Mike Shatzkin’s commentary on developments in the publishing industry has often featured in TeleRead in the past – not always in entirely respectful terms. All the same, he’s often good for wrap-ups of not-quite-leading-edge newly-received wisdom in mainstream publishing, and one such piece is his latest post entitled (deep breath…): “Publishers need to rethink their marketing deployments and tactics in the digital age to take advantage of their backlists.”
Shatzkin delves into the traditional publishing priorities of frontlist versus backlist marketing (“Books have always been launched like rockets. The publisher commits maximum firepower to getting them off the ground. Most crash to earth. Some go into orbit.”), and the changes that have moved the book world away from those old standards (“In the digital age, the “guided missile” is a more appropriate metaphor for best practice than the “rocket”.”) Now, as he sees it, “marketing efforts for all books need to be continuous,” because “some marketing effort, including price-fiddling, applied to long-ago backlist can resuscitate a dormant book.”
Even if such insights are hardly new, they are worth reiterating when they point to “a critical strategic question here that the industry has not resolved.” As Shatzkin calls it, the publishing industry now does best to rely on its authors for continuous self-promotion, rather than trying to market its entire backlist by itself. Amazon and similar platforms mean that the entire backlist – ebook or hard copy alike – is potentially discoverable, and many consumers are buying right there, lifting the load of physical distribution off publishers’ shoulders. But the most cost-effective marketer for a backlist title is in many cases going to be the author – if that author is equipped to do so. And, as Shatzkin acknowledges, in the self-publishing era, the danger is that the more capable self-promoting authors will simply elect to do it themselves and vanish off the list entirely.
“Publishers really need to work out ways to support authors who can contribute to their own marketing,” he continues. “But it is complicated and it can only done between a publisher and an author who acknowledge their own and each other’s interests and responsibilities.”
That would be a win:win, and a welcome development in the industry. Unfortunately, many traditional publishers still seem to be having trouble genuinely aligning their interests with those of authors and working out ways for both to benefit as partners – rather than viewing the authors as a resource that can be mined until exhausted, as many doubtless still do. After all, what does Author Solutions tell about Penguin Random House’s concern for the interests of its authors?
There is plenty, plenty more detail in Shatzkin’s blog post about how to build that “environment of collaborative synergy,” and for authors, certainly, it can’t come a moment too soon.