Blech of a Salesman

27/02/2012 § 2 Comments

In the three months since self-publishing a piece of long form reporting, I have become more aware of the niche businesses evolving around ebooks. Graphic designers appear to be finding sustaining work. Freelance editors have less traction, but some are doing well providing notes to authors. What I have yet to understand, and would like to explore, is why the marketing business hasn’t gotten very involved in the ebook business. We do not yet see many boutique marketing shops cropping up for hire by authors to sell books. Or, not nearly to the degree graphic designers, ebook packagers, and distributors have.

I find that surprising. It seems like the demand is there. With so many books available, both self published and traditionally published, solving a signal-to-noise problem in the market should have value. Personally, after three months of education in book selling, I am disposed to pay someone a percentage of every copy to market The Shores of Tripoli.

I have two theories why no one is willing to take the job, yet. This will take a minute to explain:

The first theory has to do with attitudes toward technology. For the past decade or so, the trend in digital technology has been to make multitasking easier. In journalism, the increasing quality and ease of modern cameras, communications technologies, and video editing software has led to the reduction of many reporting teams from three or four to one. This is good and bad. In Libya, I had lower costs and more freedom working alone. I conducted research, wrote articles, took photographs, recorded HD video and broadcast-quality audio alone, and edited all of that on a $400 laptop. I had a lot of control and this was very helpful to define the story quickly, get the information I needed to tell it, and remain focused. The Shores of Tripoli was in part a result of that freedom.

However multitasking also meant I did every task slightly worse than I could were I concentrating on one discipline. It is particularly difficult to take good photographs when also trying to observe a scene from the more passive, removed point of view helpful to writers. For that reason, in part, The Shores of Tripoli does not include photos.

(The other reason is that pictures increase file size, which I have to pay Amazon for with each download. Right now I pay a penny or two per sale, but with high quality photos that would become a real cost).

When I returned from Libya, I faced another round of multitasking. The culture of ebooks seems based on the idea that if I am enough of a salesman to convince publishers to take my work, than I am enough of a salesman to convince the public to buy it too.

That’s a fallacy in my case. Selling ideas to editors is a very different kind of business than is selling books to readers. Nor do I have as much experience selling to the public as I do reporting, writing and talking to editors. When I used to sell stories mostly to print magazines, I did not have to go down to the news stand and sell the magazine too. The new model is for me to sell The Shores of Tripoli to Kindle Singles or some other large-scale outlet that can offer marketing help, and yet, still do most of the work myself to sell it to customers who visit Amazon.

Like juggling cameras and notebooks, I can do that. I have twitter and this blog and the various mechanisms that have become central to this kind of project. I’m not sure I can do it as well part time as I could full time. I am certain I can’t do it as well as someone who has ten or twenty years experience in sales and marketing. I’m suspicious that division of labor was a good idea in the past, and perhaps still is, even if it is no longer strictly necessary.


Let’s look at the distinction between selling to editors and selling to readers, and why it makes the lack of marketers in the ebook field surprising.

In traditional publishing, creating publicity and marketing a story was one of the key roles legacy publishers filled. It’s one of the things self-publishers abandon when they turn to a place like Amazon. Here’s how it usually works for non-fiction:

An editor buys an idea for a book, often via a literary agent, who acts as middleman. The text used to do this is a proposal, which includes a writing sample. Unlike with fiction, in journalism a manuscript of the book itself does not yet exist. The publishing house is betting on the idea’s potential.

The publisher pays an advance to the author to produce the work. The size of the advance represents the publisher’s expectation for the book’s sales. That expectation is the result of a good sales job in-house by the editor who acquired and believes in the book. Selling the book inside the publisher is important to the editor’s career. The editor’s reputation comes from the success of his or her acquisition choices. With a professional stake in the book, the editor will argue for more funds and more marketing efforts on its behalf. Acquisition supposes advocacy.

An unintended consequence is that authors published within the same publishing house actually compete with each other more than they compete with authors from other publishing houses. They are competing for the same pot of marketing resources in-house more than they are for readers in the bookstore.

(When I published a traditional book, the situation reminded me of my first job after college, as a bicycle messenger in Washington, DC. Our messenger service encouraged us to hurry, to make our deliveries faster than those of the competing messenger services. In reality, the riders ignored the other services, and rode hard to beat the people within their own company. Completing a run before a colleague got the rider back into the que for the next package — we were paid by the delivery, and the number of packages was finite. The service usually hired one more messenger than we had the business to support, to keep us all hopping….

I lasted a year. The most successful messengers rode curiously slowly. The successful messengers used the deliveries as a cover for selling pot. That is another story. While I am certain it contains a useful lesson for the publishing business, I have yet to figure out what that lesson may be).


The publisher decides the book’s potential, pays a commensurate advance and sets a likely date to publish the book. This is usually a year or two away. The author goes off and writes the book.

When the manuscript is finished, the book’s editor, its advocate, brings it to a marketing meeting inside the publishing house. All the editors with books scheduled for publication that season argue on behalf of the books they acquired. The books that received the largest advances two years previously have a decided advantage, because the house has made a larger investment, and has incentives to dedicate more of the marketing staff’s time and budget to recouping that investment.

The book receives the share of marketing effort decided in the meeting. The publisher takes it to market. The house does what it can to persuade media outlets to cover it and booksellers to feature it prominently. It arranges appearances and events for the author in some cases. The author’s job is mostly to show up when and where the publisher says to do so.

None of that works very well for most authors, because their editors did not win lots of resources for them in the marketing meeting. But for those for whom it does work well, it works spectacularly well. These are the people you see on The Daily Show.

