I see JK Rowlings is getting a fair amount of publicity about her new ‘adult’ book. It’s one of the truisms about publishing that if you don’t need publicity, you’ll get it, and if you do, you won’t.
A well-known author who had just had the butter-boat emptied on him, tried to explain this as the the publishers being cash-rich and personnel-poor. The strategy was all about introducing him to new readers… So he went to patches of fandom. Made perfect sense, really.
Put in military terms publishers are like a country fighting a war on five fronts… four of the armies are so under-equipped they have to steal ammunition from their foes. They have no boots. They’re outnumbered two to one by their foes, and they need the resources and support of mother country just to survive, let alone win. And some of them are still making a fight of it. The fifth front is commanded by a wealthy, influential general and the motherland has given his men the very best equipment, and the largest army and large stocks of food and ammunition. His forces outnumbers the foes he faces. So the parliament of the country so at war, facing extinction… has a small stock of ammunition, boots, and a few thousand reserves. So they send all of it to the fifth front, where the general has attractive offers to change sides, and promises to match every bit of materiel and manpower he has been given. The embattled country is just bound to win with this strategy, isn’t it?
The reality of course is while publishers have historically had cash, and some of them have made a recent pile selling e-books off their backlist (some of which they may have the rights to… or not, as e-books did not exist or were not included when the contract was signed. A successful challenge will bankrupt them), they’re really not cash rich either- not for the vast costs of a Spanish Armada that the sort mass-tactics that they use on their ‘popular’ authors – not for everyone. They may be personnel-poor too, at least while they continue to do business in manner they always have (ie. lots of meetings, which – and your mileage may vary – can chew a vast amount of time for little added value). The truth is they’re -outside of Baen – also Brand-recognition poor (ie, no one buys a Tor book or a Del Rey book or a Simon & Schuster book because they love the publisher’s choices, and trust them to provide good reading. No, they trust author names.) They’re quality sales-data poor too, meaning they know nothing about their customers – and about the market and those who don’t buy their product, but could. They also seem contemporary marketing skill poor too, and this is a field that is changing fast and in which the old techniques of flooding bookstores are perhaps 1/3 as effective as they once were.
Now, logic says if you’re poor in all these fields you need to make best use of the few resources you have, and you need to leverage off them. The one way would be to gamble and hope that by investing heavily in one author you could make a huge profit (your fixed costs – editing, proof-reading etc, for a bestseller are not (at least in theory) very much bigger than for noob. Of course as you’re sales data poor too, this is a gamble, plain and simple. And as the importance of the traditional marketing channels (selling to brick-and-mortar chain bookstores) decline, so does their ability to cook the odds. The information available from Bookscan is such poor quality, that basing decisions on it is the equivalent of reading entrails for answers. Publishers know its a gamble… so they bet ‘safe’ – which means the authors they paid a lot for, and where reaching a new audience is hard… it’s safer, but unlikely to give more than a minor win. And a minor win… is not enough.
The one thing you don’t do is spend money ineffectually. Spend ideally has to get you maximum leverage for the lowest cost, and ideally has to improve all the areas you are resource poor in. Spending roughly half the advance (a typical measure, apparently) on promotion for say… Sir Terry Pratchett, is the equivalent of flushing money down the tube – firstly the chances of your reaching new readers to pay more than tiniest fraction of your costs are miniscule, and secondly, his fans do a much better job than you can. Rather like the powerful fifth army, the only way it pays real dividends is if you can use the popularity and success of that author to improve your other regions of poverty – So, if you send the resources to the strong but direct them to relieve the hard pressed, and make it worth their while. If you do spend on say David Weber – but you use that spend to build your Baen brand awareness (meaning you have something to offer to to authors), and to piggy back other authors – and to collect some sales data while you’re at it (sign up here for our new notification list, and we’ll tell you a fortnight early about the new e-ARC and you can get at a 20% discount -meaning more profit for us, actually, and a saving for you. And here is a free first book of Fred Funnyface’s new Space navy novel with every purchase. If you can’t leverage off that, then looking for authors who make ground despite your non-support and sending them help is common sense.
The most valuable asset authors have is their brand, and fans of that brand. Publishers need to leverage off that — and that realistically means paying for it. Authors invest heavily – mostly in man-hours and talent, but also in money, building that. It’s theirs, and they’re not going to use it to benefit other authors – or their publisher – without quid pro quo. Now there is an idea that would work, but also be unpopular with them.