their book on those shelves.  But getting into a chain bookstores is nigh impossible for the self-published author.

Promotion: Very often, when a self-published author says that “traditionally published authors all have to do their own marketing anyway”, this is the one of the Four-Ps they’re referring to.  Even so, they’re still wrong.  There are increasing aspects of “Promotion” that are falling on a writer’s shoulders, but the whole banana does not yet belong to them and unlikely ever will.

Whether traditionally published or self-published, you’ll probably have to manage your own blog and website – and the cost for these is likely to come out of your pocket no matter who publishes your work.  You may have your own online store for just your products, but that’s not easy to set up either (and if you’re self-published, you’ll certainly want to do this, if for no other reason than to insulate yourself from glitches at large online retailers).  Some traditionally published authors have to handle their own press and publicity, but there are certainly those for whom this is handled by the publisher’s public relations.  But self-publishers can probably figure out how to do some of this on their own: setting up their own interviews, sending free copies to influential reviewers, and things like that, but in many cases the large national publicity outlets (like radio interviews on nationally-broadcast programs) will be out-of-touch for most self-published authors.

One aspect of promotions, though, that Self-published authors will have more trouble replicating is a presence in a traditional publisher’s catalog.  The catalog lists all the books that a publisher will be releasing within a given time-frame, and it goes to a number of people, including distributors and book-buyers for large bookstores and retailers.  It gets seen by a lot of people – and it is effectively an advertisement to those people to stock the book.  But these people are often more than just buyers or distributors – they are readers.  Sometimes readers with influence.  When a book is listed in a catalog, sometimes it starts to build buzz, and garner attention, and this can be the leading edge of a lot of sales.  Self-published authors have to find a way to build this buzz themselves – they can do it, but it takes a lot of legwork (nevermind that building buzz around a book’s release is sort of a mysterious kind of magic).  Other aspects of promotion are related to Place: publishers may pay for premium placement (at the front of the store, at the end of the aisle or at the top of search lists), which is something many self-published authors can’t afford.

As for other forms of advertising: I can’t really say for sure whether traditional publishers are doing a lot of this.  Certainly they don’t seem to have the budget for television advertising (but neither will you), except for the biggest names.  I have seen some print advertising in magazines and other print-format publications.  Even this will prove cost-prohibitive for many self-publishers.  The one area where self-publishers are most likely able to make an impact on their own, as far as advertising is concerned, is in online and search advertising.  In these instances, costs are often within reach for individuals with a moderate advertising budget.


So there you have it: the Four-Ps of Marketing, and how they relate to Traditional Publishing versus Digital Self-Publishing.

As I said, there are a lot of good reasons that an author might decide to self-publish or digitally self-publish.  But the meme that “you have to do your own marketing anyway” shouldn’t be one of them.  It’s patently untrue.  When an author decides to self-publish, he or she is taking on a lot of extra duties and activities necessary to effective marketing.  Many authors will view this as a good thing, because they value the control they gain over their fortunes.  Some will find that this adds new stresses and uncertainties in their writing career (or rather, replaced the stress and uncertainty of finding an agent and publisher with the stress and uncertainty of figuring out how best to market a self-published title).  If you are approaching the decision of whether to pursue a traditional publishing path or to eschew the old model and hike out on your own, consider the myriad challenges of marketing and whether you feel prepared and equipped to take them on yourself.  Can you make it on your own?  Yes, you can.  Should you therefore go-it-alone?  That’s a more nuanced question, that depends on how much control you want and how much time, financial, and other resources you want to invest in marketing.  Whichever path you choose: good luck!

If you’ve published – either traditionally or self-published – how about you chime in and share your experiences?

13 thoughts on “Clearing the Waters: Marketing with Traditional Publishers vs. Digital Self-Publishing

  1. Stephen. This is a very cogently thought out argument and confirms something I’ve learned the hard way. I agree it’s spurious to claim that in self-publishing one is doing what you’d have to do anyway. That is nonsense. The whole ‘which way to publish’ argument is fraught with misconception, self-delusion ,and excuses.
    I fail to see why so many inde publishers feel they have to justice what they are doing with myth making.
    I chose to self publish for a simple reason. I had been told be agents and other gatekeepers that my work was worthy but, too, non-mainstream and could only be stuck in the literary fiction genre, and even then it was a awkward fit. Too difficult to place.
    I was faced with a stark choice – change what and how I write to conform to the mainstream or go it alone. I had finished 12 novels at that point and did not fancy rewriting on that scale. So I self-published. I tried a small subsidy press here in Ireland and at first that went well. Then I struck problems with quality and payment so tried Bookbaby in the US. Better but still not right. Now I am going fully Indi and will publish on Amazon and CreateSpace.
    Marketing has been slow so far. I’ve been on a steep learning curve and am not convinced that the much hyped social media methods actually work. Most of my sales came from sponsored days on Kindle Nation. More paid advertising will follow on Goodreads and another Kindle forum. I blog but do not Tweet or FaceBook. I am sure self-publicity of the kind that dominates those mediums, are in reality, counter-productive.
    The quality of the work must ultimately stand the test of reader reaction. For me marketing is about bringing the work to the attention of readers and building a brand loyalty based on a solid word of mouth base. The cost of advertising is therefore not about sales per dollar spent but is viewed as a long term thing and rewards depend on me putting out books that people enjoy and will return to and recommend.
    I’m not there yet but it’s where I’m going.
    Regards, davidrory.

    • Thanks for weighing in, David. Your story is exactly the kind of example I think best illustrates what I mean by “good reasons” for turning to self-publishing: you’re writing in an area that’s better served with a self-publishing venture than with a traditional publishing venture. (There are, of course, other good reasons besides those of your experience, but they’re a good example.) Your marketing experience sounds pretty typical and realistic. I will say, however, that I think there are ways to integrate social media such as Twitter and Facebook into your marketing plan; but I agree that blatant self-promotional tactics that amount to “Look at me! Please!” will not gain any traction in those arenas. Using social media effectively (I am not a good example of it, myself) does take a lot of time. The key isn’t just trying to use them to self-promote, but to use them to engage your audience directly in a multi-directional communication. Of course that’s only useful if your audience is on those social media.

  2. Great post. Good points on pricing, especially right now when nobody really knows all the answers about the best price points for digital books. There are people at the big publishing houses who know a lot more than you ever will, though, because they have the data. (This is even more true of Amazon, of course.) Analyses based on data can still be wrong, of course, especially in a field that’s in flux, but analyses based on no data will almost certainly be worse.

    I know almost nothing about placement and promotion, except what you learn as a consumer. As for product, I’m going to respond on my blog (for space reasons), but the short answer is that you are, based on my experience, entirely correct.

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  4. Wonderful post. We went a semi-traditional route, with a small press that will help us out but still leave us some freedom. Being their first straight high fantasy ticket, we’re doing our best to make ourselves worth their risk (thus paving the way for other authors we hope) plus, y’know, benefiting ourselves in the bargin!

    • Yeah, that’s the route that used to be called “indie” until self-publishers co-opted the term. Now the old “indie” is just another side of the “traditional” publishing coin, but from everything I’ve read the experience is significantly different from that of working with a large NY house. It seems to combine some of the benefits and some of the drawbacks each of both traditional publishing and self-publishing (not a “best of both worlds”, really, but a “some good from both worlds and some bad from both worlds to create a different world”, although that’s misleading since really it’s the digital self-publishing world that’s actually new and different). Good luck with it! I’ll have to check out how you guys are doing to learn more about this particular publishing option.

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