When it comes to supporting authors in marketing efforts, no publisher has it right yet

Authors marketing

It is my firm conviction that the biggest shortcoming of traditional publishers these days is their failure to help authors help themselves with digital marketing. In my opening remarks at Digital Book World earlier this month, I said this:

At the very least, every house should do a “digital audit” for every author they sign that includes concrete suggestions for filling in gaps and improving discoverability and engagement. To my knowledge, not one does.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that there are people in big houses, even some who view things from a high perch, who emphatically don’t agree with me. One senior executive told me I was “completely wrong”, and said their editors were very much up to speed with what authors do on social media. Another, a publisher from a different house, asked me if I really believed “landing pages were important”. Of course, if you don’t see the pay-off from creating and managing landing pages on an author’s website (or the publisher’s own!), you might make the mistake of thinking a robust social media presence obviates the need for an author website.

That is a mistake. And it is an increasingly common one.

Where publishers are going wrong

Citing the expertise of editors as the lead claim for a house’s expertise is a tip-off. I have never seen the publishing house where editors were more expert in digital marketing than marketers are. Most author websites are sub-standard but most editors don’t have the knowledge to know that. And, on top of that, neither editors nor authors fully understand the different roles of websites and social media in the marketing effort for a book and author.

If the feedback from these two executives were exceptional or unusual, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But it is typical. And both of these houses are making substantial investments to upgrade their digital understanding and performance. They don’t have their heads in the sand.

It isn’t just my imagination that there is a disconnect between big publishers and their authors on the digital marketing front. This shortcoming is real and it is going to really hurt the big publishers, far beyond the sales they’re losing, if they don’t fix it.

I recently tested this idea with one of the most digitally-ept literary agents. I asked him whether he agreed that publishers are failing in this regard. He did. Completely.

A gap to fill

If there’s a gap here, somebody is going to fill it. Just this week, the relatively-new Diversion Books announced a new initiative called Radius, a “full-service publishing services division” with distribution through their affiliation with Ingram. They are targeting “non-fiction authors with very specific and known audiences (consultants, experts in a field)” looking for help “with various aspects of the process–editorial, cover, production, marketing and publicity etc.”

In other words, they would like to partner with perhaps the most desirable category of non-fiction authors: those with a real marketing platform independent of any book publishing activities. Those authors often have pretty decent personal marketing already set up; if they don’t, they are delighted to have professional feedback about how to improve it. Radius will provide a powerful reason for those self-promoting authors to work with them rather than with an older and more established house.

It is worth noting that Diversion was founded by a literary agent, so it is highly sensitive to the author perspective. What they have built is essentially a customized front end to industrial-strength services provided by Ingram, with easy access even for individual authors through what is called Ingram Spark. Diversion is a new-era publisher. They created a service arm and community called EverAfter to serve romance authors; Radius will primarily serve non-fiction authors who have already built audiences. Undoubtedly, other entrepreneurs will build on-ramps to these Ingram capabilities for other segments of the author community.

Should publishers worry about this? Well, the ones who depend on authors can expect more and more services and fledgling publishers trying to make a more appealing offer to them. (And those that don’t depend on authors exist, but they are the exception, not the rule.)

Who should do what

The author platform question is further vexed by the way publishers are organized. Editors “own” the author and agent relationships. Marketers and/or sales departments “own” the marketing resources. To be good at their jobs, editors need to recognize commercial content, negotiate the many moving parts of a book deal, and help the author craft the most salable possible book. Knowing digital marketing or best practices for search engine optimization are not what editors are hired or trained for. Those are the bailiwick of marketers who are explicitly (in most houses) excluded from direct author contact.

Beyond that, there is the confusion in publishing houses, reflected in the question I got about landing pages, about what’s important and what’s not. I can’t tell how widespread this is, but I have heard too often for comfort that “author websites are a waste of time”, that social is more important, and that working Facebook effectively obviates the need for a web presence.

In fact, “search” is still the single most important component of discovery and author websites are crucial for Google to “know” who the author is and to have a contextual understanding of their expertise and their audience. Precisely how the website provides value depends on the author. For a non-fiction author, it can establish topic authority. For a multiple-title fiction author, it can provide definitive information for the order of books in a series or for the back story on the author’s characters (whose names, of course, can be important search terms for the book).

But what is always true is that the website is the one piece of digital real estate the author can actually own, which is not subject to some change in rules or process that will affect its discovery in search or the ability to use it for any purpose of the author’s choosing. Ideally, a publishing house will evaluate an author’s own website as part of an overall digital audit and make constructive suggestions for improving it. If the author doesn’t have one, the house should provide a simple placeholder site that gives fans a place to land or link and can be the ultimate authority of facts about the author and the book.

