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Playing the ponies; or “I don’t want to be in marketing, but here I am anyway”

Image by Bhakti Iyata from Pixabay

It’s a rotten time to be a writer. Leaving aside the creativity-crushing effects of indoor monotony, the usual mechanics of the publishing business are showing their fault lines: authors can’t go on book tours, covers can’t catch consumers’ eyes as they perambulate around shops, and while ebook and audio bundles could be a cool thing, I suspect the big houses are concerned about what will happen to all that easy-to-break DRM’d material after the crisis is over — which is what they were worrying about before, but it’s not a good look right now.

Marketing is one of those things that seemed to be broken well before all this, though, so I wanna talk about it briefly.

Creativity is not zero-sum game — ideas are a dime a dozen, every author has a different take, and even if they don’t, the audience may not care (see: stuffman’s Two Cakes comic) — but marketing is. The funds a publisher can put toward advertising creative endeavors is, generally, limited. Stuff costs money, and that money has to get allocated. Publishers make a guess as to what’s going to sell, and allocate money toward that — just like any other company.

It’s all very uncomfortable. Publishing needs content from authors to have any sort of business. Readers, however, are fickle and publishers are not infallible — they don’t actually know what’s going to sell well, regardless of the money thrown at any one project. So there’s incentive there to publish a lot and then see what the reading public likes. But that “publish all the things!” ethos rides up against the zero-sum issue of before: there’s only so much money. So… the publishers make a bet, pick what they think is going to be successful, and hope they’re right. They’ll stack the deck as much as they can — advertising and marketing and whatnot — but again: they don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. One tent-pole book that sells well because of a heavy advertising push can support publishing dozens of other books… one or more of which may end up being equal or larger successes, because of talent or audience whim or sudden Oprah visitation.

It makes sense, when you look at it from that angle. If, however, you’re the writer on the other end of the equation… it feels a lot like being a content-producing monkey. Or, to put it a more palatable way, vastly underappreciated and overworked for the pay we receive.

A real-life example:

I’ve had one book published (co-authored, published by Tor Books, so there was a Real Publisher with Real Money and a Real Contract), and let me tell you, I was surprised by what I was asked to do. I needed to provide a list of reviewers for them to send ARCs (but why didn’t they have their own list?), and I had to set up my own interviews (but I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t they at least connect me…?).

What I didn’t realize at the time was that another book was coming out in the same genre at almost the exact same time — but it was a three-book deal as opposed to the single one we had, and they already had all three books in hand. So, where does the money go? There isn’t an infinite amount of it — and “money” here includes stuff like the literal hours in the day. Hours spent on our book were hours that couldn’t be spent on that other one.

Do all that math, and what comes out is that other book, and its associated series, was a better bet, business-wise. Gotta put your money on the horse that gives you the best chance of winning. Those books got the major marketing push, and ours didn’t.

(Note: Being able to rationalize it doesn’t actually make it feel better.)

I have no idea what the other book’s sales were like; ours weren’t great. But I had a decent advance that never earned out, so between me and the publisher, technically I walked away the winner. And the publisher didn’t collapse into financial ruins when my book didn’t take off, because that other book — and any of the other better-selling books that came out that year, and the backlist of bestsellers, and the constant promise of future bestsellers — allowed for them to take a loss on mine, and losses on many other future books that they’ll publish anyway on the off chance that one of them’ll be a winner anyway.

I don’t have a solution for any of this. Publishing houses are doing a ridiculous, constant balancing act that absolutely shouldn’t work, just like how “playing the ponies” should not constitute anybody’s idea of a career. It’s a wonder that the whole thing hasn’t collapsed before now.

The reality is, unless I plan to pull an Emily Dickinson and hide all my fiction away in a drawer somewhere — which I’m not — I have to accept that part of the whole writing gig is marketing myself, because there’s never going to be any guarantee that a publisher is going to do it for me. I have to make my own luck, stack my own deck, bet on my own horse.

I just wish that for all the math publishers are doing on their end, they’d do some on ours. Because they have a limited number of dollars and hours to put to a project… and so do I. And if they can’t find a way to pay authors to be both their content creators and their marketing team… well. That’s a gamble that might eventually cost them everything.

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