hawthornEarlier this month I mentioned a blog post by self-publishing writer Penelope Trunk on how clueless she found her traditional publisher when it came to marketing her work on-line. The blog post was later carried by The Guardian in edited form. Since then, John Self has written on the Guardian’s Book blog about the (largely unsympathetic) comments posted in reaction to it, and whether it was possible to promote a book effectively on-line.

To experiment with how effective on-line promotion could be, Self seized onto an about-to-be-published book he quite liked, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, and decided to wage his own guerilla marketing campaign to promote it (though he apparently did not have anything to do with the production or publication of the book itself apart from reviewing it and liking it), mainly by posting a review to his blog and then tweeting a lot about it on the day it was published.

The results were a bit inconclusive, though:

But what effect did all this have? It worked wonders for my blog stats, and the Amazon sales rank rose from the tens of thousands to the single thousands, but it wasn’t until a review was published in the mainstream press – in this paper, and the only review the book has had in the UK press so far – that the Amazon ranking broke the top 500. And behind all this, there was a digital strategy even before the book was published. Granta published a teaser story, an offcut from the book, in advance, and at a good time (it’s about a terrorist attack on the London Olympics), as well as an extract on their website. Further back, Ridgway’s agent, David Miller, had sold individual parts of the book to homes as prestigious as the New Yorker, helping build anticipation for the finished work.

As one of the people who left a comment below the article notes, this effort was for a book published by a well-respected traditional publishing house, with (as Self himself notes) its own marketing campaign in place. No matter how many Twitter followers said they liked it, the results of something like that tend to get lost in the noise when there’s an organized campaign going on.

Self points out that this sort of grass-roots promotion is something that any of us can do for any work we enjoy—not just our own. And it could make the difference in getting our favorite authors some new fans.

Nonetheless, it’s kind of dodging the question Trunk brings up. Was her traditional publisher as clueless as she claims? Are many publishers that way? Can authors more effectively promote and profit from their own works if they self-publish than if they let a traditional publisher do it for them? There are no real answers to be found in this article, just a lot of supposition relating to the abilities of publishers:

For publishers, marketing depends on the budget, and for most new books, there is no budget, so the task falls to the publicity department. The buzzword is "discoverability". But there is no proven way for publishers to find the right readers through digital strategies. This means that for most titles, time devoted to working on a digital strategy could be better spent in supporting a traditional campaign with digital detail: tweeting reviews, putting giveaways on Facebook, getting the metadata right on the website.

I’m really looking forward to how the next several years go, and learning whether self-publishing writers continue to be more successful or traditional publishers are able to get a handle on things. I suspect things are just too unsettled right now to be able to say for certain one way or the other.


  1. I think we shouldn’t assume that tradional publishing means that the author doensn’t bother to participate in marketing at all. It is entirely possible to publish books with a large publishing house and still to engage with the readers online.
    Because of this I believe a mixture of traditonal publisher marketing (press contacts!) and author activities online (maybe even supported by the publisher) will have the biggest effect. It could even be beneficial for publishers to encourage their authors to create an online presence (social media, blogs…) to spread marketing activities more widely.

  2. On that post earlier in the month, commenter John called Penelope Trunk a “serial liar.” It really looks like her claims cannot be true. The book for which she claims she had a sizable advance turned out to be only fifty pages long when she published it herself two years later. She also claims to have been able to keep her sizable advance after being rude to her publisher and walking away from the deal. She claims their marketing department wanted to use the Usenet and Linkedin for promotion. It just doesn’t add up.

    I really like Teleread, and I know that the prevailing attitude here is that traditional publishing is getting it all wrong, but it does not serve either the truth or your argument to give attention to people whose claims are so ridiculous. I read this site every day despite not agreeing with some of the editorial slant — but come on. Ms. Trunk may have gotten her blog post published by the Guardian; however, it still seems to be composed of self-aggrandizing lies.

