Marketing in the Bazillion-Book Marketplace (Re: Good Writing)

In response to E.Ayers on a thread on the Exquisite Thrills Yahoo Group, discussing poor quality writing and editing in published books:


billboard-951520-mI have been writing, editing, and designing for a living for 20+ years, not in big publishing or fiction, but rather small-ish periodicals, corporate work, and academia. I have a summa BA degree in Writing, with a minor in Creative Writing (non-fiction), have taught and trained grammar and structure, and have probably authored and/or edited at least one of every kind of composition that exists English, from an epic poem to a three-inch thick technical proposal.

The editing problem, as I see it, is this:

When I started in small pubs in the early 90s, traditional publishing was still a fat industry. There was a place for new authors to come up, strong, smart editorial departments that had enough internal support and financial liquidity to take creative risks, enough staff to ensure high quality, and enough clout—as an industry—to attract high-quality English majors coming out of college and train them to become superlative publishing professionals (editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, cover designers, marketers, agents, buyers, etc.).

Over the past twenty years or so, Big Pub has gone the same way as every industry that becomes more profit-driven (an — perhaps the — intrinsic feature of capitalism).

The amazingly good people who were trained to be part of the “honorable book trade” were downsized; younger, less experienced people were hired for less money, but without the mentoring structure that had always existed to teach important skills. Budgets were pared in all areas, from staffing to paper quality to font sizes to “risky” projects (which had fewer advocates on staff anyway). Authors were weaned off the marketing budget, publishers requiring them to take responsibility for more and more every year, until now, the marketing budget is only used for low-risk authors, meaning ones who earn the company money before they even start writing. Everyone else? Buy your own bookmarks. Do you have a Facebook page yet?

To your original point, as the traditional industry falls in on itself and the e-marketplace advances, many, many small presses and indies have popped up to pick up where Big Pub left off. However, there are only so many of those downsized professionals who can/will work for what a small press pays and only so much capital available for indie ventures. Further, the training structure and professional standards that once were integral to the industry have not been replicated in the indie world yet (and may never be).

Getting a 4.0 in English is not the same as being a book editor, copyeditor, or proofreader — or an author. There is a dearth of professional depth in the book trade; a low barrier to entry into publishing; a massive, industry-wide misuse of author time (and money), now spent on tasks other professionals and publishers used to do; and a surplus of people who “always wanted to write a novel” and “got good grades in English.”

The untrained beta reader has become a substitute for an editor with two degrees, ten years of on-the-job training, and a meaningful understanding of all levels of the book trade. The neighbor’s sister’s friend is proofreading books to subsidize beer money, rather than someone who has been correcting galleys for twenty years and can quote ten different stylebooks on request. Marketing is piecemeal on a proliferation of social media sites, rather than being handled by in-house teams who have been maximizing book sales for decades. And to be clear, these professionals may not be available with a contract at the Big 5 anymore, either.

No one wants to be the person pining for “the good old days” (because how old does that make me?), and in some ways, the industry and authors have benefited from these changes in the marketplace. Not least, it is brilliant so many more writers can now be heard and are so much better compensated by royalty. But the past twenty years have not been kind to publishers or authors, and on the whole, the “improvements” are not improving the quality of what we read.

Next up, what to do about it.

(Don’t hold your breath for that installment.)

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9 thoughts on “Marketing in the Bazillion-Book Marketplace (Re: Good Writing)

  1. Excellent points. I know an author or two who write excellent books– even proof read and edit very well, but can’t stand having to publicize the books they write. One keeps saying she’d rather not publish then to have to tout her book.
    The lack of proof readers and copy editors is evident in many books out there. That is one of the main complaints in the reviews on Amazon. Unfortunately I don’t know that there is any remedy for an author’s lack of knowledge of the historical period in which she chooses to write.

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    • I don’t know that there is any remedy for any of it. The industry may have just evolved (devolved) to a point where this will be the norm going forward. Let us not forget that historical fiction of all types was, in the not-so-distant past, fact-checked in-house before publication. I would give my right arm for one of those pros to work on my books as part of the team a publisher pays.

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  2. The marketing point was the deciding factor in my choice for indie publishing rather than even trying the traditional route. If I’m going to have to tout my own books anyway, I’d rather have complete control and a larger share of the royalties. But I’m paying a top-flight proofreader and going as professional as I can on book design. And I have a wealth of commercial editing and publishing experience to draw on.

    I’m counting on that to make the difference. In a world of poorly written, poorly proofread, and poorly designed books, being noticed might be difficult. But once noticed, I hope to shine.

    We’ll see how that works out, shall we?

