penelope-trunk-the-new-american-dream-blogsizeWhen author Penelope Trunk wanted to publish a book about the American Dream, she writes in her blog that she was blown away by how inept her traditional publisher was when it came to marketing it. (She does not name the publisher, but says it’s a major household name.) This publisher had already paid her an advance, and as the time approached when the book itself would be published, she was stunned when her publisher originally suggested marketing through “newsgroups”, and then through a LinkedIn fan page.

When she took a meeting with them to discuss the issue, she realized that there were several fundamental problems with the publishers’ ability to publicize her book. One is that publishers simply don’t have any way of knowing who is actually buying their books anymore.

It used to be they could look at sales figures from major outlets and get at least some general idea of who bought them—but now 85% of all books are sold on-line. And most of these books are sold by Amazon, which is notorious for how little information it shares with anyone. So now publishers know very little about who buys what, but Amazon knows almost everything.

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.

Publishers, Trunk says, simply don’t know how to market on-line. They’ve never bothered to learn how. And the profit margins are so low that she can actually make more money per book sold with Amazon referrals to sell someone else’s book through her blog than to sell her own.

In the end, after a final falling out in which the publisher decided she was too much trouble to work with, Trunk elected to publish her book herself, as an electronic-only title via Hyperink. She’s not bothered that she won’t have a physical edition, because the only reason to have a paper version of the book anymore is “to be in Barnes & Noble,” which she considers to be mainly about ego (being able to go and see your book in a real book store!).

I’m not so sure how well Trunk’s experience generalizes across all publishers. Just because she had a bad experience with one doesn’t mean they’re all that bad. Certainly there are some traditional publishers (such as Tor and Baen) who are a bit more savvy when it comes to the Internet. And to be fair, this is only Trunk’s side of things; the publisher might tell a different story. All the same, it does seem a trifle odd that any publisher could be so out of touch with the current state of affairs as to think about marketing through “newsgroups”, or that a LinkedIn page could drive any significant amount of traffic.

Trunk also makes an interesting point about sales data. I’d known, intellectually, that Amazon accounted for a huge amount of the market, but it hadn’t really sunk in what that would mean in terms of the demographic data that publishers need. Amazon really has made a sea change in the way that the publishing industry works, and that was true even before it invented the Kindle. Small wonder publishers are so touchy when it comes to the company.

(Found via TechCrunch.)