When bookstores were the distribution path for books, they were also the primary avenue for “discovery”. That was what the big store was about. People could browse it and find things they had no idea existed that they wanted to buy. But, as we all know, “discovery” now is largely an online thing, driven by some magical combination of “search engine optimization”, social media promotion and word-of-mouth, and online retailer merchandising.


What some are still learning is “the fallacy of last click attribution”. […] In a nutshell, that means that where somebody buys something is not necessarily where they made the buying decision. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber getting free shipping on your books, you go to Amazon to buy regardless of where you learned about the book.

Mike Shatzkin on discovery.

The business-to-business focus of marketing in the publishing industry is something I’ve always found… interesting. That is to say, most marketing done by big publishing houses focuses on promoting titles not to the people who buy them (e.g. readers), but rather to stockists for big retails chains (and, to some extent, libraries). The publishers then rely on the retailers to do the “last mile” promotional push to the readers. Or not to do it, as the case may be. This model is sort of like if Hollywood did no marketing to the public, and instead relied on individual cinema chains to promote its films. Or if the videogame industry relied solely on promotional placements at Gamestop.

Publishing houses are starting to develop better business-to-consumer marketing channels, but they’re very nascent and nothing like the sort of thing seen in other industries. Think videogames again, for example, where the industry has both media and consumers so in-pocket that not only can it afford to blacklist publications that don’t give its products glowing reviews, but where this behaviour is actively supported by buyers. (“Ethics in videogame journalism” is a meme for a reason; think of the massive wankstorms that erupt whenever a publication dates to give an imperfect score to whatever the Triple A darling du jour happens to be.) Whether or not you, personally, believe this behaviour is “acceptable” or not, there’s no denying it sells.

With books, the problem is that reader-to-reader “buzz”–which heavily includes fandom participation, like fanfic, fanart, and cosplay–is still one of the most effective (and cost-effective) marketing tools a book can have. And yet, in my experience, publishers seem to not only have no idea about how to promote this, but often seem actively hostile to the notion of doing so. And so the responsibility falls to authors, pretty much all of whom have both zero interest and zero skill at the job (which is why they’re authors and not, like, marketing executives). And who are often receiving very, very bad advice on what they “should” be doing, self-promotion wise.1

I think publishers will probably get better at b2c marketing–I think they’ll probably have to get better at it–but the road towards it will be… rocky. Particularly for authors.

  1. Book “blog tours”, I am looking at you. []