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Don’t Pour Money Down These Drains

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Every morning, they are there–in my real and virtual mailboxes–solicitations aimed at me, the independent publisher: Pay us this amount, and we’ll do that for you. The promises are also behind ads in this newsletter and other industry publications.

Do I need or want the service being sold? Will this gang deliver what it says it will? And even if it does, will I sell more books because of it? Other questions: Is this the way my industry really works? Is this–here comes the word–ethical?

Some services a publisher obviously needs, such as printing. We settle on specs for a particular project; we request bids; we examine similar books printed by vendors on our short list; we make a decision. But many small publishers are also deluged with offers for services where the guidelines for making choices are not so clear.

Obviously, one helpful way to sort all this out is to talk to publishing colleagues who’ve been there, done that–the best argument I know for joining a local or regional publishers association. Then again, what worked well for one sort of book might not be so successful for another. And some publishers, especially first timers, are relatively isolated or hanging with people not much more knowledgeable than they are.

I can’t pretend to answer in the abstract all the questions a publisher might have about choosing marketing and promotional partners. I’m still answering some of my own in an ongoing trial-and-error process, although in this, my third year of publishing with six books now out, I’ve found some good strategies while tossing out others. I’m getting a good sense of what works well for the types of books Red Rock Press publishes. Now I’m proactive in seeking the assistance I’m convinced we need; meanwhile I can tell better which of those unsolicited offers might be worth some investigation and which are nonsense or worse.

In the area of seeking publicity for my books, I also bring added experience. Before I donned a publisher’s hat, I was a Newsday staff book critic, and I served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

So, based on both arenas of experience, I offer a baseline criterion for making promotional and marketing decisions. My Golden Rule is: Don’t pay up front.

Paying for a review, interview, or sales representation is, in my opinion, unethical or useless or both.

Some distinctions need to be made here. It’s entirely principled for either a publisher or an author to hire a publicist to promote a particular book or series. Even authors published by major houses do this, realizing that the publisher’s in-house publicity staff lacks the time and will to do as good a job for a particular title as an outside publicist would.

The publicist’s job is to attempt to secure TV, radio, and print interviews for the author and to bring the author and book to the attention of critics, feature editors, and broadcast producers (the focus will differ, depending on the type of book and personality of the author). Some traditional book publicists also handle Internet publicity; a few publicists do only Internet promotion. Some publicists will also arrange tours and book reading/signing opportunities.

Good publicists have valuable knowledge: They know how to position a book, how to produce strong press materials, whom to contact. Many authors benefit from having a professional mediate between them and the media. But a reputable publicist cannot and will not promise to deliver a specific interview, feature, or review. (Top publicists are also selective about the titles they rep; their worth rests on their successes.)

Publicists (and other marketing consultants) usually work on contract. Part of the fee is required up front; the rest is payable per the agreement terms.

But although paying for a publicist is legit, paying directly for a review, interview, or feature is not.

Paid-for articles featuring your book or interviews featuring your author may be tempting; it sounds guaranteed, and it’s cheaper than hiring a publicist. But they violate industry standards. This means that legitimate producers and editors, and sophisticated booksellers will discount this publicity, should they even come across it. Retail book buyers may not be so discerning, but paid-for interviews or reviews don’t appear in publications they are likely to see, or air where and when they are likely to hear them.

Assessing Exceptions

Directly advertising a book is kosher, however, as is advertising the availability for interview of an author in a media trade publication. And certainly, you pay up front for either opportunity. The question here is: Will it profit you?

My feeling is it’s probably worth testing what you can track: If you place a direct-response ad in a consumer publication that seems right for your book, you’ll be able to evaluate the responses. If you advertise the availability of an author for interviews, you or your media-contact person will know how many interview requests resulted and came to fruition. But will this sell additional books?

In my experience, only two situations virtually guarantee trackable sales: author appearances where books are sold, and author appearances on network TV. Radio is iffy; if your author is heard on, say, a National Public Radio (NPR) show, whose listeners actually buy books, that’s great. But a show that airs only at 2 a.m. in greater Rawlins, Wyoming, is probably not worth your time or your author’s, unless the book is about cowboy insomnia.

