There are six major publishing conglomerates in the United States. Each conglomerate controls any number of subsidiary publishers. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, owns HarperCollins, William Morrow, and Avon, which, more or less, work as a unit, sharing resources and personnel.
My first novel, Pretend I’m Not Here, is a romantic suspense published by HarperCollins in mass paperback. After being signed by one of the “Six Sisters,” I might have imagined that the Murdoch media machine would be behind me, rigorously publicizing and marketing my novel. I didn’t. That treatment is reserved for major authors with guaranteed best-sellers.
People not in the publishing business – which includes most unpublished authors waiting for their big break – assume that publishers take care of all PR needs. Even if they are not expecting a major sales campaign, many new novelists assume that a publisher will at least organize their book tour. They’re usually wrong. Even if a publisher pays you $50,000 for your book, that does not mean you are a high priority. You are one author in hundreds, even thousands. Unless you have negotiated a promotional budget in your contract or your advance is so large that it constitutes an investment that must be recouped, your publisher is going to spend its money elsewhere.
What should a new author expect? My experience, though not universal, is a window into standard practices, one I have heard echoed in general form by a range of other authors. First of all, know that book promotion is divided into two autonomous departments, publicity and marketing. Publicity works on getting reviews, features, and interviews. Three months prior to release, galleys of Pretend I’m Not Here went to twenty reviewers including Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Then a mailing of about one hundred finished books went to Internet sites and newspapers that review romance and mystery. Copies were also sent to the list of contacts and local papers I provided in my author questionnaire and added afterwards. Though I had to organize my own book tour, my HarperCollins publicist also supported my efforts by mailing press kits and contacting the author promotions departments of major book chains like Barnes & Noble when I made specific requests – often the only way an author can hope to set up a signing.
Marketing covers the major expenses, mostly ads and postcard mailings. An ad for Pretend I’m Not Here was placed in Romantic Times. For romantic suspense and romance in general, this is considered the best vehicle to target a new author to the core reader. After I inquired about aiming at mystery readers, an ad was placed in Mystery Scene which circulates to mystery booksellers, retail buyers and consumers. I also asked about possible mailings but was told that purchasing the necessary lists would be prohibitively expensive.
During a sales meeting held about a year before the novel’s release date, a sales approach was formulated, which included a cover design: a distant female figure standing before a menacingly dark sea and sky. According to the HarperCollins marketing department, the cover is by far the most important marketing tool, especially when selling a new author to a publisher’s existing accounts. Well over a thousand solicitation proofs of the Pretend I’m Not Here cover were circulated through the sales department and targeted directly to buyers at Barnes & Noble down to small independents bookstores.
Pretend I’m Not Here also received an online presence at the HarperCollins website. I was in touch with publicity and marketing contacts as the release date approached, and they were always friendly and helpful, often very so, though constrained by budgets. I was one author on their very crowded schedules. I did manage to get two additional perks. A thousand give-away pins would have cost me roughly $500, but when I asked, HarperCollins was willing to produce and mail them to me for free. These are a huge help at book signings, and something I wouldn’t have received without my own initiative. The cost, of course, was minor to HarperCollins. The publicity department was also able to send me a box of free books (48 copies) to use for my own promotional purposes.
If I were being published by a small press, my promotional support would depend on the resources and attitude of the given press. The range of variation is drastic. Some small publishers pride themselves on their commitment to their small number of authors, aggressively supporting each book with promotional campaigns that include exposure in top media markets. But small houses do not have the powerful distribution networks of big publishers, don’t get major reviews as easily, and are constrained by much smaller budgets, meaning smaller book runs and less advertising. Even printing and mailing one hundred advance review copies is no small expense, as any self-published author can tell you.
Most small houses release only a handful of titles each year. It is a matter of their own survival that those books prosper, so their commitment to each author is usually high. Large houses like HarperCollins publish hundreds of titles every year, most with minimal publicity and marketing support. As a result, vast numbers of their new authors fail. Many more first novels are produced each year than second novels, meaning that those whose first books sell poorly often do not get a second chance.
The practice may appear counter-productive at first. Why go to the effort and expense of producing a book if you don’t intend to promote it? Aside from their handful of guaranteed hits, publishers don’t know which titles are going to be profitable investments. They can’t afford to back them all, so they wait to see which titles rise from the pack. The larger their pack, the better the chances of discovering a major money-maker – and thus preventing a competitor from making the same discovery.
So authors compete against each other, both inside and outside of the publishing house. Rising from the pack usually involves a number of factors, including luck, connections and often enough of the author’s own money. A set of phenomenal reviews from major publications can trigger big sales. A well-connected author with multiple media contacts can sometimes make that happen. So can a private publicist. If the publishing house isn’t putting its full resources behind the book, it’s up to the author to fill in the gaps.
Many best-selling authors achieved their success by investing their advances in their own campaigns. Hiring your own publicist will cost $10,000. Purchasing mailing lists can cost more. By spending all or most of an advance on self-promotion, an author is banking on his or her long-term future. It’s a common practice – one that publishers are coming to expect. Dorothea Benton Frank spent over half of her $50,000 advance on postcard and flyer mailings to over 80,000 addresses and on her own regional book tour, a strategy which premiered her first novel at number nine on the New York Times best-seller list. She then signed a two-book contract for $100,000 each.
But that outcome is rare. Peter Lance, a novelist who also began in mass paperback, spent similarly, exceeding his $8,000 advance four times over in order to pay for his own ads, travel expenses, mailings and even a personal assistant. He sold out most of his 55,000 first run quickly, but to little effect. He lost money, and his press was slow to issue a second edition.
Both examples, however, highlight what publishers are looking for when they contract a new writer: an entrepreneur willing to risk financial investments and exploit a wide network of contacts. Tales of authors mortgaging their houses and driving off in travel homes for personal book tours or purchasing $4,000 billboard spaces while continuing to work their days jobs are not uncommon. For some, the investments pay off. For others, they don’t. Some authors see sales as more important than profits and so willingly spend more than they make. That’s not hard to do, given that an average book signing may only mean selling 10 copies, and the author’s take is tiny after the publisher, agent and IRS have received their shares. Often the most realistic goal is to creep slowly up in sales numbers book by book until the publisher takes notice and decides to invest real dollars – just when the now prospering author least needs it.
Authors as a group are in a Catch-22. The more they promote, the less publishers need to. But to choose not to promote will most likely result in individual failure, without impacting the overall system since big houses expect most of their titles to sell poorly anyway. You can expect a hundred review copies and an ad; after that, it’s probably up to you. Ironically, the introverted skills required to write a novel are opposite from the ones needed to be a successful seller. Authors have become salespersons, whether they sign with a major house or a small press or if they self-publish. A publishing deal is no free ticket. The job of selling your book is yours regardless of where you find print.
Chris Gavaler is the author of Pretend I’m Not Here, a romantic suspense published by HarperCollins in July 2002. For more information, writing advice, free chapters or correspondence, visit .