Now look at life without that structure:

Amazon sends out an email blast noting the publication of The Shores of Tripoli and a few other singles that week. It invites me to write a blog on Amazon’s Kindle page. They put up a bio and offer some basic sales tracking information.

I'm trying really hard.

That’s about it. Amazon has an enormous presence, so even those few actions provide great visibility for the story. In a few weeks, that effort moves on to the next group of singles.

From there I and my agent do all the work. Three months on, that’s the part of the cycle I’m in now.

I and my agent are fairly well-suited to the job. Because writers and literary agents are media employees, our professional networks coincide with the mechanisms everyone uses to publicize things. In my case, publicity about The Shores of Tripoli emerged organically, from people noticing the story at or conducting web searches for conversations about Libya’s conflict.

In other cases, however, publicity was the result of me contacting a journalist I knew. Often it was a friend of a friend. I asked that he or she write about the single.

Some did and some didn’t. Still the initial hurdle a person outside journalism would face was not so high for me. I had the names and addresses of people who write these kinds of stories, and I knew how to talk to them. This is the sales I know how to do: selling ideas to editors.

My agent knew people too and has an economic stake in the story succeeding. The most consistent publicity for the story has come from a connection my agent had in the technology press.

Another advantage was the lack of internal competition.  The marketing meeting I faced at the legacy publisher years ago never happened with Amazon. Because they had not paid any of the Single authors an advance, they had no budgetary reason to favor marketing one story over another. The defining factor in deciding marketing priorities,  so far as I can tell, was a story’s publication date. They pushed the most recent work for a few weeks, replacing aging work with newer work.


It’s a cliche, but part of the argument for ebooks is the graying notion of the “long tail.” The idea is that the internet provides products a much longer shelf life. However, an infinite shelf requires infinite marketing effort. When The Shores of Tripoli was hanging around the top ten in the Kindle Singles store, I did not have to tell people it existed. Three months later, with dozens more Singles published, I’m five pages deep on Amazon’s list. I have fallen off both the metaphorical and actual screen. Also, I am moving on to new stories already. So is my agent.

So I wonder what’s preventing a marketing professional interested in books or technologies from getting into this business. It could simply be that I don’t represent enough upside. That’s the second possibility I can imagine. But the successes we’ve seen suggest that marketing an ebook badly still generates a fair amount of money. So marketing it well should, in theory, produce quite a bit. Is 50,000 copies of a two Dollar work of journalism an unrealistic target? And if so, at 70% split with Amazon — $70,000 — would fifteen percent of that be worth the work? Because that’s what a traditional agent gets on a $70,000 book deal. And that’s a viable business. Or once was.

The Shores of Tripoli is available for $1.99 at Kindle Singles.


§ 2 Responses to Blech of a Salesman

  • Excellent post and insights. I think, however, that for a marketing company to really become invested in the success of a book they would need to have more than 15%.

    While an agent charges 15%, that amount is not focused on marketing to the masses so much as marketing to the potential publishers and ensuring that your royalties are correct. Its a very different skill then mass marketing.

    I’ve employed my own personal PR agent for a specific book and I think that is probably a bit closer to the kind of mass marketing you are talking about than an agent, but its still not a perfect fit. I couldn’t convince my PR person to take a percentage, she wanted cash up front and I can’t blame her for that one bit.

    For a company to put forth the effort of mass marketing your work without the benefit of an up-front fee, the % would need to be greater than 15%. Not as high as a publisher but higher than 15%. I could see a marketing business model succeeding on 25% – 30% and if they were able to provide PR and real Marketing services I would be happy to pay it. I might even pay more because the bottom line is this: You can create the best product in the world but if your marketing sucks than your business fails. This is true with very few exceptions.

    I often tell people that Marketing is 50% of the success of any business. The other 50% is quality. Quality and Marketing. The author is responsible for quality. Would authors be willing to give up 50% to marketing if they received the kind of focused and dedicated services you are proposing? I think they would. At least they would for the first few books and that is where the small marketing companies can build a business. They would be something like agents/PR/marketing all rolled into one. An interesting business model if you can make it work.

  • The issue is long tail vs short tail. Marketing is a short tail business model: do the marketing, get the results, move on to the next campaign. The new analytics model supports this kind of thinking — for market companies. Their clients will be asking “how many hits on the ad?” “How many sales as a percentage of hits?” And the information will be immediate (which isn’t always a good thing if you’re growing a market base, but human nature is human nature).

    For me, a DIY author republishing my out-of-print backlist, thinking long tail seems smart. Giving a percentage of sales to a marketer seems tricky. What if they aren’t good? Do I still owe them 15% forever? Contract terms get dicey. And one time prices are steep, especially before you know if you’ll make a penny.

    I started putting my out-of-print backlist into ebooks at the end of 2010. A year plus in, I agree with you that marketing is the hardest part. I had a seven book series, and just made the last one available this month. Releasing new books every few months has helped keep sales up there. But it does come to an end. And then what?

    I did the short tail promotion, too, because I needed to help finance my daughter’s wedding and bride is in all the titles of my backlist historical romance series. It is time-consuming and the only light at the end of the tunnel is that it will end when my daughter gets married. But then what?

    For those of us forging ahead in the ever changing digital landscape, we need to change our thinking. What kind of cycle do we want to create? A new release every few months? A marketing campaign that cycles through every year? Every six months? Every book gets its day/week/month?

    And naturally, just like everything else in this business, one answer does not fit all.

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