It’s also true that a starred PW review will spur bookstore orders, while a rave in a distinguished critical environment, such as The New York Times or New York Review of Books, will set readers’ fingers clicking toward Amazon, or prod them in your book’s direction on their next bookstore visit.

With the exception of local or intense regional coverage (if it’s timed right), the effects of other media exposure–from magazine serialization to general advertisements–tend to be cumulative and harder to trace.

It’s easy, however, to know how to respond to certain advertising pitches, once you know the ground rules. Some requests for interviews or review copies of a book, or responses to your listing a title, or other mailings are quickly followed by a call from the organization’s advertising department. Even the behemoths in our industry, such as Cahners, play that game. My advice: Don’t go there–unless you have a sound business reason for wanting to place an ad. Hoping for a review is not a sound reason.

A reputable publication separates editorial and advertising decisions (even if the departments trade information). If the editors decide to give your book attention, you will not be required to be an advertiser.

If, on the other hand, you are given to understand that a paid advertisement is a prerequisite for editorial attention, that attention is worth little to nothing.

Cooperative deals with bookstores are different–they may not be in an entirely different ethical category, but they do not violate industry norms, possibly because publishers are a cowardly lot when it comes to the demands of our essential partners–booksellers. Major book chains charge publishers major amounts for favorable display space, and then deduct the publisher’s costs from their payouts of receipts. (You will not be “invited” to participate in such “cooperative” arrangements, unless your books are already doing big business nationally.)

Some independent bookstores also ask publishers to ante up for advertising an in-store event featuring your author and title. The amounts of money requested are small–generally between $25 and $50, and whether you agree is your call. If a bookseller thinks a particular author appearance will move books, the store will host the event even if you lack a “co-op budget.” But contributing to local advertising of the event could bring more potential book buyers to it.

 

When it comes to using outside sales groups, there are fewer exceptions to my Golden Rule: Don’t pay up front. Effective distributors and sales-rep groups earn their income–whether by salary, commission, or both–by selling books: not from advance fees paid by publishers.This is true, or should be true, whether you’re talking about people who offer your books to bookstores, to other types of retail stores, to libraries, or to “special sales” clients, such as a corporation that buys books to use as a training tool or as a giveaway to clients.

A publisher should scrutinize carefully a potential distributor who demands an extra fee for an essential marketing tool, such as inclusion (as opposed to additional, special display) of your front-list titles in its sales catalogue. A good distributor will take on only publishers whose books it believes it can sell; the percentage of revenue you yield to the distributor will more than cover your share of the distributor’s costs in trying to sell your books.

One line that some sales groups use to part you from your money goes something like this: “We charge a fee to include your book(s) on our list because we don’t know ahead of time what will sell. We need to charge a fee so we can give your book a chance.”

“Fat chance” is the smart reply to this argument. If a rep group or distributor is willing to take on all comers, and charge them up front for the privilege, then they have too little incentive to actually get out there and sell all those books. What they tend to do, instead, is push hard those few books they think will sell easily to customers they already have.

 

OK¾
there are occasional surprises. But if someone whose job is selling books doesn’t have a good idea of what is salable in their market, that’s probably not the person you want representing you. Also to the point: If sales organizations are raking in up-front fees, they will almost always take on more clients than they can represent well.

Open to Argument

 

What you have here are only one publisher’s opinions. I stand by them, of course. (Did I mention that I was once an op-ed columnist?) It often appears to be a jungle out there, but the way we structure our deals and promote our “products” seems to me important in ways not wholly measurable at the till. It’s not that I believe that publishing remains a gentlemanly bastion (Was it ever that way?); it’s that while titles flash and disappear, our reputations endure¾
or will, if we can figure out how to stay in business.

Yet publishing is evolving¾
the market share of small publishers is increasing; the very form of books is altering; the rules and opportunities sometimes seem to change with every season, even with every new title. Among us are publishers who are sure to disagree with some, or even most, of what I’ve said. And I hope you’ll make yourselves and your reasons known in these pages. E-mail JAppelbaumPMA@aol.com.

Ilene Barth is the Creative Director of Red Rock Press, based in New York City and Telluride, Colorado. She is on the PMA Board.

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