At the last FutureBook conference I was asked to participate on a panel that asked how more authors can be helped to reach more readers in a distracted world. FutureBook is a day when a lot of hard science and serious data gets cited and chewed over. I’m an agent, and I represent authors. Without authors, we have no books – and by consequnce, I argued to those in the room, no future. So as my contribution I undertook a scientific and serious survey, putting to authors the very question of the panel debate.
Well, I say ‘scientific’. I admit, I spoke to six authors – hardly a YouGov poll’s worth. But they ranged from a writer whose first book was published less than 12 months before, to one who has been in print for 40 years. They spanned fiction and non-fiction. And they had 60 published works between them.
I gave them a deadline of a week to respond. Most came back overnight. This is a question no-one had ever thought of asking them before. And they were keen to be heard.
The four themes were consistent. Many points were startlingly blunt. And what I quote here comes pretty much verbatim.
Firstly, in terms of getting discovered – and every author wants to get discovered – they want clarity on who does what:
- “A clear PR and marketing plan with action points and a schedule delineating on which date X does Y, including prompts for the author.”
- “Think ahead - too often a book is not publicized until it comes round like the conveyor belt on the Generation Game. And what strategies are there for ongoing author promotion in an age where there is supposedly ‘no backlist’?”
- “Is it the author's job to reach readers beyond writing the book, doing some social media, and PR? How much is it even possible for them to initiate? For massive sales, there are no mysteries: Richard & Judy selection, Waterstones Book of the Month, pricing, good metadata, a supermarket order, certain prizes, word of mouth. But an author can only play a part in the final one of these... so who is doing the rest?”
Secondly, arising from the classic author’s predicament in the digital age: be realistic about who can do what about social media, and allocate resource to it:
- “Authors sometimes feel they are pointed 'off you go' towards social media, but without real sense of a coordinated, team approach with the publisher.”
- “Many authors feel pressure to be on social media at the expense of actually writing, and guilt that they have less affinity for tweets than they do for words on a page. And if they do tweet, does the publisher actually reciprocate? One large house has social media accounts which are not manned over the weekend – so any Saturday or Sunday review coverage only gets circulated after 9.30 on Monday once everyone else is at work too. That’s hardly breaking news to drive people towards a buy button.”
- “Publishers seem to rely on an already-busy publicity department to handle social media engagement. If this is such a discovery driver, why isn’t it invested in in its own right?”
- “Why not provide each author with a social media mentor? Somebody who looks at our websites, Twitter, Facebook and advises us on what we should be doing, and then reviews it, with analytics, every three months?"
Thirdly, authors often ask, is the publisher really looking beyond the confines of their own existing tramlines?
- “Are they learning enough things from self-published authors and successful start ups such as Bookouture and Canelo? Just how expert is the much-discussed ‘tweaking of metadata’?”
- “Are there not more ways of bringing authors together to support one another in a digital environment, such as podcasts?”
- “Just how savvy is the publisher about digital marketing techniques to target the right books to the right readers? There’s lots of data out there, but is it really being used to find readers?”
- “A lot of publicity effort seems to go into getting newspaper and magazine reviews – but how much are lovely reviews in papers of record coordinated with targeted price promotions? And is PR timed to coincide with the cycles of supermarket promotion?”
- “There needs to be a Plan B as part of Plan A when the reviews don’t come, or there are no review pages left, or the serial falls away.”
- “How often is other media really partnered with for book promotion, and how often are they using smart technology? Hasn’t anyone invented a widget to put on Netflix taking the viewer to a reading list about the subject, or, in the case of an adaptation, leading to information about the book and the author?”
And finally: make a book something special, and reading a haven:
- “Hardbacks have to truly be things of beauty - like old LP covers - or don’t bother with them. They can’t just be a paperback with a stiffer cover.”
- “There’s a sizeable backlash to online life, and more and more of us find ourselves in need of mindful antidotes – human gatherings at bookshops, interaction with beloved or thought-provoking authors.”
- “Why are so many books made to look the same? So few covers really stand out on bookshelves, making it hard to differentiate between writers, styles, etc. In terms of discoverability, the visual ‘if you love x you’ll love y’ can backfire, once everything looks samey.”
- “And why don’t we play up what’s fresh / different / new about a new book, and not just what it’s an amalgam of. Why another ‘Girl doing something’ – why not emphasise the originality?”
It struck me that some of this might have sounded basic at an elevated brains trust gathering like FutureBook. But then it dawned on me: each of those writers was published by people in the very room were addressing. I found myself concluding: if publishers think they are doing all these things, it’s not always getting through to their authors themselves. And in which case, just how were they reaching the prospective reader?