Six Tasks Part 2 – Forming Alliances

N.B. – This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, both from a workshop I taught in January to Toronto Romance Writers. Please read Six Tasks before continuing with today’s post.

The other option I mentioned for balancing your pie chart is that of working with other professionals. Historically, this was what authors did. If we look at the chart again, we could say that the author was traditionally responsible for the pie sections Storyteller and Writer, the editor and the publishing house were responsible for Editor and Marketer, and the agent was responsible for Negotiator. Depending upon the author-agent relationship and the character of the two persons involved, the task of Administrator might be divided between author and agent, evenly or unevenly.

I have said in the past that publishing – by which I mean traditional print publishing – is structured upon a triumvirate. There are three parties at the table in this model, and there are checks and balances between them. You have the writer, who is the creative one at the table. You have the editor, who represents the business of selling books and could be said to be the pragmatic one. And you have the agent who negotiates the contracts and mediates disputes between these two very different perspectives.

In a real sense, that world was much simpler. There was only one marketing model for selling books – print books, although the print format could vary. There was only one group of publishers who marketed fiction, and the vast majority of them were in New York. There were agents who had connections within certain genres or at certain houses. There might have been some variation in the skill set of agents – there are always some known to be tough negotiators, for example, or some known to be “handholders” – but I’ll suggest to you that the range of variation was much smaller than it is now.

Authors wrote. The majority of authors were consistently published in the midlist, where they made a living. They did this for years, writing their books at a steady rate, being consistently published. There were a few superstar authors, and the rules changed for them, but we don’t need to worry too much about superstars. They have more demands put upon them, but they also have more money paid to them, and it’s better for their tax rates to hire people to do things. My point here is that there were very few choices that could be made, so people’s roles were very strictly defined. If an author became a superstar, it was like being hit by lightning. It happened. The market spoke. The earth moved and everything changed. You couldn’t predict it.

In a changing market and one with a wider range of possibilities, responsibilities and expectations shift. We’re working in a market in which promotion is a huge influence and the cult of personality can make a big difference in people’s buying habits. The focus in marketing has shifted from the book to the author. In fact, many responsibilities have shifted to the author. We don’t live in that nice neat world anymore, which means you need to decide what kind of partners you need, as well as whether you need such partners at all.

First let’s look at the changes in our pie chart. As writers, we are still responsible for the tasks of writing and storytelling. That, I suspect, will never change.

Depending upon the house and the schedule, however, we might have more responsibility for editing our own work. Editors now tend to be very overloaded – for the sake of the work, many authors are in the habit of sending their books to a beta reader, a critique partner or even a freelance editor before making delivery. Many agents and agencies are what is called “editing agents” – they also edit the work before delivery as part of their service, sometimes for an additional fee. So, depending upon the house and the editor in question, the author might be responsible for half of that wedge called Editor. I would suggest that even in the best case scenario, you will be responsible for 20% of it.

The marketing of a work begins with the package. The title is part of the marketing of the work, as is the image on the cover. The cover copy is part of it, along with the front matter – those are the pages before the book begins, which typically include an excerpt and/or review quotes for the author’s work. The end matter is also part of the marketing. It can include an excerpt for the author’s next work, a bio of the author, as well as ads for other books by the author. The graphical branding which is echoed on linked books and identifies them as such to readers is also part of the package. This entire realm has traditionally been the domain of publishers and remains primarily so. Most authors, however, are given an early peek at what’s being done so that corrections and suggestions can be integrated.

The distribution of the book includes a number of marketing choices, which have historically been made by the house. If you’ve taken marketing classes, you’re aware of the distinction between supply-push marketing and demand-pull marketing. Supply-push means that the product, in this case the book, is presented in so many locations and so prevalently to the consumer that consumers buy it. Demand-pull means that a demand is created among consumers for the book, who ask after it or order it if it isn’t available, compelling the publisher to create more copies of the book. In a raw sense, supply-push remains the market force managed by publishers, while demand-pull is the realm of authors – and it’s increasingly important.

Supply-push includes publishers discounting a book to get more physical copies into bricks-and-mortar stores. It involves all displays of physical books – like dumps, or paid position in a bookstore. You might not realize that most shelving positions in physical bookstores are paid space. If the publisher declines to pay for premium position, the book goes in the appropriate section, spine out, alphabetical by author, probably one or two copies per store. Similarly, there are premium positions that can be purchased on online bookstores. Some are essentially ads, others are ‘better together’ deals in which buying two similar books gets the consumer a discount, others include free shipping. What’s interesting about these programs on Amazon is that authors can book and pay for them, too. Advertising – in magazines, on websites, on review sites – is something that can be done by either the publisher or the author.

Demand-pull has always been the author’s domain, but traditionally it’s involved writing books in succession that will appeal to a similar audience. You would write two mysteries with romantic elements in a row – not a mystery followed by a cookbook. This has also included booksignings and book tours and still does. In genre fiction, it is uncommon for the house to arrange and pay for a book tour – this happens in literary fiction but not so often in romance. Advertising in the genre publications, like Romantic Times, and on genre-specific sites has and continues to be mostly done by authors. Author websites and blogs fall into demand-pull marketing – where once they were optional, they are now obligatory. The utilization of social media is also an expectation many publishers have of authors. Public appearances are a way of generating interest in your books, by teaching workshops or doing media interviews or participating in a blog tour or attending conferences. I think of reviews as demand-pull – ideally the reader seeks out the book as a result of the review –  so it makes sense that this is a bit of a squishy area. The house may or may not produce advance reading copies (called ARC’s) or make the book available for review before publication through sites like NetGalley. You may end up providing all of your own review copies or augmenting the publisher’s publicity efforts.

So, when we take a hard look at the Marketer segment of the pie, I think you can reasonably say that 50% of it your responsibility. It might be as much as 90% or as low as 10% if you’re publishing in category and disinterested in doing promotion.

There are a couple of ways of allocating this. As long as I’ve been in the business, there have been freelance publicists willing to take on the obligation of doing many of these tasks. Their prices are all over the map. The thing you have to remember with publicity is that there are no guarantees. You could spend $10,000 and land on the NYT, or you could spend the same money and end up with just an invoice. If you do hire a publicist to make a big push for your book, I strongly suggest engaging your publisher in your discussions and your plans. There is no point in generating a demand-pull for additional copies of your book if your publisher has no plan or inclination to print them. What frequently happens when newer authors hire a publicist or embark on an aggressive self-promotion campaign is their sell-through percentage is higher than it might have been otherwise. This is good, but you might be expecting more. Talk to the house before you spend a lot of money. The good news is that digital editions can take up some of the slack here. As e-books become more popular, the interest you generate can be exploited with digital editions instead of lost completely.

Another newish role – or at least one that has become more popular in recent years – is that of the personal assistant or virtual assistant. Historically, a personal assistant to a writer was more of a secretary and assumed much of the administrator’s burden. Many personal assistants now do a lot of the legwork involved with promotion. They can manage contacts with reviewers and the delivery of review copies; they can sort and answer email directed to the author; they can decide upon updates and changes to websites and blogs; they can administer your Facebook fan page. The terrific thing about the emergence of this service sector is that you can pay them by the hour or increments of an hour, so you don’t need to hire one full time and keep him or her busy all year around. They work freelance, so you don’t have to do payroll taxes and benefits. And the internet means that they can be anywhere. You can hire a virtual assistant on the other side of the world, instead of needing to locate one where you live or make office space in your writing environment for another person.

A final way to delegate marketing responsibility is to hire a website designer or administrator. This means that you don’t have to muck with the code or the software or the images to create the site in the first place. It also means that you will have to go back to the designer for all upgrades to the site and pay on an incremental basis for that work. You’ll want to check those rates before you sign on, and also ensure that your designer has been around for a while and will continue to be around. One issue that most people don’t think about is that the code that creates your website remains the intellectual property of the web designer. If you have a designer create your site and then fire that person, intending to have someone cheaper do the maintenance or even to do it yourself, think again. unless you have a specific agreement upfront with the designer that that’s the plan, your scheme might not work as you anticipate.

Okay. Administrators. Authors have always had to manage their time, just as everyone else does in this world. There are more things to juggle now, but again, I suspect that most people have this issue. What I’ve noticed in terms of changes is that you must be more vigilant in double-checking things. A lot of people in this industry are maxed out in terms of time, which means that mistakes are being made. Even when they’re supposed to be corrected, sometimes they aren’t. You need to keep a calendar and chase things down. This is particularly true with payments. They come more slowly than they used to. We could have a talk about the changes in the issuance of payments, but it’ll just depress you. The same is true of the shipping of contracts and the shipping of review copies and any arrangements made for promotional events. Generally, there’s a lot of crosschecking to do – when in doubt, confirm.

Again, some authors hire personal assistants to keep track of all of these things. We talked about personal assistants in the preceding section – in this arena, the personal assistant might ensure that you have office supplies, manage your IT, answer the phone, make you lunch, do whatever you need on a daily basis to get those words on the page. Historically, a personal assistant for a writer was both a secretary and threshold guardian, and worked in the writer’s home or office. That’s a fantasy for a lot of writers. The notion of having anyone else in the house checking on everything gives me the heebie jeebies, but we are all different.

Our last section of the pie is the negotiator. Traditionally, authors have hired an agent to take responsibility for this bit. Tomorrow we’ll look at what agents do.