Uber-successful blogger Penelope Trunk took the long route to self-publishing, beginning as a blogger before being picked up by an unnamed major publisher before making the decision to self-publish (and cashing a large advance check along the way). As more and more authors have discovered, the advantages of self-publishing (control of their work; more profit) are increasingly outweighing the disadvantages (handling your own promotion; sourcing your own editing, etc.).
In a blog post on July 9th, Trunk announced she had a new book coming out, a situation not remarkable in itself (bloggers crank out books all the time). However, two years ago, Trunk had sold this same book to a major publisher, and that’s where her trouble began:
So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher. But you will not at the end of this post.
Now, we’ve all heard how major publishers can be annoying to deal with. Between pushing back release dates, locking up parts of writers’ catalogues, lacing e-books with DRM and other such dickery, major publishers have earned just about as much respect (around these parts, anyway) as the major labels and major studios. While many authors have become successful within the system, the evidence points to the sad fact that the “system” is sorely in need of drastic change. Sadder still is the fact that there seems to be no rush to meet that need.
Trunk’s experience with the major publisher didn’t take a turn for the worse until the discussion of promotion began. What follows are some of the most unintentionally hilarious “promotion” ideas I’ve ever heard bandied about by people specifically tasked with the job of promotion:
To be clear, I wrote my book, and they paid me my advance, in full. Three months before the publication date, the PR department called me up to “coordinate our efforts.” But really, their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They had no idea. Seriously.
Well, that’s just terrible. A PR department, whose very existence is predicated on public relations, drawing a blank when asked directly what they, as employees of the power major publisher, were going to do. And then, they had “ideas” — the kind of ideas that are fully deserving of the quotation marks around the word:
They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups.”
I assumed I was misunderstanding. I said, “You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Those newsgroups? USENET?”
“Who is part of newsgroups anymore?”
“We actually have really good lists because we have been working with them for so long.”
“People in newsgroups buy books? You are marketing my book through newsgroups?”
There’s nothing like holding a conversation in 2012 with someone who still thinks it’s two decades earlier, especially if this is the first idea that comes to mind with all the other social media options available. Maybe if Trunk’s book was targeted towards the interests of newsgroups or had sprung from there, this might make sense. (And it might even give the PR team a bit of street cred, if they did still hold some sort of grassroots power in 20-year old newsgroups.) But this sounds more like a case of blowing the dust off the floppy and running a copy of “The List” off on the nearest dot matrix, rather than a savvy move based on years of carefully cultivating an online following.
At the next phone call, I asked again about how they were going to publicize my book. I told them that I’m happy to do it on my blog, but I already know I can sell tons of books by writing about my book on my blog. So they need to tell me how they are going to sell tons of books.
“What? Where are you selling books on LinkedIn?”
“One of the things we do is build buzz on our fan page.”
I went ballistic. There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.
Something that the major publishers seem to have in common with other artistic venues saddled with the word “major” is the fact that these entities tend to greatly overvalue their brand and undervalue the artists signed to it. Major studios still seem to believe that people give a single damn what studio produced their favorite movie, failing to realize that people are drawn to movies for the actors, directors, writers, stories, explosions, etc. — anything but the studio itself. No one not employed by the studios themselves walks around talking up the latest “Sony Pictures Studio” film. The same goes for the recording industry. While certain labels have gained (and sometimes lost) cachet over the years based on their stable of artists, it’s still about the artists. People may love Sub Pop, but if Sub Pop began cranking out albums by just anybody, it would swiftly lose its respectability. Obviously, the same goes for major publishers, who somehow believe that readers care whether it’s Random House or Harper-Collins that just put out a book by their favorite author.
Oh. Yeah. There’s more. Trunk was asked to meet one more time with the publicity team. This culminated in a long Powerpoint presentation where Trunk learned all she wanted to know about major publishers — none of it good. Here’s what she learned:
- Print publishers have no idea who is buying their books.
Amazon knows their customers. Publishers don’t. Amazon won’t give them the information and what little the publishers can draw together demographically comes from brick-and-mortar sales. This is a handicap, to be sure, but the publisher Trunk dealt with compounded this problem by performing impossible mathematics:
When I pointed this out to my publisher, they told me that for my book, they expected to sell more than 50% of the books in independent bookstores. And then they showed me slides on how they market to people offline. They did not realize that I ran an independent bookstore while I was growing up. It was the family business. I ran numbers for them to show them that if they sold 50% of the sales they estimated for my book, they would single-handedly change the metrics of independent booksellers. That’s how preposterous their estimates were.
- Print publishers have no idea how to market online.
Without access to online data or the interest in using what they do have, publishers fly blind, relying on what used to work to continue working, including such Pleistocene-era tactics as “TV spots and back-of-book blurbs.” They also seem blasé about actually connecting with their readers, something that is proven to leave you on the outside in a digital, connected world.
Print publishers have been too arrogant to learn how to run a grassroots, metrics-based publicity campaign online. They cannot tell which of their online efforts works and which doesn’t because they can’t track sales. They don’t know how many people they reach.
- The profit margins in mainstream publishing are so low they are almost nonexistent.
This remains a problem when your flagship product is a physical item with limited distribution points and the associated costs of printing, distributing, warehousing, remainders, etc. Digital products carry none of these costs, allowing authors (and publishers) to make more per book even at a fraction of the price. How bad are the margins? Consider this factoid:
The most breathtaking example, I think, of how terrible margins are, is that if I sell my own book with a link to my publisher, I make a little less than $1 per book. If I sell Guy Kawasaki’s book on Amazon, I get a little more than $1 per book in their affiliate program. So it’s more profitable to me to use my blog to sell someone else’s book than to sell the book I published with a mainstream publisher.
No matter how much you might believe in the power of a major publisher, it’s got to knock a little wind out of your sails to realize that authors can make more selling other people’s books through the much-hated Amazon. Whatever power remains in old school publishing is swiftly being undercut by their inability to move forward at the pace of their market.
This whole debacle culminated with the PR peacemaker threatening to dump Trunk’s book if she didn’t play nice with the clueless promotional team. So much for calling her bluff.
I said, “Great. Because I think you are incompetent. And also, you have already paid me. It’s a great deal for me.”
Trunk went off, did six months of research on the ebook industry, and took her book to Hyperink, an independent publisher which specializes in helping bloggers convert their blogging into books. Click through for her whole post, which contains some more devastating insights into the publishing industry as well as a rundown on the “New Rules of Book Publishing.”