Friday, November 4, 2011

Marketing: Before vs. After the Fact

Of all the exotic animals Dr. Dolittle met in his adventures, the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced, 'push-me--pull-you') ranks high on my list of favorites. It was a gazelle-unicorn cross with two heads (and no tail) that often had trouble deciding which way to go.

At first I was going to use the pushmi-pullyu as an analogy for indecisiveness in the publishing industry. But it's a much better analogy for having it both ways--something that's also endemic in publishing.

For a variety of structural reasons (some of which stem from the quarterly pressure to deliver profits to corporate masters and some from the big release model that works best for large chain bookstores), publishing's promotional Holy Grail is before-the-fact marketing: a confluence of buzz and publicity that has people lined up to buy the book at midnight when the book is released. By the same token, publishers  love nothing better than an author who is so well established that the phrase, "The next first-name last-name book is out," is enough to make people pull out their credit cards.

Then there are the books that sell year after year with no visible marketing. These books are in fact marketed after-the-fact by word of mouth. Rather than saying, in effect, "The author is good so his or her new book will be good," they can say, "This is a good book--I know: I've read it." The book, by the fact of its existence and availability, can essentially market itself. Rather than having to take the opinion of thought leaders on faith, an interested reader can see for themselves.

Once upon a time, publishers made most of their money from their backlist, which provided consistent returns each year without a great deal of marketing effort. Then structural changes shifted the emphasis to first the front list and then the blockbuster sales model. That model depended upon turning the publication of a book into an event and creating a sense of urgency--which worked when there were fewer channels and distractions.

Now, with a never-ending parade of distractions, the backlist is making a big comeback because the only way to win through the Internoise is with constancy. A publicist recently said, "I'm counseling authors to approach publicity as a long-term, on-going strategy." In other words successful publicity in the twenty-first century isn't about making a big splash, it's about a constant stream of enticing content.

The challenge for contemporary writers is that the major publishers now want projects that they can sell both before-the-fact with a blockbuster push and after-the-fact by keeping electronic rights in perpetuity. That's why the industry feels increasingly like a pushmi-pullyu. And that's why it's increasingly the author's responsibility to understand the business implications of before-the-fact and after-the-fact marketing so that they can make the best deals in light of the short and long term trade-offs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /