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 BN.com 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?