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Rx for a Bright Future: Pay More Attention to Your Authors

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Although authors can now “publish” at the click of a button, it’s not easy to get attention in a world of cognitive surplus. Accordingly, more and more, respect tends to go toward authors who earn the attention of readers, rather than to those who pass muster with the traditional publishing gatekeepers.

Most authors—before realizing that discoverability is the big problem today—first face the difficulty of choosing how to publish and distribute. Seek a traditional deal? Try self-publishing? If so, include a print component? Partner with one of the growing number of literary agencies offering support services for self-publishing? Affiliate exclusively with Amazon for greater promotional opportunities? A small book could be written describing the possibilities now available, then be out of date in a month.

Some authors see opportunity amid the confusion and change, but many more are paralyzed, worried they will make the wrong choice and damage their careers. For their part, publishers now realize they have to defend their value to authors—an inconceivable idea just a few years ago—as successful e-book authors (e.g., J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, Bob Mayer) aggressively speak out against “legacy publishers” that they portray as slow moving, low paying, and generally working against authors’ interests

What is happening today in the publishing industry is confusing to authors as well as hugely divisive. Authors are separating into camps: those who defend traditional publishing and those who defend self-publishing (or the often preferred term, indie publishing). Very few in either camp understand the changes in the industry, but the beliefs and attitudes of authors will in part dictate what the future of publishing looks like.

Yes, it’s an old cliché—authors feel underserved and unsupported by their publishers—but the authors have reason to be unhappy, and the publishers know it. It’s unnecessary to detail all the ways that authors are dissatisfied with publishers; anyone working in the industry is familiar with the complaints. We all acknowledge that most books and authors receive very limited support and attention. And now that many alternative and better-paying publishing paths have opened up, authors frequently conclude that what publishers offer is not good enough.

Anyone in publishing who doesn’t see this as a growing problem might reflect on (1) the number of authors who’ve made exclusive deals with Amazon; (2) the growing footprint of Amazon’s U.S. publishing program—and don’t forget singles and serials; (3) the growing number of agency-based publishing programs; and (4) the announcement of high-powered digitally enabled publishing enterprises such as Brightline.

The future I propose is one that looks bright for both publishers and authors because it features publishers who truly serve as authors’ partners, seeking to empower the authors and freely sharing as much knowledge and information as they have.

Payoffs for Partnering

The biggest problems that authors must solve for themselves, year after year, are (1) staying competitive, current, and discoverable in a shifting digital landscape; (2) having the right tools to be effective and in touch with their readers; and (3) having a strong network of connections that helps them market and promote.

Assistance with all these things is well within a publisher’s ability, but most publishers haven’t been putting any resources into providing it. They have been focused on their own problems as they work on shifting to a digitally enabled business and squeezing as many sales as possible out of their mastery of print book sales and distribution.

Most of publishers’ thinking is centered on self-preservation. But I’d like to suggest that the best self-preservation measure of all is becoming a house that’s known and respected—in the eyes of its authors—for being an active, long-term partner and resource. By empowering each author to do better, a publisher ensures more sales over the long term.

The full list of benefits publishers can get by helping authors could easily double the length of this article. Here are three important ways such a strategy pays off.

Reaching more readers directly. For years, publishers have known that they need to build more relationships directly with readers, instead of relying on the bookstore or e-retailer relationship to service the readers. The approach has led to an industry that has very limited ability to market directly to consumers, which is where a huge part of Amazon’s power lies.

Authors are in a key position to reach readers directly, but most don’t understand how important that is, and how to turn reader contact today into revenue tomorrow. Publishers who do now understand how to do this can help authors create and implement a direct marketing strategy—while also collecting names to benefit the entire house.

Developing stronger touchpoints. A surprising number of authors have Websites that are ineffective; some have sites that are even harmful to business. (See “Author Websites” in the February issue.) Time spent developing a publisher’s own Website content is mostly wasted in relation to time spent developing each author’s online presence, since authors’ sites are where readers are more likely to stick and engage for the long term. (A handful of publishers have Websites with truly meaningful content and have built online communities because of readers’ relationships with an imprint. Many others, including most of the Big Six publishing “brands,” are not in that position.)

If authors can be made more effective online—not just at their own sites, but across a variety of social media and retailer sites—more touchpoints will develop, as will more opportunities to reach readers, more points of sale, and more meaningful discussion of a publisher’s titles wherever its authors are active.

Improving cross-promotion, marketing, and networking. Most publishers already consider cross-promotion of titles when that is possible, but how many are connecting authors with each other because of similarities in readership?

Publishers are well equipped not only to facilitate across-house author communication and knowledge sharing, but also to help individual authors understand when they can increase the size of their audience by partnering with one or more of the house’s other authors. (See “What Author Groups Can Do for You” in the July 2011 Independent.)

Too often, though, publishers are so focused on marketing specific titles that they ignore the longer-term marketing and sales opportunity of helping their authors network and share contacts and strategies for a shared audience.

Helping authors communicate with each other creates snowballing knowledge of what buttons to push to sell more books.

Practical Tactics

Several tactics are essential to delivering the benefits outlined above, as well as others.

Share information. Authors need to know about the human and financial resources that their publishers plan to devote to their books. And they need to understand how and why these resources are limited, whether they might be expanded under certain conditions, and, if so, what those conditions are.

Create an author collective. Each house should form a group of authors who will help each other with branding, marketing, and promotion. This isn’t something publishers should let happen outside their doors, or leave to chance; it’s something that somebody inside the house should be responsible for facilitating and nurturing.

Provide an education program. Education about publishing and authorship is essential, and the program should be a mix of 101/evergreen presentations (in the form of white papers, Webinars, tutorials, screencasts, and Q&As) with one-off events on advanced and emerging topics.

A publisher should never assume an author knows anything about how to run a writing career as a business. Authors shouldn’t be told they are responsible for marketing and promotion but not be given all the tools they need to be successful at the tasks. They need to be instructed, and the instruction they receive should be firmly focused on their needs as authors.

Staff for author development and community. No publisher can be considered serious about author partnership without assigning at least one staff member (if not a group of staff members) to working with authors. Education and online community building don’t happen through volunteer work or off-hours efforts. They must be baked into the company’s mission and strategy.

Toward a Better Tomorrow

The ideas suggested here are but a start, and they should be taken in ever-more-innovative directions. For instance:

  • What if publishers allowed their authors to help direct what future books or authors the house invested in?
  • What if authors became writers-in-residence at publishing houses?
  • What if publishers held annual events to gather all their authors—both for internal education and communication and for contacts with readers?

Regardless of how books develop in digital form, publishers will always have relationships with authors. And the best way for a publisher to distinguish itself with authors is not necessarily by being the most technically advanced, or by being the most innovative in media creation and distribution. The best way, I believe, is by being an empowering partner.

Will this strategy work to recruit and retain the most valuable authors? Will authors suck up a publisher’s resources, then jump ship? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about authors, it’s that they do not want to be alone in their efforts; they want partners. They want a community of people they can trust. They want reliable resources and ongoing education—and this is without even considering their need to understand how the responsibilities and vision of an author must evolve.

The job of an author—the business of being a successful author—never ends. It is a lifelong commitment and journey. If publishers invest in the most important marketing tool they have—the author—the rewards will secure them a place in whatever future awaits us all.

Jane Friedman is an assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati and former publisher of Writer’s Digest. Her expertise in technology and publishing has been featured on NPR and PBS and in Publishers Weekly, and she has consulted with a range of nonprofits, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. She blogs on how writers can empower their careers through new media at JaneFriedman.com.

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