And only by controlling a website can an author or publisher control the single most powerful tool there is to promote an author through search: landing pages. Best practice is to optimize a landing page on the author’s site for each of the most commonly-searched terms that could lead to real interest or the sale of a book. Anybody who really knows SEO knows that. That’s why the failure to grasp the significance of landing pages high up in a big publishing house is so disturbing.

Collaborating with authors

It really is terrific that so many publishers these days have a high-level executive with the word “audience” in their title and job description. It is a sign of real progress that many of the big houses have invested in vertical sites to build audiences they can tap at any time.

But they’re still missing the most important boat. The real focus needs to be on marketing collaboration with authors and giving them the support they need to maximize their effectiveness. Doing that requires tackling a lot of tricky questions because authors own their names and careers and publishers, at best, have a long lease on one or more specific books they’ve written. But both book sales and author retention depend on publishers taking on this challenge as an essential component of their offering.

I did a post for BookMachine some months ago spelling out a strategy for authors who were marketing themselves.

The author marketing checklist

  • Here’s a quick checklist of what a useful publisher audit of an author’s digital footprint might be looking for:
  • A robust author website to anchor an author’s complete digital presence and act as the central hub and source of authoritative information on everything about the author, her books, her work, and life
  • Complete author and book information at book cataloging and community sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, as well as at all online retailers (especially an Amazon Author Central page)
  • Google+ to signal to Google who an author is, what she writes about, and all of the things connected to her
  • The right social media mix, which can vary — and evolve — depending on the author, the type of books she writes, and the interests and demographics of her audiences
  • Mechanisms to collect, manage, and effectively use email addresses
  • Ongoing efforts to maintain accuracy and relevance across all of these
  • Effective cross-promotion (across titles and authors)

Mike Shatzkin has been in publishing since 1962. Since 1979, Mike has been an independent consultant (The Idea Logical Company) with clients that have included most major publishers in the US and UK, retailers including Barnes & Noble and Borders, wholesalers including Ingram, and a host of tech startups. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeShatzkin. This post was originally posted on The Idea Logical Company blog in March 2016.


  1. A call out went out on twitter earlier in the week for a writer (with a fairly extensive, if not well known) backlist, who was down to her last two weeks of feed for her horses etc. I started writing a blog about what we as reviewers/bloggers could do to support authors (buy their books, get others to buy them etc), but then started digging around for the Author’s digital footprint, and decided to abandon the post.

    What was lacking was pretty much covered by your post above. She is active on twitter, but nothing to mark the fact she’s a writer with books to sell. The top google results gave a link to a website where her last mentioned book was published in 2005 (though I have a book of hers published in 2014) and no links through to purchase any of them. Isn’t the priority to get people (who are invariably lazy) to buy the books with the minimum of work? The first page with purchase links are half way down the results. There’s a weird jumble of links on her page through to information about her horses (last update dated from 2004). and something about “camps” though unsure what the significance of this is to her and her revenue stream.

    Basically, within 20 minutes I went from “Heed me! We must support our authors!!!!” to “if she (or her people) are not prepared to even do the basics, why should I bother?”. There are so many other authors I read for who have done it so much better and make it easy to support them

  2. This is such an awesome article I’m going to ask the delegates at WRITECON16 next week to read and discuss in one of the workshops! Thanks BookMachine and Mike!

  3. Actually, this sort of thing is what Inspired Quill do. IQ has even started to create eCourses for the authors, and helps said authors with their online presence as a matter of course long before their title hits the shelves. In fact, skills development is so important that it’s written into the contract that IQ will provide such training, both online, ‘best practice’ and 1:1 as the author requires.

    Of course, it takes the desire on the part of the author to actually do the work. I agree with Nordie that sometimes helping certain authors is definitely an uphill struggle. But the desire is there.

    It’s a shame that enough publishers are still treating authors like meal tickets (or just caring about the short-term book rather than the long-term vision) that this is the prevalent thought by others in the industry.

  4. Is it publishers who are really best placed to do this work? Why not agents, for example? Publishers are there for the books, for good or ill. Author websites are for the author and the books — websites are an extension of an agent’s job surely. But then many agents have little to no production experience and limited PR function, again requisites for a successful author presence. And both agents and publishers are involved with authors in the lead up to a specific deadline: the moment of submission, sale or publication. Post these dates, agent and publisher attentions dwindle. Theirs is a culture driven by external deadlines and one that is about finding the next big thing. And that ‘binge and purge’ culture isn’t likely to change soon. It runs in the DNA of the people who compose and lead publisher and agent teams. It’s a very different skill to the culture of permanent care required to make digital projects succeed.

    Digital projects are like a garden. They need to be tended. This is different, less glamorous work than that signed up to by publishers and agents. It need different skill sets, which is why we set up our company BookJaw, which only makes websites and digital products for authors. We work closely with agents and publishers but we are separate and that seems to work best — we’re people they can hand over to once the excitement of publication is over. That this work could be done in-house by publishing teams is an illusion, I think…

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