The news this week that ebooks are currently ranking as the top format in all trade categories ( is giving fresh life to a recurring question: How will the big publishing houses survive the digital revolution? Obviously it’s a critical question coming at a critical time. With much of their money still being invested in printing and distribution, costs that ebooks are making increasingly irrelevant, publishers are really giving off that dinosaur smell.


Just floating an idea here, but I think there’s a strategy for getting them through the next few decades. Please let me know what you think. Despite all the upheaval in the industry, the big publishers still have one advantage: They’re well-known brand names trusted by readers to put out (relatively) good books. I’m thinking that’s the key to their futures. They’ll survive not through great distribution, but through great branding and marketing.


These days, thanks to digital self-publishing, anyone can put a book out in  the world. But selling and marketing the damn thing? That’s hard. Between Kindles and iPads and Nooks and mobile, between Amazon and Sony and Kobo and Diesel and hundreds of other franchises and devices, negotiating the morass of digital networks takes constantly changing expertise.  That’s where the publishers of the future come in. They’ll not only find and produce good books like they do today, they’ll know how to sell books in the universe of ever-shifting digital strings. Their marketers will be book-loving geeks who’ll stay aware of new sites, blogs and outlets, they’ll know which ones are delivering results and which ones are fading, they’ll start a web of blogs themselves.


If publishers can switch to ebooks and put their money and creative energy into marketing, they'll have real chance at succeeding. Writers need a change like this. Readers need a change like this. Everyone needs a change like this. So my thesis, simply put, is this: The best publishers of the future will be the best marketers.


What are your thoughts?


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Yes, I think they expect everyone in the "community" to buy the books as well as act as a kind of marketing department, talking about the books on blogs, twittering, GoodRreads, LibraryThing, all the social media, getting the word out.

Remember that old commercial for shampoo, I think it was, "I told two friends, and then they told two friends, and so on and so on..."?  

Things are getting worse.


As much as I believe in long-tail business plans, this kind of stuff is REALLY. LONG. TAIL. The community approach is the kind of crap indie writers have to depend upon because there aren't many alternatives. I'm thinking of something that's a lot more energetic and creative, where the growth isn't 2 x 2 x 2. It's more like 200 x 200 x 200.


But the technology makes all the difference. What's book marketing today? Sending out review copies?Setting up interviews? Arranging a tour if the book is big enough and buying some ad space or time? I'm thinking of something much more dynamic and viral. Compared to where marketing is today, traditional publishing techniques are... Well, I was gonna say 19th Century, but even that's not right. They're almost MEDIEVAL.

The problem with marketing by the big houses (and I have always known the big houses, long before I became a writer) is that they carry too many authors and are spread too thin. They cannot afford to market and promote all.  That is why they have been spending their money only on bestsellers.  They can scale down and keep on a much smaller number of authors and do a really topnotch job with them, thus going into competition with the other houses and the amorphous electronic marketplace. I somehow don't think that will happen.  They will continue to pin their hopes on a handful of proven winners and try to eke out a passable income from their unpromoted writers.


You're right, the spread-too-thin phenomenon has always been a problem for publishers and will likely get worse as more books go digital. Still, I find it hard to believe that some smart marketing team hasn't faced a challenge like this before in the business world without coming up with a solution. How? I don't know, I'm not a marketer, but I have great respect for the craft. I was an editor for 23 years at Time Inc, working for People and Entertainment Weekly--magazines where the pressure to sell on the newsstand was unrelenting--and I wouldn't have survived without the help of great marketers. Now that I think of it, my experience was a hidden thought behind what I wrote yesterday. I was wondering what would happen if the kind of aggressive, creative marketing I saw in magazines were applied to the publishing industry. 

Yes, but that was in-house and focused on one product.

One product? Well, sure, but in dealing with that one product at People, for example, the marketers had to come up with different campaigns for each issue, different campaigns for any breaking news on (which was usually about three times a week), different campaigns for the StyleWatch section (which eventually became its own magazine), different campaigns for the special issues, different campaigns for the People books, different campaigns for People en Espanol, different campaigns for Teen People and frequently different campaigns for individual stories in the weekly magazine. The pressure was unrelenting and so were the challenges. That kind of constantly changing mindset, I think, would be perfect for book publishing.



I'm surprised that we haven't seen some kind of "e-book of the month club" emerge. The technology would certainly make it easy. There could even be specialized clubs for different kind of books and they could all be less than ten bucks each. The book of the month club was really just a way to market books.
Excellent idea.  You'd have to subscribe and the book would appear in your mail box once a month.
Make that e-mail box, of course.
I see where there's a lot of room for improvement in marketing and publicity.  :)  Not that I ever doubted it.


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