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  3. Well, I’m probably about to put the fox In the chicken pen and thereby slaughter all the feathered fluttering disgruntled literary chooks. I’ll tell you why I’m a rebel when it comes to all the talk of lesser quality books making the rounds and of lesser quality editing and proof reading skills. After all, I’ve been around and within the world of publishing some 34 yrs, as a mainstream author, as a publisher, as a professional book reviewer. In the last five years of blogging, Facebook and Goodreads, I’ve noticed a plethora of so-called professional; eds and PReaders advertising their services, and I’ve seen the devastating consequences of unprofessional book reviews at Amazon et al. Ist off, top-flight editors and proof readers have no cause to advertise their skill. their work alone plus credits to their names within books sells their individual skill level. 2nd, authors can write a superb book in every sense of the word superb, but when push comes to shove, if it’s boring, its characters are flat, the prose dull, it ain’t going to cut the mustard. And yet, the worst of badly written books can become bestsellers because they grip the reader, the characters say or do something outrageous whilst the writing itself dumbfounds the grammar police. 3rd, whether you’re a conventionally published or self-published author, you can have the best or worst help along the way and you will either thrive or die writing wise, because what you write has to have sparkle that incites desire for more of the same. 4th, you can have hundreds of reviews and still slide down Amazon’s ever increasing shelf height, or you may have “B” all reviews and remain on a comfy shelf as though glued to it. 5th, Amazon/Goodreads reviews are on the whole in-house penned by fellow authors, buddies, sometimes family if your family love your writing, and we all know self-published authors have the double hazard of unfriendly FB friends, competitors and mainstream published authors to contend with, plus from experience, social media has taught us how competitive some authors are and how many resort to dirty trick tactics whilst hiding behind nom de plumes. 😉 We can all spout and wail the low standards of publishing in today’s book market, but the old saying about casting stones in glasshouses kind of rings louder now than ever before, What is poorly written for one person, is perhaps less intimidating than a superbly written book, whilst the opposite is true of a well-read person!

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    • This is, in part, the point behind this entire series of blog posts, which you may or may not have read before now. Very few, if any, authors have the answers to marketing in the “new world,” but I will stand by the contention that a well-edited book has a better chance than one that isn’t. In the same way an author who has friendly reviewers will gain more readers from that marketing tactic than one with unfriendly “friends.”

      And with the proliferation of editors and proofreaders advertising, you can be sure it is not enough to simply sit back and wait for authors to come to the better professionals. Not when a professional of that caliber charges (and deserves) $8-10 per manuscript page and the alternative charges $200 for an entire book. Much as in other industries, especially creative ones, authors are not made of money, nor are they immune to what is cheap and easy when there is no publishing house footing the bill.

      I am not saying there are answers to the problem(s). Rather the opposite, in fact. I am only trying to place the current marketplace in a historical context. There have always been bad books, just not as many and not as easy to produce.

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  4. It goes without saying well-edited books shine, in their own right. But well-edited doesn’t mean that particular book has a better chance at hitting a higher level of sales than a lesser edited book in the same genre, At the point of sale is where the reader comes into play, and readers purchase what suits their level of reading. Thousands of people can quote famous lines from Jane Austen novels, and when asked: “Oh, so you enjoyed the book, then?” more often than not, the answer is: “No, I didn’t get past the first few chapters but I saw the movie”. Millions of kids worldwide own all the Harry Potter books and a survey of 2000 revealed fewer than 2% had read the books cover-to-cover and most admitted they hadn’t read more than a few pages, but all had watched the movies. So why did they want the HP books? Ah well, the same old same old peer pressure is at work: “if you haven’t got, you’re poor” in the same way if you’re not wearing the latest trendy footwear you can’t afford ’em. Books will reach their own market, there own shelf life, and the dross will hit bottom along with tons of great well-written tomes! .

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    • That is certainly true in today’s marketplace, and even “back then,” publishing houses acknowledged “taking risks” with new authors. Plenty of good books “hit bottom” or never reached the point of publication at all. There is just less room for risk now and less author support in general. What we are left with is authors taking their own risks, which is, in some ways, its own reward and one of the benefits of the way the industry is heading.

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    • I agree that good editing, good covers, and good marketing don’t guarantee success, if you define success as number of units moved (and, let’s face it, that’s a reasonable definition). And poor editing, poor covers etc, don’t necessarily mean no sales. An element of luck is involved, clearly.

      But Francine’s ttwo examples don’t support her contention, in my opinion. I cannot think of a movie made from a book where the book hadn’t already attracted readers. After being made into movies, books do attract non-readers, just as you say. But the two examples you give, and all the others I can think of, attracted readers first.

      And I’m aware of the book snobs who refuse to buy indie because of the dross — I know (and work with) some of them. Those who fail to do the practical stuff put off genuine readers who would otherwise be part of our market.

      Is there an answer? I don’t have one. We’re in a new world — the Wild West of publishing. It’ll shake down, more or less, over time. And, as has always happened, some good books will disappear without a trace while others will survive and flourish.

      But I agree that the dross will, in time, hit the bottom and stay there, as it always has.

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