  3. Two mainstream authors with traditional publishers who do a great job promoting their books on social media are Jeffrey Archer and James Lee Burke. The latter does not seem to have a Twitter account but makes up for it with Facebook. Archer uses both. It is hard to know if they NEED to do this because obviously people were buying lots of their books before either of these entities existed. They are both in a position to stay laid back in their public messages. But what about a previously unpublished author who almost needs to shout, “Look at me, look at me!” which can be a big turn-off. I don’t know the answer other than word of mouth by readers. Shayne Parkinson, a New Zealand self-published author, flies well below the radar and I honestly don’t know how I stumbled upon her first book, but that was all it took for me to suggest her books on the Amazon forum what-are-you-reading threads. Same goes for a book called Watching Jeopardy, first fiction attempt by a Canadian playwright. That one has kind of gone viral on the thread but after that what do you do? Will word of mouth really sell a book? I hope so but am skeptical.

  4. One of the great truths of publishing and most popular media is that word of mouth is the most powerful source of great sales. That’s why books with an incredible amount of money poured into its advertising campaign sometimes fail, and why books tossed out to the public with no advertising beyond a listing in the publisher’s catalog are sold out.

  5. Thanks for picking up on my Guardian piece. I tried to leave a comment in response to your (and others’) comments, but I got an error message and didn’t have the heart to type it all out again.

    For the record, I suspect David Lomax is right about Trunk (though I wasn’t the John who called her a “serial liar”). Her failure to name her publisher makes one suspect that she didn’t think her allegations would stand up to scrutiny, or to a response.

    Also while I’m here, the supposition re abilities of publishers which you quote in fact all came from the publicity director of a major UK publishing house – though that person didn’t want to be quoted, even anonymously, so I paraphrased what they told me.

    On the self-publishing point, I share with many a concern that the good stuff will be very difficult to find. I have read quite a few self-published books, and never found anything that I would rank above ‘terrible’. Those were hard copy books a few years ago, before people could publish direct to ebook, so the effort to entry was higher and writers had to be pretty dedicated – and be willing to take a financial hit – to do it. It’s much easier now, so whether that means there will be more good stuff by sheer weight of numbers, or whether it means people will view the lower barriers to entry as licence to publish any old thing, I don’t know.

    However I am very conscious of the weaknesses in traditional publishing, and the difficulties that good, original authors have in getting their books published – where publishers see their work as too ‘difficult’ or ‘unmarketable’ to take a chance on – so there must be some people of a very high ability out there, whose work is not sufficiently commercial to attract a mainstream house, who could now have their work self-published. Having said that, I’ve asked on Twitter a few times for people to recommend self-published books to me that they think I would like (by reference to the sort of things I praise on my blog), and nobody has ever suggested anything.

  6. Michael Hyatt is by no means a self published author, never the less his recent book, Platform, was promoted – as far as I know – almost exclusively through social media. His strategy brought the book to the NYTimes best sellers list. If you bought the book the week it was released, and proved it with an email or fax of the receipt, you would be given access to lots of free downloadable stuff (free ebooks and audio books by Hyatt). Genius.

  7. @John Self, thanks for that thoughtful response. I know just what you mean about the difficulties of picking out signal from the noise of self-publishing in the digital age. I’ve read at least one decent book in the last few years that had started off as a self-published effort before being picked up by a mainstream publisher (David Wellington’s Monster Island), but in that case, mass popularity and the subsequent attention of the publisher were what tuned me in to the signal.

    Like you, I’ve looked around at self-published efforts, but I find they lack the attention to detail that marks a work that has been read by several professionals before going to press. I have a very personal perspective on this these days: after years of working, I managed to snag an agent for my novel, and have now had some extensive notes from a (hopefully) interested editor at a publisher (not huge, but not tiny). My manuscript has benefited immeasurably from not just the story sense and editing, but the market-sense, the genre-sense, and the experience of my agent and this (hopefully soon to be “my”) editor.

    This experience has shed a light for me on why so much self-published work is, in my own experience, wanting. The self-published novels I’ve read weren’t just poorly edited — they were filled with false starts, half-scenes, poorly-defined characters and (way too often) far too many adjectives.

    Just a thought, though I know it might not be a popular one.

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